I Have Come to a Frightening Conclusion. I Am the Decisive Element in the Classroom

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Haim G. Ginott? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The major German literary figure Goethe has received credit for a passage that begins:

I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate.

I have not found any solid ascriptions to Goethe in German or English. Oddly, a similar remark has been attributed to the educator and psychologist Haim G. Ginott. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe crafted this quotation. He died in 1832 and received credit in a message posted to the Usenet discussion system in 1998.

In 1972 Haim G. Ginott published “Teacher and Child: A Book for Parents and Teachers”, and the preface contained a series of memorably vivid statements that have been widely repeated with occasional garbling. Ginott stated that he composed the remarks when he was a young teacher, and they summed up the book’s philosophy: 1

I have come to a frightening conclusion.
I am the decisive element in the classroom.
It is my personal approach that creates the climate.
It is my daily mood that makes the weather.
As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.
I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.
I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.
In all situations it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.

QI has placed each sentence on a separate line for readability, but in the book they are combined into a single paragraph. This extensive excerpt has been reproduced here for research and educational purposes.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In August 1971 a school superintendent in South Dakota delivered a speech that included the passage above. He acknowledged the book although the title he gave was slightly inaccurate. The book must have been released by late 1971, i.e., before the official publication date. This excerpt has been truncated: 2

A teacher said in a book entitled Between Teacher and Child, “I have come to frightening conclusions. I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. . .

In 1974 a book reviewer in “The English Journal” referred to the second line of the passage: 3

At the end of the very first chapter there is a short poem written by Haim Ginott which contains the line: “I am the decisive element in the classroom.” This discovery, this reaffirmation is the message of this volume.

The 1977 edition of “An Introduction to Exceptional Children” included an instance of the passage that closely matched the original. This excerpt has been truncated: 4

Dr. Haim Ginott said, “I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate, it’s my daily mood that makes the weather. . .

In 1998 a message appeared in the Usenet newsgroup called mail.ednet that ascribed a modified instance of the passage to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Phrases such as “in the classroom” and “as a teacher” were deleted. In addition, a final line was tacked on: 5

Goethe sums it up nicely:

“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element.
It is my personal approach that creates the climate.
It is my daily mood that makes the weather.
I possess tremendous power to make a life miserable or joyous.
I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.
I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.
In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a person humanized or de-humanized.
If we treat people as they ought to be…we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”

QI has placed each sentence on a separate line for readability. The last line is based on a statement that was written by Goethe. QI has created a separate article discussing that line which is available here.

In conclusion, Haim G. Ginott should receive credit for the passage he wrote in the 1972 citation. The ascription to Goethe is spurious. There is a known mechanism for misattribution that involves names appearing adjacent in an alphabetical listing. The names Ginott and Goethe qualify for this mechanism, but it remains unclear how the quotation attributed to Goethe was modified.

(Great thanks to Trudy Johnson-Lenz whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Johnson-Lenz noted the existence of attributions to Goethe and Ginott. She also pointed to useful information recorded in Wikipedia and Wikiquote for Goethe and Ginott.)

Notes:

  1. 1972, Teacher and Child: A Book for Parents and Teachers by Dr. Haim G. Ginott, Chapter: Preface, Quote Page 15, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1971 August 26, Rapid City Journal, Friendly, caring teachers goal for city schools (Speech from School Superintendent Charles A. Lindly), Quote Page 3, Column 4, Rapid City, South Dakota. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1974 December, The English Journal, Volume 63, Number 9, (Review of: Will It Grow in a Classroom, edited by Beatrice and Ronald Gross, Review by: Alan Guma of Gateway II High School, New Orleans, Louisiana), Start Page 88, Quote Page 89, Published by National Council of Teachers of English. (JSTOR) link
  4. 1977, An Introduction to Exceptional Children by William R. Van Osdol and Don G. Shane, Second Edition, Section: Preface, Quote Page vii, William C. Brown Company, Dubuque, Iowa. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1998 September 6, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: mail.ednet, From: Samuel R. Dean, Jr. @educ.umass.edu, Subject: Re: Changes in Poland, Maine. (Google Groups Search; Accessed October 8, 2018) link