Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
My pedagogical priorities
how do you cope with performance-oriented students and parents? How do you answer to reproaches such as that your person-to-person approach takes time out of frontal teaching and the like?
This is a really good question. It arose, as can be seen by a glance at the post Elisa comments on, in the context of a discussion of teen suicide, where I was sketchily referring to my pedagogical approach. I do not claim any special knowledge about suicide in general or how to prevent (or cope!) with it, but I do maintain that as a teacher my first and almost only priority is the cultivation of honest relationships with the youth I work with; not their grades, not whether they know their ABCs or their periodic table or Aristotle's categories. Any of these can come naturally enough in the course of a genuine relationship in which neither party tries to impose their private enthusiasms as the agenda for the friendship as a whole. I can share any amount of "knowledge" I may have if I am genuinely excited about it; the moment I try to give it to someone as something they "need," the reek of disingenuousness overpowers the room.
I do get raised eyebrows, and more. One fellow teacher opined that I "keep those kids on a very long leash." (Some remarks one can only allow to pass by in silence.) One mother has told me expressly that my job was not "to be her son's buddy," but to enforce his completing his homework. I have faced adults who were indignant that I would countenance the playing of video games. Happily, I can report that (so far) these are an anomalous and tiny percentage of adult responses.
Since I am employed not by the school system itself, but by a before/after-school program, I am not the one deemed primarily responsible for making sure the kids I work with memorize all the capitols of the 50 states, or even their multiplication tables. Nonetheless, I do get a good share of expectation that kids will finish their homework and so on. When this happens, I am very up-front with my students. I am frank with them about the expectations others have of me and how this gets passed on to them. They are still aware that they can opt out -- it is not their job to spare me their parents' frustration (misguided though I may consider it)-- but usually we realize that we are both faced with something that is easier got through together. There is no demonizing of "unreasonable" parents, though I am full of sympathy for kids who know very well that homework is a waste of time.
The most difficult thing for me is not the fielding of adult questions -- in those encounters, I am very frank about my respect of children's autonomy, and usually I at least get a break as a quaint liberal eccentric -- but the more insidious sense I have of being monitored and evaluated by criteria that is foreign to my own values. The challenge here is to be conscious of it, because it makes an unmistakable impact on my expectations of my students. I would just as soon trust the kids to make any decision that they can; but at the back of my head is always the awareness that someone can ask, Why is he letting them do that? The effect of this is to turn me in to a policeman or an overseer; I pass the feeling of being monitored on to them. Combating this in myself is the reason I am (as soon as I notice it) as honest as I can be with my students about where my own expectations come from -- whether they are genuinely mine, or whether they are something I feel obliged to impose because of others' expectations of me. Still, the snuck glances towards me, the way conversation drops to a whisper when I pass, testifies that I cannot overcome the surveillance to which children are accustomed. (Of course, they could also just be talking about how strange I am.) The contrast between this and the Clearwater School (where I volunteer one to two time a week for a half-day), is so stark as to make one wonder if the cultivation of the sense of being watched and checked up on -- which is not the same as being cared for -- is (whether intentionally or not) a primary function of ordinary school.
To be sure I have answered Elisa's question:
A "performance-oriented student" presents no problem at all; I am interested in what it's like to be them, and if they want my help with homework, I am ready and able. Whatever I can do with that kid, I will do.
When I get an objection from a parent, my response is that my priority is not to be liked by the child, but to have an honest relationship with them. So I can honestly say to them, "your parent wants this homework done, and I will help you do it." In other words, I can usually be true to my own values and still deliver the content-specific work that is expected of me. If I have to make a choice, I will choose respecting the autonomy of a child over getting an assignment done every time. This does not, by the way, mean no student is ever angry or frustrated at me (or vice versa); but they are (I hope) never merely cowed.
And, as I claimed to Elisa, while it is no guarantee of being spared pain, I believe that the more genuine the relationship with a student, the more natural (which does not always mean easier) it is to broach the very, very hard subjects.