Community organizers try to help people understand the difference between public and private relationships. Often, those in power will try to blur that division when it suits their purposes (for example, politicians kissing babies). Or, for example, since our organizations would often be made up of religious congregations and decision-makers were sometimes members of some of them, they would try to influence pastors or congregation’s leaders. They, in turn, would point out that when it came time to participating in public life, it was a public relationship and public dialogue –and when it came time to personal issue, it was a private relationship and a private dialogue. In public life, the relationship was conditional — based on negotiation and reciprocity. In private life, the relationship was often based on love and friendship. This separation was particularly important to demonstrate in public settings.

And we carried this distinction over to how people needed to act in the context of the organization  — at our meetings, with the media, whenever they were in the public eye.

I apply one element of this concept (I’ll write future posts sharing how I incorporate other elements of this idea) in the classroom by helping students understand the difference between public behavior and private behavior. When students are in the classroom, it’s a public space with certain expectations. One small example is when a student might shout out “I’m bored” or some other inappropriate comment.

One possible response to that kind of remark might be a sharp admonishment from the teacher and, if I’m not in the greatest of moods or not feeling very kindly towards that particularly student at the time, I’m not above giving just that.

Instead, though, what I generally do is — either right then or at the next available opportunity — go over the student, put my arms on around their shoulders, and have this kind of quick dialogue — with a smile:

Me: “Johnny, is it okay for you to think what you said?”

Johnny: “Yes”

Me: “Johnny, is it okay for you to tell your friends after class what you just said?”

Johnny: “Yes.”

Me: “Johnny, is it okay for you to say what you just said out loud in the classroom?”

Johnny: “No.”

And with both of us smiling, it’s over.

I’ve done it enough times that when I go over to some students, they will recite all of the lines themselves.

And, these kinds of comments seem to decrease as the school year goes on.

I think it’s helpful that I lead with what students can do, instead of what they can’t.

What do you do to help students understand the difference between public and private behavior?