Remember what it’s like to be a learner

It is the end of semester and I am thinking about comments from students made to me in the past couple of weeks, comments frequently made at the end of a semester.

“I didn’t know how all of this was going to come together, but now it all fits and every piece was necessary.”
“I understand why __________ was important now.”
“I was a very grumpy student when you said we were doing ________, but now I am so grateful and it taught me more than I could have ever imagined.”

The comments reveal an important aspect of learning – that there is often a period of darkness or fogginess or incoherence followed by a seeing or illumination that comes only at the end, after an opportunity to look back.

The comments remind me that it is difficult for learners to understand what exactly will help them learn. They can certainly provide a great deal of information about what has worked for them in the past when learning, or what their preferences are for learning (and their input along these lines should be invited and valued), but when faced with a completely new conceptual framework and practice, their knowledge of the learning path is limited. They need a trusted teacher, a teacher with a method to her ‘madness’, a teacher who has gone before them and can now lead and guide others along the way. That’s why they’re here.

It is difficult to be a learner, difficult to not see the path ahead, to know there is a mountain to be climbed, but to not be sure of the path or how long it will take or even if they will have the strength to climb. It is a humility. It requires patience and perseverance.

I think I sometimes forget how difficult it is for my students. I get so caught up in how exciting I think the journey is and what they are going to see over the next hill or around the next corner that I forget to be present with them where they are, in their blindness and at my mercy. Learners need to know I’m there, to know their peers are there, and that we’re all in this together. Learners also need a lot of feedback or at least a lot of encouragement and support to keep going when they are stumbling and the ground is moving beneath them…a hand to hold.

As I think ahead to a new semester and new classes, I am reminding myself…

Remember what it is like to be a learner.

Remember to ‘foreshadow’, to say this is why we are doing _____, this is how it’s going to fit, this is important because ______. Foreshadowing raises ‘assignments’ out of the mindlessness of hoop-jumping, and into a meaningful learning journey.

Remember to take opportunities to ‘connect back’ so that coherence is found and meaning is illuminated. Every student needs a ‘road to Emmaus’ companion, who helps them see what couldn’t be seen in the midst of the learning.

Remember to build trust through ongoing formative feedback that honours and provides time for the steep learning curve and risk taking all learners must take. This trust will make dialogue possible so that timing can be adjusted, re-teaching can happen, and incorrect assumptions are avoided or corrected.

Remember to let them try and fail and then have the opportunity to try again – to revise, redo and retake…and then to innovate!

Remember to care, to intentionally connect with them, to listen well, to pay attention and then respond. You have all the power to develop and maintain relational trust with your students.

Remember to let your students teach you how to teach them. What works for one, doesn’t always work for the other. They need to know you see their uniqueness.

Remember what it is like to be a learner.

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The strength of her kindness

I recently read a description of someone’s grandmother and the phrase, ‘the strength of her kindness’, jumped out at me.  We don’t often hold strength and kindness together in our thoughts.  The two words are usually considered to be opposites.  Kindness means being nice or sweet and not really expecting/requiring anything from anyone else.  Strength means being tough and uncompromising, holding others to a higher standard or at least a standard we think is higher.  As a result of the seeming incompatibility of these two words, I often have conversations with my colleagues and students about kindness that center around questions of being too kind and then appearing to be passive or weak.  And then I have other conversations about strength centered around questions of being too uncompromising and unwilling to respond to contextual, individual situations.  I think both of these conversations have incorrect assumptions about kindness and strength.

I find that we think about kindness the way we think about grace.  We imagine that God’s grace is simply  forgiveness for our sins that leaves us free of the burden of punishment and able to go on as we always have with the assurance that we’re “saved”.  As teachers we equate grace to giving extensions on papers, excusing students from requirements, allowing students to break rules without consequences.  I’ve even heard of ‘grace coupons‘ that students in Christian schools can use like ‘get out of jail free’ cards.   I hear this word thrown around a lot in Christian contexts and I always find myself wanting to cry, “No, that is not grace! That is not who God is!” 

God’s grace is always life-giving, always transformative, helping us turn towards Him and away from ourselves, making us more like Him.  God is not interested in leaving us in our brokenness.  How unkind that would be!  He is the one who loves us, who instructs us with care.  (Pr. 13:26; 12:2)  God’s grace is God sharing His strength with us, the strength to be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, gentle, and self-controlled.  His grace allows ‘our souls to return to rest‘ because He shows us kindness, delivering our souls from death, our eyes from tears and our feet from slipping.  (Ps. 114:7, LXX)  There is nothing weak about grace that delivers from death!

I fear my kindness as a teacher, friend, parent, has often been weak, and therefore, not kind at all.  I’m not saying that we should never show mercy to our students or that we shouldn’t be open to individual situations and unique needs requiring different responses.  I am not interested in legalism or authoritarianism.   But I am interested in education, in being a teacher, in doing what brings true life to my students, in helping them grow.  To leave our students in ignorance, or in habits that are damaging to their well-being is unkind, unloving, and uncaring.

When kindness is a quality of spirit rather than a prescribed set of kind or unkind actions, it becomes an ethos or an orientation that infuses our practices as teachers.  It represents an inner and outer integrity, although that integrity may not always be readily visible to an observer or initially understood by the person receiving the action.  Sometimes we don’t understand how kind God is to us – particularly when He allows us to be shaken, or doesn’t rescue us immediately from the consequences of our actions.  Sometimes our students won’t understand our actions as kindness, at least not until the fruit is revealed.  However, even as God never falls short of His Fatherhood, we need to be sure we don’t fall short of our teacherhood.  We exist to benefit our students in ways that are educative, redeeming and reconciling, but we do this with the strength of patience, gentleness and compassion.

The difficulty is that we are not yet completely like God.  So along with the strength of our kindness must come more gifts of God’s grace – wisdom and discernment and humility.  We will surely make mistakes and so we need to pay attention to the impact of what we think is kindness and be willing to change direction when we see that what we are doing is not helping, is not life-giving.

I sometimes see online postings written to teachers about what students remember and don’t remember about them.  These letters focus on the ‘who‘ of teaching rather than the what and how,  and encourage teachers to do what is most important – usually build strong relationships with their students.  Even though I am sympathetic with this message and recognize that teachers can often be distracted by the trivial, I am also concerned that this message can undermine the nature of the relationship we have with our students.  It is not our job to be remembered well, but it is our job to educate well – with kind strength.

A classroom is a place for life

This weekend I had the privilege of seeing the film Monsieur Lazhar. There is so much to be said about this film, but what has remained with me for the past few days is Monsieur Lazhar’s clear assertion that a classroom or school is a place of “friendship, work, courtesy and life, a place to offer life”.  He says these words to his students on the day he is forced to leave them and in response to the actions of other adults in the school who have “infected the school with their personal despair”.   Monsieur Lazhar, himself, is dealing with significant personal tragedy, as well as, the challenge of being a political refugee in an unfamiliar culture.  However, he shows reverence for the needs of his students and recognizes that he is there for them, that their healing is more important than his.   Monsieur Lazhar is not a perfect teacher, but what comes through to the students are actions and words qualified by a spirit of love, attentiveness, and care.  There is something self-emptying about the role of the teacher that he embraces and a recognition that there is something very dangerous about becoming needy as a teacher.  What was especially remarkable was that Monsieur Lazhar did not fall into the trap of becoming a divided person, who leaves part of himself “at the door” of the classroom in order to fulfill the expected role of teacher.  It was clear that his personal experiences stayed with him, but he didn’t allow those experiences to “infect”. Instead he used his own suffering to understand the suffering of his students, and to pay attention to them in a way that allowed wisdom to arise.  He found life in his suffering and offered that life to his students.

We can’t help carrying ourselves into the classroom.  We offer ourselves as whole persons.  This is our uniqueness and our freedom.  No one can offer me to my students except me, but how or in what manner of spirit I offer myself to my students is my free choice.  I will either “infect” or “inoculate” (and inevitably I will do both because I am not yet healed).  Therefore, I must also pay attention to my heart, and keep examining the use of my freedom, as well as, the manner qualifying my gestures.  Is my practice full of my own agenda, my own needs?  Or am I, at times, able to come to my students with a heart that is empty enough to make room for them and for all of the wisdom that will arise when two or three are gathered in the name of love?

Kimberly Franklin

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