Saturday, January 13, 2018

Start Where You Are

When I first began teaching Taylor, my firstborn, at home 20 or so years ago, I had aspirations. I ordered a challenging curriculum that included cursive for pre-K. I knew my daughter was bright, so why not push the limits? Excel, achieve, soar higher....blah, blah, blah. And maybe burn out any hope for a love of learning on the way to the trophy store.

That excelling and achieving began to look like a driven mother and a tearful child. I was starting to think homeschool was definitely not what I wanted to do. Didn't I originally decide to teach my child so I could spend more time with her instead of sending her away each day? Wasn't I drawn in by the idea of cuddling up and reading books together? That image was not matching up with the reality of  me demanding perfect penmanship from a four year old.

My focus had moved from being with Taylor and knowing Taylor into proving to the world the superiority of homeschooling. My child needed to be an academic rockstar! Clearly, I had lost my way. I had forgotten something: I was teaching a child, not a curriculum. Curriculum is just a tool. This child had an eternal soul that needed to be loved and led.

I went to my first home educator conference that spring; the year was 1997. My eyes were opened to a myriad of choices I had not known before. Different speakers reignited my desire to know my child and teach my child, to read good literature, to explore the arts, and to use natural curiosity to delve deeper. I walked away reflecting on the quote from W.B. Yeats, "Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire." What a relief to be able to leave the bucket concept behind and treat my child as a human being.
Fast forward to the present: this time I am teaching a child who is not my own. Morgan is a 7th grader that I get to teach two days a week. Like so many people, Morgan struggles with math. When that's happening, there is the crazy part of me that thinks, "Work harder. Do more. Push. Push. Push." But my older, wiser self says, "Slow down. Try another approach. Lower the target. Celebrate progress."

Morgan needs to start where she is at. She can't start anywhere else, so why bother with all those other starting places?

Sometimes the cookies need to be moved to the lower shelf so kids can reach them.

Last year I went to a sea lion show at the Georgia Aquarium. The trainers brought out the sea lions and had them perform. One of the newer sea lion pups, Neptune, was supposed to jump into the water and jump up to ring a bell. He missed the bell.The trainer had Neptune try again. He missed again. Then the trainer lowered the target about 12 inches. Neptune tried again and succeeded. The trainer said, "I want to help Neptune succeed, so I lowered the target." She tossed Neptune a fish as a reward for hitting the mark. "Neptune will learn to hit the higher target, but for now we want to reward any effort that moves in that direction."

That phrase kept replaying over and over in my mind: "I want to help Neptune succeed, so I lowered the target.... reward any effort that moves in the right direction." It was the opposite of raise the bar high. It was the opposite of push them into the deep end and they will learn how to swim. Granted, Neptune is a sea lion. But, that makes my point all the stronger: If a sea lion needs encouragement and a lowering of the target, how much more the human soul.

I remember working at my first mall job. It was in a small, trendy shop that set a sales goal for each employee. Every day I could walk in to work, look up at the giant chalkboard, see my name and the ridiculous sales goal written there. And every day I could leave with the same sense of failure because, yet again, I had failed to meet the expectation. I hated that. But it wasn't just me: no one ever made the goal. Everyone lost. We all went home losers. Every. Single. Day.  In related news, job turnover was high. No one really appreciated feeling like a loser.

I don't want to be like my manager at the mall boutique. I don't want to set the bar so high that people are filled with dread. I don't want my students to hate learning, to feel like failures, or just quit. I want to be like that Georgia Aquarium trainer. I want to help my children succeed. I want to lower the target so my students can hit it. I want to see the progress that Morgan is making and celebrate that. I don't want to get stuck in where someone else believes she ought to be. That's not real life. Real life is where we are and that is where we begin. 

With homeschool, with parenting, with work, with play, with everything we do, we begin with souls. That's who we are: imperfect, weak, human souls who need the bar lowered every now and then.