One of the parts of my job is serving as a mentor to new faculty hires in the upper school. For eighteen years I have been hanging around this place as a parent, room mother, PTO volunteer, board member and most recently, a teacher. If anyone should know the school culture, I should.; and hopefully, I help our new hires navigate the first year of working in it. As is true in any good teaching relationship, though, the learning goes both ways. My new teachers teach me while I am formally supposed to be leading them.
Last week we sat down at lunch to chat about some of the ups and downs of their first two months on the job. One of the teachers began to talk about how a certain class, who had been difficult to train under her preferred classroom style. She and I had talked earlier in the year about strategies to deal with the group, about some of their history as a class before she came to this school, and why they might be challenging her in ways her other students at another grade level were not.
Somewhere in her reporting that things were going better with this group now, she made the statement, “I think I’ve begun to accept what is.” As soon as she said it, I had the ‘lightbulb in my head” experience. Accepting what is in front of you as a teacher is the most liberating and creative-unleashing experience, even if there is initial grief in that acceptance. We all want students who are trained to attentiveness and show up prepared for our classes every day. We all want students who learned and sufficiently practiced all skills from the previous year so that they are ready for the curriculum we are prepared to lead them through. But…they are real people, and so was the teacher that had last year, and real people have problems and bad habits, and sometimes just life happening to them. And what shows up in our classroom is not always what we wish it to be.
“Accepting what is” is one of those phrases that sounds like compromise but has freedom on the other side of it. As soon as the teacher said it, I responded that this realization would carry over into her parenting, marriage, and most any other relationship in life.
We had one child for whom “time out” was not effective at all. Why? Because he is a natural introvert who loved nothing better than being alone in his room studying what made his ceiling fan turn or the light switches come on. If that got boring, he proceeded to take the back off his toilet and study the inner workings of the float valve. The other child rarely needed more than the threat of a few minutes of solitude. Gregarious and fun-loving, she would self-correct almost immediately rather than be banished from the group.
I had to rethink technique constantly in parenting as my two children, a boy and a girl, an introvert and an extrovert, were two completely different creatures. Moving from frustration to the truth -accepting what is in front of you – can set you free.
Am I saying give up or give in? Absolutely not. I’m still goal-oriented in my classroom. I train toward what I want. I keep the standards high. But I surrender the ideal – which is the theories they taught us in education courses – for the real, those flawed human beings who show up in front of me every day. They do the same for me, I hope; and then the creativity begins.