"Forever Is Composed Of Nows" - Emily Dickinson
This is the third post in the “Breaking Sticks” series on unstructured play and lessons I learned as a father and a teacher from my 2 year old son Adam playing with sticks while we were out on a walk one sunny day. Please click on the following links for more context: “Breaking Sticks: Awesome Life Lessons From A 2 Year Old” and "Fight For Their Right: The First Lesson I Learned From A 2 Year Old." In this post I talk about how being open to information and stimuli we so easily overlook and take for granted can benefit us all as a parents and educators.
Open Your Eyes and See Them
Most of human interactions are surficial, perhaps even superficial. Often, we are in the presence of others, but don’t truly “see” them or even try to “see” them. If you saw James Cameron’s “Avatar” you understand the “seeing” I’m talking about. It is a special kind of knowing that perhaps only humans can access. Yet we don’t do it often enough. I often describe it as the ability to look into the other person’s soul. The ability to BE with the other person; to SEE the other person, and to TRULY UNDERSTAND what he is experiencing with his senses, and she is feeling inside, and how they are experiencing the universe.
Adam is my son. Our interactions are not superficial. We do what most father-son duos do. We hang out, play together, read, dance, high five, ride a bike, kick a ball, have lots of fun, and work out the temper tantrums together too. I love him and cherish our moments together. But when he and I went on our “Breaking Sticks” walk I did not just “hang out” with him. I was present and able to “see” him. I found myself processing on a deeper level. I do not know what triggered it that particular time, but I know I want to experience more of those moments.
I want to experience those moments in my classroom as well. I think it is important for all educators to truly “be” with their students and “see” them, not just be in the room together and look at each other. As teachers, the knowledge dealers, we are so busy and so preoccupied with what we need to get done that we often do not take the time to stop and observe: look to see, listen to hear, and feel to understand. This is not to say we do a crappy job. I believe the contrary is true: A great majority of teachers are superheroes dedicated to helping their students learn and be successful. It is not an exaggeration to me. What many of my colleagues do is astonishing and borders on superpowers.
I do think that the quest educators (and parents!) find themselves on sometimes draws the energy from so many places in our mind, body, and soul that we feel we have nothing more to give. But we can give more. We can give more of our attention by slowing down and becoming mindful. This is hard for me, because I am always going twice the posted speed limit. I am the epitome of the: “too much to do, too little time to do it in” person. So, I have to consciously make myself slow down. I’m not always effective, but I have gotten to the point where I “catch” myself being present, reflecting, and “seeing.”
Be With Them and Learn From Them
“Seeing” also involves separating a child’s behavior from the person they truly are. Kids, teenagers especially, hide their feelings well. In many cases, it is hard for an adult to figure out what is truly happening inside. Some of our students carry burdens we cannot fathom and we only sometimes find out through parents or counselors how heavy that load really is.
What about the ones we never find out about? They exist hiding behind the walls they put up. If you pay attention you will find them. They might not want your help. They don’t need the extra stress of someone pushing the “extra stuff” on them. Take small steps. Recognize them. Use their name often so they know they matter to you. Ask them about that band or artist on their shirt. Tell them about how your 2 year old threw up all over your new swanky sofa shortly after eating a bowl of cottage cheese chased down with a bottle of milk. Even if they answer: “Nothing” once again after you ask: “What did you do this weekend?” for the nth time keep asking. Be patient. Gently offer help with learning. But don’t push too hard. They’re fragile. Handle with care.
Kids also screw up all the time. But it is rarely malicious. Mostly, the screw ups are a result of emotion-driven decision making (which applies to adults as well), anxiety, lack of knowledge or experience, environmental issues that may be social, family-related, or school-related. It is important that in those moments that they do fail somehow we treat them as the individuals they are and not the behavior they exhibit. I used to describe myself as a “tough love” teacher, because I cared about my students, but never let them get away without a consequence when they screwed up. But thinking about it now I am not so sure “tough love” wasn’t just an excuse for being afraid to give up some of the control, let go of the childhood baggage I was always carrying with me, and explore new ways of looking at my teaching, life, and the universe.
I know I’ve failed to recognize that I can act differently in the past and overreacted in the heat of the moment, exacting consequences that were too quick, too severe, and based on often incomplete and biased interpretations of events. It took a good decade or so and many hours of reflection to subtract my ego from the equation and to change. And this is what I learn from being with my son and my students. If we as parents want our kids to progress, we must progress with them. If we as educators expect students to change, we must change too.
However appealing this analogy may be to what we do as teachers, students are not clay we can mold into whatever we want. Each one, just as every human being, is a never to be finished work of art that is and always will be a self-portrait created with their brush strokes and inspired by the input from the universe. So the lesson is that while we can’t change them, we can inspire them to change themselves. And that is education.
And so from now on I will aim to be present in each moment, take nothing for granted, and keep an open heart, because I want to witness life’s magic and open my mind, body, and soul to the infinity of things I can experience and learn. That is my education.
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And Above All Remember: You have the power to change the world. Use it often.