Well, I guess it’s too late in some parts of North America, but in many others the time of teacher and student “orientation” is nearly upon us—when schools everywhere set aside a day or more to gather groups together to prepare for a year of collaboration and productivity.
At just about the time I got into this business, the good thinking of social psychologists began to penetrate the world of independent schools, and so “team building” and “group process” exercises became a regular part of these orientational get-togethers. Students and teachers alike experienced softball games, ropes courses, and the dreaded trust fall, all in the name of group solidarity and a little pre-school-year entertainment.
Time and a deluge of corporate-inspired newer, cooler exercises have upgraded activity menus, at least in terms of novelty and perhaps even efficacy. Maybe a few days in the woods has gotten old, but how about a trapeze or slack wire? How about having an improv group come to coach the tenth-grade advising team?
So here we are, and I know that many readers would look forward to diving into any and all of these and being there to help students process “Yes, and” or “One Word at a Time.” For many people, such activities are probably happy reminders of fun times at camp, in college, or around the family game table.
Stepping now into my role as a curmudgeon, I am going to offer another perspective and a caution. I won’t dwell on my own upbringing in a family where games were not played and tents or horseshoes never pitched, nor on having been the fat, uncoordinated kid at camp and everywhere else, though some of you may relate.
You have colleagues and students for whom stepping into the game circle is like climbing out of the trenches into machine-gun fire. In some households there may not have been the resources, the family time, or the cultural practice of fun and games. Some people find certain kinds of games culturally or spiritually anathema. Asking these folks to do things that are unfamiliar for reasons of upbringing, culture, or limited resources can cause pain and even shame.
Then there are those whose self-consciousness for reasons that you would and could never guess makes participation in certain kinds of activities a source of extreme discomfort. Or people dealing with trauma that you (and possibly they) neither know or understand. Some are just physically or socially insecure.
The educator in you wants to respond, “But, hey, that’s the point! To help people develop the confidence to jump in and participate, to take personal risks as part of a growth process and to gain trust in the group.” True. Many people, most people, seem to enjoy these group activities. But some do not, and they either participate, perhaps ineptly, or choose to step away—feeling watched and judged—at a significant cost to their self-esteem.
Many years ago I was part of an eighth-grade trip to a wilderness education center. One afternoon the onsite ropes course instructor decided a shy, overweight kid should climb a knotted rope. The instructor started with all his positive reinforcement tools and language, but the kid wasn’t buying it. The instructor ramped up the cajoling, ranging between upbeat and positive and stern and dismissive of the student’s “defeatist” attitude.
I had once been that kid myself, sure, but what I also knew in this case was that this child’s life was ruled by an anxious, overbearing parent. I watched the kid stand there, shamefaced, looking at the ground and surreptitiously wiping away tears.
Then the kid looked straight at the instructor and said, “No! I’m not gonna do it!” The language may have strayed into the more colorful, but the message was what mattered.
I took the instructor by the arm and pulled him aside. I had realized something: this might have been the first time this child had ever spoken had ever put their foot down and said NO! to an adult. I gave the short version of my thought to the instructor, who got it. Later he told me he’d never thought of refusal as an act of courage.
Well, don’t we spend a lot of time and energy exhorting kids to say no to peer pressure, to bad decisions—that sometimes refusing is BRAVE?
If we’re promoting and facilitating fun-for-most group activities, we must find ways of letting people who really don’t want to participate opt out without their demurral having to be an act of courage.
Educators know that shame and embarrassment kill learning. We need to provide pathways for the truly uncomfortable to choose nonparticipation without making them feel stigmatized or humiliated.
At One Schoolhouse we’re fans of providing pathways to learning based on students’ interests and proclivities; we even do this in our professional development courses. How about offering choices when we’re charging into the woods or doing improv or whatever else we’ve planned to help our communities develop cohesion? Why not?
TO BE CLEAR: If an activity or exercise, particularly for faculty, bears on the strategic work and mission of the school or on preparing folks to work more effectively with students, opt-out should not be an option—but even then, are there multiple paths to the same goals that would play to all participants’ desires to learn and improve?
An end note: As an adult I spent many, many summers working happily in camps, and the many board-game boxes in my house are about worn out. I hiked high peaks before the knees went, but I never could and never will climb a rope. And, yes, I opt out of things when I’m comfortable; I learned to live with my shame sixty years ago. But other people shouldn’t have to.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)