By Caitlin Kelly
In a few short weeks, I’ll finish the first semester teaching college at Pratt Institute, a highly-regarded private college in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
I’ve loved it, but I’m pooped!
“Teaching” is really a one-word shorthand for describing the multitude of feelings, behaviors and interactions that happen in each classroom, ranging from pride, joy and satisfaction to shame, frustration, even anger — those of the students’ and the teacher’s!
I really enjoy teaching — I teach writing to freshmen and blogging to four seniors — but was taken aback by how much emotion also swirls around my classrooms. I knew that adolescents like, and need, to push back against authority figures, especially in college as they start to discover their own intellectual abilities, and their limits, in a tougher setting filled with strangers.
I didn’t anticipate how challenging it would be to manage those emotions publicly, making snap decisions in the moment how to respond to pushback or rudeness while knowing the wrong choice could destroy whatever classroom environment of trust and enjoyment I had been able to create.
One of the many challenges I’ve faced as a teacher is when, how, where and if to chastise a student for their laziness or poor work and when to praise them.
Publicly or privately? Face to face or in an email?
I remember all too well what both feel like as a student.
So I was intrigued, and a little horrified to read this New York Times story about the ClassDojo app now being used by many American teachers:
ClassDojo, a behavior-tracking app that lets teachers award points or subtract them based on a student’s conduct. On the board was a virtual classroom showing each student’s name, a cartoon avatar and the student’s scores so far that week.
“I’m going to have to take a point for no math homework,” Mr. Fletcher said to a blond boy in a striped shirt and then clicked on the boy’s avatar, a googly-eyed green monster, and subtracted a point.
The program emitted a disappointed pong sound, audible to the whole class — and sent a notice to the child’s parents if they had signed up for an account on the service.
ClassDojo is used by at least one teacher in roughly one out of three schools in the United States, according to its developer. The app is among the innovations to emerge from the estimated $7.9 billion education software market aimed at students from prekindergarten through high school.
I was badly bullied in my Toronto high school, and every day meant listening to the taunts and jeers of a small group of nasty boys. Praise and kindness, from any source there, meant the world to me in contrast.
One day — and thank god for Mr. Stickney’s compassion — I lost my shit. The redheaded asshole, whose nickname (yes, really) was Moose, kept droning onandonandonandon, a litany of the same old insults toward me, as he sat in front of me in 12th Grade math class.
Our textbook that year was hardcover, thick and heavy. I raised it, and whacked him, hard, on the back of his head.
Finally, blessed silence. All I wanted was to be left in peace, to learn.
“Caitlin, can you please sit at the back of the classroom?” Stick asked.
I could, and did.
Being a student, whether you’re four, 14 or 20, means making yourself deeply and publicly vulnerable to the judgments about you made by fellow students, your teachers and school administrators.
If they’re kind and sensitive, (and it’s usually a mixed bag), school can be a place you look forward to and thrive in — or a special daily sort of hell.
In my early teens, I had become something of a troublemaker in my Toronto boarding school, miserable and frustrated to be parked there while my parents were….elsewhere. By the end of Grade Nine, I was asked to leave.
An app like ClassDojo would have made my life even more nightmarish, making clear to every class how much trouble I was in and dragging them down with me. It would have further concretized the alienating and shaming consensus that I was something annoying to be gotten rid of — instead of the deeply unhappy and smart little girl that I was.
It was bad enough that our area’s neatness, and our behavior, was graded every single day on a chart by the door of our shared bedroom. Public shaming is not an effective way to motivate!
No one simply bothered to sit me down and ask: “How are you? What’s going on with you these days?”
There’s no app for compassion.
There’s no app for sensitivity.
Teacher — students — what do you think of this sort of thing?
Would you use it? Are you using it?