Part 2 of Memorable Teachers Series: Anna Leonowens

This week, we explore another character of both fact and fiction. Just like Fräulein Maria, Anna Leonowens, as portrayed in films such as The King and I, was a real person and did many of the things her fictionalized character did.  I like to focus on the dramatic version, because it’s often in fiction that we find the most satisfying nuggets of truth. It’s also the Ma’am Leonowens of fiction that has enchanted me since I was ten and first watched the musical version.  It was probably the hoop skirts and vague love story that did it, but now I love her because of her teaching philosophy.  She handled a number of potentially-explosive mentoring problems in a way that I admire.  Here is one of my favorites.

Getting Past the Categories

In the Jodie Foster version of Anna Leonowens’ experience in Siam, the first day of class is marred by a scrap between the King’s son and Anna’s son.  The equal application of the punishment given (writing lines), shows that she was seeing Chulalongkorn as a person, not as his race, station, or nationality. She was seeing a person who broke a rule.  Period.   This seeing people (yes, kids are people too), as people is a key to being a good mentor.  It shows the student that you can be trusted with his or her true self.  Seeing the human in your students, the thing in each that makes him or her irreplaceable and special, helps you to consider what they really need rather than what the traditions of their surface identity have dictated for them. This goes for students with learning, behavioral, and physical disabilities; students who are a different race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or nationality than you; students whose economic, social, or political background differ from yours; or who espouse beliefs that hit your triggers.

Allow me to illustrate with a personal story of my husband’s.  Curtis had an incredible kayaking mentor.  They spent twenty one days together on the Green and Colorado Rivers with five other employees and twentyish students.  We’ll call this mentor John, and he’s amazing.  He’s rafted every major river in the world including the Zambizi, many times. To Curtis, this man ranks somewhere next to the Apostles in terms of role models.  Anyway, throughout the 21 days, you can imagine everyone grew quite close.  Not seeing a shower, toilet, or electronic device for nearly a month does that to you.  And yet, all the students continued to accidentally call John by the name of the only other black instructor and vice versa (Remember there were only six instructors.  The name options are limited).  And John said this very piercing thing: “When you look at me, do you only see my blackness?”  In other words, “There’s more to me than my skin, a name for starters.”

Whoa.  Right? Isn’t that how we all feel? Do you only see my poverty? Do you only see that I’m abused?  Do you only see my father’s job?  Do you only see my divorce? Do you only see my reading problem? Do you only see my weight? Do you only see my dirty fingernails?  I know that last one was random, but it’s one I struggle with not seeing.

Another I struggle with, daily, is beautiful people.  Starting somewhere between age ten and fourteen, I grew a keen awareness of beautiful people as well as a prejudice toward them.  I’d define that prejudice as simply failing to see them as people. More generally I’d say the question that twinges in our hearts when people see us as our labels is “Am I just a category to you?”. Ouch. We all want to feel like we matter, and we respond to people who make us feel like we do.

I bet if you think about it for a second, you can zero in on a person in your life who sees you as an individual; they think of you as totally unique and worthwhile.  I bet you like being around that person. Now, back to Anna Leonowens. Even the concept of punishment (which I believe backfires everytime, but that’s the subject for another post another day), to her, has to originate from seeing a unique individual, rather than a label, object, or cardboard cutout that can be pushed over and will fling back up like those reflector posts that line highways.  During the schoolyard squabble, Anna makes it a point not to see a prince, or a Thai, or just another of 58 children, or even a little boy. She just sees Chulalongkorn.

Take a moment in your teaching to reflect on the following; see it as a little mantra, if you will.

This student is a human being.
He or she was born and will die someday, just like me.
He or she has a favorite pastime, a broken heart, worries, things to look forward to, and fears.
This person has parents, siblings, children, a spouse, etc.

Take ten seconds to do that with every student you meet, and I guarantee you’re going to feel changes in you and in your teaching. Suddenly you will have more compassion.  You will be able to meet your student where he or she is.  Even better than that, though, you’ll make a friend. My most meaningful teaching experiences have come to me when the relationship transcended one-way instruction and became a conversation between friends/equals.  My deepest regrets have come when I didn’t try hard enough to see past the category.

I think the real reason we remember Anna Leonowens, and revisit her story again and again, is that she tried to bridge a gap that seemed wider than the Grand Canyon: East/West, Man/Woman, Student/Mentor.  The exotic backdrop of nineteenth-century Thailand brings out the contrast in her exaggerated, rigid English mannerisms.  It’s the impossibility of friendship between these two vastly-different views of the world, and the friendship developing nevertheless that brings us back to the story.  In miniature, we experience it everyday as we attempt to draw closer to those around us.  The attempt is so hard, the successes can be so long in coming, but in the end it is so worth it.

What helps you see your students more clearly?  Any other useful mantras out there that help you teach to your student rather than to his or her category?