Curriculum, Promising Practices, School Community

Politically Correct Preschools and their Discontents: One Teacher’s Story

Editor’s Note: Does this story from south of the border resonate with Canadian educators? Have schools crossed the line from sensitive to censorship? Where is that line? Post your thoughts below….

Politically Correct or “PC” thinking is a potent force, operating at all levels of education in the U.S. Not even my preschoolers are immune from censorship – of traditional tunes and gender-specific toys. But, as a music specialist, I want these young students to enjoy age-old songs and their favourite toys.


“Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound” – but for all that, the Man of Steel couldn’t break into the preschool classroom where I assist twice a week.

During “free play”, two little boys had asked me to draw Superman on their construction paper. It was early in the year, and obliging their request seemed a harmless way to help them feel comfortable in school. They looked proud holding up their drawings of Superman.

When they told me they wanted to take the drawings home, I suggested that they add their own decorations. Indeed, I turned the tables around, and asked them to draw a picture of Superman for me so that I would have something to take home. But before long, one brave Superman flew into the hands of Miss Nicole, the head teacher of this class. “We don’t allow drawing of action figures from the media,” she explained, primly tearing in half and disposing of the rendered intruder.

I’m still not clear about the rationale for this prohibition. Did permitting me to draw Superman imply that children at our extraordinary school actually watched and enjoyed television sometimes?

My friend Tracy, an assistant teacher in another classroom, wasn’t handled so gently. “When I first got here, you know, I was trying to win the kids over so I drew SpongeBob and the whole gang.” For this offense, Tracy had been harshly berated by our supervisor. “What’s wrong with you?” the supervisor demanded. “Are you rebellious? Are you sick?” The confrontation left Tracy in tears.

The next thing I knew, reins were tightened and I was prohibited from drawing with the children altogether. The final, indicting picture – a cake and candles I’d sketched for a birthday child – was held over my head like a dripping murder weapon as Miss Nicole hissed at me, “I thought we discussed this. There is to be absolutely no evidence of adult artwork here!”

I then learned the grounds for this prohibition: it was “bad for children’s self esteem” to “see my drawing as a standard that they couldn’t meet, and it would discourage them from drawing themselves.” But at the end of the day I was allowed to take out my guitar and play songs for the children, even though the kids couldn’t play a guitar as well as I. Why couldn’t I wield the magic marker? What did that mean?

No Winners Allowed

This philosophy of protecting fragile young egos extended to “table toys” and board games such as Snails. The children were excited when Miss Nicole cracked opened a new box. The pieces that moved towards a finish line were different coloured snails. To play, we rolled the dice with the different snail colours. If the dice landed on green, then the green snail could move forward, and so forth.

Immediately the children got busy choosing their colour and crowing that they were going to win. Miss Nicole frowned on their jubilation. “This game has no single winner,” she declared. “When the first snail crosses the finish line then everyone’s a winner. We all win!” In the moment of silence that followed, the children looked blankly at each other. Quickly they resumed their cheerful boasting, “I’m gonna win. I’m blue! Blue is the best. Blue is gonna win.”

“This game has no single winner,” she declared. “When the first snail crosses the finish line then everyone’s a winner. We all win!” In the moment of silence that followed, the children looked blankly at each other.

All Miss Nicole had managed to do was confuse them. When she left our area, I allowed the children to continue the snail game as it was intended to be played. None of us could see the point of playing a game that had no winner. Besides, winning and losing are natural parts of life. Imagine removing the glory of watching The World Series or the Olympic games! We do children a great disservice by not preparing them to tolerate difficult experiences, or to celebrate triumphs.

Guns and Roses

Without meaning to, I became a reluctant leader in the nursery school underground. Before I knew it I found myself asked to smuggle weapons.

“Bang, bang!” Little boys would point fingers at each other in our schoolyard.

“Watcha doin’?” I asked, as if I didn’t know.

“Shhhhh,” they’d beg me. “Don’t tell Miss Nicole. We’re playing with guns.”

I’m no handgun advocate, but it’s simple-minded to think that guns mean to these children what real guns do to an adult. Besides, a pointed finger in a playground is not a real gun any more than a water balloon is an atomic bomb. To hold a “gun” is to wield power. Children simply won’t buy it if you try to tell them otherwise; they’re too smart. Policemen with guns protect our safety and even the most cloistered child in our culture sees heroes toting guns in movies and cartoons.

The little boys – and yes, they are mostly boys – are only releasing energy and aggression deferred in a long morning of good behaviour. They are simply letting off steam. To remove their “guns” is to remove the exciting edge to their game. It’s like asking them to eat tasteless food, and brings us inanely back to the artificial world of Miss Nicole’s snail game, where everybody’s a winner, and nobody is.

Trying to suppress a child’s desire to hold a gun doesn’t seem to work. Friends who forbid their children to play with “guns” have seen them desperately vie for water pistols in the less enlightened homes of their playmates. I have actually witnessed a child nibble a gun out of a piece of toast. A child’s desire to hold a gun in an exciting game will, like a determined rat, gnaw through the bars you set against it.

I have actually witnessed a child nibble a gun out of a piece of toast. A child’s desire to hold a gun in an exciting game will, like a determined rat, gnaw through the bars you set against it.

In 2009, the preschool staff attended a conference on The Importance of Play in Early Childhood. Speakers maintained that allowing children time to play, with only minimal adult supervision, was vital for their social and physical development and their ability to solve problems. These speakers stressed that children learned as much in unstructured play times as during formal classroom lessons. Putting such insights into practice for me meant encouraging children to choose their own games, even allowing a “shoot out” or two.

Of course, during one recess it wasn’t just the firearms that had to be confiscated. In this instance the boys were using jump ropes to tie up the girls in a corner of the yard for a rather frisky game of “playing jail”. While I agreed with Miss Nicole that tying girls up with ropes was too hazardous for school, even the shyest girls weren’t interested in her clueless suggestion that everybody join hands and play “Sally Go Round the Sun” as an alternative.

No Angels Need Apply

By the time December’s cold temperatures were keeping us indoors all day, I was in trouble yet again. I was found to be in possession of a far deadlier contraband then even toy guns and jump ropes.

“We don’t sing Santa Claus is Coming to Town at our school. It’s too holidayish for us,” I was reprimanded when I lit into this old seasonal favourite. Now Santa Claus, like Superman, wasn’t allowed down this chimney. Also blacklisted were Chanukah songs, anything sung in Hebrew or Latin as well as English lyrics resplendent with Christmas trees, holly, silver bells, mistletoe or even the most abstract and diluted reference to a spiritual existence.

Although we had no African-American children enrolled, songs commemorating the more recently established holiday of Kwaanza fared slightly better. It seemed that only songs for holidays that none of the kids celebrated at home were found acceptable. At what some herald as “the most wonderful time of the year” – a time in New York City so rich in varied traditions, history, and sentiment – my songs with the children were restricted to Jingle Bells and This Little Light of Mine.

Working on the Railroad

Holding my job at this school meant that I had to concede to the head teachers’ requests. I tried. But when Miss Nicole tried to block the railroads I went on strike.

In January, I was assigned the after-school program on Tuesdays. This meant that for two hours I was responsible for entertaining anywhere from two to seven children who already had logged in many hours of school. Little girls were often temperamental and cranky. They’d hide in the play loft, refusing to come out for snack, or cry if they couldn’t hold a beloved toy from home because that created too much distraction in the room. And often the boys, strained from hours of good behaviour, would erupt into biting and strangling matches that I had to quell.

I’d noticed that these little boys of two and three, who’d spent nearly as many hours in school as adults do on nine-to-five jobs, loved to play with toy trains and Brio tracks. They’d string a row of cars together, lie on their sides and dreamily push the trains back and forth. After enjoying this private, quiet retreat, they were ready to play together peacefully again. With this in mind, I would set the trains on the floor when I arrived so my toughest customers could help themselves. Until Miss Nicole came upon me setting down the tracks, and told me that she didn’t want our little boys playing with trains.

Girls were allowed to play with their dollhouse or with the basket of dress-up clothes they were drawn to. But now Miss Nicole was telling me that the little boys would be denied their beloved trains, presumably because they would fight over the cars. But it was more than that. Miss Nicole was beginning to embrace a worrisome pedagogical trend: the active suppression of gender difference in a preschool setting. To this “egalitarian” end, I was to address the class as “children” rather than “boys and girls.” It wasn’t enough to abolish winners and losers. Boys and girls, lads and lassies, were now also taboo designations. Miss Nicole clearly resented boys behaving aggressively and gravitating towards traditionally boyish toy trains. Their behavior violated her construct of hegemony, perhaps made her recognize its fraudulence.

So I didn’t cave. I negotiated on behalf of the boys, reminding her that after a long day they’d fight over anything. Better they fight over the train cars than that they strangle each other!

Even she couldn’t disagree. The boys were allowed their calming moment with toy trains and Brio tracks, and I promise that it will not make them male supremacists. I’ve heard objections to Halloween, Thanksgiving, and St. Patrick’s Day, and I’ve seen veritable war waged over Christmas. I’ve seen competitive games sabotaged and toy guns banned. Now toy trains. What next? Will certain letters be forbidden from the alphabet? Maybe provocative letters, like F or L or N or XXX could be forbidden from our ABCs.

Soon they’ll be trying to fit the Table of Elements into their agenda. They’ll be telling us that the earth doesn’t turn, and that it’s flat. Or I can hear it now: “I’m just not comfortable with the Gregorian Calendar… it was introduced by the Pope, and the dates are based on Christian holidays, like Easter. Why do we have to have March, April and May? Let’s just have Cold Time and Warm Time.”

Who would have thought I’d come to agree with conservative Christians, who rallied to retain gender-specific pronouns in the New International Version of The Bible? I simply agree with them that some people are female, and some are male. This is also true of flowers, trees, and animals. There is no harm or inequality implied in acknowledging gender differences. It seems to me that we should be teaching tolerance and honesty rather than denial of the obvious.

But society expects us educators to inculcate its values, even when these values are not congruent: for example, we value individual freedom and we value conformity; we value competition and altruism; we value immigration and high fences. PC thinkers believe in a static society in which all such conflicts have been settled. They are the proud possessors of new answers to old questions. They feel comfortable, if not righteous, in blotting out differences that were freely acknowledged in the past. Pretend – indeed insist – that we are all the same: boys and girls, men and women. Reduce religious differences to a dull sameness. Banish festive holidays.

I don’t want to teach in the narrow playrooms spawned by such certainty, in PC purgatories where nobody wins or loses, nobody can be more talented than anyone else, and nobody belongs to a religion that’s older than 1990. No teacher’s drawings, no trains, no superheroes, no moms, no dads, no girls or boys.

I say, where is Superman when you really need him?

EN BREF – La rectitude politique est une puissante force agissant à tous les paliers éducatifs aux États-Unis. Même le jeu préscolaire est assujetti à la censure des chansonnettes traditionnelles et à la condamnation des jouets assignés aux sexes. Des superhéros aux fusillades imaginaires, des fêtes officielles aux jeux de société, le personnel enseignant risque d’offenser des collègues et des parents. La société s’attend que les éducateurs inculquent ses valeurs, même si elles s’opposent : nous valorisons à la fois la liberté individuelle et la conformité, la compétition et l’altruisme, l’immigration et les barrières.

Meet the Expert(s)

Leah Wells

Leah Wells is a musical performer and educator who resides in New York City. She has designed preschool music and movement curricula for Head Start and private programs for over 10 years. Her book, Games That Sing: 25 Activities to Keep Children on Their Toes, was published in March 2011 by Heritage Music Press. She is currently working on Humanly Correct: Countering the Denial of Diversity.

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