Monday, January 6, 2014

A Culture of Help


The 8th grade was getting ready for their annual St. George and the Dragon play and the time came to choose parts.

“What if two people want the same part?” one asked.

I answered, “ Then they’ll have to audition.”

“If you’re the only one who wants a part, do you get it automatically?”

“No. What if you’re no good?” with my tongue firmly in cheek.

Without missing a beat and with a big smile on her face, one 8th grader answered,

“Why, then we just help them figure out how to do it better and keep on helping them. That’s the San Francisco School way!!”

How happy was I in the moment?. She got it!! We’re all here to help each other. That’s the job of the school. To help students rise to their highest promise and sometimes beyond where they thought they could go. And the teacher’s job is to find out precisely what kind of help the student needs in each encounter and keep searching for the multitude of strategies available until they find the one aligned with the student’s learning style and needs. We are all smart, but we are smart in very specific ways and a lot of what looks like failure on the student’s part is failute on the teacher’s part to find the way the student learns. Some students need images, some need movement, some need concrete objects, some need things put into rhythm and rhyme, some need analogies, some need personal attention, some need to be left alone to figure it out, some simply need more time. All need the sense that the teacher and their fellow classmates are there to help them. Not there to shame them or judge them or compete with them, there to help and when needed, to be helped.

This is much on my mind lately as a dear person I know is struggling in a higher ed school that still operates on the sink and swim method. “Here’s the bar, leap over it and if you can’t, get out.” When he went to a teacher to ask for some help, she actually demoted his grade for asking! And after one quarter of school, where he passed six classes and failed one, they sent a letter of dismissal. Received the day after Christmas.

If I were in charge of the world (and by the way, World, when is that going to happen?), I would dismiss each and every teacher who shamefully allowed this to happen. Send them a letter on their birthday. Ha ha! No, first I’d try to help them understand how cruel the culture is and give them a chance to reform. If they don’t progress, I’d redirect them to join a profession worthy of their cruelty— have them go work with the “Wolf of Wall Street” or be a prison guard or work for Bill O-Reilly’s talk show.

In each of the 8th grade groups, there ended up being two people equally passionate about a particular part. We did have an informal audition and in each case, both were fine. I checked in with them to re-assess how much they really wanted the part and when no one backed down, considered the “rock, paper, scissors method.” But in the end, I simply doubled the part. Instead of just Father Christmas, we had Father and Mother (in drag) Christmas. We had two Jack Finney’s who argued on stage about who was the real one. In both cases, it enhanced the play and everybody was happy. It was a solution typical of a culture of help.

Doctors take the Hippocractic Oath: “First, do no harm.” I suggest each teacher be sworn in with the Educator’s Oath. “First, do no harm. And then help.”

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