How To Teach A Social Norm

A few stories.

Story #1:

I remember getting on an airplane, headed to Disneyland with my family, full of all the can’t-contain-the-excitement feels that you expect from a kid headed to Disneyland. I was probably about seven years old, and my brothers were younger. (Still are, actually.)

disneyland with dopey
Cheesin’ with Dopey!

The flight attendant cheerily brought us crayons and coloring books. (That seems strange now. Do flight attendants really give coloring books to kids? Did they back in the day? I don’t even know.) There were three coloring books–one  Barbie, and two dinosaurs. As she held them out for us, I didn’t realize that I’d already been assigned the Barbie coloring book; I innocently thought we were being given options. I had lots of dolls, but Barbies were never my favorite. I loved The Land Before Time though! I watched that movie so many times, I still remember the Pizza Hut commercial that came before it started on the VHS. (See? YouTube remembers it too!) So with the coloring books fanned out in front of us, I quickly claimed a dinosaur book, excited to start filling in the “long necks” and “three horns.”

Then I saw the adults giving each other, and me, The Look.

Let’s describe The Look a bit. It isn’t an angry look. It’s a mix of awkwardness, embarrassment, disappointment. It seems to beg, “Please don’t make us explain why that thing you just did is wrong. It just is, and you should know better.”

It wasn’t until I saw The Look that I realized there had been two boy books, and one girl book. I don’t remember for sure what happened next, but I think I held tight to my chosen dinosaur pages. I’m not sure if one of my brothers ended up with Barbie, or if they complained about it, or if a third dinosaur book was rustled up, or if I folded and took the Barbie book after all…. But I do know that I learned a few things that day– 1) I should play with girl things. 2) Dinosaurs are not girl things. 3) Boys shouldn’t have to play with girl things.

Story #2:

I was in a toy store, looking at dolls. Despite the Barbies vs. dinosaurs mix up, I really did love dolls, and the 90s had so many great dolls. There were Magic Nursery Babies, Kid Sister, Baby Alive, Quints, the doll whose makeup magically appeared when you painted on water, the doll whose hair grew and changed color, the dolls that smelled like cupcakes…. It was a great time for dolls.

The 90s were also all about token racial diversity, so some of the dolls that were white in all the ads, also had a black counterpart on the store shelves. This particular day, it was the black version of a doll that caught my fancy, so I pointed it out and said, “I want that one!” I wasn’t trying to make a statement for social justice or anything; I just thought she was pretty.

The adults gave The Look again. I saw it.

“Are you sure?” I was asked.

“No,” I mumbled.

I don’t think I got a doll that day. I think I escaped the doll aisle and went to look at stuffed unicorns or something. I don’t remember. But I do remember learning that white girls play with white girl toys.

So many rules to remember!

Story #3:

I grew up, and became a teacher. Now I listen to my students define a nurse as, “a girl doctor.” I hear girls say they want to be a doctor when they grow up, and the boys shoot them down with, “Don’t you mean a nurse?” I hear the girl who loves soccer say she’s not allowed to play like her brother can. I hear the boy who doesn’t like sports say he can’t just have a conversation with his dad like his sports-loving brothers can.

Every time, I try to give my version of The Look. I try to express my disapproval of restrictive and nonsensical gender rules. My look does nothing. I can tell nobody even sees it.

So, during the career unit, I invited one nurse to speak with my classes–my RN brother skyped in. Talked all about the work he does in the ER, and the work it’s taken to get there. He didn’t say a word about gender, but the message was clear. Nursing is a great career option for men and women. Both. (Incidentally, his two-year-old daughter kept interrupting, waving her toy dinosaurs in front of the screen, and roaring for us…. Right on, lil’ sister suffragette!)

skype with kasey-2
My brilliant niece, in the middle, loves princesses, dinosaurs, cooking, doctoring, baby dolls, big trucks, reading, counting, and her family…. She’s not such a fan of the patriarchy. 🙂

A female doctor spoke to some of my classes about her work with natural medicine, and the people she’s been able to help around the world. A female PA talked about her career, and completely won over the kids when she gave them surgical caps and masks to dress up in.

We heard from women who practice law and accounting.

We heard from men who write.

We heard from different kinds of therapists who work with the disabled…. We also heard from disabled people about their careers as a graphic designer, news producer, social media outreach specialist, and software engineer.

The year before, we wrapped up a unit of study about the brain with another guest speaker–a neurosurgeon, and a woman.

Conclusions:

It’s easy to teach traditional social norms. You don’t even have to try; a slight and momentary facial expression will do the job. But unteaching those norms? Teaching kids to think beyond social norms? Takes a lot more work. A simple Look isn’t going to cut it. Occasionally repeating a throwaway line, “Everybody’s equal,” isn’t enough. You have to be really intentional about what they’re seeing, hearing, and doing. They have to see behavior that falls within the traditional norm, and outside of the norm, and somewhere in the middle, and feel that it’s all worthy of approval.

And you have to mean it!

One Last Bout Of School Year Sentiment

Not gonna lie, I spend all year looking forward to the magical last day of school, when the insanity takes a break, and summer begins. That should come as no surprise!

But here’s the thing. Underneath my thick layers of snark, awkwardness, and whimsical nonsense, I’m also a sentimental sap. And ending the school year is always tough. Goodbyes are tough. I’m horrifically bad at them.

Goodbyes to students are tough, especially the 8th graders. Laugh and roll your eyes if you must, but you have to understand, I teach many of them for up to three years in a row. I meet them as 11 year old children, stick with them through the crazy hormonal storms, and then say goodbye to 14 year olds who are actually bordering on maturity. By then, magic happens when I look at the kids, and I can simultaneously see shadows of the adults they’re becoming, and of the lil’ kids they once were. I miss the latter, and hope to someday meet the former. But after all that we go through together in three years, they have a pretty huge place in my heart!

The kids actually aren’t who I’m thinking about today though.

It’s also hard to say goodbye to the adults. I happen to work at the best middle school in the west–possibly the world–and it’s not coincidentally staffed by the best professionals you could ever want to work with. Ending the school year means saying goodbye to those who are retiring or moving on to other jobs. Of course, nothing will ever be as bad as the years after the economy crashed, when teachers were being moved against their will, and nobody had any control over where they ended up. At least now people generally only leave when they choose to. But that only makes it marginally easier!

I’m pretty anti-change in general. I like my routines. I like things to stay comfortable. I like my people to be right where I expect them to be. Always.

And I don’t like losing people who are such talented, kind, integral parts of our school community. So many times over the last few days, I’ve thought “How will we ever survive without _____?”

But I think that every year, and this year I tried not to say it out loud. Because you know what I’ve learned? We will survive. And we’ll continue to thrive. That’s part of how the much-talked-about “Whitford Way” works.

In nine years at Whitford, especially these nine years, I’ve seen a lot of incredible people come and go. The magical part, though, is watching their ripples. A person’s influence doesn’t stop when they leave Whitford. The good they’ve done keeps working its way around, evolving into new shapes and forms, but maintaining its flavor. Sometimes people leave a very tangible mark, where you can point to specific objects, practices, or traditions, and you know who did that. Usually it’s a less tangible legacy.

Speaking for myself, I know that I carry many pieces of other teachers with me. Sometimes it’s even mildly against my will: “If So-And-So were here, they would do such-and-such. But they’re not here, and it should still be done, so I guess I’ll do it…” Most of the time it’s with a much better attitude though, I promise! “This person always acts this way, and I want to be like that too…”

As a new teacher, it was easy to name the qualities I wanted to have as a teacher. For example, “I want to have high expectations for all students.” Very easy to say! But what does that actually mean in the trenches of a classroom? I can read lots of articles about high expectations, and maybe they help a little. But nothing helps as much as being around teachers who consistently model successful ways to get students meeting high expectations. In my head right now, there’s a long list of Whitford names, past and present, and specific things I’ve learned from each, that help me keep the expectations high in my own classroom.

I try to pass those things along to others, both students and teachers, because the Whitford Way works in ripples. Some of the most valuable advice I’ve received can be traced to teachers I’ve never even met, so I try to do my part to keep passing it forward.

A few months ago, I randomly came across a gathering of the Whitford retiree group. Some I knew as friends; others I mostly knew from legend. But there was something comforting and circle-of-lifey about that glimpse of what I hope my future looks like, still a part of this special family.

I’ve always felt lucky to be part of this community, experiencing the Whitford Way magic. And I think I’m starting to finally believe the magic doesn’t have an expiration date.

My fellow humans are pretty impressive.

It used to drive me crazy that I teach a subject without a real curriculum. Combined with the fact that my education program was insanely light on teaching curriculum development, I was left pretty lost, overwhelmed, and frustrated as a new teacher. But now I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve come to embrace teaching one of the only subjects left with significant creative freedom. There will never be a canned curriculum that I enjoy teaching as much as my own units, and nobody knows how to meet my student’s needs better than I do. (Sad how that feels like such a bold claim these days, rather than like stating the obvious….)

There are plenty of topics that I love teaching for the impact on the students. But there’s one that I also love for my own personal enjoyment–guys, the career unit is the best. It feeds me mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Lots of elements come together in my career unit. The kids are doing research, taking notes, summarizing, evaluating, and after lots of exploring, creating a presentation on a career of their choice. And that’s all great. But the fun part, the part I talk about incessantly to anyone who gets stuck listening, is the guest speakers!

I’ve taken the traditional “career day” model, and exploded it. I’m sprinkling career speakers over the course of 7ish week, and they all come from my personal network of friends, family, friends-of-friends, etc. And thanks to the wonders of Skype, I’m not limited to local speakers! We’ve had guests from all over the country chat with us about their careers.

(Fun random video about career day!)

Each class ends up getting a different assortment of speakers, and we’re not done yet, but so far we’ve chatted with a(n):

  • physical therapist
  • speech pathologist
  • naturopathic doctor
  • historian/writer
  • professor
  • embalmer/aspiring funeral director
  • public defender/judge
  • news producer
  • immigration attorney
  • doctor/urologist
  • advertising copywriter
  • social media/outreach specialist
  • physician’s assistant
  • stage manager
  • educator
  • graphic designer

(I hope I didn’t miss anyone…) It’s been fascinating! For the kids, obviously. But I’ve learned from every speaker too! It turns out that everyone I know is an expert in something. Everyone has a wealth of knowledge that I don’t tap into very often. And my brain loves being woken up and fed these tidbits from fields that I’m only barely aware of. I love knowing more about how the world works.

Did I mention that everyone I know is an expert in something? It’s so inspiring. I think most of us have a certain way that we tend to relate to each of our friends–the topics that we usually talk about, the tone our conversations usually take, the jokes we usually tell. But I’m seeing everyone outside those usual ruts. I get to hear the details of what they do, what they love, what they’re passionate about. Many are digging back into their roots, and sharing where their journey started. Some admit to weaknesses, vulnerabilities, stumbling blocks that have made their path tough. And everyone projects an air of confidence as they discuss the stuff they know, the stuff they’re good at. It’s fun to see my people shining in their comfort zone, while hearing the story of how it became their comfort zone. I keep gaining new levels of respect and love for everyone I have the opportunity to listen to!

One of the most common themes I’ve heard is “I never imagined that life would take me in this direction.” A few people are doing exactly what they always planned, but most aren’t. Most people seem to start going in one direction, and then trying this other thing, and then meeting this person, and learning this thing, and then applying it to something else… Looking back, they can talk about how all the steps along the way taught them something that’s valuable now, and brought them closer to where they are. But in the moment, they had no idea the direction life was going to take.

I find it inspiring on such a spiritual level! The way we don’t have the perspective to see the big picture in the present moment, so we just squeeze all the value out of it that we can. Then we carry those things with us, and make them part of us, so that we’re better prepared for the next opportunity/curveball that life throws at us. I fully believe that it’s not random, that God can see the full map, and knows how all these things will work together for our good. And I kind of love how messy it is! Daily life can feel so chaotic, but with distance you can see the order, the form, the beauty.

My fellow humans are pretty impressive. Everybody has such a wealth of stories, knowledge, and wisdom to share. We don’t appreciate each other nearly enough.