Violence on the Playground: An Everyday Struggle

I am standing in the hallway after the students have left, towering over a six-year-old boy who is squeezing showy tears from his eyes to wring even just a little pity from his uncle, his other teacher, or me. My co-teacher and I have explained to the uncle—the adult from this boy’s family that we see most often—why we "made that phone call." How the little boy threw things, picked on other students, purposefully stepped on their work as he walked by, refused to sit down and complete the assignment he had been given, and smirked when he was punished.

"You don’t have any reason to be crying now," the uncle says. "Not now. Maybe later you’ll have something to cry about," and he gives the child a stare that clearly reads, "You know you’re gonna get it when we get home."

I don’t even wince at his implied threat of violence. I have heard too many children come into school talking about the "whooping" they got the previous night, or the one they’re going to get if they don’t follow such-and-such a rule. I’ve seen too many parents—and teachers—put a finger in a child’s face and yell threats of what will happen if they don’t shape up.

I have become complicit in this style of discipline over the course of the year. Even if I am not the one shouting, the one wagging my finger, the one swinging back that belt, I am part of the larger system of violence and intimidation that cycles through these children’s lives.

I didn’t start my first year teaching at a public school this way. Faced with the loud, threatening, bullying culture of discipline, I steeled myself to be one of the few examples of calm and soft-spoken positive discipline on staff. I picked this cause to be my cause—to make positive change in a situation where I believed violence was inherent. I thought at least I could help change this neighborhood’s school, where soldiers and ROTC teenagers in uniform walk into the cafeteria and are thronged like rock stars by excited, clamoring children.

My original optimism was fueled early in the year by a conversation with my principal about discipline. We talked about positive discipline strategies for an hour, and she listened, really listened, to my confusion and concerns. She challenged my assumptions about race and socioeconomic class, giving examples of the different parents, grandparents, and family members who come down to the school every day to defend their children from frustrated teachers who have lost control. Many even come just to check in. She promised that the discipline climate of the school was one of the major areas she wanted to address this year, her first year at this school as well.

I returned to the classroom and embarked on an ambitious, colorful reward system with my co-teacher. We again reminded the children of our behavior expectations, and after the students were gone, we reminded each other of how we as teachers should respond calmly and fairly.

But as the year has gone on, as our "Rewards Wall" has fallen into disuse, and as the promised Discipline Committee was never convened, I have become desensitized to the yelling, the fighting, the threats, and the reported beatings at home.

Being a pacifist is so much more to me than opposing war. Through the experiences of my life, the word "peace" has come to imply both inward and outward peacefulness. Like a teacher or parent counting to ten before responding to an errant child, if I do not find that peaceful center of myself where God dwells, I cannot create a peaceful environment in the classroom. I relish the eerie silence that falls when, as I am working with a group of students and if they are talking out and not paying attention, I become silent, maybe close my eyes, and listen as they begin to notice the stillness and whisper urgently to the ones still not focused, "She’s waiting!"

Every day to me is a fresh start for each student. No matter what the offense of the day before, I try to remember to meet that of God in each child. Sometimes I know my co-workers perceive this as weakness, giving the child too many chances to choose the right thing to do, the right way to act. Maybe the children take advantage of me, knowing that if they do something wrong, all they have to do at the first broken rule of the day is talk to me and recognize that what they are doing is harmful to themselves, the other students, or the learning environment. But what I return to—in meetings for worship, in my prayers at home, in conversations with close friends and mentors—is that connecting with that of God in everyone, approaching everyone as if they were God, takes an incredible amount of strength. Choosing to teach from this position does not show weakness of discipline.

On Friday, I stopped three third-grade boys from fighting on the playground. "Sit down!" I barked, pointing to the grass in front of me. Two of them sat immediately, and the third whined and danced in front of me like a puppy. "Sit!" I repeated, and he jumped down onto the ground on his stomach but didn’t stop trying to explain himself out of it. I looked around. Their teacher was absent and their substitute was distracted, yelling ineffectively and rounding up the other children to go inside.

I sighed. I could do what most of the teachers do and point at them, get in their faces with a growl of, "You’ve got silent lunch!" But I see every day, from the number of children sitting at silent lunch, that this punishment doesn’t work.

My other options for consequences were slim for these boys. Recess was already over. The day was almost over. The temptation to put off their punishment was strong—until tomorrow—no, wait, Monday—no wait, there’s no school on Monday, so Tuesday, then.

I didn’t have time for this. They were not even "my" students. I didn’t have the time these three nine-year-old boys needed to get to the root of their problem, whatever it was, and work through it. I didn’t have time to teach them all the nonviolent coping skills they need for this world.

I glanced around one more time at the unsuccessful substitute teacher and at the fourth-graders having their own quietly mean war of words and loyalties—a whole other issue I didn’t have time for—and I squatted down on the grass with the boys and put my hands up until they shut up so we could at least try.

And then in the back and forth of my speed-mediation session, one of the boys said, "But my momma told me when someone hits me, I should hit him back."

This is where I get stuck.

I have taken to praying on the playground. It is the only time when I get to stand off by myself for a few minutes and ask God to help me look for a Light in everyone and to remember that these are children. When a four-foot-tall ball of yelling fury gets up in my face, trying to argue with me over some perceived injustice, I forget that this girl might only be ten years old. When a tiny brow furrows so deep the eyes close and the voice becomes pinched and unwilling, I forget that the boy is barely eight.

Why do these children carry so much anger? And how has the violence in their lives shaped their response?

When I told the boys’ regular teacher about the fight days later, she said, "Oh, and I’m sure the mother did tell him that! Welcome to being a teacher! You know what I tell them? I tell them that they can do that at home, but at school there are different rules."

And that is what I ended up telling that little boy—after controlling my own sudden violent and desperate urge to physically shake that message out of his head, replace it with my own, and repair the damage already done. The poor kids got a lecture from me about how much trouble they will get into down the road with that kind of retaliatory thinking. What do you do when someone hits you? Walk away. I made them repeat it three times.

But it is hard for me to accept that there may be situations in these children’s lives—children‘s lives—where they do need to hit back in order to survive.

All my life my elders—family, mentors, spiritual teachers—have prodded me to live out the adage of "each one teach one." Live by example and reach out to those around you, hoping you can impact even just one other. Because I am such a sensitive person, it is easy for me to get overwhelmed with trying to change the world all at once. This is why teaching as a calling suits me so well. Every day I get to work towards shaping the lives, characters, values, and minds of children who will hopefully grow up to remember that teacher who told them long ago not to hit back.

But it is easy to lose sight of my future impact on these children when so many acts of violence fill the day. If it rains and I don’t get to take the kids outside, will I remember to speak to that of God in each student and colleague? If an incident happens early in the day that wears my patience thin, will I respond peacefully when the next one comes?

As the school year draws to a close and the children become stressed with standardized testing and frenzied with a nearing summer, it becomes imperative for me to remember these Quaker principles. I am not perfect in my patience. I have struggled to find a healthy outlet for my own anger in the face of what I see as so much injustice in the world. I struggle daily as a teacher to see beyond the misbehaviors of these children to the Light waiting to be recognized within.

Hannah C. Logan Morris

Hannah C. Logan Morris is a member of Friendship Meeting in Greensboro, N.C., where she is a public school teacher.