“Planting Brilliance” is a phrase I first heard in a post by Ben Grey. After thinking about some conversations with some of the teachers in my school, I’m thinking it’s more about uncovering brilliance. Or maybe it’s about building faith in one’s own brilliance.
I grew up in a household where I was told (in an era of stay-at-home Moms) that I could do or be anything I wanted to, if I just put my mind to it. That was from my Mom. My Dad always said he didn’t care what I did, as long as I did my best and did something I loved. There was never a question as to whether I was going to college, although Dad hadn’t graduated—he met my mother in college, they fell in love, eloped, and he went to work and just never finished—but we kids always knew he was smart, just as we knew our mother was, too. I grew up in a home where parents believed in the power of an education, and were supportive of schooling—and also learning. My mother and I spent many Sunday afternoons (after church and cleaning up from Sunday dinner) playing Scrabble with a dictionary between us. We paid no attention to the time rules—the goal was to find new words, interesting words, and to make the most points we possibly could. I don’t remember a winner or loser—or caring about that—it was the pursuit of words that was the goal.
When I became a teacher, I was much like Ben describes in his post—“We step through the door on that birth of our career with thoughts that we will change the world. Or many tiny worlds.” but then reality set in and I found out not all kids had been taught to believe in themselves. It didn’t take me long, though, to figure out that many kids just needed someone to believe in them for them to believe in themselves. I also had been punished enough as a kid for being a rule-bender, a limits-pusher and a question-asker that I wasn’t interested in being a yeller or a punisher, so kids quickly figured that out about me. I ignored a lot and didn’t give them the attention they were seeking—yet I did give them good kinds of attention. I think my joy of learning, my love of books and my generally happy attitude was somewhat contagious to kids and caused most to want to try in my classes.
However, I also realized a long time ago that I would have kids in my class that I didn’t immediately connect with—or worse yet, that immediately made me bristle for some reason. The fact is that if I catch myself feeling like that with a kid, I consciously make an effort to be one on one with that child as much as I can. I invite them to have lunch with me. I ask them to run errands to the office. I ask them to hand out or collect papers, or be line leader. What I discovered (again, long ago) is that when I am with a kid one to one, I find ways to connect with them. I discover their interests or humor, or sadness, or something that builds a connection between us. . . so that we are no longer at odds or strangers to one another.
As an adult, I’m realizing now that that was kind of what happened with my 6th grade teacher—I just didn’t connect—ever—and I don’t think she ever tried to connect with me. What a shame—I’ve never forgotten her—first name of Pocahontas, and the Indian native, Pocahontas is one of my distant relatives. Could have been quite an opportunity to connect, but instead I remember her because we didn’t. I only remember one other first name of a teacher and that’s because he connected with me academically and as a human being…he used to pass the bus stop each day and on rainy/cold/snowy days he’d give my brother and me a ride to school.
John Dewey says we are there to help find “out the conditions of the environment and the kinds of activities in which the positive capabilities of each young person could operate most effectually.” (John Dewey.p 139) Pocahontas didn’t do that. Mr. Arrington did. I am trying to, and I look every day to try to uncover brilliance or build a child’s faith in his or her own smarts. Challenge them, give them success and then raise the expectation… and then challenge them again. Teaching is not just about sharing knowledge, it’s about being human and helping kids feel smart and finding their own strengths. The more they know about themselves–about how they learn, how they think, what they enjoy and don’t enjoy, the more prepared they’ll be to learn throughout life and find their niche–or niches. So many times we simply don’t allow students to show us their brilliance.. .so the next time you feel your hackles rising at something a child did, stop yourself from responding immediately and then ask him or her to have lunch with you today. Watch the situation deflate and enjoy the company at lunch! See if you can help uncover some brilliance!