Elementary School Lessons

When I was teaching elementary school in San Francisco, I learned a great deal about human psychology in the face of choice and selection.  My first P.E. time was perhaps the best example of what could happen when supply and demand influenced behavior.  I asked all the kids to spread out so that we could stretch and do our warm-up exercises, but they still all clumped together.  To help solve this dilemma, I found some small, round, colored rubber mats that I could spread out evenly and then ask the students to find a colored dot to stand on top of.  There were yellow, red, green, orange, blue and purple dots.  Problem solved, right?  Wrong.

Immediately all the girls ran to the red dots and all the boys ran to the blue dots.  The girls started screaming at each other about who had got there first and the boys began pushing and fighting over their territory.  I immediately blew my teacher's whistle and told everyone that they needed to find their own space, that there were enough dots for everyone, and that it didn't matter what color they received. While they listened and understood what I said, they didn't believe it for a second.  Every day there was a competition about who would get the red or blue dot first and those that got it would hold it over the heads of the other kids.  It soon became an obsession for some of the kids who didn't even know why they wanted it, just that they did.  The harder it was to get a red or blue dot, the more the kids wanted it and fought about it.  I eventually found some rubber dots that were uniform in color and that was the end of that. 

Another time a parent brought in popsicles for one of the student's birthday.  She had different flavors however and I told her that it wasn't going to work.  She looked shocked and asked, "What do you mean?  There are enough popsicles for everyone!"  She didn't see where I was going with this.  Wanting her to learn a quick lesson about children, I took a step back and told her to go ahead and pass them out.  Immediately the kids started screaming, "I want cherry! I want cherry!"  Once the kids figured out that cherry was the best flavor to have, the other kids who got grape or banana started crying and complaining that they wanted cherry as well.  The whole situation was about to blow up until I said, "You're going to get whatever you get, no choosing, and if you don't want the popsicle you get you can choose not to eat it."  It got them to quiet down, but it didn't end the teasing, the boasting, or the triumphant behavior of those who were able to secure the beloved cherry.  That was the last time the mom brought in different flavored popsicles.

As an elementary school teacher, I learned that if you didn't have enough red dots or cherry popsicles for everyone, you were only setting yourself up for disaster.  Children understand the basic rules of fairness and they will let you know when you're breaking them.  Kids would cry, scream, pout, and moan if they were left out, while the victorious kids would take every opportunity to rub their possession in the face of the have-nots.  I found it easier just not to participate in certain activities because playing referee all the time gets tiresome and the kids just get mad at you. It wouldn't be fair to choose favorites and let some kids get something special that they wanted. There either had to be enough for everyone who wanted one or else we didn't do it.  In the end, why would you want to make only some kids feel special when the goal is to make everyone feel equally special? 

I remember little Joanne saying, "Mr. David, why did you give one of the cherry popsicles to Lisa and not me?"

Yeah, Mr. David, why did you?

Those were valuable lessons.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll