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Wednesday, November 1, 2000
Richard Bromfield

Handle With Care : Understanding Children and Teachers

Kathleen/Moderator - We're discussing Richard Bromfield's most recent book, Handle with Care: Understanding Children and Teachers (A field guide for parents and educators). Teachers College Press, 2000.

Kathleen/Moderator - On behalf of Teachers.Net I am happy to introduce Richard Bromfield, PhD, a graduate of Bowdoin College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Richard is a clinical psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. Dr. Bromfield writes about children, education and emotional development in both the academic and popular press. Author of Handle with Care: Understanding Children and Teachers, he also wrote Playing for Real, a book that explores the world of play therapy and the inner worlds of children, and the clinician's guide: Doing Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy, The Ways and Whys. His writing has consistently been praised for being readable, relevant, clear and accessible. He lives in Hamilton, Massachusetts with his wife and their two children. Welcome, Richard.
richard bromfield - Good evening.

Kathleen/Moderator - Richard, for whom did you write Handle With Care?
richard bromfield - Seeing a child's education as a partnership between parents and teachers, I wrote the book for both. Though my first thoughts went to the teacher, the ones who carry on that work day by day, hour by hour.

Kathleen/Moderator - "How we teach our students has everything to do with how clearly we see them." You call that insight "TeacherVision." Is the term "TeacherVision" your creation and what is the most effective way (or ways) for teachers to continually sharpen their TeacherVision?
richard bromfield - When I first conceived of the book, a few years ago, I thought of that term as well capturing all that goes into a teacher's view of her work and the children she teachers -- experience, knowledge, beliefs, character, and such. The best ways for teachers to keep an eye on their TeacherVision is observe their work and themselves. Such reflection, unfortunately, for many teachers, razed by so much immediate reality and demands, seems but a luxury.

Kathleen/Moderator - Throughout your book, Handle With Care - Understanding Children Teachers, you acknowledge, but are are very forgiving of, teachers' shortcomings, lapses in judgment, and loss of patience. Have you ever met a teacher you didn't like? One who had few redeeming qualities? One you might give up on and advise to go into another field?
richard bromfield - For sure. Warts and all, it is teacher's being human and imperfect that gives them the powers they have to reach children. But the ones who don't like the children, or dislike teaching itself, they surely would be better off somewhere else.

Kathleen/Moderator - What are some ways teachers can reflect honestly upon their work and their impact upon others? Look in the mirror, or poll students and colleagues? Does a teacher always know when to adjust practice?
richard bromfield - Honesty, it seems is such a personal matter, though one that the children know. They, the children, can tell when a teacher genuinely likes them or believes in the work she does. Looking in the mirror works only for someone who can honestly see what is there. And, of course, none of us is perfectly honest, but it is our continual attempts to be as sincere as we can be -- not only to the children, but to ourselves. For if we can't bear seeing who we are clearly, there is no way we can tolerate showing that to others. Teachers can know when something needs adjusting when their work is going poorly, or they cannot seem to connect well with the children, or even when they are, when they, the teachers themselves, are feeling burnt out or lost as to why they are teaching,

Kathleen/Moderator - Richard, are you on the speakers' circuit, do you address educators?
richard bromfield - No, I have always tended to let my writing talk for me, though as I publish more books, the need to go out and speak is becoming clearer. Doing so would also provide the opportunity to hear more of what teachers themselves are experiencing.

Kathleen/Moderator - Do you have advice, some relatively quick fixes for the teacher who is feeling burnt out?
richard bromfield - Yes, the ones that I finish my book with. First, set clear priorities. Though there is always so much more that we wish to accomplish, we must pick, choose and hold dear the ones we value most. Second, we must listen to our own conscience, for it is us and us alone who must live with the decisions we make. Third, heed our tensions, and make it a priority to take care of ourselves, for how can we care and feed children when we ourselves are depleted. Fourth, realize that no teacher can understand or please everyone or even one person all of the time. Fifth, try to hold onto our moments of triumph and joy, those wondrous little times that buoy and sustain us. And last, try to accept our being humanly destined to be less than perfect.

Kathleen/Moderator - A question on behalf of Sue/CA: Do you think children really are coming to school now with more "baggage" or are we as teachers placing that heavy baggage on them once they arrive as the result of pressure to meet standards and increase test scores?
richard bromfield - Sue, definitely the first. While I have plenty of misgivings about the external baggage you mention, and I know how that taxes teachers and classrooms, my experience is that teachers do a pretty good job of insulating children from that pressure. But for sure, children are coming to school on shakier ground on so many fronts that we all know too well.

Kathleen/Moderator - Question from Lynn/2/OH: Sometimes I feel as though I just don't have the patience necessary to deal with my 23 2nd graders, but taking the day off every time I feel that way isn't practical. Any advice about how to increase my stamina in that area? It seems to be getting worse.
richard bromfield - Lynn, that is a tough one but one that so many teachers know. First, allow yourself to feel impatient -- not behaviorally with the children -- but to yourself. Good teachers tend to beat themselves up for anything less than perfection. Are others noticing your impatience? Is it obstructing your work? Are you taking care of yourself when you are not teaching? And are you permitting yourself to have personal feelings of frustration and the like. I often find that good teachers hate to feel anything negative toward the children or their jobs, and yet how can someone not have moments, sometimes lasting days, when they don't have the exuberance for the kids.

Kathleen/Moderator - Jeff asks: Other than your book, what book/s do you recommend for every teacher's bookshelf?
richard bromfield - Jeff, frankly, being a psychologist who has addressed the child-teacher relationship, I am not the best one to recommend what teachers should read.

Kathleen/Moderator - Richard, who are your heroes in the field of or fields related to education?
richard bromfield - Kathleen, I have several. In education, I much respect the work by Kozol and Kotlowitz, who write about the children of poverty and the implications that has for their education and lives. And in my field, the pioneering work of Axline and Anna Freud who showed what transpires inside of a child's mind and heart.

Kathleen/Moderator - From pinsky: What can teachers do with children who are so so needy, and how often should it be included in our day? {I believe Pinsky might be wondering how to balance the nurturing with the educating, a dilemma for many these days)
richard bromfield - That children come to school so needy -- for safety, nurturance, feeding, admiration, on and on -- is a sad fact of our modern classroom. Whether or not people think this is the responsibility of the home begs the question, for teachers know what they face each day. And yet teachers cannot be play therapists or parents for their children. And so they do their best, to meet such needs sufficiently so that the child can be available to learn and connect. Of course, in simpler terms, it used to be so much easier. My grandmother was a teacher 70 years ago. She could bring shoes, for example, to a child who needed them. Now that could lead to someone being angry at her for stepping over her bounds.

Kathleen/Moderator - Your chapter, "Speaking of Words" is written as though by as aspiring poet. Are you an admirer of the power of words, and especially sensitive to what words can do to hurt or bolster a child? Do you recall any special experience with the power of words from your days as a young student?
Kathleen/Moderator - Perhaps I shouldn't have qualified that with the use of "aspiring" if you already write poetry. 
richard bromfield - That is a keen observation. I think my concern of words comes from many places: my own lifelong love of reading and knowing what a comfort that can be. My seeing how literature can capture human experiences that all of us feel but often bear alone, not knowing how to voice or share them. As a child my concern, I think, was more trying to get heard (which is why I write, I am sure).

Kathleen/Moderator - A question from JJ: Do you think young (primary level) children benefit more from either a male or female teacher?
richard bromfield - It is obvious that in the early years children see their teachers as parent figures. But the gender question I think is somewhat overstated. If a teacher is good -- effective, attentive, wise and nurturing -- I don't think it makes a difference. Though, for children who lack a good mother at home, a strong and maternal woman teacher sure can make a powerful impact

Kathleen/Moderator - A question from anon: Someone [in another forum] asked about a first grader who is depressed and said they will kill themselves. The teacher says the school psych is out with surgery, the mother didn't seem too upset, the social worker will see the child on Friday and the teacher is frustrated. Tell us all what should we do in this type of situation? Is a threat by a first grader to kill themselves as serious a red flag as if a 9-10 year old had said this?
richard bromfield - What a tough situation. When a teacher hears such a threat, they must take this seriously and urgently. When hearing this, she cannot help but be frightened, but she needs to take action calmly and thoughtfully. First, consulting with someone one can trust, can help assess the situation. But with a child this young, a teacher needs to contact parents early on, and obtain the kind of consultation -- with a psychologist or such-- to formally assess the child's state. Children, even young ones, often speak of dying or such, sad as that may sound. And it more often than not, does not mean imminent danger. But yet, it does speak of serious distress and likely self-hatred that must be taken seriously.

Kathleen/Moderator - You're very honest about your own human frailties. The description of your visit to the museum, issuing a stereotypical "war cry" and the humiliation of being corrected by the security guard is a surprisingly candid revelation. Do you believe that people listen to and learn more from those who are more "on their level," who expose their "weaknesses" in a disarming way?
richard bromfield - Sometimes. When the other person cares to improve who they are, and presents their honest weaknesses in such a light, I do think that can engage others to bear their own shortsightedness. A majority of good teachers are people who want to do well by the children. Knowing that others mess up, and fall short of their ideals, is often comforting and allows us to move on to make the changes that learning and growing entail.

Kathleen/Moderator - Also by Richard Bromfield: Playing for Real: Exploring the World of Child Therapy and the Inner Worlds of Children (Master Work Series)

Kathleen/Moderator - In your chapter, "Sex Matters" you say, "Gender bias is every direction." What are you hoping to say other than the obvious, what just about anyone who picks up your book knows already, that gender bias is real?
richard bromfield - I was trying to say that gender bias can exist in even the best of teachers. It can have subtle expressions. But this bias, as with all bias, often is known best only by the person thinking it. And that the teacher who can most openly examine their own biases will be the one who can best overcome them.

Kathleen/Moderator - What is the most important point you wish to convey in the chapter, "Who's Watching the Melting Pot?"
richard bromfield - That prejudice hurts, not only the children, but ourselves and our own worlds. Diversity, more than just something to be respected, should be treasured for the richness it adds to all of our lives and the world. But once again, who of us doesn't have some prejudices that make themselves known in our teaching. And also to keep in mind that expecting other children to adopt our English culture is in itself a painful and somewhat traumatizing thing.

Kathleen/Moderator - Richard, is your book, Playing for Real, written for others in your field [psychology] or would it be of interest to the average educator?
richard bromfield - I think it would be more of interest to educators of all sorts. I hope it will stimulate thinking and discussion in those training to be teachers, as well as to confirm and celebrate and comfort those who have long been doing their work. This was not written at all for the psychologist.

Kathleen/Moderator - A question from Teacher2: Now that my children are grown I recognize that too often I gave more of myself to my students and my job than I did to my own children. I have deep regrets about that. What would you say to help other teachers avoid that regret? How do we find balance without neglecting a job that is often all-consuming?
richard bromfield - Finding that balance is a lifelong venture, I suspect. As a teacher you did what you felt you had to to do right by them. But a teacher in that pickle right now can try to assess constantly why she or he is doing what she or he is. If a teacher finds herself working too hard to please others, or to avoid criticism, etc. she can overcome that and find the right reasons for doing what she does. But in the end, maybe you did the right thing, and your children will attest to that as they get older.
Kathleen/Moderator - Author Bobbi Fisher discussed the issue of balancing personal and professional life during her chat here in October. You can read the transcript of that chat in

Kathleen/Moderator - A question from mister m.: Would you explain what a clinical psychologist is?
richard bromfield - Sure. A clinical psychologist is a psychologist trained to work with clients or patients -- as testers, therapists ,etc.

Kathleen/Moderator - for jen: At what age are kids most vulnerable to emotional problems? Do you see more middle school age kids than others?
richard bromfield - Jen, adolescence sure seems to be a time for great tumult and vulnerability. The world as it is, and the adolescent push for separation and independence, make them especially susceptible to all sorts of distress, some dire. But sad, younger children are showing more and more depression, anxiety as well as the pervasive lack of compassion and caring, in others and themselves, that plagues too many teens.

Kathleen/Moderator - Richard, is Mrs. D., teacher of the year, interviewed in your book by Plato, is she your grandmother?? 
richard bromfield - No, she is a based on a local teacher who is beloved by her students of many years, as well as her own family. No relative of mine.

Kathleen/Moderator - Richard, you can claim that Handle with Care is for parents AND teachers, but I found it very appealing and reassuring to the educator side of me.
richard bromfield - I'm pleased. I hoped it would.

Kathleen/Moderator - Handle With Care is an easy but meaningful read for the educator, helping us find the ground when sometimes we find ourselves adrift in a world where the demands are greater than what we believe we possess for inner resources.
Kathleen/Moderator - Richard, is there anything you hoped I'd ask but didn't? Any last words?

richard bromfield - Teaching is arguably the noblest of professions. But teachers are also arguably the most assaulted of our professionals. They are overworked often, with little support, often little respect, and often teaching against great odds from every side. And yet they keep doing what they do, making their difference in big and little ways, ways that help our children and our society. I hope that the book provides a bit of respite and inspiration for teachers as they go through their days, child by child.

Kathleen/Moderator - I recommend having and reading a copy of Handle With Care during the busy period surrounding assessment and parent conference period as a means to reflection and reassurance.

Kathleen/Moderator - Richard, I meant to ask, do you have plans to write & publish fiction?
richard bromfield - I just finished a children's novel, and am in the middle of a adult novel. But I am still learning much about writing.

Kathleen/Moderator - Richard Bromfield, thank you very much for visiting Teachers.Net this evening. And thank you for a very insightful and respectful book about and for teachers.
richard bromfield - Thank you, Kathleen, for inviting me, and to our guests for their questions.
Kathleen/Moderator - We'll watch for your first novel!
Kathleen/Moderator - Goodnight Richard and to all who read along and submitted questions.
richard bromfield - Goodnight.