Very long response to Kopp

When I read this, about 30 years ago, it reflected very well how I felt about the way I did therapy and encouraged me to go back to doing work in counseling while getting a teaching certificate. I did not think much about how my approach to counseling might transfer into the classroom, but I did find myself puzzled that several of the educators I hung out with, partied with (my wife’s colleagues) were enthusiastic about me becoming a teacher. And indeed I went into the system they were in as soon as I got certified. Only then did I realize why they were enthusiastic: they had heard my tales of therapeutic derring-do with an appreciative ear, knowing that those features of my work were those most difficult to find in the classroom. If teachers can connect with kids, something I did routinely as part of my counseling, they have the battle half won. (I might mention that they were also impressed with my academic knowledge. Most of our friends were Spanish-speaking and I would speak Spanish with them not too well not realizing that many of my future colleagues in the foreign language department did not have even the Spanish-speaking skills I had).

So let me go over Kopp’s quote and show how that translates into the classroom, at least the way I do it.

The first part is a metaphor of life as a journey where the person seeks a guide. For me, learning is just such a journey, but I don’t restrict learning to academics; I admire a mechanic, a farmer, a builder, a business person…. anyone who creates through learning and learns to create. One who combines academics with hands-on work, gardening, auto mechanics, carpentry, or outdoor and athletic activities, fits my definition of a well-rounded person. Two boys I knew were masters of this. They were brothers, named Rusty and Cody. I had one one year in Second Year Spanish and the other the following year. Both looked and acted like their names: cowboys. Lean, jeans wearing, lanky cowboys. The elder, Rusty, explained his easy use of Spanish by the fact that he headed up a landscaping crew whose members spoke no English at 17 years of age! But Rusty was also an academic star, offering intriguing insights in class discussions.

One day a student made an off-hand remark about Jews, easy to do in our school because we had more Jewish teachers than Jewish students in our heavily Mormon and Hispanic part of town. When the kid made the remark, Rusty half rose out of his seat and menacingly addressed the offender with, “What did you want to say about Jews? I’m Jewish.”

This Arizona cowboy, Jewish? Ah, last name Benjamin. Boy, talk about stereotyping. Some years later I got to know a lawyer who taught Yeshiva in our town and she knew the boys well. Both excellent Yeshiva students as well, good Jewish boys, just a little different. I tell that story to highlight how we always have to be very open and not make assumptions, as I certainly did about the two boys. Maintaining that openness is not so easy when you are trying to balance and sift the many personalities in your classroom. Sadly, many teachers and other helpful people like to set themselves up as paragons of tolerance and understanding and take a supercilious pose toward you, acting as though they were masters of such social graces and professional objectivity. They like to cow others into accepting their wisdom. Such people do not promote growth in us and it’s best to move past them.

That gets to the main idea of Kopp’s work, finding the authentic self and encountering others in an authentic way. Encountering others is a term from psychotherapy and used in pop psychology a lot. But to encounter another person means just the kind of openness I am urging with your students. The mass education we work in discourages that. Educators advocate mass testing to tell us about the populations, admonishing us not to look at any one individual’s score as an indicator of anything, yet schools push out kids whose test scores they know are going to be low. Students proudly display their high-stakes test scores or hide them, depending. Some schools don’t give teachers data on their students like reading scores, hoping to promote just such an openness, an encounter. I’ve told this story before, too…

I was consulting with a parochial school as a counselor at the mental health clinic when a teacher asked for my services. He wanted me to observe his students both on the playground and in class. His complaint was that his students fought a lot on the playground and it broke down along ethnic lines; he had one third Blacks, one third Whites, and one third Hispanics. This was fourth grade. I watched the kids play and saw nothing remarkable, though I didn’t doubt the teacher’s concerns. Then we went in to take our seats and my jaw dropped. It stayed dropped the entire class period.

When the kids went out again, I asked the teacher if he had noticed how he had the children seated, his seating chart. Well, he had seated them according to reading test scores. And as a result, I pointed out, all the White kids are on one side of the room, all the Black kids on the other, and the Hispanics down the middle. I could see his eyeballs move to access the picture, and then his jaw dropped, too. He had never noticed and resolved to mix the class immediately. What had been going on in his head when he set up the seating chart? Test scores, not kids. And this was clearly a pretty sensitive guy. It was nice to see a male teacher at that level.

“We must always see our own feelings of uneasiness as being our chance for ‘making the growth choice rather than the fear choice.’” Here Kopp taps into an emotion that characterizes and pervades our educational institutions on the part of both students and teachers, the fear factor. The word uneasiness lies closer to this pervasive aura, an aura of worry that causes teachers to fear the principal’s note, “See me”, and the kid’s response to hearing his name, “I didn’t do anything!” This past summer I got a call that the principal and vice-principal together wanted to see me. I just knew they were going to tell me that they would appreciate it if I didn’t come back because they had the new Latin teacher now and were sick of my giving kids high grades and little homework. Instead they asked me to teach Spanish in addition to Latin! I took it, laughing at myself but not giving up my self-protective paranoia. As the saying has it, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

I look back on my own emotional development and how I met the challenges of being the child of divorced parents, multiple marriages on both my dad’s part and my mom’s, my own tentative relationships with girls, and the agony and the ecstasy of marriage. Another quick story about the latter: I saw the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? before I got married and found it downright silly; then I saw it again after I’d been married a few years and was riveted.

“The psychotherapist needs only to be aware of this force, in his patient, and to keep it within his vision. Then he may enjoy his work and need never bog down in boredom.” Lots of people over the years questioned my failure to burn out doing counseling and psychotherapy (I won’t bother to define the difference, though I suspect most people have an intuitive grasp of this), and I think the failure lies in Kopp’s quote above, “enjoy his work and need never bog down in boredom”. To many that sounds as if the therapist is putting himself first, and he is; how can a fractured, burnt out therapist treat patients/clients unless he is just medicating them? Think of the airlines’ admonition to put your own oxygen mask on first, then your child’s. If I’m not healthy and taking care of myself, how can a relationship with me be beneficial?

I stress sleep, diet, and exercise as a starter for being in shape to do therapy and, I would add, to teach. I often wonder if the acerbic, dyspeptic attitude toward kids might come from tired, stressed teachers who would otherwise be more open to the “encounter”. The chaos of the multiple personalities of the classroom can be like waves hitting a boat: keeping your balance takes sea legs, and keeping your sea legs means being in decent physical health and possessed of a reasonably high level of energy. I can feel my own energy in my belly, like a little whirling ball. Really.

I can also feel the difference: dragged out, listless, anemic, energyless. What pepped me up was when I started training with an uncompromising trainer in weight training. I quickly concluded I did not want to go into those sessions on nervous energy alone, so I started forcing myself to get 8 hours of sleep a night. The side benefit of that was that I found I got things done at work a lot faster and a lot better, even if I had sacrificed preparation, e.g lesson plans for sleep. When I got into work, plans popped into my head, papers got graded a lot quicker, and so forth with more sleep and coffee. Can’t forget the coffee.

But let me digress here to address this issue of moralism. American culture has a heavy dose of puritanical moralism. The idea of the great Poo Bah therapist or teacher enjoying his work and eluding boredom goes against that grain of moralism. It’s selfish, It’s self-indulgent. All the labels that trigger guilt in so many people. Fortunately, I was armored against guilt and shame, feeling neither unless warranted. Unfortunately, lots of people walk around in a permanent state of shame, taking blame for things they have no control over. Martyrdom is preferable to success. Countless self-help books have been written on how to get free of the clutches of such culture-induced bindings, but they are countermanded by the forces that condemn the 60s as being hedonistic and irresponsible. These are currents in our society that must be swum through with strength and determination and some help wherever you can get it.

“man’s inherent longing for relatedness and for meaning” echoes the title of one of the most recommended books of the last half century, Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Now we are getting to the meollo, the marrow, of teaching. Let’s be clear, teaching in a classroom may be different from teaching in a more tradition, apprenticeship manner, but the relationship is still the same. This entry is so long I don’t want to go into technology and what it is doing to the relationship, but other entries of mine have addressed this. This summer I hope to take Laura Gibb’s on-line Latin course which, she assures me, gives free rein to the intimacy of that relationship, even more so than in a classroom We’ll see.

Each student wants to relate to someone, if not the teacher, the natural target of a child, then to other children. To enforce a neutral posture in a crowded classroom because the teacher does not want to be pulled on and tugged at by students in an emotional manner and cannot stand interaction among students is to set up a most unnatural ambience which will surely result in pathology. We see the pathology in many forms. I just read a review from this past July of a book titled Teach Your Children Well which enumerates the many ways our educational system deforms our children and the parents along with them. How about the teachers? I recall an argument breaking out on a listserv about whether teachers should follow professional guidelines or teach what they are told to; I couldn’t believe the number of teachers who rallied to the cause of “obey your employer”.

Children are different truism. One of my children arrived vaginally, the other by plane. Very, very different. The only things the two have in common besides us is childhood abuse and their biracialism, an issue in our society. (It was nice to see a video in which several White ladies in Brazil talked about their Black roots….. and they didn’t mean their hair multiracialism, while not eliminating racism and discrimination in Brazil, does dominate the country in a way it does not here). If my family, after 45 and 34 years of conditioning, cannot produce children closer than these two, how can a school system be expected to get 35 kids into line and plane down the differences among them? Every teacher faces 35 encounters every day and the existential understanding of this has something to offer those teachers just as the number crunching, averaging of student data does, too.

” He can add nothing to the patient’s inherent capacity to get well, and whenever he tries to do so he meets stubborn resistance which slows up the progress of treatment. The patient is already fully equipped for getting well… Since he [the therapist] is not “responsible” for the cure, he is free to enjoy the spectacle of it taking place” This is quoted by Kopp from Robert C. Murphy Jr.’s Psychotherapy Based On Human Longing. The title alone harks back to Rogerian and Gestalt therapies, what we now derisively refer to as touchy-feely, a clear indication that the Philistines have won. I would say the rise of so much New Ageism and self-help churches corresponds to the fall of such therapies in conventional treatment facilities.

But this quote contains a great deal, starting with “the patient’s inherent capacity to get well”. Substitute “learn” for “get well” and you have the essence of education: stand back and watch them learn; get out of the way and watch them learn. The teacher is “free to enjoy the spectacle” of watching them learn. Most teachers will speak of just such a joy, what makes teaching worthwhile. But it is slippery, it slips from our grasp easily in the midst of all the demands; so the teacher is tempted to “add something” – a test, a project, an assignment, a work sheet…. and encounters not the student but the resistance.

At this point, the objection will be voiced that we can’t do away with test, projects, assignments, work…. well, maybe work sheets. Of course not. Projects are creativity in action; tests show us what we need to learn. But assignments and their concomitant testing and projects should grow out of the encounters with students. I never give the same test twice, which does make it difficult to compare years, classes, but each class is different. I even waver on giving the same test to the same subject, say Spanish One, when there are two sections. Even each section in the course of a year is different from the others. In one class, a topic just bounced along on the tips of great questions from the class, while in another class the topic just never clicked; how can you expect the same outcome in both classes?

Yet that is precisely what the number-crunchers want: absolute uniformity to conform to their mathematical models. Remember S.I. Hayakawa’s “Cow One is not Cow Two”? Well, these guys deal only in herds.

“Otherwise, we are all too ready to live with the familiar, so long as it seems to work, no matter how colorless the rewards. And so, it is not astonishing that, thought the patient enters therapy insisting that he wants to change, more often than not, what he really wants is to remain the same and to get the therapist to make him feel better. His goal is to become a more effective neurotic, so that he may have what he wants without risking getting into anything new. He prefers the security of known misery to the misery of unfamiliar insecurity.”

Our students may want more exciting classes, more challenging material, but the A mongers do not want to risk getting a B+. While that may frustrate us, we must remember that that is their world; it’s what their parents value, what most of their teachers value, what the whole structure of education values. Why should the kid risk all that when all he has to do is plug along as he has been and receive kudos. One way to allow this student to venture forth is to relax him about his grade. “You have an A; now get busy.” It’s amazing how often that has freed a student up to just go ahead and learn. To me, it’s a small matter, but to teachers who value “high marks” above everything else, it is a betrayal. Feelings run very high on the issue of grades. I’ve noticed a teacher fighting with a kid over a tenth of a percent: 89.9 = a B while 90. = an A, yet asking that teacher how she grades oral presentations and finding there is room for slop to the level of 5 percentage points! Guess she forgot that once the computer spit the 89.9 out.

“It is as if he comes to the office saying, “My world is broken, and you have to fix it.” Because of this, my only goals as I begin the work are to take care of myself and to have fun.”

“… have fun and take care of myself”??? What kind of dedicated teacher is that? One dedicated to doing his job, that’s what kind. He takes care of himself so he can work effectively and he has fun as a way of releasing his creativity. Without creativity, he cannot respond to the myriad ways in which students present themselves.

” He can be useful in many ways. The therapist, first of all, provides another struggling human being to be encountered by the then self-centered patient, who can see no other problems than his own. The therapist can interpret, advise, provide the emotional acceptance and support that nurtures personal growth, and above all, he can listen.” It disarms students when you do not provide the direct instruction they have been raised on; they think you do not care whether they learn and so often act up. Some try to force you to be “rigorous” and correct them a lot and hand out lots of low scores with all sorts of dire predictions about their future. That makes them feel like you care and that they can comfortably glide along on their well-worn path. But when you come across as bumbling, an absent-minded professor who is always looking for his coffee cup instead of shaking a boney finger at miscreants, the student is forced onto his own devices. If you keep meeting students’ expectations, they will keep giving you what they give their other teachers, and if you and they are satisfied with that, maybe it’ll work for you. But lots of us see American education as a growing waste-land of discarded kids and over-stressed A mongers who care nothing about learning. Most are somewhere along that spectrum but way too many are at one end or the other.

” The seeker comes in hope of finding something definite, something permanent, something unchanging upon which to depend. He is offered instead the reflection that life is just what it seems to be, a changing, ambiguous, ephemeral mixed bag. It may often be discouraging, but it is ultimately worth it, because that’s all there is.”

This last paragraph will dissolve the pursual of this whole train of thought. It flies in the face of the Western religious tradition of a hierarchical order that is unchanging and definitive. My brief is that carrying into the classroom this vision of a well-ordered world where everything makes sense and is underwritten by Divine Law clashes with the chaos of personalities in the classroom (not to mention the teachers’ lounge). If we can’t encounter each student as an entity unto himself, if we must place him in an achievement context, in a mass exercise in sorting by testing, on an arc of resources expended, then we are bound and cannot react to him as he is. Not only will we lose what he is, we will doubtless lose what we are.

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