Opal School closed in 2021. You can continue to access these resources for free at teachingpreschoolpartners.org/resource-library/.

Tough Guy

Tough Guy

Every word and action can send a message. It tells children — or students or athletes — how to think about themselves. It can be a fixed mindset message that says: You have permanent traits and I’m judging them. Or it can be a growth mindset message that says: You are a developing person and I am interested in your development. — Carol Dweck, Mindset

This is a story about something that we don’t usually talk about: The labels that we use to define the people at our school (children, parents, colleagues and even ourselves). I thought about starting with a safer topic, like community building at this time of year or the use of materials to support connections among children who are new to our classroom. But the idea that I’ve been really thinking about and wondering about and noticing in myself and others is this: What happens when we make judgments or assumptions about others; how do they impact our interpretation of who they are, and by extension, who we are; how do they influence our interactions with those that we’ve labeled; how do they shape our ability to connect with them; how might our curious selves be cut off the moment we’ve sorted others into arbitrary categories based on our own schema and blindspots? I’ve been wondering about the single story, the words and ideas that we use to shorthand our definition of others — particularly those who may be different or unfamiliar — because it can be really easy to minimize others to labels, to reduce their wholeness and humanness to a handful of simplistic words. What happens when we see each person as complex and unique and ultimately indescribable? Life feels a little more complicated and relationships seem a little more messy, qualities that we often want to avoid.

Making evaluations based on your own frame of reference filters your experience in the world and how you’re feeling. If you want to understand your life and how you experience it, you need to know your frame of reference or the invisible things that we carry in our heads and how they influence us, the emotional systems that shape our lives. — Lulu Miller and Hanna Rosin, Invisibilia: Frame of Reference

It’s human nature to decide someone else is ___________ (fill in the blank) and then collect a bunch of data (or not) to support that working theory. This year, when we met a child who was new to the community at our end of summer picnic, the only thing he said to us was “I’m not going to school! I won’t go!” When he arrived on the first day, he appeared to be a tough guy, communicating with skeptical looks, crossed arms and few words. (I know I’m using language laced with innuendo, it’s the only way to tell this story.) When I took his first day of school photo, he glared at me. I tried to get another shot and he flung his arm toward my face. I said, “If you want me to stop taking your picture, you can just tell me.” Without much effort, I collected information to verify my idea.

Then something surprised me. The next day while I was helping another child at snack time, I heard him telling my co-teacher, Caroline, about a time when a child in his neighborhood called him names. The experience stuck with him and he was willing to talk about his hurt feelings right off the bat with a new teacher. Those two words, tough guy, started to get a little slippery in my mind. I wondered: Who is this child? What are his prior experiences at school, with children and adults? What strategies is he using, in this moment, to connect with others in our community? How can I really pay attention to his ideas and experiences and continue to be surprised by him?

As I’m writing this, I have a picture in my mind of my own image of the child, which we talk a lot about at our school. It’s dynamic — it shrinks and grows in all directions all the time, even from moment to moment, like a giant lava lamp in the night sky. It’s not static because our ways of thinking and feeling are not static.

Each one of us needs to be able to play with the things that are coming out of the world of children. Each one of us needs to have curiosity, and we need to be able to try something new based on the ideas that we collect from the children as they go along. Life has to be somewhat agitated and upset, a bit restless, somewhat unknown. As life flows with the thoughts of the children, we need to be open, we need to change our ideas; we need to be comfortable with the restless nature of life. — Loris Malaguzzi

His dialogue with Caroline was the first crack in my label which has since crumbled and been replaced by new ones (isn’t this what we do too?). Questioner, maker, care taker, builder, tester, dancer. This makes me smile when I think about it. I noticed him completely engaged during read aloud and spontaneously asking questions and making empathic connections, I noticed him use the problem solving strategy of asking questions to a friend when there was a conflict over sharing materials (“Why did you take the Magnatiles I was using? Are you going to do it again?”), I noticed him reach for a younger child’s hand when walking down a steep path on a recent hike, I noticed his imagination shape and twist strips of tape and a collection of cardboard into a variety of objects tied to stories from his life. With all of this new evidence, I needed to change my ideas: As my relationship with him has grown in these first two weeks of school, I’ve needed to revise my thinking about him.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. — Marcel Proust

As we think about the many ways that children take risks at school, it’s hard not to consider when and why and how we take risks too. What happens when we start thinking of ourselves with new eyes, when we recognize that our own growth happens with deliberate practice and when we honor our early attempts too? What’s needed for us to feel safe enough to stretch?

If you’re reading this it’s because I just published my first blog post. Before school began, we talked about our intentions for the year. I said I wanted to practice trusting my voice and using it to share stories from our school. I told my colleagues that presenting at last year’s Summer Symposium was a powerful experience, in one small way because it shifted the way that I think of myself. I knew when I was finishing my story at the microphone that it was a pivotal moment, a new part of me was cracking open. I’ve been carrying beliefs such as I’m not a teacher (I had an unusual path to the classroom, I started out as an administrator) and I’m not a public speaker (I’m much more comfortable behind the scenes than at a podium) and I’m not a blog writer (I like journaling and reflecting on my experiences privately, before today I haven’t had the courage to share any of my writing publicly). One of my hopes this school year is to update the ways that I’ve defined myself too.

Maybe it’s not about eliminating the labels in our lives. Maybe they are even useful in some circumstances. Instead, what if it’s about paying attention, staying curious then expanding our thinking and revising them? And this child, my new friend, the one I originally called a tough guy: At age four, what labels has he already given himself? How have they started stunting his own understanding of his competencies? How can I reflect back his many strengths to him so he can continue to build his sense of belonging to and responsibility for this world?

Our big idea of transformation this year is when we allow ourselves to stay open and vulnerable to take a risk, [that’s when] we open ourselves up to being transformed. — Caroline Wolfe, Opal School

Dear reader, tell me when have you made an assumption about a child and then been surprised by them?

How many ways would you finish this sentence: I am … (or I am not … )

What frames do you use to see the children in your learning community and how have they transformed over time?

September 18, 2016

3 responses to “Tough Guy

  1. Tara, thank you for taking this risk to share your thinking and observations. I’m so curious about the relationship between how we see ourselves and how others see us. What steps can we take to become aware of these perceptions? How can we stay flexible and open so that these perceptions can shift and grow with new observations, wonderings, and experiences? I look forward to hearing more of your year unfold!

  2. Tara, thank you for sharing this profound piece. I love the way you link your thinking, observation, listening and transformation in the class (yours and the child whose story you tell) to our growth and transformation as adults, to our stretching of frameworks and perception of those around us. I wonder how this human tendency of labeling ourselves and others could be used more in our self reflection and transformation… as these labels point to our fears, our habits, our values and also to areas where we can expand our knowledge, understanding and deepen our experience. I wonder how we can practice noticing these labels and using them to improve ourselves and our relationships and our world. I hope we can keep coming back to this piece you wrote, as the year moves along and we witness transformation in our children and in ourselves. Thank you! Very inspiring!

  3. Thanks so much for sharing this post, Tara. I am reminded here that it can be such a struggle to keep and hold openness and space for the beginners mind, especially when culturally we are under pressure to make assumptions for and label so many aspects of life. It is a special kind of work to purposefully acknowledge NOT knowing.

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