Dr. Judith M. Newman



Sorting Out The Problematic

[ Journal Entry ]

The point of teacher action research is to help us sort out what’s problematic in what we’re doing. We’re involved in this learning enterprise to understand better what our work involves.

Last time I kept asking you “What surprised you about…?” I did that because I wanted you to begin noticing moments that surprise you—both in school, and in your out-of-school lives. It’s the moment of surprise, of being perplexed, that alerts us to something interesting and provides an opportunity to make our assumptions visible. “What was I expecting?” you need to ask yourself. “Why was I expecting that?”

Let me illustrate with a freewrite I did a while ago.

One of the most difficult transitions I personally have had to make has been dealing with kids’ resistance, their not-learning behaviour. Just when I think I have some control over my responses I run into a kid who pushes me back into my instinctual, authoritarian way of responding. There’s one like that in one of the third grade classes I’ve been visiting.

In my experience when kids are resisting or avoiding engaging, offering some support brings about a small shift in attitude. Usually I can get a kid to ‘just try’. Based on past experience I’ve learned that helping kids to be successful allows them to overcome a lot of their resistance. But I can’t even get near this one—Brent, I’ll call him. He cuts me off before I can offer help of any kind. His body language is real clear—stay away. If I offer any help he rejects it—he makes it plain he isn’t going to think about whatever it is the other kids are doing and he has been asked to try.

Now part of Brent’s problem is that he doesn’t read or write very well. At age nine, that’s now starting to be serious. He’s bright, that’s obvious, so he knows what the others can do and he can’t. His behaviour is considerably more aggressive than the others and he keeps the others, boys and girls, at bay by being disdainful or by pinching, hitting, or jabbing them with a pencil. They don’t want anything to do with him—his behaviour gets what he wants, distance from the rest; but at a cost—he does, at some level, want friendship which he can’t get the way he’s going about it.

So I’m perplexed. At some level I agree with Brent that the tasks he’s being asked to tackle are meaningless, certainly unconnected to who he is. His resistance is very like that described by Herb Kohl in “I won’t learn from you!”—Brent is saying quite loudly he won’t learn from me. And each time I attempt to engage him I seem to be digging the hole deeper.

Brent evokes the ‘witch’ in me in the same way the junior high kids did. While I understand his resistance, I react to it in a way that doesn’t help. Jake on the other hand, who drives the teacher crazy, I can manage to maneuver. He doesn’t make me bristle the way Brent does. The question is what about their behaviour gets to me in the one case and not in the other. What in my own history is being triggered in the one case and not in the other? I don’t have an answer for that at the moment.

Maybe it’s the way Brent is firmly taking control, but in a way that in the long run means he defeats himself. When he evokes the witch I walk away. There’s no point in attempting to cajole him and I have no authority to insist on him doing anything which the teacher can do and has from time to time done. But I’m not happy just walking away. I keep wondering what I’m doing that evokes his resistance and what I could do that would permit us to work out a different kind of relationship.

What I realized is that Brent and I were engaged in a power/control struggle. If I approached him by asking if he needed help, he could refuse legitimately. In fact, he didn’t. That surprised me, actually. Instead, by asking him if he needed help, he could let me know what kind of help he needed and then he’d engage.

His teacher and I had a conversation this afternoon in which she described how she learned to accept his clear signals that he wouldn’t comply. Rather than forcing him to do anything, she learned how to negotiate with him. Her important insight was that Brent was always in control and that she would never get anywhere trying to force him to do anything. Because she has become adept at reading his signals, he’s become much more involved and proficient at reading and writing and his behaviour is considerably less resistant.

The freewrite helped me understand what was causing our struggle and what I could do about it.