By KATHLEEN SHEFFIELD
What kind of an environment does it take to promote learning? As educators and leaders, are we able to control and create the elements that support an optimal learning environment? So much has been written about school leaders and their roles as agents for change and support in school climate and culture. Many of us that have attended public school know that there is a subculture that functions well below the radar yet, still has an effect on the learning environment in a great way. This is what Barth calls the “non-discussables” (Grogan, 2013). Someone once told me that a child is unable to learn if they are hungry, thirsty, have to use the restroom, or are afraid. Well, I am living proof that you can actually learn under these conditions. But not optimally, I might add. And most likely the ‘what’ you will learn is probably not a learning objective defined in any lesson plan. The ‘what’ is a not often even considered an outcome by most school’s standards. School environment and culture is a complex system with many mitigating factors and outliers that contribute to what students learn, how they learn, and why they learn.
I was in the third grade. I loved my teacher. I was excited to learn. It had never occurred to me that someone would choose not to go to school. Yet, there were some things that I did not like.
There was a school bully. I knew about her and most of my friends knew about her because we all knew someone who had been beaten up by her. One day it was whispered around school that I was on her hit list next. Every day I walked home from school a different way. I had trouble sleeping at night worrying about her finding me and beating me up. I knew that if I told my mother, that she would march down to the school and tell the principal and then one thing would lead to another and the school bully would be really mad and I would get beaten up even worse. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t concentrate, and I was even afraid to use the restroom while I was at school.
My Father had agreed to give us each 25 cents a week for an allowance if we did all of our practicing and jobs at home. We were supposed to write it down on a ledger along with our completed tasks. At the end of each month we could mark it paid when he gave us a dollar. I decided it was better to have no pocket money than to be afraid all the time so I decided to offer to pay the bully to NOT beat me up. I negotiated with my father to be paid weekly instead of monthly.
The first week of October arrived, after living in fear for over a month, I walked to school with a quarter pressed firmly in my hand. I somehow made it to recess and found the courage to approach the school bully on the playground. My plan had been to offer to pay her to NOT beat me up but I found myself saying something different as she glared at me. I said “would it be OK if I paid you 25 cents a week to be my friend”? I am not sure how things got switched around in my mind but somehow I guess I thought it might offend her if she knew I thought she was a bully. I am not sure how that makes any sense at all, but that was what my eight-year-old thought process was at the time. I remember her looking at me, and reaching out and taking the quarter from my open hand.
I was never one to approach her after that and kept my distance. But I was always careful to offer a wave and smile as we passed during the day. If we were assigned to work in a group I was conscientious and kind and tried not to show my fear. I was diligent in completing my tasks at home and collecting my quarter each Sunday night and was careful to find the first opportunity to hand it to her on Monday. Paying the bribe helped to tamp down the fear a bit. I still worried and had difficulty concentrating. But I loved my teacher. I was excited to learn. It had never occurred to me that someone would choose not to go to school even if they were being bullied.
One day in the middle of the week, as we approached Christmas vacation, I saw the school bully coming towards me on the playground. I had secretly worried that at any given moment she might decide that 25 cents was not enough to NOT beat me up. I remember my heart beating so loudly in my ears as I tried to decide whether to run or stand my ground. But a friend wouldn’t run, right? And I was paying her to be my friend, right? Imagine my surprise when she handed me back my quarter for the week and said, “You don’t need to pay me any more.” My heart stopped beating and I held my breath, waiting for the inevitable punch. She continued, “I will be your friend for free.”
And so you see I was still learning; learning that it is hard to learn if you are afraid and hard to do a lot of other things if you are afraid. I learned that money can buy some safety but not a lot of peace of mind.
We went to school together all the way to graduation from the twelfth grade. Sometimes when I would go home for lunch, I would have to pass through her motorcycle gang out in the West parking lot to get back to the school. I would smile and sometimes exchange a greeting but still found pause to recognize that old familiar fear, acknowledging that even a 17 year old could jump off her bike and give it to me if she wanted to. I learned to carry fear with me without looking afraid.
I never told my parents. Years later after I had gone off to college my mother asked one day about my friend so and so. I felt that same glitch of fear. And tried to answer nonchalantly “Yes, what about her”? My mother continued, “She works at the grocery store where I shop and she asked about you. She mentioned that you were her best friend all the way through High School. I never even knew you two were friends.” I answered, “We became friends in the third grade, remind me and I will tell you about it sometime.”
I found that I was still learning; learning that some things are better off if adults don’t know about them. I learned that it is better to have a friend than an enemy. I learned that I was someone’s closest friend and I didn’t even know it.
Well, I am living proof that you can actually learn under non-optimal conditions; that students can love their teachers and love school and want to learn yet be in an environment that they are powerless to change. I came to know that teachers and parents often don’t have a clue about what lessons students are really learning. And most likely the ‘what’ they will learn is probably not the learning objective defined in any lesson plan. I loved my teachers. I was excited to learn. It had never occurred to me that someone would choose not to go to school. Yet, there were some things that I did not like and some things I could not change. But I kept right on learning and in the end, the things I learned, ended up being the things that changed me.
Grogan, M. (Ed.). (2013). The Jossey — Bass reader on educational leadership (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey — Bass.
Kathleen Sheffield is an Adjunct Faculty member at Brigham Young University. She is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Education at Southern New Hampshire University. She is inspired by working with students of all ages
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