A child enters a classroom similar to how a newborn enters the world. They come into a new environment, with entirely new surroundings and stimuli, and in many cases, unaware of how to interact with, process, or communicate to these stimuli. In fact, I’ve always imagined what it’s like to be a baby–to have no control of your extremities, to have little to no understanding of each and every stimulus your eyes, ears, and nervous system encounter. While this is a rather dramatic way to portray a child’s entry into a classroom, it really is similar. In fact, the process by which we establish all human relationships can be related back to newborns.
Last summer, I began reading The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin. Much to my chagrin, I never finished it, so I decided to begin rereading it this summer. I started from the beginning (a very good place to start), and I’m very happy I did, because I’m taking something entirely different from it this time around. Last summer, I spent time exploring my place in the world and how empathy and vulnerability play important roles in my life; however, this summer, I’m thinking more about how relationships, vulnerability, and empathy are key components in the classroom.
Object Relations and the Classroom
Donald Winnicott, noted pediatrician, psychoanalyst, and a strong contributor to the field of object relations theory (referenced specifically in Rifkin’s book), explored the concept of the mother and the newborn child and the importance of their relationship, especially at the time of a newborn infant’s initial feeding or initial moments of their relationship. This idea of “object relations” more or less refers to an infant’s, child’s, or person’s reshaping of initial relationships and associating them with new objects or experiences later on in life. Therefore, this establishment of the relationship between mother and child is critical; in fact, Winnicott argues that it could be so critical that it could have a detrimental impact on the child’s development. This initial “object,” or the mother’s breast, serves as a symbol for relationship building, and the mother’s approach in supporting her infant can set the tone for later life.
“If the mother, for example, does not allow the child to playfully discover and magically create the nipple but, rather, places the baby’s mouth onto her breast, the child is denied the opportunity for building up the sensory memories that will allow him to eventually perceive himself as a separate individual who acts on and with separate others. By the way the mother enters into this first relationship with the baby, then, she is helping him become an individual being. From the very beginning, the relationship creates the individual.”
– Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization
While this is rather comical to think about in the context of an elementary classroom, it is ever more critical than it was before, especially in a world dominated by standards, data, and the likelihood of becoming a number rather than a person. If, from the very beginning–from birth–the relationship creates the person, then we can safely assume that later in life, the relationship will continue to create the person, even if not to the degree that the initial parental relationship will. The classroom is a place where we take risks, make mistakes, and playfully find our way to new knowledge–both about the world and about ourselves–similar to the way an infant finds his or her way to the mother’s nipple.
While this can be readily applied to academic learning (i.e., learning to take risks, making mistakes, or finding your own way with reading, writing, or math), I think this more importantly applies to the things we cannot measure within our classroom. It is more critical that we, as teachers, understand this concept of object relations and relationships in the context of social and emotional learning, motivation, and learning dispositions, as opposed to the skills that can be mindlessly transmitted and simultaneously reproduced by our students, not to suggest that academic tasks should be taught in this manner. All of these skills, in essence, lie within a teacher’s ability to empathize with his or her students.
“From the very beginning, the relationship creates the individual,” states Rifkin, with inspiration from countless experts in psychodynamics and psychoanalytic psychology, and I believe that, from the very beginning–from the moment our students enter our classroom–the relationship we form with them is permanent, impenetrable, and capable of reciprocally building an environment and community where things that once felt impossible become possible. But more importantly, this relationship is capable of setting the tone for the rest of their lives, both emotionally and academically, as our classrooms serve as mere objects with which they can relate all future academic and emotional experiences, both consciously and subconsciously.
It’s a big responsibility we, teachers, have.