Miss Caroline Fischer

(I have to preface this post with an apology. My freshmen classes just started reading To Kill a Mockingbird this week, which is one of my all time FAVORITE stories to read. I get kind of encapsulated and hyper-focused on this novel while I teach it and I constantly throw out references and quotes. So, expect to be inundated with To Kill a Mockingbird blog posts. I will try to warn you in advance if it is coming…)

Today, my class read the first couple chapters in To Kill a Mockingbird. In one scene, Scout arrives at her very first day of school, the day she has been looking forward to her entire life. Scout, innocently and unknowingly, undermines her teacher, Miss Caroline Fischer, when Scout mentions that she reads the local newspaper and Miss Caroline replies with, “Tell your father not to [teach you to read] anymore. It’s best to begin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him I’ll try to take over from here and undo the damage”. Scout tries to defend herself–no Atticus did not teach her to read–but Miss Caroline Fischer will not have it; Miss Caroline Fischer has just come from teaching school, where she knows all of the latest and greatest techniques (Thinking back to my own first year of teaching, I think Miss Caroline Fischer’s response is really just out of inexperience–she was probably only taught in teaching school how to teach kids to read; not what to do when you already have a kid who can read, so she panics).

This scene got me thinking about the relationships between adults and children. As adults (and I definitely use that term loosely, because I am only 24…), we always think that WE ARE RIGHT. In Miss Caroline Fischer’s case, she has a fancy college education, which means SHE KNOWS EVERYTHING. But, for one, an education does not necessarily guarantee knowledge. For example, later in the chapter, Miss Caroline Fischer asks Walter Cunningham why he does not have a lunch; according to her beliefs, she does not understand why a parent would send their child to school without plans for lunch. However, what she did NOT learn in teaching school, is the town knowledge–the Cunninghams are very poor and cannot necessarily afford to send their children to school with lunch.

Additionally, I think Miss Caroline Fischer’s reaction to Scout’s “sass” illustrates the disconnect between adults and children. At the end of the chapter, Miss Caroline Fischer slaps Scout’s hand with her ruler–a sign of discipline. However, Scout was not intending to be sassy or rude or impolite; Scout genuinely wanted to save Miss Caroline Fischer the embarrassment of humiliating Walter Cunningham.

I think, as adults, we often assert our own beliefs and judgments on the youth and we forget that we were once learning and growing individuals as well. I, as an adult, might be a close to finished product, but these students are still testing their boundaries, constructing their own morals, and learning from their mistakes; taking a ruler to their hands, when they may not necessarily even understand the punishment like Scout, is not always the most effective method. We might hear a kid drop the F-bomb in a class discussion and automatically write him up because that is “unacceptable language”. However, what if the kid is just testing his boundaries or it was just an accident? Would giving him Saturday School fit the punishment?

In my district, we have this behavior program called, “Restorative Practices”, which I believe is the best method of discipline. Instead of punishing a student, it focuses on instilling the guilt and reflection on his/her behaviors. You ask the students questions, such as, “Why did you do that? What was going through your head at the time? What do you think potential consequences might be? How might you have impacted other people?” I believe that getting kids to think about their actions is so much more powerful than a straight punishment, of which most kids do not respond to anyways. The most exciting piece of teaching is watching kids learn, grow, and mature.

I try to look objectively through this lens at student “misbehaviors”. I try to understand why they might have dropped the F-bomb during discussion, where they develop that oppositional defiance, what might have happened to cause their foul mood. I try to look at my students as incomplete individuals.

(Likewise, I think the situation with Scout and Miss Caroline Fischer sends a message to parents as well. When Scout goes home to tell Atticus about Miss Caroline Fischer’s request, Atticus responds by saying that they will just read ‘in private’. My heart patters–Atticus Finch is a good, good man. Instead of blowing up and sending Miss Caroline Fischer a scathing e-mail, Atticus says he respects her authority and encourages Scout to do the same. I wish there were more parents like Atticus Finch out there, because as any teacher knows, the parents are the worst part of the job).

…I cannot begin to express what an impact To Kill a Mockingbird has had on my outlook on teaching and my life in general, but Harper Lee certainly knew a thing or two about the human condition…

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