I have recently been reading the book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell. I’m not sure if any of you have ever read anything by him, but he often picks a story to share, and then spends the rest of the book talking about the psychology behind what “really” happened. He does a ton of research, interviews a wide variety of people on a wide variety of topics, and then puts it all together in a way that ties back to his original message.
If you remember the story of David and Goliath from ancient Palestine, you will remember that David miraculously felled a mighty warrior with nothing more than a pebble and a sling. Now, any rivalry game where one team is hugely favored and the underdog wins is often referred to as a battle of David and Goliath. What I have taken away as one theme of the book is that sometimes there are times that the win by David is not as improbable as you might have suspected.
In one portion of the book, Gladwell is talking about classroom management skills. He describes walking into a classroom that appears to be absolutely in chaos. The teacher is at the front of the room doing a read aloud. One student is standing next to her and they are taking turns reading from the story. Kids are making faces, one girl is doing cartwheels, and several students have turned their back on the teacher. The situation is unpacked a little more greatly in the book, and it becomes obvious that the teacher in this situation is using some very poor classroom engagement strategies which lead to the classroom management issues, but something that Gladwell said struck a chord with me:
“We often think of authority as a response to disobedience: a child acts up, so a teacher cracks down. Stella’s classroom, however, suggests something different: disobedience can also be a response to authority. If the teacher doesn’t do her job properly, then the child will become disobedient.” (Gladwell, pg 339)
In the same chapter, Gladwell then shifts to a story about a program based in Brownsville, a residential neighborhood in eastern Brooklyn, NYC. If you were to visit, you might be inclined to refer to this area as the projects. In 2003, a police officer took charge of the city’s Housing Bureau, and their primary responsibility was the Brownsville projects. In an effort to try something new, they started trying to help the troubled youth in the area. They identified all the juveniles in Brownsville who had been arrested in the previous year. They reached out to those kids and their families. Kids who were brought into the program were told that the cops in this group (called the Juvenile Robbery Intervention Program – J-RIP) would do everything in their power to help. They would get them back in school to get a diploma, bring them needed services for their family, find out what’s needed in their household, provide job opportunities, educational opportunities, medical – everything they could. The program would work with the kids, but there was one circumstance. The criminal conduct had to stop. Kids were told that if they got arrested for anything, the cops would do all they could to keep them in jail.
The cops in the J-RIP program seemed to be everywhere these 106 kids went. They’d show up at their home, find them hanging out in other parts of the city, walk up to Facebook friends and talk to them about what they’ve been up to. These cops lived in the world of these kids. Initially things did not go well. The kids didn’t want to interact, the families didn’t want to interact. The cops had the best of intentions, but they weren’t getting anywhere. Finally they had a breakthrough one November. One of the cops decided it would be a great idea to help out one of the kids they were most worried about losing. One the Wednesday before Thanksgiving this officer went out and bought a Thanksgiving dinner for the kid’s family and delivered it. They knew they might not be able to get through to the main target, but maybe they’d have a breakthrough with the kid’s seven siblings. That year, through the efforts of the commander of the unit, they were able to get funds to be able to deliver a turkey to the home of every kid that was on their list for Thanksgiving.
The reason they were so persistent in trying to meet the families was because police in Brownsville were not seen as legitimate. A large percentage of the families in Brownsville had only had negative interactions with the police, and multiple people in most families had spent time behind bars. By taking turkeys to the families of the J-RIP kids, the cops were saying to the families “we really do care about you and your family, and we want to help you make the most of yourself, and most important, we want you to have a good Thanksgiving.”
After this, things in Brownsville began to turn around. The trend line on all crime in Brownsville dropped significantly in the following 5 years. Kids who were in the J-RIP program went from a total of over 350 arrests in the year before being added to the program, to less than 40 arrests. Gladwell argues that what this proves is that
“the powerful have to worry about how others think of them – that those who give orders are acutely vulnerable to the opinions of those whom they are ordering about.” (Gladwell, pg. 356)
As teachers, we are clearly in a role of power. Some of our parents are scared to be involved in school because they may have had bad experiences when they were in school, or maybe their child has had bad experiences in the past. Some of our students are nervous in the classroom because of things beyond our control, maybe a bad experience in another class, or their perception of the teacher. As people in power, what actually matters are the hundreds of small things that we as the powerful do – or don’t do – to establish legitimacy. When power is not seen as legitimate, it can often have the opposite of the intended effect.
We are dealing with the minds of 10, 11, and 12 year olds. Sometimes they struggle to understand the things we say, the jokes we make, or the ways we interact with them. Things like sarcasm and a sense of humor that may make perfect sense to the adults in our building will fly right over the heads of our kids, and instead they will feel that you are actually being serious, or possibly making fun of them. For some of our kids, the direct approach doesn’t work because it only leads to a shutdown.
Think about what you do to build legitimacy with our students. Keep in mind that what works with one kid may not work with another. Also keep in mind that without legitimacy, our students may not see us as people who care for them, but rather as the person who’s trying to keep them down. If you want to build better legitimacy with your kids, give them a voice. Also, give them the time to talk about their interests. Think about the J-RIP program – they took a small group of kids living in Brownsville and truly showed those kids that the cops cared about them, and many of them changed their ways. It also had a larger effect of changing the culture of crime in the entire neighborhood. Who are the kids that you would identify as needing to know you care? How can you show them that you care? How can you build greater legitimacy so that your power has the intended effect, and doesn’t lead to unintended consequences?