Ask Kazzy #2
How does one authority figure appropriately indicate to a child that a second authority figure has done or said something bad? E.g. and very heavy-handed, what should a teacher say when confronted with: “Mr. Kazzy, my father said that black people are more violent than white people”? You don’t want to subvert the father’s role as a father, but you clearly can’t let that statement stand unchallenged. How does that needle get threaded?
Fantastic question, Burt. And one which I think is far easier than you might imagine. You tell the kid his father is wrong.
Now, how you’d go about doing this would greatly depend on the age of the child. If this was an older student, say high school aged, I’d enter into a conversation on how people tend to come to that conclusion (e.g., crime statistics, selective news reporting, popular media portrayals) and demonstrate why the conclusions are false and what these sources do tell us and what they don’t tell us. If this was a younger student, say the age I typically teach (4- and 5-year-olds), I’d connect it to conversations we already had on such a matter or, if we hadn’t had them yet, use this as a springboard to address the topic. I’d talk with them about how we know that people look different but this doesn’t mean that they are different and that one’s skin color or hair color or eye color or height does not connect to their personality.
And the reason I’d feel comfortable doing this is because a big part of a teacher’s job is dealing in the world of facts. And the fact is that black people are not more violent than white people. If a student were to come in and tell me that his father told him squares have 3 sides or 5 comes after 6, I’d have no obligation to perpetuate such silliness out of respect for the father’s role. So why should it be any different with a statement regarding race and violence? Because it is a touchy subject? A charged issue? Some teachers might shy away from that, but I am not one of them.
However, I think Burt’s question begs a question: the role of an authority figure is challenged if that authority figure is shown to be incorrect. I reject that assertion. In fact, I make a point to show my students that despite my role as a teacher, I am not perfect, infallible, omniscient, or omnipotent. And I encourage parents to do the same. Ultimately, I think this leads to more respect, not less. Fortunately, such situations come up all the time in schools. It is common for a teacher to have to override another teacher’s authority, but I believe this can be done without undermining their authority. “I understand Ms. Johnson said you could stay in from recess but because there is no adult to supervise you in the library, I’ll need you to go outside. I’m sure Ms. Johnson didn’t realize the room was empty and I will touch base with her later. We’ll see if we can come up with a plan that works.” And I’d say that even if I knew Ms. Johnson to be a spaz. Authority can be challenged without being undermined. Authority does not rest in perfection. Not all people feel this way, which can lead to some difficult situations, but I believe those are for adults to solve behind closed doors.
Now, not all such situations will involve objective facts. Suppose a student came in and said, “My dad said that gay people shouldn’t be allowed to be married,” my response would be, at least in part, impacted by the school’s mission statement and other articulated stances on such topics. Regardless, given that the focus should be first and foremost on the student, I would attempt to take a path that modeled how people can respectfully discuss differences of opinion and which sought the student to ask and answer hard questions for himself rather than simply parrot an authority figure, be it me, his father, or anyone else.