Part 3 of Memorable Teachers Series: Dumbledore

DumbledoreBannerLest I be scorned for what may be a misguided and adolescent love affair with the Harry Potter series, hold up. This is purely academic. I don’t even own any Potter paraphernalia. Okay one poster…and a board game, and I dressed up for the Deathly Hallows premiere with my friend Kristina, but it was more out of intellectual irony (we were college students surrounded by 12-year-olds).

I do maintain, though, that J.K. is a genius. She swept the world with her fantasy creation in a way normally reserved for religious revivals and plagues.

I don’t think it’s because we love Harry, Ron, and Hermione so much, though. We do love them, but that’s not what made the story such a sensation. It’s probably not because we long for a world of adventure and magic, so different from our own. If that were the only reason, the series probably would have been only as successful as other fantasy fiction of the TOR variety.

No. Harry Potter endures, and captures a massive audience, because of its setting.

A school.

The series begins with a heavy emphasis on the young and their high-jinks, but ends having taught us something about life, wisdom, and love from important mentors. I would argue that it’s the relationships between the students and their mentors that brings the richest enjoyment from the series.

Am I going to put it on the level of Jane Eyre and The Secret Garden? Probably not. It’s a different creature. Its seven installments smack of a tendency toward episodic and consumptive preferences. However, if that’s the only way Rowling could get her story out into the world, I’m okay with it. I certainly wasn’t complaining as a 14-year-old in line at Barnes & Noble until 2:00 in the morning waiting for my next copy. Would I put it up there with The Chronicles of Narnia or Sherlock Holmes or P.G. Wodehouse? Yeah, I’ll stick to that.*

Anyway, back to the school thing. Hogwarts seems to be intended as a school experience any of us may have had, you know…minus the magic: bullies, first love, hated subjects, favorite teachers, pranks, homework, acne, growth spurts, moodiness, indignation toward adults, cliques, best friends, and worst enemies. In this everyman’s (sort of) school experience we meet Dumbledore, the Principal we wish we’d had.

I admit it. Dumbledore is one of my all-time favorite teachers, fiction status notwithstanding. He’s so real to me I wonder if J.K. Rowling knew somebody like him on whom she based his character. I bet she did.

This is why I chose him for my roster of memorable teachers:

1) Dumbledore has a sense of humor.

Dumbledore was always getting disapproving glares from other adults because he readily saw to the heart of a humorous situation. I appreciate an adult who, regardless of age, position or status, will still share a laugh with Fred and George. In book four, when the twins cross Dumbledore’s age line receiving long, white beards as their punishment, does Dumbledore get mad?

No way!

Think of the ridiculous consequence he created for breaking the rule by crossing. Growing long white beards?! Hilarious. That’s the mark of a teacher who still appreciates a good joke and wants to help his students remember that while cheating is a serious sin, he loves you still, and thinks of you as worth a second chance.

When I’m subbing is when it’s most difficult to know whether to laugh and or give the stoneface. I confess that fart jokes are still funny to me, but do I lend approval to such behavior by laughing along? Mayhem. It’s a fine line to walk, and I think Dumbledore, with his many years of experience and wisdom, dances along that razor’s edge. I want to be like that someday.

Recently, I subbed a high school graphic design class and heard the telltale sign of work not getting done: internet fart simulation. The trick is to not pass moral judgments on students — dismiss them as clowns, flirts, and airheads — just because they enjoy a good joke. Dumbledore never did that to Fred and George. To whom do you think Fred and George were most loyal and well-behaved?

So, then, what was I to do? Well, I took a marker and wrote on the whiteboard, in curly cursive, the following ditty:

“Your flatulence is funny, but your silence is sweeter.”

After a few titters, the noise returned to a dull roar and there were no more gases passed. Bam!

2) Dumbledore is a Socratic method champ.

He doesn’t just hand out answers to questions like candy (though he does hand out candy). Rather, he takes seriously his part in helping a student build his own problem solving strategies. When Harry wanted to spend his every evening sitting in front of the Mirror of Erised, Dumbledore didn’t ban him from the room, or give him detention for sneaking out at night. He also didn’t delve too much into the subject of magical mirrors. Dumbledore was always sort of vague in describing magical things to Harry, and never once helped him cheat.

He had total faith and confidence in Harry’s ability to solve his own problems, and only ever gave gentle nudges and reaffirming assurances. How empowering for a student. How satisfying for a teacher. I love it when a student makes that leap of thought to the answer all on his or her own. That’s the icing on the pumpkin pasty.

I mentor a young woman, we’ll call her ‘C’, and we conduct our sessions through snowboarding. Last Wednesday she had a breakthrough and was able to make smooth transitions from heel side to toe side. As the day wore on she became progressively more graceful at it. I can’t take credit for her newfound ability, because it was in her all along. When she asked for guidance on how to improve, I only gave a minimum of advice. My job was just to still be her friend after she fell the first few 100 times.

With snowboarding, as in many other things, no one can do the work for you. You can know all the tips and tricks, but eventually you just have to put in what my husband calls “hours behind the wheel”.

I’ll still be there for her with a tip here and there.

The thing is, though, snowboarding isn’t really what I want her to know. If she becomes a pro at it, awesome, but my main concern is that she learns how to stick out the tedium of the process in order to reach the fruit of mastery. I live for the day when she’s the one waiting for me at the bottom of the lift; when she pays it forward and teaches someone else how to do it.

3) Dumbledore believes in repentance.

Snape, Mundungus Fletcher, Regulus, Ron. All examples of individuals in whom Dumbledore had faith. He knew they were basically good. He knew they were capable of making the right choice, even after making so many wrong choices.

Dumbledore never grew to hate or despise any of the people who messed up. He always retained a love for them that didn’t hinge on whether they made mistakes.

It can be hard not to take an affront personally, especially from your student. In book six, when Draco was faced with the choice to kill Dumbledore, or be killed, Dumbledore manages to find compassion instead of offense. He was sorry for Draco, not angry at him. He knew how quickly things escalated out of hand in Draco’s life. He still had hope for Draco, and rightly believed in Draco’s desire to make the right choice. He was sincere in his welcoming back of this very distressed youth. That blows my mind!

Now, the word count of this post is telling me that I’ve waxed loquacious yet again. So, let’s recap and wrap it up.

Dumbledore had a sense of humor, believed his students were smart, and that they could makes things right again after screwing up. He’s a memorable teacher to me. I wish all teachers were like Dumbledore, myself included. And by that, of course, I mean all teachers should wear flowing purple robes with spangles on them, and a pair of half-moon spectacles:)

What do you think of Dumbledore as a teacher? Don’t be shy. Maybe you think he was too irreverent, or frustratingly vague. This is a safe place to let your nerd/anti-nerd out.

*It’s most often compared to the works of Roald Dahl.

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The Mission of the Transient Tutor is to provide…

Mission Statement

I wanted to form a mission statement for my tutoring and mentoring. I didn’t really know where to begin, because I’ve never created a mission statement before, so I did what every good American does, and googled it. A few I found are the following:

“Proclaim the Gospel, Perfect the Saints, Redeem the Dead” by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

“…to assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life” by Brigham Young University

“Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet” by Whole Foods

“To be the leader in wilderness education that serves people and the environment” by NOLS

The four pillars of Outward Bound: “Self-Reliance, Physical Fitness, Craftsmanship, but above all, Compassion”.


Wow! My eyes were shining. The idealist in my heart burned with resolution. What lofty aspirations!

But they weren’t my aspirations, so I played how-are-these-alike, and discovered that all good mission statements share a few common elements.

No. 1 A good mission statement is short and to the point.

Dang. I’ve never been good at short and to-the-point. I tend to wander in tangential trails. But I’ll work on that. So, what now?

No. 2 A good mission statement reflects the strengths of the organization.

Cool. I think I know what I’m good at. Listening seems to be my strong suit, so I thought I’d better include that in my mission statement. I’m also pretty good at organizing ideas into coherent sentences that other people can understand. So, speaking (communicating in general) makes the list, too. But people want to know how I do these things.

No. 3 A good mission statement gives a sense of what sets the organization apart, makes it unique, and specifies the way they do things.

I mean, I could listen and communicate, and still be a big jerk, right? So, how do I reassure my students and their families that coming to me for mentoring is a good thing? Time to throw in some adjectives and/or prepositional phrases. I went with compassion, because I want to promote an it’s-okay-to-be-yourself-and-talk-about-anything-on-your-mind vibe. I feel a good mentor not only listens, but has real respect for the student’s ideas, feelings, desires, and goals. That taking-the-student-seriously-ness seems like compassion to me, because compassion really means esteeming the other person as much, if not more, than yourself. However, that only tells half the story. I’m not just a diary for people to pour their hearts into. I also want to impart guidance, recommend reading, and inspire.

No. 4 A great mission statement leaves no doubt as to why the organization is doing what it does in the way that it does it.

This is the part where the most exciting thing happened for me. If I am listening compassionately to the students as if their ideas were as real and important to me as my own, we might then be able to have a discussion as equals. Then what would I say to them? What could I possibly tell them that really mattered/impacted their lives for good/helped them grow as learners and humans, etc? So, I had to delve a little deeper into my personal philosophy of teaching. It’s a philosophy in process. It’s still flexing and changing. What I currently believe was arrived at after years of pondering the topic. I expect by the time I die it will have morphed dramatically, and it could even be 360 degrees different tomorrow, but all I really have to go on is now.

So, what I basically believe is this. We are all free moral agents in a world that presents infinite possibilities and choices. Many lead to evil and many lead to good. In other words, there is a villain and there is a hero inside each of us. The villain usually chooses evil and the hero usually chooses good. Whichever is spoken to the most affirmatively, will eventually take the lead role. What I mean by that is that when we listen to/speak to a person as if she is already a villain, it affirms the reality of the villain within her (and within us). It teaches her the language of a villain so that her inner voice itself even speaks to the villainous part of her.

Now, I reject the possibility that this dooms her to be a villain forever. No, no, I believe that by beginning to speak to the hero in her, she may yet save the day. I believe the hero in us never truly dies, but can be beaten to a bloody pulp by the villain and go dormant for long periods of time. The hero never really goes away, though. He or she is always there in the background waiting for a chance to prove him or herself.

So, I feel my calling as a teacher/tutor/mentor, whatever you want to call it, is to speak to the hero in every child. The hero is already in there, is already capable of arriving at solutions on his own, is already a sentient and conscious being with thoughts and feelings and ideas. There’s not really anything I can put into him to change him. The changes will always come from the hero himself. However, a hero is usually accompanied by a mentor of some kind: wise relatives like Uncle Ben and Aunt May, or an inspiring teacher like Professor Dumbledore. These people never entertained, even for a second, the possibility that their Peter Parkers or Harry Potters were villains, and certainly never treated them as if they were. They might have, for both stories certainly show that each hero had dark moments in which they doubted their ability to be good. But their mentors invited the heroes to the conversation, and gave them space to solve their own problems while also setting an inspiring example themselves.

This is ultimately what I want to do for my students. I want to listen to everything in them, good and bad, and coach them through the times of doubt when evil might win. I want to cheer them on and believe in them as they wrestle with life’s choices.

Too many students come away from the learning experience feeling beaten, rejected, and stepped on. We speak to them as if they were clumsy, childish, untrustworthy, incapable, an annoyance, aggravations, basically wrong and in need of correction by the morally-superior and experienced adults. Is it any wonder they begin to bow to the villain within them? Considering the verbal darts thrown at them all day, I’m not surprised. How often do we hear teachers calling names (lazy, disrespectful, irresponsible), using sarcasm (So you want to be an architect? Well, judging by your math test that’ll go over just great.), using punitive and embarrassing methods of correction (You didn’t finish your homework? Well, then you can just stay in for recess until you learn how to work harder)? How often do we hear statements like “Oh, you don’t really mean that.” suggesting to the student that she doesn’t really know herself, that the adults know better, and just to reject her feelings until they go underground and start manifesting in unpleasant behaviors. When you hear yourself described, and spoken to, in this way, you eventually start to believe it’s true, and a kid will act the part every time.

I know what some of you are thinking. “Well, she’s never had kids of her own.”, “Just let her try and see for herself when she’s a real teacher.” Yeah, ‘kay. That’s great, but I don’t have to have kids to know what it feels like to be one, and I don’t have to be a teacher in order to know what it felt like to be a student. 

That’s the key here. I remember when teachers got it right and how that made me feel, but I also remember the times teachers got it wrong, and those scars can last a lifetime. Making the feelings, ideas, and inner realities of my students as real as my own, and just as important, is what makes learning possible. Yes, the teacher may have more years and experience, but until the more experienced one allows space for the other to be heard, and speaks to that person as if they are capable of achieving years and experience, no amount of experience will help. It’s like knowing the phone number, but having no cell service. Until you hook up the line, they can’t hear you. You’d be more successful trying to eat the Great Wall of China. As Dave Ramsey says, “You can’t smack somebody in the back of the head until after you’ve got your arm around their shoulders”.

So, that, in a nutshell, is my teaching philosophy, and the final portion of my mission statement. Getting it all into one sentence seemed impossible, but I think I did alright. Today, I’m off to tutor some very nice people. They’re eight-years-old. I’ll let you know how it goes as I aim to practice what I preach.

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