Part One: Origins
I once went to a Professional Development session led by a man whose purpose, it seemed, was to instil in us a profound sense of guilt. He was a clergyman who had gone into teaching late in life upon leaving the church, and apparently had leapt into his second vocation with all the gusto that he had his first. Teaching, to him, was evidently a clarion call to save as many souls as he could. His passion was evident as he told us, lip quivering behind his beard and eyes nearly in tears behind thick glasses, the following anecdote:
“I once had a student who received a failing grade at the end of term. [I’ll edit out some of the more saccharine details concerning the socio-economic status of the student in question.] When he came to see me about his options for summer school, he asked me, ‘Sir, why did you fail me?’ And then it hit me: I…had FAILED…this student.”
There was a dramatic pause as he waited for the play on words to sink in. I think the looks of shock on our faces must have confused the poor fellow.
Unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of P.D. session that has been found to work with teachers time after time. We are, by and large, an unusually sensitive group of people, with a more-than-average propensity for caring, self-sacrifice, and a sense of duty to society. Most teachers get into the profession with altruistic motives. The best teachers I know are constantly questioning themselves, wondering if they could have done something more, something better, to help kids in need; re-working lesson plans, staying for extra help sessions, making impassioned pleas for assistance from parents to allow their children to succeed. We are highly susceptible to guilt. The educational environment at present, too, adds to this. Sometimes it seems like there is a kind of a foot-race of martyrdom amongst teachers and administrators, with everybody eager to demonstrate that they care more than their colleagues about the darling “children” (who, by the time they reach us, are well into the age bracket that includes drinking, smoking, driving, sex, and voting – though hopefully not all at once).
Some of this is genuine – to be fair, a lot of it is genuinely altruistic. We do care; we care a lot. Many of us have given up careers in other fields because we felt a calling. It’s real. It matters. But some of it is overdone – altruism to a fault, as they say. Some is self-serving, and worse, some is actually cynical. Between the glurge (“Do it for the poor, suffering children!”) and the narcissistic (“I’M going to save the poor children!”), there is the manipulative (“Why aren’t you doing more for the poor children?”). All of these attitudes are major encumbrances when you’re trying to nurture actual kids. The title of this blog is “The Nature of Nurturing” – I contend that there is a fundamental flaw in the common conception in the field of education as to what “nurturing children” actually means. To my mind, nurturing means giving them nourishment: something that infants use to help them grow and get stronger. Not something that enslaves them, but something that liberates them to make their own decisions with confidence and allows them to feel the satisfaction of having made good ones.
Or to learn from bad ones. Aye, there’s the rub. In the English-speaking world, including Canada (where I live and work), England, Australia, and the United States, there has been a disturbing trend towards what I would call an hysterical over-protection of children that speaks volumes about our own psychoses as societies and says very little at all about learning to manage, or even to understand, risk. There is a massive anxiety that has arisen in our very affluent societies that seems to be linked to the combined influences of a general lack of immediate consequences to our actions; of the rise of individualism (and the concurrent loss of community) in the West; of media and commercial interests (too often one and the same); of the fear of litigation; and of an overwhelming amount of what is falsely termed ‘choice’, which is linked to all of the previous items mentioned in this short list. Over the next few postings, I’ll look at them all briefly, and offer my perspective on why risk, and its concomitant occasional failure, are not only tolerable, but necessary for proper healthy development. “