Losing Touch

Many new teachers struggle with how to address student disruptions in the classroom. Often they err on the side of permissiveness and undermine student safety, or else they neglect the importance of authentic human relationships. But when handled properly, minor disruptions can provide an opportunity for teachers to set the right tone for the class–one where safety is established via clearly enforced boundaries set in the context of a caring community. This balance is the essence of the “warm demander” teacher.

In one of our Art of Social Justice Teaching videos, we see June Jordan School for Equity humanities teacher Chela Delgado take this approach with her student Alex, a ninth grader who has struggled in the past to stay focused in the classroom. Watching Alex’s frequent distractions, it is easy to imagine how a teacher might become frustrated and attempt to control his actions, or else simply kick him out of class. But Ms. Delgado addresses Alex’s disruptions calmly and firmly. She uses deliberate escalation to draw a clear boundary and help him stay focused, and their strong relationship makes these interventions positive rather than a source of conflict.

Safe Classroom Community : Intervention – Chela Delgado from TheArtofSocialJusticeTeaching on Vimeo.

When we showed this video to a group of educators this summer, one of Ms. Delgado’s interventions generated controversy. It was the moment where Ms. Delgado walks behind Alex, takes his shoulders in her hands, and turns his body around so it is facing forward.

Some educators had a visceral negative reaction to seeing Ms. Delgado put her hands on Alex. “In the district where I used to work, that teacher would be fired!” exclaimed one viewer.

I have seen and heard about incidents where teachers put their hands on students in inppropriate ways, but when I watch Ms. Delgado gently re-direct Alex with her hands on his shoulders, it reminds me of the way an auntie might touch her distractible nephew.

Of course, educators need to respect students’ personal space. In particular, students who have experienced trauma may be sensitive to physical contact even when it is well-intentioned. And teachers must never forget the power imbalance between them and their students– so a student may not always verbalize objections to touch.

At the same time, human beings need physical contact. Appropriate touch is important, especially for teenagers. In my view, a school where teachers are not allowed to make physical contact with students, and may get fired for doing so, is a cold and dehumanizing place. Why would a student want to learn from someone who is fearful of making physical contact with them?

Moreover, all physical contact takes place in the context of relationships. If Ms. Delgado had put her hands on Alex’s shoulders on the first day of school, no matter how gently, the touch would not have been appropriate. Alex himself notes that at the beginning of the year, he and Ms. Delgado did not get along as well, but now “we understand each other more.” It is clear from Alex’s tone and body language is responding to Ms. Delgado’s classroom interventions that he trusts her, and while he may not enjoy having his behavior corrected, he knows she is holding the line for the right reasons. Given this relational context, Ms. Delgado’s hands on Alex’s shoulders becomes an effective nonverbal tool in a series of increasingly escalated interventions that are designed to help him stay focused.

Ms. Delgado helps to create a safe space for students in her classroom, which in turn allows a distractible ninth grader like Alex to engage in high-level academic discussion in high school, less than a year after not graduating from eighth grade. We need more classrooms where teachers handle disruptions with this level of skill.

The taboo on touch in schools is in many respects a sign of how bureaucratized and dehumanized our public schools have become. Rather than prohibiting teachers from touching their students, we should be supporting teachers to understand what appropriate physical contact looks like, and more important, how to develop “warm demander” type relationships with their students where the teacher holds clear boundaries with care and respect.

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