Valuing Others – Reflections on an Incident in a Kindergarten Classroom
When we hear about things on the news, read them in the paper, or listen to the latest gossip from friends or colleagues, there is a tendency to jump to conclusions and make assumptions about the people involved. I try to keep in mind that there are always two sides (at least) to every story. What I may be hearing or reading about is one side of the story, but there is probably another perspective or interpretation of things that is not being told. I have to admit that I am not always successful at withholding judgment until I understand the entire situation, but I try. Sometimes, though, things that happen that are just plain wrong—and the other side of the story really doesn’t matter. Such a situation occurred in a Florida classroom recently; and as I read the article describing the incident and the people involved, I must admit that I made a snap judgment.
For those of you who may not be aware of the situation to which I am referring, I’ll give you the short version: A kindergarten teacher has had a 5 year old boy in her classroom all year, and there have been ongoing instances of disruptive behavior such as humming/singing, pestering classmates, refusing to work, etc. This child has been in the process of being evaluated for special education services, and the professionals evaluating him believe he has an autism spectrum disorder. One day recently, the boy was told to leave the classroom due to his disruptive behavior. The teacher then decided to take a class vote to determine whether or not the child should return to the classroom. She had this little 5 year old boy stand in front of all his classmates, while each one had their turn to state what they didn’t like about him and whether or not he should be allowed to return to the classroom. He stood there and watched as all the kids said negative things about him, including a child he perceived to be his “best friend.” The vote was 14-2 in favor of not allowing him to return to the classroom.
I sat in stunned silence the first time I read the article describing this situation. There was a rush of emotion as I felt so angry and incredibly sad at the same time. I was reminded that while we like to think that this kind of blatant discrimination and disregard for human worth are a part of our past, the fact is that they are very much a part of our present. These kinds of blatant actions don’t occur regularly, or at least not that we are aware of, the fact is that this kind of thinking still exists in our society. This way of thinking places the worth of some individuals above that of others, makes me better than you, and proposes that the majority determines the value of the few. The fact that this child potentially has a disability that can be labeled is not the point. Nor is it that a teacher was “mean” or discriminated against a child who may have autism. The issue goes much deeper to how we perceive each other and ourselves, and how our words and actions reflect those perceptions. The actions this teacher took speak volumes about her beliefs about children, their strengths and obstacles, and their value.
When the initial surge of anger passed, I tried to consider what the “other side of the story” might be in this situation. Maybe the teacher had felt unsupported all year long in her attempt to teach this little boy. Maybe she was having a really bad day. Maybe she watched one too many episodes of American Idol, and decided that voting is a good way to make any decision in life. There could be any number of “other sides” to the story; but does it really matter what the other side is? In a situation such as this, where the minds and hearts of children are at stake, I don’t think the reasons why it happened are nearly as relevant as the fact that it happened. Perhaps this teacher will relive this moment in her life over and over again in an attempt to rationalize her actions. And yet, there really is no way to rationalize this type of behavior on the part of adults, let alone a teacher who is charged with the task of fostering the development and growth of 5 year olds. What occurred will surely leave a lasting scar on this little boy and his classmates.
Interestingly, much of the coverage of this story has centered on the little boy and how this is impacting him. That is obviously a very legitimate thing to consider; but I am also highly concerned about his 16 classmates. They were put in the unconscionable position of voicing their innermost thoughts about their peer, and were encouraged to do so by a trusted adult. How many of those little people sat there, knowing that what they were participating in was very wrong, and yet here was their trusted guide and teacher leading the way. I would suggest that the impact on them is just as significant as the impact on the child who was the target of the emotional assault. What has this situation taught them about the value of others—and the value of themselves?
If there is any good that can come from an incident such as this, perhaps it is that it provides us an opportunity to pause and reflect on our own beliefs about the people around us; and how our words and actions reflect those beliefs. This is important for all of us to consider, particularly in regard to our roles in the lives of children. Whether we are a parent, teacher, babysitter, bus driver, doctor, or cashier at the local grocery store, our words and actions convey to the children around us what we believe about their value and the value of others. In the spirit of reflection, here are some things for all of us to think about individually, and to discuss with the children in our lives.
- What does it mean to see value in every human being? Every person has worth and value, and no person is better than another. People come from all different backgrounds and situations, and have a wide variety of strengths and obstacles; but we are all people first.
- Am I able to look past the “problems” I see in an individual and find the things that are good about them? Sometimes the things that stand out to us the most about people are the things that make them “different” or that create a “problem” for those around them. It is important to look beyond what we consider differences and problems, and find the good things within each person. Everyone has something they are good at, something to contribute, and a way they can shine; but sometimes requires us to take the time to find it.
- What do my words and actions say about how I view other people? I can say that I value everyone, but my actions and words may send a different message. Children, especially, are incredibly attuned to our actions as well as our words. They may not understand everything we say, especially when we are speaking to other adults; but they understand the tone we use, our gestures and facial expressions, and they very easily get the overall picture of how we really feel. Teaching children to “check in” with themselves once in a while about the alignment of their beliefs and their actions is important—and we can start by modeling that process in ourselves.
- How do I stand up for those who experience discrimination and persecution? This is an extension of whether our words and actions are aligned with our beliefs about people. If we witness others being persecuted because of their differences or limitations and we choose to do nothing, then the act of doing nothing speaks loudly about our true beliefs. We must be good role models for children about how to take action when these things happen around us.
Sometimes it takes a shocking event to wake us up to the hidden realities that exist around us on a daily basis. Thinking and talking with children about these incidents, such as what happened in the kindergarten classroom in Florida, allows us the opportunity to reflect with them about valuing others and discuss possible actions they and we could take if in a similar situation. In doing so, we help to shape the beliefs and actions of the next generation, and play a powerful role in assuring that future 5 year olds don’t endure the same dehumanizing and intolerant experiences.
(Postscript – Since this incident happened in 2008, the teacher involved was removed from her teaching position for one year and has since been returned to a classroom teaching position. I can only wonder what she learned from all of this…)