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03: Letting go of control

Group 03 Readings


Herbert Kohl, the educator and author of more than 30 books, including 36 Children is an ardent advocate of free schools. 36 Children is an attempt “to demonstrate that the myth that educational failure was the children's fault was both false and dangerous."

Extract 12
From 36 Children by Herbert Kohl

When I first began teaching in the public schools, in classes for ‘normal’ children, the sight of a child not working or the sound of a defiant tongue made me nervous, angry and guilty. The child was ‘fresh’, ‘wasting time’, ‘defiant’, ‘disturbed’ even -- there were any number of self-protective labels I found myself using to stigmatize a child who couldn’t conform in my class. I couldn’t let things be, allow a child not to work or walk out of the room. I couldn’t throw an insult off or reply playfully; rather I treated it as defiance, not merely of myself but of all teachers and all adults, an enormous sin no child ever does in school.

I was afraid that if one child got out of my control the whole class would quickly follow, and I would be overwhelmed by chaos. It is the fear of all beginning teachers, and many never lose it. Instead they become rigid and brutal -- everyone must always work or pretend to work. The pretence is fine so long as the semblance of control is maintained. Thus one finds the strange phenomena in ghetto schools of classes that seem well disciplined and at work all year long performing on tests as poorly as those that have made the fear and chaos overt.

This problem is particularly great if the children are strangers; that is if they couldn’t possibly be your brothers, sisters, your own children or nieces or nephews. Then you don’t know how their parents control them, and it is easy, in the grip of fear, to imagine that the children are never controlled -- in fact uncontrollable. It is a short step from there to the belief that the children aren’t really human at all but ‘animals’, wild, undisciplined, formless and chaotic. No animals are actually like that though -- it is only human fear that is wild, undisciplined, formless and chaotic. The myth of children as ‘animals’, the fear that they may be uncontrollable, hangs over all the ghetto schools I have visited or taught in, and for a while it hung over my classroom.

Fear is only overcome through risk and experimentation. As I became familiar with the children in 6-1 I became more willing to respond to the children individually and less dependent on the protection of the role of teacher. I let an insult pass and discovered that the rest of the class didn’t take up the insult; I learned to say nothing when Ralph returned from pacing the halls or when Alvin refused to do arithmetic. The children did not want to be defiant, insulting, and idle; nor were they any less afraid of chaos than I was. They wanted more than anything to feel they were facing it with me and not against me. These discoveries were my greatest strength when I began to explore new things to teach the children. They were as impatient to learn something exciting as I was to find something that would excite them.

I have never solved the ‘discipline problem’, but I no longer believe it needs solution. Children will disagree with each other and with the teacher; they will be irrational at times, and the teacher will be, too. An atmosphere must exist in the classroom where conflict, disagreement and irrationality are accepted temporary occurrences. No child, because he defies, should thereby have to become ‘a defiant child’, or because he refuses to work, ‘a lazy child’. Such labelling makes the classroom a harsh, unforgiving place, a world not fit for children or adults.


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