During my morning coffee run I was standing behind a father covered in very cool tattoos. His five year old was with him and started to fuss. They were speaking English and the kindergarten teacher in me automatically distracted the boy by leaning down and rubbing the temporary tats on his arms.
“Wow, you look so cool, just like daddy with all your tattoos.”
The boy stopped fussing, looked at his arm and smiled. Dad looked at me incredulously and said, “Don’t touch my kid.”
I immediately was taken back to a research proposal that I wrote in 2006 while I was in my graduate programme, in which I explored the importance of touch in an educative context. When I got back home, coffee in hand, I rifled through all my old journals, binders, books- and found it (Ah ha!).
Although I am supposed to be writing an entirely different research proposal today, cut off from my own friends and family perhaps it is the perfect time to revisit the value of human contact.
Many years ago I received a teacher carry all bag from a friend that artfully read, ‘teaching is a work of heart’. It prompted me to think, really, is it? In an age where litigation for inappropriate touch makes headline news, where youths are bringing loaded weapons to school, and committing violent crimes against their teachers and peers, an argument could be made that teachers are too fearful to invest heart into their teaching.
Have we created a catch 22 with our youth? As we pull our hearts out of teaching we create distant and clinical relationships with our students. Our students are forced to grow up and experience more adult emotions but deal with them in words-only world. Gone are the days of cuddling a crying student, or holding a hurting teen. We cautiously offer words of condolence from a safe two and a half feet away, with the door open, and hopefully another adult in the room.
But the truth is, that many children today need as much reassurance as possible. They depend on teachers to show them emotions are valid, real and important. Any way that this can be done, including a simple physical gesture may make all the difference to a struggling child. In 14 years of teaching experience I have found that, in general, children do not want to be untouchable. They do not want to engage in our adult world in which we obsess over our misgivings of appropriate touch with others. They simply want to be loved.
I spent eight years teaching in the tactile culture of Korea. In that time, I observed that classrooms that have appropriate contact seemed to build stronger, more loving, more respectful communities with fewer instances of classroom violence and bullying.
I know what you’re thinking; words such as, ‘violence’, ‘touch’ and ‘appropriate’ can be semantically loaded and sensitized. They can vary in meaning with respect to gender, personal experience, and cultural background. So here to set your mind at ease, I will define appropriate physical contact as consensual, non-sexual contact between members of the learning community, and violence as physical, emotional or mental pain inflicted on others.
Over the last 20 years the instances of documented school violence has dramatically risen. We have movies that examine bullying in schools, news that heartbreakingly shows in graphic detail massacres of students and teachers, and shaky camera footage of violence against students in locker rooms. Increasingly, younger and younger students perpetuate the violence. And as the instances of violence in the media have increased, the theme has changed from reflection on what has gone wrong in our culture to self-preservation. Teachers now call for defensive training, the right bring firearms to school, and drills for emergency procedures.
I would argue that the current no-touch policy held by many schools in North America was a direct result of hysteria over sexual abuse. Support of legislation that moved towards these policies were incongruent with parents’ expectations that their children be comforted, cuddled and treated as important, welcomed members of the learning community. Instead of focusing on extensive background checks, professional development and quality teachers within the educative setting, we succumbed to the easiest fix possible.
Just don’t touch anyone.
So, who cares? Problem fixed, right?
To answer this, we can look to the experimental research on the effects of touch on the early development of social primates. Researchers found that primates who received more physical touch had more behavioral and emotional stability than those who did not. In fact, studies showed that touch deprived animals became aggressive, violent and even killed each other (Caulfield 2000).
The 13th century historian, Samlimbene who took babies away from their mothers at birth to discover the roots of language conducted some of the earliest studies of human touch (admittedly not the most ethical research practice). The babies were isolated and subsequently they died; all of them. His notes state, “They could not live without petting” (Napier 1999). More recent studies report that tactile stimulation in long-term care patients reduces stress and produces endorphins linked to easing pain (Caulfield 2000). Further, in one compelling paper it was reported that preschoolers evidenced enhanced performance on multiple cognitive tasks after a simple massage (Hart 1998).
So why, why do we insist on not touching the learners in our care?
Although I completed my graduate work in the US, and am a licensed teacher in most of the States, I am very lucky to be working as an international teacher within the context of the International Baccalaureate. Admittedly, I operate in a very different paradigm than teachers in national or state systems. Each of my teaching locations has never had a problem with appropriate touch with the children in my care. As soon as I have new parents from low-touch cultures join my learning community, I warn them; their children will be hugged, held if they cry, patted on the head, high fived, tickled and loved. I have never had a parent resist this. They see that I am professional, dedicated, appropriate and loving. In turn, I have observed my students quick to express, identify and discuss emotions. Which gives them power and a sense of safety.
Most of the time, I write exclusively about educative environments, but really the classroom is ground zero for what happens in the macrocosm of society. As teachers, we have the power to change the way that adults interact with one another- because we are shaping future generations. I know it seems impossible and exhausting when legislative and governmental bodies dictate the minutia of classroom life. But this, this seems like an important step towards healing what ails the West.
Back to the coffee time tattoo kid. The truth is that daddy looked at me as a threat. He didn’t trust my intentions were good. He judged me and closed me off. He made a wall instead of a bridge. The onus was on me. With my knowledge and background I should have introduced myself, told him a bit of my own story. I should have smiled warmly and acknowledged the strangeness of touching others in our culture. I should’ve set an example for that kid, but I took my coffee and walked out the door.
So, if right now we can’t change the legislation or governance of our system, perhaps we can make smaller steps as adults towards building trust, allowing ourselves to be touched, and setting examples for our children. Perhaps this is the first step towards teaching as a work of heart.
Caulfield, R. (2000). Beneficial Effects of Tactile Stimulations on Early Development. Early Childhood Education Journal. 27 (4).
Napier, J. (1999). The importance of touch in a hands-off age. The Globe and Mail (Canada)
Hart, S., Field, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Lundy, B. (1998,Jan 1st). Preschoolers Cognitive performance Improves following Massage. Early Child Development and Care, 143:1, 59-64.