I Wonder…

I Wonder…

Myra missed a day of class every week, and many weeks she missed two out of four days. She didn’t offer any reasons for missing, just breezed in the next day with a smile and settled in to work. She seemed engaged and interested, and then didn’t show up the next day.

I was at a loss. Clearly she liked the readings we were doing in class, liked the discussions, and quickly set to work on writing and other assignments. I didn’t think she was ill. I knew she didn’t have kids. Her abysmal attendance frustrated me no end, and my judgmental self played a tape in my head: “She treats my class like a drop-in fun fair!” “Clearly not motivated to pass the course.” “Why should I work to catch her up on what she missed when she deigns to return?” “She doesn’t respect the work I do to prep this class.” 

I can’t fault myself or anyone else when those instant judgments float into our minds. They hang in the air around us, waiting to be applied to any situation. And of course we take student behaviour personally. We are persons, after all. Still, when  I am teaching there is nothing I want more than to succeed at my job, so I work on noticing those judgements as they float by, keeping them to myself, and cultivating curiousity about what is going on in the situation and in my head.

Myra’s insouciance did not square with my mental monologue. If she had come back to class sullen, if she hadn’t made any effort when she did come, if she had made excuses, then I might not have noticed how negative my thoughts about the situation were. That is how assumptions sneak by me: they come camoflauged by context.

In this case the picture in my head, of a student unmotivated and disrespectful, did not jibe with the reality in front of me. And that incongruence shook me out of my complacence. It piqued my curiosity.

Putting my judgments aside for a moment, I had a private chat with her. I said that I enjoyed her contributions to the class, and that she was more than capable of doing the work. However, I was worried that her poor attendance would mean that she would not pass the class, and I found it frustrating to try to catch her up every time she came back after an absence.

Then I left a little space of silence…

She told me that she lived with her cousin, her cousin’s husband and their two young school-age children. She did not pay rent, and it was understood that she would babysit and help out in exchange for room and board. Frequently the couple would oversleep, and when they woke up it was a mad scramble for them to get to work. It was a scramble for the kids, too, and often they would miss the school bus. In that case, the parents would go to work, the kids would stay home from school and Myra would have to stay home to look after the kids. She didn’t like it, but there was nothing she could do…

I asked her to come up with some possible solutions to the problem of getting herself to school. After some thought she said that if she had her own alarm clock she could wake up in time to get the kids to the bus, and get herself to class, no matter what the parents were doing. But she didn’t know how to use an alarm clock.

I said I could help with that, so she went out and bought an alarm clock, I showed her how to set it; she got to class more often, and passed the course. 

It was my curiosity that made a little space for us to meet and solve the problem of her absences. In all my judgmental monologues I never once said, “She doesn’t even care enough to buy an alarm clock!” because I didn’t know she didn’t have an alarm clock! Curiosity opened up a space so she could bring that piece of information into the picture and we could work together to find a solution. Myra’s sunny disposition jolted me into wondering what was making her miss so much, since she obviously liked to come to class. That curiosity led me to an outcome I could never have imagined.

“Curiosity is the heart and foundation of our approach…. We have to have curiosity, or we are lost – lost in judgment of ourselves or others, entangled in shame or blame.”   Jenny Horsman: Curiosity

Wrong Problem, Wrong Solution

curioisitySo easy to make assumptions about what’s behind students’ behaviour. Often if we knew the reasons they were absent, late, inattentive, etc., we would be heartbroken, not angry. (I’m quoting someone there, but I can’t remember who!)

Jenny Horsman has just put up an interesting post about what happens when we assume students are not motivated when they annoy us by not showing up, showing up late, sitting at the back, unresponsive, with their coats on, neglecting assignments–I need not go on. You recognize the list.

Check out Jenny’s post here. 

Related posts:

Survival Strategies Come First 

If They Come, They Care

Every Student Cares

Trigger Warnings

Trigger Warnings

trigger_warningIt seems that “trigger warnings” are everywhere these days, from the usual “This program contains crude language and sexual content; viewer discretion is advised,” to “Trigger warning: rape, extreme verbal abuse, and torture.”

You might think if ever there was a place for a trigger warning, it’s an ABE, adult literacy or GED class where teachers daily work with students who have experiences of violence:

  • those whose childhood experiences of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse made it difficult for them to succeed in the K-12 system;
  • those who came from war zones, who may have been tortured and who saw loved ones killed or wounded;
  • those who, as youth or adults, were or still are involved in gangs or other criminal activity;
  • those who are currently living with violence from their boyfriend or spouse.
  • those whose schools lives were miserable because of taunts and bullying from students and teachers because they did not succeed at school tasks.

Continue reading

The Perils of Giving Advice

The Perils of Giving Advice

no smoking posters vertical“I can’t decide,” Maria said. “I don’t want people to smoke in my apartment any more, so I’m making a sign for the door. Should I say, “Please don’t smoke here” or “Butt Out”?

She had come to class with a project from home (the best kind of adult literacy work, generated by personal need and totally student driven).

She was asking for my advice, which put me in a very gratifying position: there I was, with someone tacitly acknowledging my expertise, and waiting to be told what to do. She had my ego right where it wanted to be!

“Always better to be polite when you’re asking people to do something…” The words were almost out of my mouth when my imagination was caught by the brevity and wit of “Butt Out.”

Suddenly I was sharing her dilemma–I couldn’t decide either.

It was the dilemma Marie presented, the dilemma of not knowing what advice to give, Continue reading

Foot Feedback

Foot Feedback

FootprintsScenario 1: Mohan tells you he has an appointment tomorrow at the financial aid office, scheduled for the middle of your class. He adds that he is sorry that he couldn’t get the appointment at any other time. The next day, he arrives at your class on time, slips out to go to his appointment, and returns quietly half an hour later.

Scenario 2: You explain an activity, divide the class Continue reading

Tempest in the Pool

Tempest in the Pool

Aquafit  classI was a student today, at my aquafit class. I was a student who resisted, who didn’t participate, who went missing. You know, one of those students who makes you wonder why you ever wanted to teach.

We had a teacher who has taught our class only a few times, a lovely, enthusiastic teacher with a bounce in her step and encouragement in her voice. Continue reading

Learning Curves, Twists, and Turns

So much food for thought here. I love these stories of teachers putting themselves in learners’ shoes, literally and figuratively.
And check out the rest of the blog, too–Kate

Adult Literacy and Essential Skills Research Institute

Written by:  Sandi Loschnig

In 1999, I chose to leave my comfortable life on Protection Island, British Columbia, to travel to Cochabamba in Bolivia for a new job working as an educator for a women’s organization. It was a learning journey in every way.

Learning Spanish, finding an apartment, discovering the eccentric transportation systems in the city, shopping for food, being immersed in a new culture—in every moment I was preoccupied with absorbing information. I even dreamed about conjugating Spanish verbs. I was trying so hard to cram everything in that my head ached each evening from the effort.

It wasn’t until I came back to Canada nine months later that I could reflect on my experience. I realized what it meant to be learning a whole new culture, how difficult it was, and how it changes your very identity.

I arrived in Bolivia as an experienced educator in my…

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Power Share

Power Share

all in it togetherHere’s another story about sharing power with adult literacy students, to go with the one I posted last week called “Who’s in Charge Here?” Continue reading

Who’s in Charge Here?

Who’s in Charge Here?

Arriving Saltspring Island photo credit: irfy via photopin cc

Arriving Saltspring Island

I was just one of the crowd of people on the trip—old and young, fat and thin, First Nations and white people, male and female. We were off by bus and ferry to Saltspring Island for the day. My job was to blend in, to let myself be represented by students. They were in charge, and I was along for the ride. I didn’t know it would be so hard.   Continue reading

Neither Kind Nor Patient

Neither Kind Nor Patient

patient dog Morgue fileThe last time I had my teaching evaluated by my administration, I was disappointed. Although I was happy to get a grade of “excellent” (highest on a five point scale), the comments from administration made me gag: “Kate is a kind and a patient teacher,” and Continue reading