You can either be right, or be in a relationship; not both. —Katherine Schulz (Being Wrong, 2010)
FIfth-grade teacher Beverly Button, was famous for being “strong on discipline.” The culture of the school put a high priority on “discipline,” and so she was considered to be one of the best teachers.
Working at my desk one morning, I heard Beverly’s angry voice echoing down the hall: “Stop! We are going to wait here until everyone is quiet. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred times, NO TALKING IN THE HALL!” As the new principal of the school, I, too, valued discipline, and at that moment I thought, is Beverly really “strong on discipline?”
I met with her once a week. I gave her my observations and asked questions like: “What does it mean to be ‘strong on discipline?’” “What is your approach to discipline? Is it working?” “Are you teaching discipline or obedience?” “If your students are still talking in the hall after you have told them 100 times not to, is that actually teaching discipline?” “What is your evidence?” “Do you feel successful?”
In the third of these conversations she got angry and said, “Look. I have been teaching fifth grade for 20 years, and I am not about to change.”
“Beverly, I hope you don’t mean that.”
Getting a little angrier, Beverly said, “Yes, I do mean that. I am a great teacher, and I am not about to change now, just because you think I should.”
“I am not telling you you should change. I’ve just been asking you questions.”
Then she got even angrier: “I know you. I can tell from your questions that you think I am too strict.”
“Look,” I said. “I have never taught fifth grade. Even if I had, I wouldn’t tell you how to teach. I am asking questions, because some things don’t make sense to me. If you have to keep telling them over and over, then maybe your strategy is not working, and you need a different one.”
“You are not going to get me to change,” she said, and stormed out of the office.
She was back in my office first thing in the morning the next day. “Look, I have been teaching for twenty years, and I am not going to teach the way you want me to. I am not one of those liberal. loosie-goosie, kumbaya teachers. I believe in discipline, and I am going to keep teaching it. There is no way you are going to get me to change.”
“Look, Beverly, as I said yesterday, I don’t have a vision for how you should teach. Only you can decide how you teach, but there are things about your approach that don’t seem to serve your goals of good discipline. The deeper issue is what you said twice yesterday: ‘I am not about to change.’ I hope you change your mind about that because we are trying to build a learning community here, and that means all the adults have to be good learners, and learning involves changing.”
Beverly called in sick the next day and never came back.
Robert Gaudino, my main political science teacher at Williams College, loved Socrates. On the first day of Poli Sci 201, he introduced Socrates to us by saying: “Socrates said, ‘I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing’”
All that stuff we think we know? approximations of reality that our brain has constructed in order to make sense of things. The brain creates models so that we have just enough knowledge to “make it” in the world.
You and I have not always been this way. When we were kids, we were as good at being wrong as being right. As Alison Gopnik’s research shows, children are excellent scientists from birth: forming hypotheses, testing them, learning from the result and leading with a new hypothesis. Ever notice how a five-year-old asks a question by making a claim?
When we become adults the pressure to be right compromises our ability tolerate being wrong—especially when we have kids. Beverly was responsible for kids. She couldn’t afford to be wrong.
Anger is often the brain afraid to entertain the scary notion that our mindset may not be as solid as we thought. When we get angry with other people, it might be smart to put ourselves in a listening/learning mode, become like a child and start to think creatively.