Tag Archives: Teachers

Teaching dating skills to elementary students

Dear elementary school teachers,

My daughter is dating. I know she’s dating because she told me. We talked about it.

I asked her what dating meant to her and what it meant to her dating partner. I asked if they had talked about it before they agreed to date, if they’d discussed what that word, that concept meant to them, what they wanted from their relationship, why they wanted to add this label to it. I asked if they had discussed boundaries and expectations. I asked if they had talked about what this label would change about their relationship with each other – and what it might change about their relationships with other people.

I made sure that my daughter understood that dating someone should not mean that you have to give up other friendships, and that if the person she is dating asked her to stop being friends with others or got jealous of other friendships, it was time to have The Talk – to remind her partner about mutual respect and trust, and boundaries and expectations, and the fact that we don’t own each other, not even when we’re dating.

I know this is unusual, for a parent to have this kind of conversation with their elementary school student about this topic. I wish that wasn’t the case.

Because, you see, this is the exact same conversation I have with my daughter every time she tells me she has a best friend.

Kids in love1

At this age, in this setting, there is very little difference between having a bestie and dating someone. Both need to be grounded firmly in open, honest, respectful communication. Both need to start with conversations about what this label means and why each person entering into it wants to take their relationship to “the next level.” They need to talk about what they want from this next level relationship, what it means for them, what it looks like and how it will affect things like recess activities, lunch time, class activities, etc. Often I even ask if they’ve considered what will happen if/when they “break up” because best friendships rarely last forever. (I always assumed that was the reason all the “best friend” necklaces came with the hearts pre-broken…)

My best friend broke it first.

Today my daughter came home and told me that dating had been banned at school. That the teachers had gotten everyone together and announced that there would be no more dating, that school was for learning and that they were all too young to date anyway. “Maybe when you’re in high school, or college…” As if human beings are ever too young to form and negotiate relationships.

I asked her if “best friending” had also been banned. Her eyes got wide as she made the connection I’m making here. No, they hadn’t. And wasn’t that odd? Why was she being taught that one kind of relationship forming was something she was too young for, too immature to handle? Why was she being taught that romantic love was too complex for her to navigate, while still being allowed, encouraged even to create “best friend” relationships that often devolved into battles for control, bullying and trauma. Why was one form of relationship being legislated away while another with equal potential for harm was being lauded and upheld? Why was she being taught that this one way of identifying with and relating to other students was “bad” or “inappropriate?”

She wanted to know why her teachers seemed so hung up on this word, this concept: dating.

I could only assume that it was because somehow we’ve equated dating to sexual intimacy, and that might scare teachers who are unprepared to see their elementary school students as physical beings who crave physical affection (not sexual attention, just physical touches like hand holding and hugs and heads resting on shoulders – and yes, even kissing because those things feel good…) Or perhaps it was because teachers thought about what dating meant to them as adults, or even high school students when hormones and a lack of real information pushed it toward the sexual and they couldn’t bear to think about their sweet elementary students in that way. That’s fair, but… elementary students by and large aren’t there yet either.

girlfriends

I told her I could only imagine it was because they had forgotten the sweet innocent puppy love of elementary school, the tender hand holding, the doe eyed looks, the silly gifts, the little ways of learning to say I love you, the little ways of learning how to hear I love you, the little ways that felt and what it meant.

I told her I thought maybe her teachers had forgotten this age of exploring, dabbling, trying on new words, new identities… What does it mean to date? What does it mean to be a best friend, to have a best friend? What does it mean to be a girlfriend, a boyfriend? Is it okay to have more than one dating partner? Is it okay to have more than one best friend? What do these words mean? How can be negotiated so that everyone gets what they want from the relationship in a respectful and mutually affirming way?

boyshugging

What does rejection feel like? How can they handle it? What can they do if someone they like doesn’t like them back, or doesn’t like them as much, or not in the same way? What are appropriate responses?

These are all really valid and important questions and skills that students need to practice and learn before they become adults, before they become tweens and teens even, before the hormones kick in and flood their brains and make them forget that before they get sexual, they need to get real. They need to check in and make sure that they are operating under the same set of assumptions, expectations, desires, goals and boundaries as their partner. Whether that partner is purely platonic, romantic or physical is irrelevant IF students have learned to start their relationships from a place of open, honest, respectful conversation and IF they’ve learned how to handle rejection when it comes, because it will come.

I know you all have a lot on your plates already and I’m sure that the idea of having this kind of conversation about dating with your students is terrifying. I imagine you are already hyperventilating over imaginary phone calls from outraged parents.

But what if we simply backed it up. What if we went back to that moment when you heard that students were dating. What if, instead of banning it, you asked the students what it meant to them? What if you led them with questions like the ones I led my daughter with, the same ones we should be asking of students who are forming best friendships, and listened to what they had to say? What if you helped students to think critically about it themselves?

What if you used this moment to remind your students that all relationships – friendships, work partnerships, relationships, marriages, benign acquaintanceships, all of them are founded on the same basic principles, the same foundation of mutual respect, trust and vulnerability. If those are in place, the rest can build from there, but without those it all crumbles.

What if you used this moment to remind students that if they aren’t comfortable having those challenging conversations and being honest with each other about what they want, what they need, what their boundaries are and listening to and being respectful when someone else tells them the same – they aren’t ready to take that next step – whatever it is.

Respect

It’s not their age that limits them, it’s their skills.

So let’s help them practice, now while it’s safe, now while the stakes are low, now while we’re not actually worried about the sexual aspect or the physical aspect. Let’s help them build their emotional relationship skills so that when they start dating “for real” and those hormones have kicked in, communication is a habit, respect is a habit, honesty is a habit, listening is a habit, setting and respecting boundaries is a habit, coping with rejection in healthy ways is a habit…

Why not use this time to make sure that all the elements of forming healthy relationships are there, ready to be utilized before things get messy.

We talk about “teaching to the test” so often, but we forget, life has bigger tests with higher stakes than any politician could dream up. When I look at the statistics on teen dating abuse, on teen sexual abuse, on teen pregnancy and STI rates – what I see is that we are failing our students. I know there is all kinds of weird baggage around the idea of teaching elementary students sexual health education – I get that. (I hate it, but I get it.) But this isn’t that. This isn’t about sex education. It isn’t about sex. It’s about relationships.

How to negotiate them. How to form them. How to maintain them. How to renegotiate them as they grow and change. How to end them if they become toxic. How to spot if they are becoming toxic.

Toxic

This is about the health of our students.

Banning them from interacting with each other in ways that feel natural to them, ways that they see modeled all around them is a failing strategy. But teaching them how to interact in healthy ways, that is something we can all pitch in and do. Helping them slow down and think about the words they are using and the meanings they are creating, that is a life long skill, and its one they desperately need. We all do.

Friendship

Imagine how much pain you would have been spared if someone had only taught you this lesson instead of making you piece it together on your own.

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In defense of teachers

Oops. I totally put my foot in it. Something I’ve always been quite good at, but which I didn’t at all mean to do yesterday when I posted my rant on the state of education as I see it.

While many people applauded my sentiments and while my thoughts seemed to resonate with a lot of folk across a pretty wide swath – including many of my teacher friends, it also managed to piss off an equal number of my teacher friends who felt I was attacking them, and their profession.

So please, let me clarify.

teachers make a difference

Teachers make the world go 'round.

Yesterday’s rant was in no way an attack on teachers. Not even on my daughter’s kindergarten teacher – who quite frankly should be sainted for making it through all 270 days of the school year without killing (or duct taping, or stapling, or swearing at) any of the 24 hyper-active, over-coddled, special fucking snowflakes in her class. (Mine included.)

Teachers in this country are the most over-worked, under-appreciated, over-maligned, under-paid profession I can think of .

They bust their asses, stretch their minds, work against impossible odds to teach children to even more impossible standards. Their classes are filled to bursting. They have to use money out of their own meager salaries to buy supplies for their classrooms. Classrooms which are filled with a tiny handful of the “best and brightest”, and a big chunk of mediocre munchkins, and two heaping handfuls of “special needs” kids. And they are supposed to not only keep all 25-40 of them alive, they are also supposed to teach them something.

To make it worse teachers are judged almost solely on standardized test scores. If their students aren’t reaching the benchmarks set by a bunch of rich white guys in the capital then they, as teachers, have failed. And they lose funding. And their school loses funding. And the students lose – everything.

Teachers are also judged, relentlessly, by parents who either think the work their kids have to do is too difficult, too easy, too tedious (guilty), or too… something.

There is nothing these poor beleaguered souls can do right. They are squeezed between a rock, a hard place, and a cliff. And somewhere in there is the person who took on this remarkable profession, not for the money, because admit it, the pay is a joke, but because they care. Because they actually give a shit – about my kids, and your kids, and about our country.

These are the people standing at the front line of the battle for the future of the human race. And mostly they get paid in back-handed compliments, bitching and griping. They should be put on pedestals, rewarded with riches, praised to the heavens. These people are in charge of the future. And we’ve completely tied their hands.

So – yesterday’s rant was not about them. Good god no. It was about US.

It was about all the people who don’t go to school board meetings (guilty), who don’t pony up and pay their local taxes – you know the ones that fund schools, who don’t write to congress and to the president, and to their local government officials and decry the heinous fuckery that political wanks continue to perpetrate against the educational system, against our teachers, and against our students.

It was a rant against parents who don’t participate in their children’s education. Because as much as I totally fucking hate making my kindergartener circle 14 sets of letters in a poem until she can’t read it for all the pencil marks, and can’t remember what it was about because her head is too full of vs and ts and ds and fs to think straight, I DO still take the time to recite the poem again and I do still take the time to ask her what a tuffet is, and why the itsy bitsy spider went back up that spout again. But most parents don’t.

Most parents drop their kids off at 8am with a sugar-coated granola bar in their hand for breakfast and a lunch of hotpockets and “fruit” snacks and then pick their kids up again at 3pm, drive them home, give them a cookie and plug them into the fucking TV to keep them quiet for a couple more hours until it’s time for a pre-packaged dinner.

Thomas Friedman over at the New York Times had it right – we don’t need better teachers, we need better parents.

So please, don’t think for a minute that I was teacher bashing. I wasn’t. I was society bashing, parent bashing, political wank bashing. The problem isn’t them. It’s us. You want to know what I think about teachers? I’ll let Taylor Mali tell you.

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Ending Tenure for Teachers

When I was in school the vast majority of my teachers were amazing, wonderful, inspiring, caring people.  But I did have a few bad teachers – we all did.  I remember going home and telling my parents about them.  My parents were wonderful, active, engaged, they really cared.  BUT, they couldn’t help. Time and time again I was told that those teachers had tenure and that nothing could be done to discipline or fire them.  I was stuck, and so was every other student who went through those classes.  It didn’t get really bad until high school when I moved to a small town with only one school and only one teacher per subject per grade so there was not even the option of switching classes to get another teacher.

Teachers matter – they are the single most important key to the education system.  But the system is broken.  We know this because millions of American kids are  failing to graduate high school.  And the ones who do graduate are, largely, graduating below grade level in reading, math and sciences.  The tragic “Leave no child behind” act has done worse than nothing to change these dismal statistics.  In many cases it has made the bad schools worse and the good schools better, further expanding the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

So, what to do?  I am writing this as a product of a public school education.  Though my family struggled to become and remain middle class during my childhood, I was able to attend the “best” schools in my district during elementary school and junior high. Even so, we had bad teachers.  There was the teacher who told my sister that she was bad at math and would never succeed. And the following year a male teacher who told ALL of the girls that they would never be good at science, which was a real bummer because he was a science heavy teacher and he actively encouraged the girls to fail.

In junior high I had an English teacher who only assigned books about horrible, terrifying child abuse.  The year after that I had an English teacher who wanted to be a writer, so for our class assignments we critiqued his books.  They were not children’s books.  I moved to a new, small town half way through 8th grade and there I met my first REALLY bad teachers.

I had a female English teacher who was accused of molesting more than one male student over the course of several years.  I had the Social Studies teacher who assigned me and a partner a paper about homosexuality.  When my partner and I presented our research asserting that homosexuality was genetic and not a choice the class was opened for debate.  My partner immediately defected and joined EVERY SINGLE other student saying that homosexuality was an abomination and against God’s law and that I was going to Hell.  I could have handled that, but MY TEACHER joined them as well.  I was alone against a class of 35 students AND the teacher.  I didn’t convince any of them, but I refused to back down.  I count that as a win.

I had another English teacher who was an alcoholic and had the shakes so bad by the time I got to his class after lunch that he couldn’t write.  My Math teacher was arrested with cocaine in her desk and later found to be psychotic – she had invented a stalker and a sister, among other things!  One of my science teachers had sex with two of his female students.  I know this because I was friends with his roommate, not because I believe anything that high school girls say in hallways.  My Spanish teacher caught doing drugs with students, off school property, but still…  The health teacher told both me and my sister that we were going to Hell, I don’t remember why – I think it was because we came in with signed notes from our parents saying that we didn’t have to watch the anti-abortion film that was shown in class in lieu of teaching the students about birth control.  (Note – this town had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation at the time that I attended this school.)

The two teachers caught with drugs were fired, the rest are still there.  They had tenure.  They were, in effect, unfireable.  This is a very common situation, especially in the worst schools.  Bad teachers with tenure often get traded around, eventually ending up in the worst schools.  At that point there is no where left to trade them and they cannot be fired for anything less than doing drugs on school property.  And even then, it’s questionable.

In 11th grade I traveled to Scotland as an exchange student for a semester.  I did it to escape my high school which was the only school in the district and so getting out of the country seemed like the only way to avoid it.  When I returned I realized that I could not face another moment at that school.  I talked to my parents and they agreed that I needed out.  Everyone around me was getting into drugs, 12 of the 50 girls in my class were pregnant, one student had committed suicide and two more had died in drunk driving accidents.  This was not the place for a straight A student who had had her sights on Harvard since elementary school.  After much discussion we agreed that I would stay for my last semester as an 11th grader – long enough to get my Senior English credit, take an AP history class, Physics and Calculus.  Then I dropped out of high school and went to the University of Colorado.  Harvard doesn’t take drop-outs, no matter how noble their cause.  I graduated from CU in 3 years, with a double major, and honors.  I did not drop out because I was stupid, or incapable of learning, or because I lacked parental support – quite the opposite.

So, what do we do about this?  What do we do about bad teachers driving out good students and further dismissing struggling students?  Lets get rid of tenure.  Let’s make it so that bad teachers CAN be fired.  Because they should be.  Lets let parents AND students evaluate every teacher at the end of every year.  Of course, you are going to get the grudge evaluations – students, and their parents, who did poorly in the class and may lash out in the evaluation.  BUT I’d be willing to bet that most will be honest.  Most universities have this process in place.  Mine did.  And boring, uninspiring professors were told to get on their game.

I think that if even a quarter of the students and parents in a class lodged a complaint it would be worth checking out.  I also think student grades should be a marker of a teacher’s success.  You can’t honestly tell me that all 35 students in every class that a teacher has are stupid and incapable of learning.  But I would believe that that teacher is incapable of teaching.  And they should be let go.  Or encouraged to get more education themselves.

Lastly, we need to educate teachers better about the realities of teaching.  We need to teach them how to keep order in a classroom, how to encourage kids to participate, how to inspire, how to encourage, how to deviate from the curriculum while still teaching the important aspects so that a golden opportunity can be met.

My daughter is taking Spanish after school.  On the first snow day of the year I picked her up and asked “So, how do you say snow in Spanish?”  She said they hadn’t learned that yet.  I looked at her teacher and he just shrugged and said, “We don’t learn weather vocabulary until next year.”  That’s a bad teacher.  Seize the moment.  Welcome the class in Spanish and ask them how they’re enjoying the snow – in Spanish.  Start a conversation. It’s not rocket science.  And those kids will never get to rocket science if we don’t start educating them now.

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