Future, Present, & Past:

~~ 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.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

My pedagogical priorities

Elisa asks:
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.


  1. One of the most difficult things about teaching at my previous college was the way the students themselves were uncomfortable with "being kept on a long leash." They expected me to be their jailer - you should have seen the number of times they asked me timidly for permission to miss class, when I'd already said I didn't care. If they didn't do an assignment, that was fine, they just got a much lower grade on the course; if they wanted help, I was there to give it to them. It stunned me how foreign this approach was to them. I salute you for making it more available to students at an earlier age.

  2. This is something of a challenge to do compassionately, when kids aren't used to it. They often do not really know how to deal with it when an adult does not act like what they expect an adult to be -- i.e., the one whose word is final. It involves a back-&-forth conversation with them, so that I don't wind up trying to manipulate them into being "free." I have had kids tell me up front that my hands-off approach was frustrating to them. That's the kind of feedback I can do something with. I don't think kids should just be thrown out onto the island to see whether they go Lord of the Flies -- after hours of being herded down halls in lines and having "fairness" enforced by well-meaning supervisors, it's no surprise that they don't always know what to do with themselves when they aren't being told. So I tell them why I don't tell them what to do. And I do (try to) help them arbitrate their disagreements, when it's clear that they are getting frustrated; but I always ask them first. (At least, I hope I do -- it is very hard not to allow myself to be co-opted by the way the system hands me the authority.)

    No human relationships are smooth-going all the time. The only thing I claim for my approach to education is that the bumps it encounters are, as far as I can manage, only those that come with being in relationships, not those that come from being in an artificial system. Or, when we are unable to avoid the latter (and who isn't?), we name it, and don't pretend it's fair just because it's there.

  3. Thanks, skholiast, for this long and personal answer (and especially for this latter quality: I guess sharing your own experience and priorities on a web may not be easy –it would not for me).
    I also tend to be a "long-leash" kind of teacher, although, I have to admit, not just because I am convinced this is the best solution, but rather because it is "my" solution and it is difficult for me not to follow it. In fact, I have noticed that this method works perfectly with creative and bright students: they are encouraged and gratified by the independence I grant them and they do MORE than they are expected do. It works less perfectly with average students, who generally do a little bit less, but in a more critical way (so that the result is still comparable with that achieved by a more "traditional" teacher). However, I am afraid that my approach does not work with: 1. younger students who want to tease their teachers (or parents, or other authorities) in order to be punished, 2. students who are unable to have a clear program and follow it.
    The former just desperately want their authorities to set them boundaries (because their own "super-ego" or however you might call it is unable to do it). If I recognise them (better: if I recognise these moments in a normal student), I try to be strict and it often works. But I often fail and leave the leash too long even in these cases.
    The latter are even more enygmatic to me and it is often difficult for me to lead them towards a result they wish to achieve (e.g., have their homeworks done) although they do not seem to act accordingly (and keep on playing soccer instead).
    Hence, I hope you'll bear with me if I keep on asking:
    –how do you make your method work with non-interested students (be they of type 1, 2 or whatever)?
    –did you notice similar patterns?

    And, a more general one:
    –following your students'aspiration may involve doing, e.g., less ABC and more undersee biology. This might be fine, because they'll be happy to learn the latter since they chose it and hence they might still have some time left to give a glance to the ABC. However, what happens when they go to a different school (be it college or whatever), where a uniform background is expected?

  4. Hi Elisa. My apologies for the delay in responding. To your questions, insofar as I can formulate a clear response:

    --I don't regard it as my job to make kids be interested in anything in particular. I believe that being interested is something that, so to speak, wants to happen, and can and does, if the soul is left uncoerced. (Apologies for sounding so touchy-feely-liberal.) Students do go through intense periods of boredom when they are unsure of what it is they want to do, and I think we do them (not to mention ourselves) a disservice by either trying to "keep them occupied" (read: entertained) or demanding that they "snap out of it," which is a subtle form of shaming them for being bored. Under the surface there is a great deal happening, but it may well feel very frustrating and slow to a student to figure out what it is they are interested in. (I believe this is a spiritual process, and I would even say that periods of boredom are analogous to what some Christian spiritual writers call periods of "desolation," in which one is seemingly "abandoned by God." It is quite striking that these writers say that these periods (& not the ones where one consciously feels God's presence) are the times when serious spiritual "work" is happening in the soul. But I do not want to press the analogy too strongly.) Having said this, I want to emphasize that as a philosopher I believe that "being interested" is as close to a litmus test for the philosophical stance as I can think of, and one I hope to inculcate in every student I can. But this cannot be done by force.

    As re. other schools where a "uniform background" is expected: the evidence I know of is anecdotal, but there are plenty of stories of Sudbury school grads who go on to college and tend to do better than their peers, precisely because they know how to be interested and know how to apply themselves freely. If they select a college (e.g.) at which certain pre-reqs are expected, they go about getting those requirements under their belt. What Sudbury grads tend to have is gumption, because they have learned to take responsibility for their lives.

    This does not happen all at once or in any uniform way. So your questions about different types of students are apposite and well-taken. And yes, I do indeed notice similar patterns. For myself, I try to cultivate both patience, and my own interests-- in whatever is making me passionate, and in my students.

    I hope you find this at least partially pertinent.