When Nick and I came across this quote, we knew we had to learn about Haim Ginott. Ginott, a child psychologist and bestselling author, wrote a series of books in the '60s and '70s on parenting and teaching. His work, Teacher & Child: A Book for Parents and Teachers was widely used in teaching training programs (and is reported to today, although I and others I've asked have never heard of him!)
Teacher & Child opens with a series of harrowing teacher statements that haven't changed in 50 years:
The whole system of education is built on distrust. The teacher distrusts the students. The principal distrusts the teachers. The superintendent suspects the principals, and the school board is wary of the superintendent. Each authority sets up rules and regulations that create a prison atmosphere and an implicit charge that everyone in the system is dishonest or incompetent or irresponsible…
That's how students become con men. They learn to figure out what the teacher wants and give it to him. The teachers dope out what the principal wants. For example, my principal is not interested in how I teach or what kind of person I am. If the records of attendance and grades are in order and on time, he is satisfied.
Reminiscent of many teacher workroom conversations, Ginott lays out a substantial argument that teachers are quick to be nihilistic in a system where no one seems to love each other. Instead of focusing on the students in the room, teachers are concerned with bureaucratic mandates. Although teachers understand educational theories and in principle how to interact with children, there's so many crises to manage in the system that the basic relationship between teacher and student is lost. This work outlines the day-to-day interactions teachers have with children, offering suggestions to solve the minute interactions that encompass most of this profession. Instead of focusing on system reform (which Ginott consistently calls for), the bulk of this work is ensuring trust, dignity, and relationships are still formed despite major systemic problems.
Teacher & Child is comprised of a series of situations with young children, with positive and negative teacher responses. Ginott's research was primarily centered on communication - with a specific focus on taking everything children do seriously while not personalizing negative behavior. For example, Ginott outlines model teacher actions:
- Paul's last name begins with Z and therefore has always been last to receive classroom materials. He misses out on the book he wants and is deeply upset. The teacher writes a note to Paul about how his feelings are justified, and that they'll bring Paul a copy of the book he wants. (The teacher takes Paul's concern with respect.)
- Lea is scared about getting a vaccination and begins to cry. The teacher confirms that getting a shot is indeed scary, and writes a note to the nurse to be "gentle." (The teacher does not make light of her fears.)
- Susan volunteers to help the school library, but quickly realizes she is inundated with homework. She shows up to the library and begins to cry from being overwhelmed. The teacher recognizes her willingness to try and help, and says how appreciative they are of Susan's integrity - even if they may need to work on other things. (Ginott points out the inverse, asking "why" questions: "Why did you leave a week's homework for the last minute?", which would feel personally disrespectful to Susan's character.
At its core, Ginott's words summarize this work perfectly:
I am concerned with present moods and prevailing needs. Instead of distant utopias, I want to achieve minute-to-minute humanness in my classroom.
Conversely, Ginott highlights the negative interactions children are consistently faced with:
- Matt gets lost while reviewing long division, the teacher berates him for not paying attention and goofing off, telling him he's not the only one in the room that has to learn. Instead, Ginott says, the teacher could have explained that long division is hard and although they don't have time to stop right now, they could schedule a time later.
- Janet is unusually quiet and the teacher asks what's wrong. Janet doesn't want to speak, and the teacher consistently pressures her for information. In response, Janet raises her voice in frustration, and the teacher disciplines her for being disrespectful. To quote Ginott,
It is always dangerous to play emotional detective…Courtesy demands distance. Privacy is not to be intruded upon without invitation or permission. Self-disclosure provides a personal choice and the right to reticence. To tell a child 'I understand you better than you do' is an act of emotional arrogance to illegal trespassing. Aid is best given discreetly and succinctly (Can I be of help?)
- José accidentally tore his coat and cries out that his mother will be upset with him. The teacher tells him that he will deserve it for being so careless. This causes José to fully break down. Ginott says we must demonstrate humanity, and whenever someone is in need of help, we help.
Every teacher can become aware of attitudes that alienate, words that insult, and acts that hurt. He can acquire competence and caution in communication, and become less abrasive and less provocative.
Yet, Ginott, unlike many of the "relationship-focused" educators of today, recognizes that the way we do school isn't miraculously solved by "being nice." There is still need for structural reform. Instead, he argues,
No one denies the need for change in school structure and course content. But…many problems of education are rooted in teacher-student relations. For any school reform to have effect, these must change.
Indeed the school structure is the reason why many educators may become unwillingly upset with students. When teachers are faced with massive class sizes, district demands, and the day-to-day emotional toll of being a person (let alone in 2020/2021), it is natural to be upset from time to time. I deeply appreciated Ginott's words about being a human being. There's a trope among relationship building books that educators should not be themselves, that they should be performers who are always the same day after day, "lighting up" the room with spectacle - which, in my opinion, turns them into robotic characters rather than individuals. Ginott writes,
An effective teacher is neither a masochist nor a martyr. He does not play the role of a saint or act the part of an angel. He is aware of his human feelings and respects them. Though he cannot always be patient, he is always authentic. His response is genuine. His words fit his feelings. He does not hide his annoyance. He does not pretend patience…An enlightened teacher is not afraid of his anger, because he has learned to express it without doing damage. He has mastered the secret of expressing anger without insult.
This line of thought builds into Ginott's pinnacle idea: decentered discipline. Essentially, a student should never be the subject of disciplinary action. Instead of "Look what you have done.", it's a personal action, "I am annoyed", or toward an idea, "I would appreciate it if everyone could get started so we can continue." When we discipline a student directly, we foster resentment rather than teach life lessons.
I can still remember specific teachers from K-12 who insulted me for the most minor things: forgetting a book in my locker, being a minute late to class, waiting for a group member to finish a class project. Sometimes I was doing something wrong, other times I didn't even realize it. However, no matter the circumstance, I felt bad personally - it's an emotional toll rather than a practical learning experience. It made me disrespect the teacher and learn less in the class (I didn't want to be in the classroom with them!) After all, punishment doesn't make us likely to change our behavior…it makes us bitter toward the punisher.
When we remove degenerative "you" statements, we effectively lessen any personal trauma that (often unwittingly) occurs when we interact with students. Instead, we can use statements that reflect a child's ideas, effective "you" statements:
- Accurately acknowledge the child's statement or state of mind.
- Do not deny their perception.
- Do not dispute their feelings
- Do not disown their wishes.
- Do not deride their taste.
- Do not denigrate their opinion.
- Do not derogate their character.
- Do not degrade their person.
- Do not argue with their experience.
Instead, we center our conversations on inquiry and wonder. Ginott talks about Arnold, a 6 year old, who claims he saw a man taller than the Empire State Building. The teacher exclaims, "Wow, you saw a tall man? A giant of a man? A huge man? A tremendous man?" Each time, Arnold response, "yes!" (A lesson on vocabulary and communication skills!)
There's a foreseen counterargument that treating students like this would be coddling them - that students will never learn right from wrong and always be "emotionally-needy." Or that the "real world" is careless and brutal. Ginott makes a powerful statement to this claim:
It is true that modern life is often like a rat race. People struggle to be first in line; they push, wrestle, insult, and lie. Do we want to prepare children for such life? No. On the contrary. We need to tell children that rat races are not good for people. We want school to be not a replica of, but an alternative to, raw reality. Such a school needs teachers with sophisticated sensitivity and effortless empathy.
Ginott also focuses on the destructive properties of praise (of which educator & critic Alfie Kohn has written much about.) This is broken down between two forms of praise: evaluative praise (bad), appreciative praise (good.) Pages upon pages of examples demonstrate the difference between the two concepts:
- Evaluative: Richard finds $5 outside and gives it to the teacher. The teacher tells Richard how proud they are of him and how honest they are. Richard thinks to himself, "I must not let the teacher know me better. If he did, he would not be proud of me. He would be ashamed of me."
- Performance: Instead of casting judgment on Richard, the teacher simply states, "Thank you, Richard, for finding the money. You saved Andrea much sorrow."
Simply put, when we praise evaluative behavior to students we are doing one of two things: 1) We are making children believe that their actions always dictate their character, causing anxiety on potential failure, or 2) diminishing their status by making them feel "less than" (imagine if a student told a teacher, "I am proud of you, you're doing great, carry on with the great work!") Even though this might be wholesome, overtime the praise feels belittling. This idea is best demonstrated with the story of Lori, who just played an impressive piece, and her music teacher:
Teacher: Um…I enjoyed that very much.
Lori: I'm glad you didn't say that I played it 'beautifully.' Every time I play a piece, Mother gushes, 'Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. You put so much feeling into the music.' I feel like I'm being bopped on the head.
Teacher: You don't like an evaluation each time.
Lori: No, I don't need to be told how beautifully I play. I basically play the piano for myself. I'm not performing, so I don't want to be judged all the time.
These thoughts are summarized, along with a series of topics from respecting a child's wishes while parenting, dealing with disrespectful teachers as a parent, and the issue of evaluative product over process. Ginott's work is a masterpiece on understanding relationship-building, which is the cornerstone to an effective education, while not diminishing problems that should be solved.
Although Ginott does not press for specific elements of reform (e.g. many elements of this book are centered around getting students to complete their homework, rather than removing the homework itself), it does effectively showcase how teachers can ensure their students are respected. Often, we find ourselves with broad theories that say relationships are important…but don't give us any tools of getting there. Or worse, present us with formulas, "teaching strategies", or "character education" that turn relationships into a job, rather than a human interaction. (For example, the "2x10" strategy of speaking with a student 2 minutes for 10 days to reach at-risk youth. Yes, it's important to talk with our students. But, it doesn't feel authentic - why not just talk to all of our students, organically?)
Further, Ginott is offering an anecdote to the cynicism bred into progressive education: it's incredibly hard to change the system, why even try? And when we become cynical, that often effects our relationship with students. We may be more quick to anger, or become apathetic to the actual humans in the room. This book offers ways for us to manage our emotions so that students are well-supported.
It's amazing how relevant the information in a half-century book are to our world today - in fact, outside of some odd colloquialisms from the '70s - it could be written in 2021. I loved the easy-to-understand stories of children, parents, and teachers. It's an easy read that can be started and stopped, skimmed and indexed. As someone who is prone to sarcasm and cynicism, I admire Ginott's advice to refrain from it and appreciated the direct ideas to change tone and dialogue. I'd highly recommend finding a used copy at your local bookstore.