Thursday, January 16, 2020

Living Alongside Them, Learning

I've taught precious few things during my decades as a teacher. I taught one child how to replace a roll of toilet paper, another how hold to a hammer in order to increase his accuracy, another how to make a "th" sound with her tongue and teeth rather than an "f" sound with her teeth and lower lip. If I had not taught them these things, I expect they would have learned them anyway. I was just in a position of having information they needed at the moment they were ready for it, so the learning was easy. Indeed, it was so easy that many people may not have identified it as learning at all, just living.

I've taught precious little, yet I've spent my entire professional life surrounded by people who were always in the process of learning. Much of that learning is of the easy variety, the kind that comes naturally to them, the kind for which they are ready, intellectually, socially, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. This is the sort of learning we tend to gloss over as educators because it looks so much like life itself, so seamless that it doesn't catch our eye or raise to a level that would cause us to jot it down in our journals, or photograph it, or send a celebratory note home to parents.

By the same token, much of that learning is not so easy, requiring struggle. A two-year-old getting himself up a flight of stairs on his belly, gripping a ledge for all he's worth, pulling, twisting, is a human engaged in the throes of learning, not just how to conquer those stairs, but about himself, his own capabilities and limitations, and about the necessity for the hard work required to learn, to shout out, "I did it!" We also often fail to identify this sort of learning because in our requirements around keeping to our schedules we habitually "help" them, hurry them along, or perhaps, at best, wait while tapping a foot and watching the clock, because, again, this learning looks so much like living.

Teaching can be hard as well, the hardest thing you'll ever do, even if you have decades of experience, even if you've read all the books, seen all the videos, taken all the classes, and attended all the seminars. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that teaching is quite often impossible, especially if the teacher persists in the approach that he knows what this other person must learn and by when. Oh boy, is that frustrating work. Teaching a three-year-old how to read, for instance, or cipher through a column of math equations, especially when these skills currently have no applicability to their lives and their brains are not ready for it, may not be impossible, but close to it for both the teacher and the one expected to learn this uselessness. Any process it produces will be slow, painful, dull, and driven by compulsion. Motivations will be external, rewards and punishments required, and repetition will stand at the center. The sheer, arbitrary impossibleness of it invariably leads to demoralization for both the child (see, spiking rates of mental illness) and the teachers (see, soaring rates of educator burnout), a demoralization that simply cannot ever lead to the triumph of "I did it!"

We definitely notice this kind of "learning." We notice it because it looks nothing at all like life.

Education as I've known it, is the most natural thing on earth. Education is simply what happens as we live and my job as a teacher is nothing more or less than to be there, keeping them safe enough, living alongside them, and learning.

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