Friday, June 22, 2012

Who Gets to Decide?

by Miki Kashtan

When my nephew Yannai was very young, he confidently walked up to a parent who was giving strong instructions to another little one. “But he gets to decide, right?” he said, completely confident that all other households were run in the same way that his was. It never occurred to him at that time that the overwhelming majority of children in the world grow up constantly being told what to do or not do.

An Executive Director of a non-profit with a large staff presented herself to me as “the one that says ‘no’ to everyone,” accepting that others would not like her because of that. She didn’t conceive of her role as the one making things possible for everyone. I didn’t see any evidence in our conversation that she could envision a collaborative relationship with the staff, where they decide together what makes sense and is doable within the budget.

During an in-service for teachers in a school, I asked the teachers to name the needs that their students were bringing with them to school and which they saw themselves as wanting to attend to. They named learning, safety, care, even meaning. The one glaring omission was the need for autonomy or choice. Teachers in this middle school did not see their students as having this need, or didn’t see it as part of their job as teachers  to support this need. I don’t know which it was. What I do know is that when I brought up this point, talked about how huge children’s need for autonomy is, and made some suggestion about having students be involved in decisions that affect them, one of the teachers responded with great vehemence. What she said has stayed with me for the last nine years. “Oh, no,” she started. “What you are talking about is democracy in the classroom. My classroom is not a democracy. I am the dictator. I am a benevolent dictator, but I am the dictator.” There was no shred of doubt in my mind that this particular teacher was deeply committed to and cared about the well-being of the students in her classroom.