Tuesday, February 15, 2022

That Is Where We Must Water

One of my mother's mantras is "Count your blessings," which is her way of gently admonishing me to look at the bright side.

It's often good advice. And sure enough, I've become an adult who tends to look at the bright side of both myself (which I've been told can sometimes come off as egoism) and others (which I've been told can come off as naiveté). I've sometimes even been told that I'm in denial. 

The thing is, it's not that I'm unaware of my own deficits, nor am I blind to the deficits of others, but I'm not inclined to dwell there. Maybe I should focus on fixing this or that weakness in myself, but generally speaking, I find it more profitable, not to mention more joyful, to play to my strengths. 

It's the approach I take toward the children in my life as well.

Many educators, however, tend toward the opposite: looking for deficits in children and teaching to that. Maybe it's the process of constant and continual assessment found in most schools that conditions them for this. After all, it's in the nature of school-ish assessment to pick out the flaws and weaknesses in individual children, to highlight them, to enshrine them as "learning objectives." Their strengths in this system of assessment become mere tick boxes, missions accomplished, as the weaknesses take center stage. 

During my time at Woodland Park we often enrolled children with deficits that were too much for other schools. These kids came to us with rap sheets. Their parents warned me about what happened in the last school, equipping me in advance with the tips, tools, and tricks that they found useful in helping their child overcome their deficits. I always took notes, but what I was waiting for is the assurance, and it always came, "But he really is a sweet little boy." That's what interests me. That's where the relationship must begin.

It's not that I don't care that he hits other children, or screams, or gets overwhelmed, or can't sit still. It's just that I can do absolutely nothing about those things until we are on one another's bandwagons. It's the sweet little boy I must get to know first -- the boy who builds Lego masterpieces, who loves to sing, who is fascinated with dinosaurs. 

All good educators do this, of course, but too often, we are taught to then use those strengths and passions as a kind of Skinnerian leverage over their deficits: "If you don't hit anyone all morning, I'll let you watch your favorite dinosaur video." Indeed, a teenager I know who was viewed by his teachers as "at risk" once told me that one of the things he had learned about school was to never let teachers know what you like, because then "they'll use it against you."

This concentration on the brokenness of children stands at the heart of how our schools are failing. The narrow standardization that characterizes most schools, in fact, emphasizes only a certain collection of strengths and often winds up compounding the trauma and struggles of children. I'm not saying that we don't help children with their challenges, but rather that we will never succeed if that is where we are forced to focus.

The plant you water is the plant that grows. Canadian author Robin Sharma's version of this is, "What you focus on grows, what you think about expands, and what you dwell upon determines your destiny."

When we spend our efforts making children fit into school, we have no choice but to teach to their deficits, but when we free children to pursue their interests we exercise their strengths. And, more often than not, a strong child, a celebrated child, a child who knows you are on their bandwagon, will have the capacity to address their own deficits. This will never happen as long as we teach to their brokenness. 

I know that many of us chose this profession because we want to help, we want to fix and rescue, we see ourselves as the last best hope. As noble as that is, our first job must always be to discover every child's strengths, to find their passion, to reveal their joy, and embrace their sweetness. That is where we must water.


"I recommend this book to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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