Slowing Down and Stepping Back

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The sickening news of George Floyd’s death under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin brings up lessons I have learned from teaching. One of the most difficult things in a charged moment is to slow down, look around, listen, figure out what actually is and isn’t going on, and respond appropriately to the specifics.

I do not know what was going through Mr. Chauvin’s mind: why he kept his knee pressed for eight minutes and forty-six seconds on Mr. Floyd’s neck, even though Mr. Floyd kept gasping that he couldn’t breathe. It’s possible that through a combination of racist reactions, general anxiety, and trained responses, he failed to see that Mr. Floyd posed no danger and that he was going to die. (A racist reaction, in this case, is one that would have been more solicitous and respectful had the man under arrest been white.) This failure to see may have led to Mr. Floyd’s death; that is, if Mr. Chauvin had taken stock of what was happening, he might have shifted course. In any case, how could he not have heard Mr. Floyd? How could he not have heard the bystanders? Whatever else was going on in him, it seems he failed to hear.

For a teacher, one of the greatest challenges of “classroom management” is sheer overload. People who advise teachers don’t always realize this. There are all sorts of books written on managing a classroom, but none of the advice will do a bit of good unless the teacher knows how to take in the details and the whole. When there is too much happening at once, it can become one big blur.

The first challenge is to take apart the blur: to step back, look at the specifics, and respond to them one by one. This can be very difficult when there’s a lot of noise. I have found in Hungary that it is easier to address minor situations that come up, simply because it’s easier to see what they are. The atmosphere can be lively, but it isn’t noisy, and with one look around the room, I can tell what is happening.

But even years ago I knew the importance of stepping back and looking around, even though I found it difficult. There was one day in 2012, at Columbia Secondary School, when I was introducing my students to Locke (see the post “Locke and Beads“), and some students were talking loudly and persistently. I stopped to address what was going on, and we talked about it for a few minutes. Then I heard a clatter. My necklace had broken–a beloved necklace given to me by teachers at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute–and the beads were spilling all over the place. The students immediately started helping me gather them again. The sun was streaming through the window, making some of the beads glitter. We ended the lesson by considering the words of Locke, “But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence: though man in that state have an uncontroulable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it.” Everything, or almost everything, had come together: disruption, conversation, necklace, and Locke.

Those particular students graduated from college two years ago (except for a few who took time off for one purpose or another). I often remember them. Standing back now from the difficulty of that class, I see how much was happening in it, and how much more could have happened if I had let myself see more of the particulars.

People who tend to get overwhelmed–by noise, distraction, or other stimulus–need to practice slowing down and looking around. In seemingly chaotic situations, this does not come naturally. Kids often want the teacher to respond individually to them. Few things in school are as frustrating or annoying as when a teacher generalizes about the class without noticing distinctions. Also, kids will instinctively play on a teacher’s weaknesses and vice versa; it takes conscious work to build up each other’s strengths.

When race, ethnicity, or another group difference is at stake, it takes all the more work–and practice–to separate actual threat from imagined threat, and to respond to the situation at hand, not to something conjured out of prejudice and fear. In addition, it takes diligence and humility to interpret the situation correctly. Many conflicts arise out of misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

This is true about all sorts of situations, even those without racial conflict or positions of authority. Most of us have known people who at some point reacted to us without taking in the full situation.  Most of us have done so ourselves. In fact, this probably happens most of the time; we are partially blind to others, even those closest to us. But when authority and race are involved, the wounds and consequences go far beyond the individuals involved.

I don’t know if any of this applies to Mr. Chauvin. But those in positions of public responsibility should learn, during their professional training, how to decelerate and take things in, to see the person in front of them, to distinguish the actual situation from an imagined one. There are teachers, police officers, and others who do this extremely well–who save lives and see lives during the course of their work–and who go unrecognized. Their wisdom is badly needed. They should be seen and heard.

 

Update: I made several edits and additions to this piece after the initial posting.