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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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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About My Tutoring

My name is Christine, and I’m a private tutor and mentor for children and young adults. My teaching philosophy is that an inspired child will educate him or herself. I take great pains to speak respectfully to children, no matter their age, and listen with compassion. This helps create strong habits of good citizenship, compassionate service, and honest self-awareness along with critical thinking. A respected student is a respectful student.

I don’t ascribe to any one tutoring strategy, curriculum, or program. If it’s helpful and ennobling to the student, I employ it. There’s a world of excellent resources out there, and each has something to offer.

I have a BA in art history and curatorial studies from BYU, and now run my own mentoring service for young adults. I also work for a company that provides academic therapy to children with learning disabilities. I have eight siblings, and 29 nieces and nephews. I love family, and I love people.

My husband and I enjoy adventures, and try to have one as often as possible. Sometimes I cry, because my canoe won’t track straight, or because I hate the wind. But that’s all part of it.

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