Memorable Teachers: Jakob Kahn

PotokPosterToday’s memorable teacher is the mercurial Jakob Kahn from My Name Is Asher Lev. A man of uncompromising principle, though not in a way you would expect from an Orthodox Jew. A man of fascinating contradictions, and yet a powerful and loving mentor.

This guy is what makes Chaim Potok an interesting writer to read. He builds characters that are so real and flawed, yet admirable.

I like the relationship between Jakob Kahn and Asher. Asher was very young when he was introduced to Jakob, but Jakob never dismisses him as a child in the negative sense. You know. We tend to brush children off as nuisances and unsophisticated. Jakob looked at Asher, though, and just saw a person.

Granted, his character is a bit gruff, and he’s generally humbug toward most people. Maybe not the Mary Poppins we all wish for. That’s what I liked about him, though. He didn’t paste on a fake smile for Asher, nor did he push him away. He avoided both extremes and kept his treatment of Asher in line with how he treated everyone (even if that meant being a bit of a stoneface). The same long measuring stick he used for others, he applied in equal force to Asher. As a result, Asher quickly rose to meet the high expectations Jakob had for him, and was better for it.

I know this principle of high expectations that honor the student bears real fruit in the classroom or the mentor/mentee relationship.

I witness it everyday in my mentoring experiences. When my expectations are low, my students fall to meet them. It’s so easy to lose heart when the person mentoring you has no real faith in what you can achieve.

On the other hand, there are no limits on the heights that can be reached when you feel truly supported and challenged by an inspirational mentor.

Jakob Kahn was certainly that. Perfect he was not, but his uncompromising thought process and quality work are easy to admire. When you see your mentor holding himself to such a high standard it seems unthinkable to hold yourself to anything less. I guess that’s what being inspiring really is. It’s doing whatever you do to the best of your ability. It’s a type of integrity you have toward your work that other people can’t help but notice. Then, they strive to reach those heights with you.

In the comments, tell me about your inspirational mentors. Who do you respect and admire, and why?

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When the Work Is Hard: How to Turn a Frustrated Student into a Hard-working Hero

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In an earlier post, I outlined my mission as a mentor. Part of it is to speak to the hero in my students.

This is how that looks in real life.

I’ll apply it to something kids say that makes teachers’ skin crawl: “This is too hard!”

My tired responses to this used to be to deny it: “No, it’s not.”, or “You just think it’s hard because you’ve never done it before. Really, though, it’s the simplest thing in the world”.

Both responses are problematic. Each is demeaning and implies the child is a liar or stupid. “But what else can I say?! If I admit that it’s hard then I’ve failed as a teacher!”, “I was supposed to make this plain and simple, but he’s still not getting it!”, “Kids are really suggestible. Isn’t it unethical to put the idea that something is hard into their heads?”

I know what you’re thinking, but let me show you a scenario that I deal with all the time, and then we’ll plumb the depths of your concerns.

Child: “This is too hard! I will never get this!”

Me: “Yeah, this is tough. You’re really close. Maybe you want to try again?”

Child: “Ugh! Okay. puh-luh-an. Plan! I did it!”

Me: “You did it! Even though it was hard, you did it!”

Sound like wishful thinking? I do this DAILY with my students, many of whom have disabilities. I get results. This, my friends, is speaking to the hero in a child.

The child who is spoken to as if he/she were Peter Parker or Harry Potter or Lucy Pevensie begins to build up a bank account of memories in which he or she did something really difficult in spite of the challenges. These memories come in handy when the child again faces the grindstone, academic or otherwise. It also makes it easier for the child to be forgiving of him or herself when the results of his efforts are less than perfect. Given his record of success, the present setback is probably temporary.

Now, let’s unpack an uncomfortable internal experience we have, as teachers, when a kid thinks something is hard.

1) We’re afraid that we’ve failed.

We give credence to that dirty liar inside of us that tells us we’re not good enough.

It’s okay to let the experience of the child make you question your approach to teaching. Sincere pondering over how to improve preserves your integrity for the parts of the teaching relationship you are accountable for. This is not a pass for using methods, styles, or programs that are found to be ineffective. 

BUT! Mentorship is not just about making things easy.

When we internalize their frustration as our failure, we eventually seek relief from our sense of failure by placing it back on the child. That’s how the demeaning rebuttals seep into the dialogue with our students. We have to deny that the work is hard in order to preserve our desperate need to be right about our own goodness/rightness. If the kid is right and the work is hard then we’re a waste of space. Or so we let ourselves think. More on that in an upcoming post.

This is where speaking to the hero in the child is so helpful. Your student is incredibly sensitive to whether or not you believe he is essentially good and capable, and he can tell when you have total compassion for him. You demonstrate this compassion by, first, listening to what he or she is saying, and then acknowledging that, to him or her, the difficulty is real.

Let your students know they can try again, as many times as they need. Relax, let them know there’s no rush.

This concept of making hard work acceptable matters, because, try as we might, we will never be perfect teachers. There’s no perfect curriculum, or time of day, or perfect kid, or style with which to teach. I don’t care who you are: Waldorf, Montessori, Public, Private, Charter, Challenger, homeschool, unschool, whatever. All have strengths and weaknesses. The most transferable and empowering thing you can do is to really listen when the kid says the work is hard. Let her know it’s okay for it to be hard. Give it a shot anyway! Amaze yourself!

In essence, you practice what you preach by showing up as a teacher, acknowledging that you won’t be able to make everything easy for everyone, but trying really hard anyway. Model this grace for yourself, and your students will learn to have grace for themselves, too.

2) We’re afraid that we’re committing the unpardonable sin of suggestion.

Remember the child psychologist from Law & Order? He was always warning the detectives against abusing the highly-suggestible child. He’s right, of course. You should never ask leading questions of a vulnerable person, or fill someone’s mouth with words.

We are deathly afraid of the “h” word (hard), and avoid saying it for fear of giving validation or justification for quitting. We want our students to love math and to love reading and to love history. “Won’t saying it’s hard make it hard”?

Yep.

But there is a very subtle and massively important difference between suggestion and reflection. If you March into the room and declare that what we’re learning today is hard, you may unfairly prejudice your students against the task. However, patiently working with a child and echoing her feelings when she expresses that something is difficult for her, helps her process from frustration to understanding rather than halting at the emotional push back from a teacher who just says “No.It’s not hard.”

Now, let’s recap what acknowledging the difficulty of a task IS and IS NOT.

What acknowledgment of difficulty IS NOT:

1) An excuse for the child to quit:

On the contrary, acknowledging that something is difficult for a student is simply accepting the reality of the situation for that child. It does NOT mean they give up. If necessary, be explicit in your expectation that hard things be done in spite of their difficulty. In most cases, they will take your belief in them as implicit. You didn’t deny their sense that the work is hard and you show confidence in their ability to do the hard thing. Of course they’ll keep trying when you show so much faith in them!

2) Proof you are a bad teacher:

I’m pretty sure Jesus is still a good teacher even though Peter messed up. He figured it out eventually, and he loved Jesus for continuing to work with him even after he made a mistake.

3) Approval of whining and bad behavior:

If your student is cussing, hurting someone, destroying property, or being generally unpleasant, your acknowledgment of the difficulty of the task is not approval of this mayhem. Be firm in stating your boundaries in regard to how frustration over a difficult task is expressed, but DO NOT demean or punish for having frustration.

What acknowledgment of difficulty IS:

1) A gateway to problem solving:

Your acknowledgement of the difficulty of the task leaves room for the child to tell you why it’s difficult. This is a boon to the teacher! Instant feedback on how we can improve! Denying the difficulty, on the other hand, shuts the child down. This creates distrust and no real solutions come out of distrust.

2) An invitation to reflection:

Ask yourself, “What can I do to ease some of the burden, but keep my and my student’s integrity intact?”, “Is this task worthy of the effort I’m asking of my student/expecting my student to ask of himself? If not, what can I replace it with that will be more valuable and meaningful to him?”

3) An opportunity to grow:

Acknowledging that something is hard to do, makes the completion of that thing all the sweeter. You get to be the lucky person in the child’s life that teaches him or her the awesome experience it is to finish something that wasn’t easy.

4) A strategy for dealing with frustration:

Think of how you feel when you’re frustrated by something. Wouldn’t you appreciate it if someone would just commiserate without judgment until the frustration peters out? By acknowledging, without judgment of his character, that something is difficult for your student, you help him build a little homunculus for himself. This guy is his cheerleader, his commiserator, the guy that says “I hear you, man. I have total faith in you”. It’s like, now that we’ve established that the task is hard, we can move on to seeking a solution. That’s a good strategy.

A note on disabilities:

Though I am currently developing programs for unimpaired students, my main gig is working with children who have disabilities.

I have a number of relatives with varying disabilities from mental illness to loss of limbs. I am closely acquainted with the pain these disabilities can cause as well as the pain caused by others who simply don’t understand, saying things like “Snap out of it!”, 0r “Just try harder”! That’s why I mentioned compassion earlier.

Not pity.

Not callousness either.

Compassion. Let your compassion inspire you to educate yourself about the nature of your student’s disability, and remember that while she has a disability, she’s also a person. One way you help your student and yourself remember this important fact, is by speaking to her as if she is as important as you are, as if her experience is just as real and valid as yours, and that it’s okay for things to be hard. Continue to have faith and confidence in her Abilities while keeping tabs on the difficulties presented by her disabilities. Remember, a child with a disability can do hard things, too.

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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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