David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | [email protected]

Monkey in the Middle

Who is the “monkey in the middle”? Who gets bullied? The new kid? The small kid? The smart kid? The unpopular kid?

Don’t you want your book back? shout the tormentors. Here it is! But of course the new, small, smart, unpopular kid can never jump high enough or run fast enough to get his possessions back. That’s the point of the “game.” Eventually the persecutors get tired of throwing the book back and forth over the head of the frustrated kid or recess ends. There is no win for the kid in the middle.

Or does recess ever end? Because back in some classrooms some teachers are playing keep away with the curriculum. Most teachers are understanding of students who learn differently, generous with their time and insight. Most instructors are dedicated professionals who love their subject and like their students.

But some instructors are just frustrated Napoleons, opining about how unmotivated their students are, about how the kids nowadays just don’t get it. These pedagogues seem content to keep the information about their disciplines flying above the ability of their charges. I told them to review chapters one through five hundred. What more was I supposed to do?

We’ve all had this teacher. No matter how many hours you studied, no matter how much extra help you got, no matter the competence or compassion of the tutor with whom you worked, the result was the same. “Johnny just doesn’t care” was the pronouncement. Never mind how hard he worked. Ouch! No wonder kids give up. No wonder kids become behavioral problems. No wonder kids act out. Most of us would rather be thought of an incorrigible than incompetent. He’s just not trying is painful enough. He’s just not smart enough is even worse.

Does the following scenario seem plausible? Terrified of not being prepared for class, I was able to focus and study. As a result of concentration and hard work, I was able to master the curriculum without hesitation or nervousness.

Or does this narrative ring true? As a result of being shamed, humiliated, and terrorized by a narcissistic instructor I developed a hatred of mathematics specifically and education in general. I never learned what a trinomial was, never mind how to factor one, but I did learn how to cheat and how to make a nuisance of myself in class. I hate math to this day.

John Houseman as Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase: Mr. Hart, here’s a dime. Call your mother and tell her there is serious doubt about you becoming a lawyer.

Or a college professor on the first day of biology class: Look to the left and the right of you. Those people will not be here to take the final exam.

I guess it could be argued that competition has a place in the higher ed. Not everyone can be the top of the class in chemical engineering (whatever that is) earning a six-figure salary upon graduation. Although your understanding what an organic polymer is doesn’t preclude my also knowing what those squirmy little thingies are. I do understand that you learned the information more quickly or more thoroughly than I did. But does the teacher need to rub salt into the wound?

I would suggest that parents should not be playing keep away with unrelenting positive regard for their kiddos. Yes, parents are the first and best teachers. But no, antagonism doesn’t belong in a loving household. My folks withheld affection until I demonstrated my understanding of quarks. Said no child ever.

Motivating our children/students is not as complicated as the structure of the double helix. Share your enthusiasm rather than your contempt. Let your charges progress at their own pace. Model your love of learning rather than playing keep away with your knowledge. Your children will surprise you with their attention, effort, ability, and mastery. And you won’t have to call your mother and tell her that you’ll never be a lawyer.

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Copyright © David Altshuler 1980 – 2024    |    Miami, FL • Charlotte, NC     |    (305) 978-8917    |    [email protected]