Think about a few points of information that you gathered over the past day.

Did any of those items stick with you because you read or heard them multiple times? Did you, in turn, repeat what was drilled in your head?

To provoke some critical thinking about mindful versus mindless repetition, I offer my true story about a fourth-grade math teacher’s unintended set of lessons.

A Lesson in Mindless Repetition
Attending my hometown’s public school as a baby boomer, I remember big classrooms with rows upon rows of desks. Classes with 30-plus students were common. Even so, I don’t recall any teacher who could not maintain classroom decorum.

My soft-spoken, first-grade teacher once made me the room monitor when she had to step out for a few minutes. Taking my job of taking names far too seriously, I’d cited Wil and Clay, who’d merely exchanged a quick whisper and chuckle between them before straightening up like little soldiers at their desks. Honestly, you could have heard a pin drop in that room. Although I doubt my precious teacher, beloved by everyone, admonished the boys, I later regretted reporting on them, particularly after realizing I’d spelled both of their names incorrectly: Will (with an extra L) and Cay (without the L). How embarrassing!

My peers and I were respectful of adults, especially teachers. Talking back or acting out was wrong, and the line between right and wrong behavior was as plain as day and night. A teacher’s stern look—potentially leading to the principal’s office and the certain wrath of one’s parents, who backed the teacher and principal 99 percent of the time—stopped most naughtiness in its tracks.

Thus, as a youngster, I never heard a teacher shout—not until Ms. Frantic (a pseudonym) arrived on the scene.

My mom, who had good instincts about people, first met Ms. Frantic and her mother shortly before the start of the school year. The two women had stopped in my parents’ store to shop. Learning that Ms. Frantic would be teaching fourth grade, which I was entering, and noticing some of her odd personality traits (i.e., she could not make the tiniest decision without her mother’s approval), my mom hoped and prayed I would not be in Ms. Frantic’s class. Thankfully, I did not end up in her homeroom, which would have meant spending most of the day with her, but I was assigned to her math class.

Ms. Frantic and another teacher had the high-achieving math students, but no one in Ms. Frantic’s class was advancing. For one thing, we were too terrified of her to concentrate. Throughout the day, even when not in her room, we could hear her screeching at her students. My main teacher often closed her door to block out the noise. Hearing Ms. Frantic from down the hall was unsettling enough. Sitting in her class, we never knew when she’d explode in anger or who would be her next victim.

One morning, for instance, as we found our desks, Ms. Frantic spotted one girl and announced, “Well, you look mighty cute today!” Rather than being annoyed by her inappropriate remark, the rest of us were relieved to catch our teacher in a good mood. In the next moment, however, Ms. Frantic’s bony frame tensed, causing her pale-white face to turn beet red as she humiliated a boy. After ensuring he’d never again crack a smile in her class, she deemed us all lazy and stupid.

Ironically, the other reason we weren’t grasping the material was her failure to teach.

If only she’d followed a standard lesson plan, the concept of sets would have been simple for our class. Instead, Ms. Frantic stuck to her own, unsuccessful playbook. Day after day, she’d scribble the same diagram on the chalkboard and begin shouting a mantra that we were obligated to repeat:

Set, member, subset! Subset, member, set! Set, member, subset! Subset, member, set!

That mantra was engrained in my brain. Nevertheless, the more I repeated it, the less I understood sets, and the more I began to question my cognitive skills, not Ms. Frantic’s teaching ability.

Think about it:
• One voice controlled the message.
• The majority believed they had no power or right to question the authoritative source, so no one requested additional information or dared to challenge the mantra’s rationale.
• Fear of reprisal further compelled the majority to chant along or at least mouth the words.
• Starting out, they thought the message was senseless, but with each daily dose of repetition, the majority were second-guessing their own cognitive powers. Failure to find the logic in the lesson became their problem.

In those days, children were often wasting their time by complaining to their parents about their teachers. That’s life. You’ll have a nicer teacher next year.

Recognizing the situation as a crisis, I gave my parents a full report on Ms. Frantic. Several other kids also broke ranks and squealed. Our parents listened and united. Even before they complained, the principal knew she had a problem on her hands. Still, we were stunned when Ms. Frantic called our names and told us to go straight to the other teacher’s class. Obviously angry and hurt, she smirked and added, “Your mommies don’t want me to teach you.”

If a look could kill, we all would have been murdered by Ms. Frantic that morning, but we would have died with get-out-of-jail-free smiles on our faces!

In no time, we mastered the ins and outs of sets. Yes, I aced the “nice” teacher’s class. Also, before long, Ms. Frantic’s other students were smiling and absorbing the fourth-grade curriculum from a replacement teacher who presented lessons logically and encouraged kids to ask questions.

Over the years, Ms. Frantic’s mantras have kept me mindful of the following:
• Shouting or repeating a message doesn’t alter its value or veracity. Nonsense is nonsense, and a lie is a lie.  
• When a source is saying, “This is all you need to know,” people who are thinking for themselves grow curious, ask probing questions, and/or do their own research.
• Numerous sources with varying and contradictory information drive critical thinking, real learning, and growth.

Set, member, subset! Subset, member, set! Set, member, subset! Subset, member, set!

Ms. Frantic, wherever you are, thank you for that vital set of lessons.

My best to you,

Sallie
Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady

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