Practice Without Preaching

It’s the summer solstice, which means that today is the longest day of 2016. The sun is pouring highly heated happiness from its perch in the sky; the birds are composing symphonies of delighted whimsy from their perches atop the budding and blooming trees; the summer school students are tapping out sad semblances of sentences into sub-par software from their perches at desks in the too-bright, overly air conditioned classroom.

Like I said: longest day.

This morning, I was helping a student with his summer school work and, when I didn’t confirm that his answer to a multiple choice question was correct but instead asked him a question – the aim of which was to get him to restate what he said in the context of the question so that he would realize he was incorrect on his own – he helplessly declared that I’m the “devil of confusion.” I just smiled and asked my question again, and he exhaled forcefully… then answered it. Correctly, thereby realizing his mistake and correcting his original response to the question.

The wild look in his eye clearly communicated to me that this child had no idea what had just happened, or why he now understood the answer to the multiple choice question, but he declared that I was now also the “angel of answers” and, after passing the assessment, he trudged off as happy as a teenager in summer school could probably ever be.

Good job, me! From devil to angel in the course of a conversation. That’s a victory of biblical proportions. I must be pretty freaking good at this whole “teaching” thing.

Unfortunately, that victory is also a thorn in my side. It’s impossible to spend that kind of time with every student, but metacognition is a critical skill and the only way to build that skill – or any skill – is to practice it. Teachers know this. Students know this. Everyone knows this, yet still here I am in a classroom full of students who, in spite of “knowing” that practice makes perfect, ended up in summer school because they either didn’t practice or misunderstood the meaning of perfect.

I’m about to be a student again myself, heading back to school to earn my master’s this fall, and it has pushed me to assess who I am as a learner. Perhaps my own ineptitude as a student – I usually procrastinate, I don’t always revise, I often settle for the bare minimum –  can serve to explain why parts of this school year were frustrating disasters. I have not learned how to be a good student myself, so of course pushing my not-so-great students to strive for greater success will inevitably be a flop. I’m not, as they say, “practicing what I preach.”

… Because the adage of practicing what you preach is actually nonsense.

Religion is preached; writing is practiced. If I preach to this group of summer school students about doing their homework and being resilient and overcoming the doldrums then of course they’re going to nod, because they understand that these notions are good ones, just like Christians understand that loving thy neighbor is a good notion. But sometimes your neighbor is a dickhead, and that’s when the preaching becomes less helpful.

With the 2015-2016 school year finally –  in every sense of the word – behind me it’s possible to start truly reflecting on how the year went. I know that I am smart, and I am compassionate, and I am patient. I understand what students need to do in order to be successful, and I understand that students often do not understand what they need to do to be successful. I also understand that it is my job to put all of that in a blender and serve it up to young minds as smoothly and painlessly as possible. This purée of emotional support, social interaction, and skills-based activities and assessments doesn’t taste the same to all students. Some students are allergic to an ingredient, and some prefer salad, or burgers, or pizza to smoothies.

But if the metaphor stands then the recipe can be adjusted for each student, which means veering from the preached path and instead supporting children in forging their own practices. Human minds need to be cultivated, not indoctrinated, so while being the angel of anything is great for my ego it’s not great for much else aside from maintaining, in my students’ eyes, that I am this impalpable truth-holder whose knowledge is as impracticable as a preacher’s sermon to a congregation of hopeful, but human, beings.

Less preaching. More practice. Can we turn that into an adage?


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