Voids I Have Known
There are so many ways we fill voids -- to everyone's detriment. Here are just a few of the ways I and other teachers avoid struggle, our own and our students'.
I give a writing assignment; a student's word choices are not quite accurate; I fill the void (between my choices and hers) by crossing off her words and substituting my own.
Why are my words better than the author's? Will this act help the student become a better writer?
I assign a multi-week project; a student avoids every single opportunity I give them to work on the project; the day before it's due I fill the void (between failing and passing) by helping them get something done.
What are the possible benefits of failing? What are the possible drawbacks of passing?
A student is receiving a solid C- in my class; they need to maintain a C+ average in order to participate in a sporting event; the coach is pressuring me; I fill the void (between the student's academic reality and the coach's athletic needs) by raising the grade.
What would happen if the student (and the coach) suffered the consequences of the student's actual academic performance?
Someone's dirty dishes are sitting next to the sink; I should be grading papers; I fill the void (between my desire to get the papers graded and my desire not to grade papers) by getting up and distracting myself with cleaning.
What is my dread about? What keeps me from committing to my work?
I am speaking to a group of students; I pause and look at their faces, which are largely blank; I fill the void (between my experience and theirs) by assuming I'm not making any sense; I lose confidence and realize I should not be a teacher.
Why do I assume the worst? How can I curb my assumptions in the first place to allow for richer possibilities?
I have known these voids and so many more! I actually meet new voids-to-fill every day. And I do my best to let them be. Why? Why do I claim that filling the void can harm everyone involved? As I wrote in an earlier post, doing things for other people is not necessarily detrimental. It can reduce suffering. It can show care. It can be instructionally appropriate. It can just be easier sometimes.
But filling voids defensively -- as a means of managing our own anxiety -- can mean we completely miss the mark:
Students' writing will not improve when I give them the word rather than ask them to tap into their felt sense and find a word that works better.
Failing a student who has been completely avoidant reflects an accurate reality back to the student (who knows very well that he deserves to fail). Even better, it provides a meaningful opportunity to examine that avoidance with the student. Accurate reflection of reality and curiosity about that reality are crucial for students' development -- even if they are hard to do.
What a bummer to miss an athletic event because of a silly grade! But what an opportunity for struggle when poor performance is not rewarded but is, rather, remediated through sacrifice, extra effort, and commitment. And no one learns the crucial skill of surviving disappointment if they never have to experience it.
OMG grading papers is such a scourge! But it is essential. Is my dread related to my sense that I have to make every paper perfect? Is it related to my resistance to putting out the energy required to engage intimately with my students' thinking (or lack thereof)? Is it related to a lack of faith that the students can -- or want to -- improve? Can I turn my avoidance into a more efficient approach to grading that helps me focus my attention and feedback (and, therefore, helps to focus my students)? Bonus: Examining my avoidance will give me insight into my avoidant students, who might actually feel the same way I do.
Ah, assumptions! They can be so misleading! Perhaps being a teacher means holding respectfully to my reality while feeling curious about my students' realities. And asking about them. And seeing what new understanding emerges.
I think learning and growing necessarily involve struggle. I do not believe that struggle is bad. I think people need to figure out how to struggle well. I think we can help each other do that. A first step is for me to become comfortable with my own struggles.
Unfortunately, filling the void too often prevents that.