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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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?

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