Pedagogy

On comings and goings: mentorship, freedom, and respect in modern education

The first student to whom I taught this method, in a one-on-one arrangement, chose to discontinue the process.

We had been checking in once per week by way of a phone call, and after the first few there grew to be gaps in their frequency. At first this was due to my student taking a road trip, during which he did not choose to avail himself; then failing to read the material between sessions, and deciding himself that this would stanch the utility of our meeting. With time, these gaps grew in length such that the student and I wouldn’t speak for two weeks straight, then at one point three.

The_Golden_NotebookI began to suspect that the student was getting ready to discontinue the method, though I didn’t know whether it was because I was a bad teacher, he didn’t connect with the method, or he simply didn’t like the book he was reading (The golden notebook, by Doris Lessing).

In the end, the student revealed that it was the latter reason—that he simply wasn’t enjoying the book he had chosen to read in order to learn about himself—and as such, that he wanted to discontinue the process of reading the novel with me. In a conversation, he explained his feelings, said that he had greatly enjoyed the experience of our working together, and asked my feedback on his place in his life and delivered feedback on my presence during our sessions and the method itself.

I could have taken this turn of events as a sign that I was doing something wrong, but in fact it felt overwhelmingly positive to me. The student had done something proactive in his life: he had chosen to discontinue reading a book with which he wasn’t connecting. Moreover, he had chosen to discontinue a method of interacting with that book which, I suspect, was beginning to feel intuitive to him; either that, or he decided that he wasn’t yet ready to face the realizations about himself that were to come had he continued reading. At any rate, he made a decision—he acted in his own life and on his values—and I respected him for it.

On my part, this lesson served as an administrator of humility for me. It reminded me that do what I might to make my method of reading literature accessible and the sessions themselves fun and engaging, I cannot control where a particular student is at in their journey, what they need—or feel they need—and why. Furthermore, it reminded me that by my own admission one of the things I am seeking to instill in students is freedom and self-determination, so if they choose to discontinue their relationships with me, so much the better for them.

This experience and these reflections led me to draw contrast with mainstream education, which allows students to make no such decision and would chastise or bemoan them if they did. In mainstream education, students have few opportunities to choose their mentors or teachers, and have no opportunities to quell those relationships if they find them no longer fruitful—doing that, they will either receive a failing grade or, depending on their station in life, be charged with truancy. Even if students choose to stay in the classroom, they are berated for even the slightest wandering off what teachers presume should be the object of their interest.

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I saw an illustration of this in my work as a supervisor to rising teachers this past semester, an experience which struck me with an odd degree of pomp. Visiting one of my students to observe her in her teaching, I noticed that one of the students near the back of the room, a kindergartener, seemed to grow increasingly anxious during a portion of my student’s lesson which had gone too long. At first the student remained seated forward in his chair, which was a rocking chair unique to him, but after a time his eyes began to wander to other places in the room than where my supervisee stood lecturing; then he crouched on his toes, turned around on his rocking chair, and peered toward the back of his room altogether.

In response to this, the main teacher in the room told the student that he needed a break.

‘No,’ he protested, no doubt because he didn’t want to be separated from the group.

‘Your body is telling me you need a break,’ the main teacher insisted, and at that she offered this student her hand, stood up with him, and led him to a supply closet in the back of the room in which, even though I stayed with the rest of the circle during this time, I could see the student jumping up and down on a trampoline. After letting him jump for a while the teacher counted to five, and at the cessation of this pre-rehearsed routine the student jumped off and the teacher led him back to the circle, ready to rejoin the activity now that he had expunged his wiggles.

Imagine if when my student told me that he was thinking of discontinuing our method I instead admonished him that he was getting anxious about something, and should merely take a break or do an exercise before returning to and continuing our relationship. Would that demonstrate respect for his will or decision? Would it inculcate respect in him for me?

The fact is, we disallow students from making decisions like this in mainstream education because we fear that if they leave our domain, they won’t return; they’ll realize that greener pastures await them elsewhere, and they’ll no longer need our instruction. That being the case, we should ask ourselves the degree to which we let fear inform our praxis, and how that morphs into oppression and control through our desire to take away meaningful choices for students altogether. Can we let students leave our domain and trust that they’ll want to come back of their own accord? If not, perhaps we’re doing something wrong.

As a result of these reflections, I’ve begun to ask myself whether there’s a way to structure mainstream education that’s more like mentorship, such that students can exercise some autonomy in choosing their teachers, what they would like to learn from them, and furthermore, whether and when to leave the relationship. If this were the case, students could complain about a facet of their instruction and reasonably expect to see improvement; otherwise, their contribution to decision-making is only nominal, and any demand from teachers that students respect them ignores the fact that the students have been dehumanized from the start.

What do we learn from our students’ comings and goings? What do we forfeit learning through forcing students to stay in one place for an entire hour, and on the macrocosmic scale, for entire seasons and years of their lives? Can we ever hope to attain their full and voluntary participation when no other choice has been offered them? What choice, in that dynamic, are we failing to offer ourselves?

In my own situation, I doubt that my literature student will ever return to me, but I know that both he and I learned immensely from his decision to leave. If he did decide to return, no doubt he would have acquired new reasons for pursuing the work in the meantime; if not, I can be assured that he either learned what he needed to with me, or that he will do so through some other method. At any rate, both of us are content in following what seemed to be our natural whims and guidance. This is the manner in which respect is formed, and in which education aligns with humanism—it is a turning toward freedom which I plan to intensify my entire life.

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