I got an e-mail from Dave, who attended my workshop last week on “Putting Learners in the Driver’s Seat.” He asked, “If the learner is in the driver’s seat, where is the teacher?” I’m going to answer by telling the story of Lucie’s success at speaking in public.
Lucie won the class lottery! She got to come with me to Edmonton to present the Never Fail Writing Method that we used in our basic literacy program. A plane trip, three nights in a hotel, and a glimpse of the big city, all in exchange for a bit of public speaking.
We had decided in advance how to share the presentation: I would present the format and the theory of the Never Fail method; she would read some of her own writing and bits of other students’ work, and she would talk about her experience in writing class.
So there we were, in front of an audience of about 75 literacy and adult basic education instructors and tutors, nearly all women, an engaged and receptive audience.
After I introduced the Never Fail method, it was Lucie’s turn to read her piece about going to the dentist. She stood up, and I moved away a little, to give her the stage.
She barely got the title out, and then couldn’t speak any more; she stood with her head down and tears in her eyes, while the audience waited. I moved to stand at her side, hoping that the moral support would enable her to go on, but it made no difference.
Still head down, still silence, punctuated by little sobbing snorts.
My instinct was to put my arm around her and guide her to her seat. I wanted to get her out of what I perceived to be an embarrassing situation—crying in front of a large audience.
But I stopped myself from acting on my impulse, and asked her in a low voice, “Do you want to sit down?”
She shook her head vigorously.
“So you want to keep going?”
She nodded, with a little sniff.
My questions put Lucie in the driver’s seat, and made me the navigator—it would be my job to help her get where she said she wanted to go, but she was driving.
So I turned and walked away from her, across the front of the room, down the side of the audience, towards the back of the room.
I could see the confusion on the faces in the audience. They seemed to ask, “What are you doing, leaving Lucie alone at the front of the room?”
I turned to face Lucie and asked, “How long have you been going to our writing group?”
“Six months,” she replied, still looking at her feet, but in a voice loud enough that I could hear her across the room.
I turned and continued walking to the back. Again, I saw the faces and imagined what they were thinking. “Why are you being so cruel, making her answer questions when she can hardly speak? Help her sit down. Get her to stop crying.”
By this time I was at the back of the room and asked Lucie, “How often do we have writing class?”
“On Tuesdays, we have writing marathon.”
“Can you say a little about what we do at the writing marathon?”
Her head gradually came up, and she naturally pitched her voice loud enough for me to hear her at the back of the room. We had a little conversation about writing, over the heads of the seated audience. It was as if they weren’t there.
Finally I asked her if she was ready to read her story about the dentist. She said she was. And she did, to loud applause.
On reflection, how glad I was that I had stopped myself from acting on my impulse to save her from embarrassment.
With her in the driver’s seat, my role as navigator was clear. She said she wanted to talk to the audience, so I put myself in a position where she would have to speak loudly enough for me to hear at the back of the room; I asked her some questions to remind her of what she had planned to say.
When I think about it now, I wonder who I really wanted to save from embarrassment. The silent criticism of 75 teachers was hard to face as I walked to the back of the room. I wanted them to think I was brilliant and creative, but it seemed I was coming across as cruel and wrong-headed. And they were embarrassed too. Even though they felt sympathy for Lucie as she faltered in her reading, it was an awkward situation. They didn’t want to watch a student fail while they were powerless to help. They wanted to be rescued, too.
Lucie, however, wanted to do what she had come to do. If I had put myself in the driver’s seat, and moved into rescue mode for her, for the audience, and for myself, she would have gone home in defeat, instead of in triumph.
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Thanks, Jenny, for your insights. How often I find myself acting to make myself comfortable! And how often my need to feel comfortable interferes with someone else’s needs or wants, or shuts a student down.
And, by the way, moving to the back was standard procedure for me, not something I created on the spot. Students often speak so softly that other students can’t hear, so I often move to the other side of the room when a student speaks, so that they will raise their voice loud enough for me (and everyone else) to hear.
Jenny Horsman asked me to post this response–technical issues prevented her from posting herself.
Thanks Kate – I love this story. It is such a powerful reminder. I know in so many situations that the best thing to do to offer support is to ask the other what they need. As always I love the creativity of the response. I have certainly learned to stand with rather than take over – but i wouldn’t have thought to move to the back of the room and have a conversation – as a way to ease the student into the role they wanted to take. Thank you.
Your piece also makes me think about the value of asking the question in other situations too. I have heard way too many stories from people with disabilities about the dangers of well-meaning interventions that totally get in the way. The person going backwards across the intersection – who is “helped” back where they came from when they had just made it across – the person using elbow crutches who falls when someone grabs their arm to “help” and puts them off balance. I know that asking “Are you OK or do you want any help?” makes more sense – than either diving in or ignoring someone.
So why is it so hard to just ask? I think you gave some answers in your piece – and some clues to other situations…. that desire to jump in and move the situation or the person along because of discomfort. Makes me think again about the challenging journey to learn to be present with all the feelings, in the moment – however uncomfortable they are.
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