Monday, March 3, 2008

A Practical Matter: Power and Control at Machon

Last week, I wrote about my thinking on Jewish prayer. That post was a response to ideas that came from a Christian writer through another blogger, as well as a difficulty N. has been having in Machon--his secondary religious education program. When I wrote, I said that I did not know yet what I was going to do about N.'s concerns.

Concerns. Note the plural ending there.

There has been more going on at Machon than the experience N. had during T'fillah last Wednesday night. I have discussed the concern we had last spring, as well as problems that occured this fall in other posts here on Ragamuffin Studies. And those problems combined with some incidents that happened in early January, are what is driving my thinking about the goodness-of-fit between N.'s unique needs, my educational philosophy, and the Machon program. Once again. Oy.

Our rabbis taught in Pirke Avot: "Turn it and turn it again, for everything is within it." They were talking about wrestling with Torah, but it seems that N. and I --and even Bruce and the Chemistry Geek Princess--are having a similar experience with our discussions about wrestling with Machon. So although I am feeling rather grumpy about it, since I have once again made an appointment to go see the rabbi about this, I can say that this mizukis does have the benefit of making us struggle with what our Jewish practice means to us, consider what we want N.'s Jewish education to accomplish, and clarify our values concerning our affiliation with a particular religious institution.

And there is another piece to this puzzle, one that comes out of something N. witnessed in January at Machon, an incident that illustrates issues of control that pertain to a wider discussion about the purpose and practice of education in general.

Last month, N. witnessed part of an incident in which a staff member at Machon engaged in a power struggle with another child at Machon. This staff member is the same one who insists that the students keep their eyes on the prayerbook in T'fillah and follow the Hebrew words with their fingers.

An aside: This is not necessarily a bad technique to improve Hebrew reading skills for some students. And it is true that in the Jewish practice of prayer, a tight focus on the Hebrew words is emphasized. My objection to this practice is two-fold: where it is done, and to whom it is done. First, that this kind of drill is better reserved for Hebrew school proper, and not for the practice of public prayer. Second, that the technique be applied kindly and creatively, and only with students who's learning will be benefited by it. Some students either do not need it because they already can track the service well, or they will not benefit from it because it is not the best match for how they learn. One size does not fit all.

Back to the incident. The gory details do not matter to us here. (N. gave me a blow-by-blow account, so the incident clearly made an impression on him). The precipitating event does matter. The power struggle started because the student asked this particular staff member for permission to go to the bathroom. And the staff member refused the request.

Think about that. Kids in school are relatively powerless. They must follow the instructions and directions of adult who may or may not care about them. They must accept humbly numerous evaluations of their work, their disposition, their very selves from adults who may or may not appreciate their individuality. And their personal power over their bodily functions is limited by adults for institutional reasons. They may not be allowed to eat when they are hungry, get a drink when they are thirsty, and they must notify an adult if they need to leave the room in order to use the bathroom. Their lack of privacy extends also to the emotional realm, in that feelings such as happiness, joy, rambunctiousness, hurt, anger, and sadness, are all judged as appropriate or not by adults.

Much of this powerlessness and lack of privacy is necessary for the sake of safety and accountability in an institutional setting. But in my years in the classroom, I have witnessed many teachers who took their power over children to an extreme that I judged to be harmful to the child's dignity. Such adult behavior puzzled me and still does. Not every word that comes out of a teacher's mouth is a pearl of wisdom. And even if each word was, a child in need of the bathroom, a drink, or a good cry, is unlikely to hear those pearls anyway. And sometimes, believe it or not, a kid really needs a break from the teacher. And that's okay.

I have taught children of all ages, and I quickly learned to set policies in the classroom to minimize my control over a child's need to use the bathroom, get a drink, or even to go cry in private. I did this by establishing a permanent pass to leave the room. I had two such passes, made of wood, and nicely painted. They were on my demo bench where I taught high school science, and these same passes hung by the door of my Gifted Pull-Out classroom. At the beginning of the year, I explained to the kids that although I understood their desire for dignity and privacy, I also had the obligation to know who was out of the room. And I also had the need not to be verbally interrupted in the middle of a thought. It was distracting. Therefore, a child in need of leaving the room ought to quietly get up, get the pass, and go. Of course, if s/he did not return in a reasonable amount of time, I would probably come looking or send someone else to see if s/he was still breathing. Emergencies like needing to be sick were exceptions, I told them, and if they bolted without a pass, I would certainly follow up right away to ensure their safety and inform the nurse.

It was amazing how well this worked, too. (Of course with the younger elemetary kids, I also had regular bathroom breaks, because the little ones can get so absorbed in the classroom activities that they forget until...oops). I think that the kids appreciated my understanding of their need for some dignity and privacy, and they responded to my respect of their situation by respecting my need to account for them.

Back to the incident N. witnessed at Machon. I might have chalked it up to a mistake on the part of the staff member, except for other evidence of an extreme need for control over others. Evidence that comes from the way in which the T'filllah experience has been handled, the use of a disrespectful tone towards parents when policies are questioned, and attempts to control adults in other situations.

I cannot even guess at what drives this kind of behavior. I can say that it is unlikely to provoke a desirable response. And it certainly did not in this case. The details of the fireworks that ensued, including use of various inappropriate words by the angry student, were known throughout the school. (Another lesson I learned very quickly as a teacher: the kids know everything. Always). Of course, this did nothing to provoke respect by the other students towards this staff member. And, although I am not excusing the response of the student (there are better ways to get your point across), ultimately the responsibility for an incident lies with the person in power. Another lesson I learned early on in my teaching career: never, never engage a power struggle with a student. Nobody wins. But the teacher will be the bigger loser.

On the more personal level, this incident, as well as the other issues of control, have resulted in problems for N. He has become afraid. His generalized anxiety about everything--a common comorbidity of AS--has found a target. He is now anxious about Machon in general, and about T'fillah in particular, when this person is present. On Friday night, we went to Shabbat services, and when this staff member entered the chapel, N. departed. He sat out services in the lounge. This indicates that for him, the fear is not about Machon, but about T'fillah. Or about T'fillah with this person.

So at Seudat Sh'lishit (supper on Saturday evening), we had a discussion. Bruce told him that he understood why N. left services, and explained that we thought if best to let him do so on Friday night. And then I talked about the need to take control of the fear, and focus on the keva (appointed ritual) and kavanah (aim of the heart) of T'fillah in order to carry him beyond his anxiety about this person. After all, he cannot control the presence or actions of another person, he can only control his own. And then we gave him permission to politely tell anyone his limits.

If, for example, during T'fillah, an adult insists on a certain practice--and he is not being disruptive (very important)--he should nod politely and when the adult moves on, go back to praying his own way. Later, after the service is over, he should then respectfully but firmly tell that adult that he has his own way of praying, and that he would like to be left alone to do it. And that should be the end of it. We hope.

If an adult asks him for a hug--another control issue with--you guessed it!--the same person, he should say: "I'm not a touchy, feely person. But I'll be glad to shake your hand." And that should be the end of it. We hope.

Naturally, we practiced these situations, and helped him form a statement that would be seen as polite but firm. In this way, we hope to return to N. some sense of control over his situation and alleviate the anxiety.

This, then, is what we are going to do about it. And this will be the content of my conversation with the rabbi. We've determined that we cannot change the overall situation in Machon, but we hope to change the situation for N. in order to alleviate his anxiety so that he can pray.

I hope this is truly the last time I have to go to the rabbi about Machon. The whole situation feeds my own anxieties. Parents with children who are behaviorally different will understand what I mean. When your kid responds differently than others your parenting is always on trial. And the judgments never go in your favor.
But it's the child's needs that matter.

"A person's a person, no matter how small!"


Melora said...

Poor N.! I certainly hope your solution works. I nearly commented after reading your last post on this subject, in particular, about how even adults are publicly corrected about how one should pray. In the Episcopal church, people bow, stand, sit, kneel, and make the sign of the cross at various times in the service. Generally, people do the same thing, but I can't Imagine anyone commenting on someone who was doing their own thing! I guess your Jewish service is much more formal, but Still!
That teacher sounds Awful. Did the parents of the child in question learn that he was not allowed to use the bathroom? I love your calm, civilized response! If those responses you gave N. don't work, that teacher is beyond help.

Anonymous said...

I think your response is a good example of what happens when we decide to do whatever we can to make a situation work for us. I'm afraid that all too often, I've decided to just excuse myself and my kids from a difficult situation... a boon of homeschooling, certainly, but also an easy out at times.

Sure hope it works.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Thanks, Melora. Actually, this 'service Yekke-ism' is so contrary to the traditional Jewish ways of praying that I am having a hard time even imagining what lies behind it. In a traditional Jewish service, people come and go, as the congregation prays on its own, and then together. For example, a person who is late will lay t'fillin while the congregation is praying the Amida (the standing prayer). When the congregation is moving on, the person will catch up the Amida--which is the heart of the prescribed ritual. Normatively, Jewish services are much less formal than 'low church' Anglican services are.
As for the other child, I believe the parents did complain. There are many complicating factors in the situation--those gory details I got from N.-- with this child that make it easy to blame it all on the kid. That's still no excuse for the person in power to engage in a power struggle over the bathroom.

Lizbeth: Thanks for the vote of confidence. I have to admit that this response represents the 'hanging by our fingernails' phase of trying to make the situation work. The next step is to let go. We'd rather not because of some important social ties N. has in Machon, but...
In any case, I hope that N. can carry it off as practiced. These strategies are difficult for a socially astute child. N. is not particularly socially astute.
He does not read body language and facial expression particularly well, which could cause him more trouble than he's already having. We are taking a big gamble here, which is why I feel obligated to inform the rabbi. However, my sense is that he does not 'get it' on any level beyond a very superficial one.
Frankly, I am to the "Arrrgh" stage in this. In a public school, I might expect this, although I would not like it. In a private, religious afternoon program, I cannot fathom the reasoning behind it. If there is any.
Fortunately, unlike our public school taxes, we can and will reduce our finacial support of the institution accordingly.

Amie said...

Ack, how frustrating! I hope the scenarios you practiced helped.

I had a few teachers who used the same bathroom/hallway pass system, and it was really nice.

Jenn Casey said...

Great post. Even little children need to be able to decide matters such as the bathroom or hunger for themselves. It's profoundly disrespectful to the child to deny them this level of control over their own bodies. Self-control and self-confidence begin so young and it's these seemingly simple circumstances that allow a child to experience a sense of self-reliance.