TJ and Mister Gidseg

by Eric Gidseg

The following reflection grew out of a research project looking at relational aspects of teaching boys. This paper draws upon my analysis and reflection on my own thinking and practice. Specifically, it explores the challenging relationship between myself as an experienced male kindergarten teacher and one little boy in my class. Paragraphs in italics are autobiographical and are included to give an indication of my own early formative experiences in school. Most statements within quotation marks are from my reflective journal. All names have been changed, save my own.

Miss K decided that we would perform a circus in our kindergarten classroom. With basic costumes, perhaps a hat or a cape, we were transformed into bears, lions, elephants, clowns, and trapeze artists. Miss K chose to give me the dual roles of ringmaster and animal trainer. I was given a red coat, top hat, hoop, and a stick with a string at the end of it to use as a “whip”. I was surprised when Miss K took the whip and hoop from me during rehearsal after I had smacked some of the “animals” on their rears in order to get them to jump through the hoop. I wondered why she called my parents. I had simply done what I knew animal trainers did. That’s what I saw them do when I went to the circus!

When challenged to choose a boy from one of my kindergarten classes for an in-depth reflection, the choice seemed clear. TJ was a very engaging little five-year-old boy. He was also an extremely challenging student. His remarkably quick mind would produce ideas and reactions well before his peers. His thoughts immediately became words that were often shouted out spontaneously. Loud, physically active, impulsive, he often seemed uncontrollable. I experienced a great deal of emotional turmoil as I worked with TJ each day and as I thought about him outside of the classroom. How was I to teach this child? How was I to keep my focus on the needs of his classmates when he demanded so much of my attention? What could I do with the feelings that were engendered by my confrontations with him?

The choice of TJ was telling for me. Rather than choose one of the little boys who tend to fade into the chorus of the class, I chose the child who most seemed in discord with peers and teachers. Most notably, I was on an emotional roller coaster with this child. I was, at once, attracted and repulsed, sympathetic and angry. In my reflective journal I wrote, “…his behavior for me is like someone scratching their nails on a chalkboard…I mean it was clear to me why I chose this child. Because this child was…challenging and was making me feel as inadequate as a teacher as I am capable of feeling at this point in my career. I just felt like it was an opportunity to bring a lot of stuff out and also to revise my way of thinking.” The deep feelings of ambivalence, inadequacy, anger engendered by my work with TJ, questioned my own practice and authority. I was unable to resist the opportunity to find a venue for the expression of these troubling feelings. Put quite simply, TJ pushed all of my buttons and I was very dissatisfied with my responses towards him. I was determined to learn about him and about myself through this process.

Of all of my elementary school teachers it is only my second grade teacher, Mrs A, whose face I cannot recall. Rather, my mind has reduced her image to a shape. I clearly see a broad, tall rectangle in a navy blue dress hanging straight to the tops of her sensible black shoes. Mrs. A’s voice, though lacking the high-pitched resonance of Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West, contains every bit of its malevolence in my memory.

Although there are opportunities for socialization in the professional lives of most teachers, there are rarely safe avenues for expression of doubt, failure, or anger. Many of us have the tendency to gloss over our numerous successes and dwell instead upon the one child we were unable to reach. In spite of knowing that I have positively impacted the lives of hundreds of children, it is the handful of children that I feel that I failed in some way that stand out in memory. In moments of self-doubt the following inner monologue plays itself out:

The educational establishment and my peers see me as a highly competent and gifted educator. They have no idea! I see that I can’t reach this child, I can’t nurture that child, I can’t provide the structure that this one needs, I can’t figure out this other child. What they see is an illusion that I provide for the rest of the world. I see the real me and the real me is tremendously flawed and inadequate (reflective journal entry).

I have called this the “impostor syndrome”. I am the only one who clearly sees my failures. Am I enacting the part of the “Wicked Witch” as I fumble with ineffective means of connecting with a difficult child? Certainly my reactions to TJ made me unhappy with my own responses, unhappy with whom I had become in my interactions with this little boy. I needed to repair not only my relationship to TJ, but also my relationship with my own self and my own personal values.

A significant issue in working with children is the development of strong sympathetic or antipathetic feelings towards a child. My experience has shown me that unless a specific support system is in place to deal with these feelings (for example a peer mentoring group) they are generally kept to ourselves. Public schools (in particular) socialize teachers to feel that they must be invincible. If you have a problem, solve it quietly by yourself. To have deep feelings and uncertainties is to be weak. We learn this in the first three years of teaching when we are taught to show a gloriously competent side to the administrator who will unilaterally decide whether we will have a career in the field of teaching. When we take the bold step to do reflective work we are rewriting the “rules of engagement”. The beginning of reflective work is in examining ourselves, our motivations, our strengths and weaknesses.

It seemed that nothing that I did met with the approval of Mrs. A. I talked with other children and was yelled at by her. I called out answers to questions and was angrily scolded. I wiggled around at my desk (firmly bolted to the floor in six neat rows front to back and side to side) and was sent to sit away from the other children. I was even made to sit under a round table that sat near the window when I had performed some transgression of a rule that I failed to comprehend or follow.

Why does this boy engender such powerful feelings in me? What are the roots of my sympathy and antipathy for this child? Is it simply a matter of a teacher’s need for compliance in his students and a reaction to a non-compliant student? How is this bound up with my own feelings about myself? I had somehow invested in TJ a great deal of power. He had the power to make me question my abilities as a teacher. In spite of all of my years of experience and all of my successes, this diminutive fellow was causing me to ask whether I was maintaining my ideals as a teacher, whether my methods had become outdated, whether or not I had turned my back on a child because there are things in TJ that “piss me off”. As Parker Palmer points out, “Unlike many professions, teaching is always done at the dangerous intersection of personal and public life”(Palmer, 1998). As such, my work with this child who “pushes my buttons” stands to have a profound effect on how I value my work, and my resolve and efficacy as a human being.

In spite of intensive observation and discussion with peers, there remained a sense that I didn’t yet know this boy. I didn’t yet know how to give him what he needed. Nor was I able to figure out what it is that he really needed.

Who is this boy?

One morning I was told to sit in the corner of the room where a small desk and chair sat behind the door to the room. When the door to the room was opened I was hidden from the view of my classmates. This little “office” or “prison” had obviously been set up for me alone since I was clearly the “naughty” child in the class. I was given several sheets of lined paper and a pencil and was told by Mrs. A to write fifty times “I will not speak in class”. After she stormed away to resume her work with the rest of the class I wrote the words on the first line and then carefully placed ditto marks on the next forty-nine lines beneath each word. I remember wondering whether I should be rewriting the sentence at the top of the second page before continuing to add ditto marks or if I could just continue with the ditto marks from the last page.

Jerome Bruner (1990), wrote about how we create new narratives when we find ourselves in a novel situation or when we experience something that seems at odds with the narratives that we live our lives by. In other words, stories arise as a way of making sense of the mismatch between what we have believed or what the culture has taught us and what we are now experiencing. I then considered a story about TJ that took place during a gathering of the three kindergarten classes in my school. There he was in the middle of 70 or so children while I am leading them all in a song as I played my guitar. Suddenly, up jumps TJ and shouts in a loud voice, “That’s not the way it’s supposed to go!” He then begins to sing the entire song as he knows it in spite of the fact that I am in an entirely different part of the song with the rest of the children. I was in awe at his self-assuredness to be able to put himself into that situation and correct what he knew was wrong. Whereas Bruner was speaking of creating a story or narrative to make sense of the discordance of an occurrence with a firm belief, TJ was compelled to utter what he knew as a way of putting sense back into the situation for himself and perhaps for the rest of us.

During the reflective process I described TJ as “having an endless need for self-expression.” Lacking impulse control, “he was broadcasting an internal monologue to the world”. I described him as having “a remarkable imagination” and “a developed sense of humor”. A powerful indication of how I was viewing this child was in the statement, “I find myself needing to be very prepared when he walks in the door to make sure that TJ’s moods, whatever he’s bringing, is something that…doesn’t affect the class in some negative way that I can’t get them back together again.” Upon further reflection I felt that he was bringing something to the class, perhaps something that disrupts my sense of order, but I was unable to perceive anything more than a threat. It is painful for me to restate these words. They demonstrate my reactive stance towards this child rather than a pedagogically proactive one. They call into question my basic values as a teacher. My sense of my own teaching is based on hearing my children, connecting with them, and finding ways to help them to grow. Here I am, in a sense, sacrificing TJ for the good of the rest of the class.

When Mrs. A saw my papers complete with ditto marks she was furious–although she was usually furious when she directed her attention towards me. She tore up the papers and told me, “You will now write the same sentence one hundred times WITHOUT ditto marks. I did so….using my #2 pencil on the wall next to my little desk. The next thing I knew I was in the school’s office looking up at the high counter (over which I was as yet unable to see), waiting for the principal to come and yell at me.

The issue of relationship

What was it about TJ that made me struggle so and caused me to question my own abilities as a teacher? The strategies that I have developed over twenty-five years of teaching were feeling questionable to me. My classroom is an embodiment of my belief that given a rich environment with lots of opportunity to explore in cooperation with others, children can learn to make sound choices in their learning and behavior. The classroom allows for a great deal of movement. There are rules and there is structure insofar as they are needed to ensure that all of the children can accomplish their tasks safely and comfortably. Children learn to take responsibility for much of their work and learning and learn to move about the room as they participate in a variety of activities. I considered that probably this is a child who would flourish in a pencil and paper classroom, where you had task after task while sitting in a chair.

A Personal Revelation

Prepared for the worst as I entered third grade, I was amazed to see a smile on my new teacher’s face as she asked me what I would like her to call me. I answered with my nickname, Ricky, which was the name used only by my friends and relatives. “Hello Ricky”, she responded, “Welcome to third grade.” I felt like I had gone to heaven. Mrs. H, my third grade teacher, seemed to welcome everything that I had to say. She often took me aside to ask me how I was doing. I remember thinking that this was the first person in school who had ever listened to me or cared to ask questions about who or how I was.

I stood on uncertain ground and needed help with my own ambivalent feelings. I was trying to find ways to reach this boy, trying to find a space where I could truly meet him. And yet, at the same time, I kept going back to my own needs. I was describing the difficulties that I had with understanding this boy by putting the lens upon “him” rather than upon “us”. The principle discovery that this part of my reflection led me towards was that I was not in a healthy relational state with this child and I could not see a way to work this through. I took on a challenging child for my reflection, but I needed to look inward and deal with my own powerful feelings. I was bound, to a great degree, to my own struggles. As I described TJ it was extremely difficult to keep my attention on him and simply see TJ. My gaze was constantly drawn inwards.

The focusing question for my reflection on TJ was, “What is TJ trying to express and how can I help him to express it in a “pro-social” manner?” I had developed a focus question that was, ultimately, based on changing the child. Did I have an agenda for TJ, one that he did not share? Rather than building a trusting relationship where we could collaborate on change, I (to some degree) asserted authority. In order to be in relationship with TJ I would have to meet him with warmth rather than with preparation for his disruptive behaviors when he walks in the door. In a relationship that is lacking in trust, where the teacher controls through authority, children develop their own classroom organization, in which not working and disrupting the teacher’s procedures become goals (McDermott, 1977). Had I inadvertently put myself out of relationship with this child in order to further my goal to have him behave in acceptable ways? If this was the case, then why had I done this? In my reflections I pointed to one of the primary impediments to being in relationship with TJ, balancing the needs of the one with the needs of the many, “…how do you adapt to this child’s needs and at the same time recognize that there are twenty other children who need your attention just as much for different reasons”.

In fourth grade I was placed in a three-year track for “intellectually gifted children”. Fourth and fifth grades were punctuated, once again, with many trips to the office. I was able to see over the counter now when I entered the office, but while sitting in the adult sized chair waiting for the principal all I could see was the clock on the wall with the red second hand that moved ever so slowly. After a year’s respite, the standing rule was once again, “I will not speak in class”. My report cards told the story of a very bright boy who would not “behave” in class.

The message that I had received outside of the classroom as a young boy was clear: I must be strong, independent and self-sufficient. I must achieve, take risks, but admit no pain, neither emotional nor physical. This was very much at odds with the message that was being taught to me in school. Rather than depending upon my strengths I was asked to meekly disappear within the context of the class. “You will not speak in class” was a mantra that served as both my standing orders and the mission statement of most of my teachers in regards to their students. This edict was followed closely in importance by, “You will sit still in class”. Boys are often given such mixed messages and are caught between very different sets of expectations from a very early age (Gilligan, 2002).

Was I placing TJ into such a paradoxical situation? I was asking TJ to be able to sit still, to be quiet (or at least quieter). Was I seeing myself in the mirror of this young, noisy, impulsive, spontaneous little boy? His life in the classroom was, in many ways a parallel life to my own in my early years. Was I seeing him as a boy or was I incapable of confronting the boy TJ and forming a relationship with him? As boys we are taught to be independent, often connecting only through activity and achievement (Bergman, 1990; Gilligan, 2002; Raider-Roth et al., 2008). Was I becoming one of my early teachers and squashing this little boy’s independence for the sake of maintaining control over the classroom? Was this the threat that I had posed for my teachers as a young boy?

I struggled with the notion that gender entered into my reflection. I was convinced that I was seeing a “child”, not a “boy”. Have my own experiences put me into a mindset that will not allow me to see boys as boys? I am insistent in my kindergarten classes that children not identify behaviors in a gendered way, as in “the boys are bothering me” or “the girls won’t let us in the housekeeping area”. The assumptions upon which I have based this policy are twofold: children should be identified as individuals rather than subsets, and gendered differences are firmly established in a social context when they are a sanctioned part of that context. Looking at these responses and precepts through the lens of a teacher/researcher caused me to question whether such notions have caused me to not see what is before me. Am I failing to see TJ as a boy acting out a similar gendered role that was acted out by his teacher years earlier?

I found myself yearning for a safe place to bring my uncertainties and my questions about myself as a teacher. There was a call for learning from my experience with this one child that could help me as I meet new children with whom there may be some resistance or disconnection.

Clearly I learned a great deal about myself as a result of the process of observation and reflection. The learning was not easy and is certainly not finished. I believe that I have discovered that reflective practice must come to carefully explore the relational realm. This realm is driven in large part by the experiences and judgments that have become a part of us. As such, we are prone to reaction from a situation that touches a historical nerve for us. I have to believe that who I was as a student and how teachers reacted to me impacted heavily on my expectations and emotional responses to TJ…particularly since he was a young boy exhibiting similar behaviors to my own as a young boy. Although we as teachers may understand the concepts of transference and counter-transference, unlike the field of psychology we have no supervision that allows us to process these responses in a safe and ethical way. When forging relationships with students it is critical that we have the support of others who can help us to assess and accommodate our blind spots, prejudices, and other weaknesses.

Although it seems terribly obvious to say so, teachers are people. As such they are complex individualities based on a confluence of experiences. There are deep emotional states from past experience that still resonate in our thinking and feeling lives. Through exploring the seminal experiences of teachers and their emotional impact on the formation of identity we may have a key to understanding our emotional reactions to some children or to certain behaviors that trigger a strong reaction within us. Just as we have formed prejudices based on our life experiences, so may we develop attitudes and behaviors in terms of gender. As a male teacher I cannot help but have responses that are stimulated by my own early experiences as a male student. Research and reflection are necessary in order to determine how we can best address these issues in non-threatening ways for pre-service and in-service teachers.

The parallel stories of TJ and of this experienced (but developing) kindergarten teacher are instructive insofar as they demonstrate that a teacher’s responses and relationship to a child may be profoundly influenced by experience, cultural expectations, and gender. As we continue to struggle to meet the higher academic standards that are framing the current discourse in the field, we must find ways to understand and connect with our students. The challenge to know our own stories is a critical one as children, teachers, and academic content come into a reciprocal relationship with the goal of fostering learning.

Postscript: This personal narrative has been pared down to reflect primarily my own internal struggles as I tried to understand myself in relation to this remarkable boy. Omitted are the strategies that I used in order to try to repair and strengthen my relationship with TJ. Also missing is a great deal of thinking about the nature of teaching boys. I’ve come to believe that feminist research methodologies such as Carol Gilligan’s “Listening Guide” offer a window into the importance of relationship between teacher and student. For a discussion of relational aspects of teaching boys, I suggest reading the Raider-Roth, et al. article referenced below.

About the author
Eric Gidseg has taught in early childhood classrooms for more than thirty years. He is a member of the founding board of Teachers’ House, the governance board of NYSAEYC and a social/emotional education consultant for Head Start programs in Ulster County, NY. When not engaged in these activities you can often find him playing with his four foster grandchildren.

References

Bergman, S. J. (1990). Men’s psychological development: A relational perspective. Paper presented at the Stone Center Colloquium, Vermont.

Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Gilligan, C. (2002). The birth of pleasure. New York: Knopf.

McDermott, R. P. (1977). Social relations as contexts for learning in school. Harvard educational review, 47(2), 198-213.

Palmer, P. (1998). The courage to teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Raider-Roth,M., Albert, M., Bircann-Barkey, I., Gidseg, E., & Murray, T. (2008). Teaching boys: A relational puzzle. Teachers College Record, 110(2), 443-481.