I am empathizing with my students as I write this because I am stuck. I often say to them, “Oh I love to see you frustrated!” and to them, this seems very cruel, but getting stuck forces us to push through obstacles and grow. Hence, I like to see them get stuck because seeing them get unstuck is the most rewarding gift in teaching.
But I digress. I was talking about how I am currently stuck and currently empathetic to my students. Usually, when this happens to my students or to my children, I suggest they just start writing, so that is what I am doing. My hope is that somewhere along the way, purpose will emerge and I will sound brilliant, inspirational, or at the lowest standard, competent and organized. The risk in this practice is (of course) that no sense will emerge and that the process will do nothing but consume time which very much needs to be spent getting the job done. What I am most fearing in this moment is this exact outcome. I have three more tasks on my to-do list today, and these are the central to-do’s not the tangential ones. Hence, this is a huge risk.
The second approach I take when my well-intentioned, hard-working students return with a page or two full of scattered pieces of thought is to ask, “Well, what do you want to say about this topic? What do you really think about it?” If I could accurately describe the looks on their faces when I ask this question, I may elicit the just the right level of sympathy from you, my dear reader, as I am currently feeling for them as I (which you have likely surmised by now) do not know exactly what I want to say; or perhaps, I want to say too much, which is more or less the same thing. But back to their despondent faces. How else is one to feel after carefully cupping and carrying baby seeds of genius to a well-seasoned gardener in hopes of carrying away a stunning plant in full bloom...only to be turned away with some vague sense that what one has in her hands is not truly a plant because it is only the parts to a whole which mandates more skill and material to grow than what one believes she possesses?
But again, I digress. I believe we were speaking of empathy when one is blocked. On that point, I believe it’s important to feel empathetic of the student experience from time to time. It’s cliche to state, but we really do forget what it’s like. How do we re-experience, if not re-live, the fear of not fitting in and the overwhelming sense that this not-fitting-in supersedes any learning objective on any given day for any given purpose? How to we re-activate prior knowledge to recall that the Essential Question of every day is who are my friends? How do we re-enter a class for which we have prepared to the greatest extent but still feel insecure about our knowledge? How do we re-imagine what the heat in our cheeks feels like when our name is called and we don’t know the answer? How do we re-dream the dream we had when we accidentally fell asleep while up too late trying to get unstuck for the paper that is due absolutely no later than tomorrow? How do we re-cry the tears of relief (because it is really relief, not truly joy) or shame (because it is really shame, not truly sorrow) when we open the decision letter and know that someone who met us on paper, in an hour of one particular day, or in a few check marks from a portfolio around a table, has decided whether they want to really know us?
I have come to the realization it is ever harder to remember but ever more important. Age is not our friend in this endeavor. We have to approach the task with intention (at least I will earn high marks for that today if not for efficiency). To remember, we must intentionally place ourselves in chairs, in classrooms and experience what it is like to see the nuances of learning through the eyes of a child: the good, the bad, and the boring. We must experience where to find the elusive Dropbox in Schoology, how to sit still and focus on our work when we just saw the funniest thing ever and the stifled giggles are infectious, and how to free one’s thoughts when they are confined by the Berlin Wall and the timer is on in English class. Hence, we must force ourselves to get stuck sometimes.
But then comes the joy of getting unstuck. It is akin to breaking down The Wall (though I only read about it and watched it on the news) or reaching the greatest summit (though I’ve only been to 11, 138 ft. on my two feet)...but I think the point is that by allowing ourselves to bump up against the great obstacles of school from time to time, we can remember the sense of achievement which comes from surmounting them, the very great sense of achievement in the summit of the smallest moment of a seemingly inconsequential victory.
Beyond that, we can recapture the immense joy of learning and revive our sense of responsibility in providing this joy so that it transcends the frustrations, disappointments, and failures inherent to any of life’s worthwhile journeys. At my school, we frequently talk about the gifts we give each other on a daily basis in the most mundane of exchanges and the weight they carry in painting the landscape of the day, week, and year we share together. Sometimes we give the gift of a great obstacle in exchange for the gift of growth. As often, we give the gift of a integrated, engaging learning experience in exchange for the gift of appreciation and joy of learning. Other times, we give the gift of empathy in the face of failure in exchange for the gift of rapport. The sense that we are on this journey together is the daily gift we give each other. While most of the time, we are out ahead with signs reading This Way To Success, sometimes we circle back and are side-by-side. Today I was stuck, and I thought of my students. They emerged ahead...and I followed them.