During my two decades as a Florida public school teacher, I learned a whole lot more than I taught.
The classic axiom is, “To teach is to learn” – in consequence, I picked up a lot of Math, English, Social Studies, Civics, History, Science and more (additionally, being a member of faculty, I found out a lot about workplace politics – but that’s another post).
What I learned the most, though, was behavioral psychology. As an academic discipline, it’s a branch of psychology that focuses on the study of people’s behaviors. The important questions and observations are less concerned with how people feel and more interested in what they do.
I often joke that in college, training to be a teacher, I eschewed Watson and Skinner’s dispassionate analysis and gravitated toward client-centered theorists like Carl Rogers and idealists such as Erikson and Maslow. Then I got a job in a classroom with real children who threw tantrums, tipped over desks, launched chairs, cursed, fought, and generally acted like barbarians – I was an avowed behaviorist by my first Christmas!
In due time, my classroom management style became a hybrid blending of perspectives and practices. All my interventions were grounded in compassion, and I never lost my commitment to know and understand my students and to listen to their fears, confidences, hopes, and dreams. But I ran a tight ship, I worked hard to shape responses via the principles of behavioral psychology, and I demonstrated unprecedented success both in clinical environments and traditional middle schools.
Plus, of course, I prayed for my students daily; I could literally feel God’s love as a deep-seated, visceral, peace-laden presence in the room.
One behavioral principle has been on my mind lately. It’s the idea of “one-trial learning.” In short, most learning comes via repetition. We need to intentionally practice a new skill or intention, consistently, over a period of time before it becomes a reflex. In a new house, for example, it takes several days to learn the route from bed to bathroom without bumping into things. Same idea with a new recipe, or the controls on a new car, or instructions for using the new tv remote. Learning takes time.
Unless there is trauma involved. That’s what we call “one trial learning.”
Example: One morning a few months ago I fell down the stairs. It was dark, I was trying to be extra quiet, the soles of my feet were slippery, my hands were full of shoes and clothes. I misjudged the first step, my foot slipped on the rounded carpeted edge, and I went down hard. And down. And down, And down.
Since that moment I have yet to approach the top of any flight of stairs – night or day, dark or light, barefoot or shod – without the entire scene replaying in my head. I approach with caution, I pause at the top, I free up one hand, I carefully watch that first step. I’m talking one hundred percent compliance. I didn’t have to fall more than once. I learned instantaneously.
Congress, legislators, and the state capitol
So why am I sharing this, other than the fact that it’s interesting?
Well, if Congress doesn’t fall down a flight of stairs soon, then somebody needs to give them a shove!
Shouldn’t our legislators have learned by now that the way they are governing is like falling down the same flight of stairs every morning and never figuring out they need to approach things differently? Or is it that they need a steeper stairwell?
So that sets up another thought, kind of disturbing, from my education days. Once in a while I’d have a child come to my classroom who was a documented “crack baby.” These children were significantly compromised in their ability to connect the dots when it came to reinforcement, punishment, reason, consistency, or stimulus and response.
In other words, rational interventions were ineffective. So I simply had to love on them.
I guess we could love on our legislators… or maybe we could shove them down a steeper flight of stairs? Or better yet we could send them all home and get a new set. But this time lets make sure they’re at least capable of learning.