#27 [Instructions] On therapeutic relationships in education

Last week I defined the role of educators. Demonstrate understanding; provide instruction in its means; encourage its pursuit. Of the three, the second, provision of instruction, comes most naturally. Most teachers give generously of their time, spirit and knowledge. Its the backbone of the vocation. We’re a giving bunch.

So, how best to give? That’s the question.

The story goes that a man without food was close to a river. Another man approached and offered to catch him a fish. The first man was grateful and gladly accepted. With a full belly, that night he slipped into a deep sleep. He dreamed he was on a building site, surrounded by trucks loaded with bricks. There was a cement mixer and beside it a pile of yellow sand. The man was enthused. It had been years since his last employ and he longed to work again with his hands. So he looked for a shovel with which to load the mixer. But he couldn’t find one. The doors to the trucks were locked and without a knife, he was unable even to unload the bricks, which were bound with plastic straps. The man scratched his head. He woke up hungry, and his dream left him unsatisfied.

Its nothing new to say of fishing that men and women should be taught the skill rather than gifted the catch. Nor to apply that same principle to education. At least in theory, students are assessed on what they can do themselves. Teachers prepare them to demonstrate by means of assessment what knowledge they’ve acquired in the course of instruction, and provide critical feedback to identify areas in need of improvement.

But things are more complicated on the ground, in particular with regard to factors external to the teacher-student relationship, which affect the capacity of each to play their part. On the tragic end of the spectrum of externalities is what’s called complex trauma. A tangled milieu of symptoms from prolonged exposure to abhorrent behaviour in the early stages of childhood development. Students affected find regulating their emotions exceedingly difficult. Their nervous systems are continually haunted by unresolved encounters with threats to their safety and stability. They struggle to focus and socialise, often they act out. In school terms they require Special Education. In real terms they require something beyond the mere provision of instruction.

One way of thinking about what that something is, is therapy. The treatment of disorder and dysfunction sought by or for the disordered and dysfunctional. in simple terms, therapy is the process of reordering. Putting things together; organisation for functional expression. In poetic terms therapy is the way home. Over the years common threads in stories of recovery have been woven by various professionals into formalised approaches. All of them recognise a paradox in the common goal; that every one is different, and yet there are commonalities in patterns of individual development. 

So the teacher faces a challenge. How to differentiate their approach to cater for the varied needs of individuals who to differing degrees are affected by externalities that threaten to disorganise their capacity to pay attention to content on which one day they will be examined. Oomph.

The story goes that long ago, in a time before anyone who’s ever lived can remember, a time best understood as a dream, the sun and the moon made a seed. The seed lay on the ground, and was watered by the clouds. Soon it sprouted two small leaves, attached to a stem. The sun and the moon watched the small plant grow towards the sky, until one day, big enough to know, the plant opened its eyes, looked around and immediately became terrified by the height to which it had grown. “Oh no!” Cried the plant, “I’ve so far to fall!”

Hearing distress the wind arrived to offer some help. “What’s the matter?” Asked the wind. Just then a bird flew by, catching the attention of the terrified plant.
“Oh wind, I cannot possibly live this way. If only I were a bird! I’d have no need to be afraid.”
“Very well,” said the wind, and transformed the plant into a small bird.
The bird was thrilled, fascinated by its newfound perspective. It flew to new places far from home. In one such place the bird found a forest of enormous trees and landed on one of their branches.
“Oh my!” Said the bird. “How scared this tree must be!”
In reply came the voice of the tree, slow and deep. “Dear bird,” it said, “how old do you think I am?”
“Um—“ said the bird, “maybe three?”
“Ha!” Laughed the tree. “I am one hundred years old!”
“Wow!” Said the bird.
“But that’s not all,” the tree continued, “I am a tree. And trees are three hundred million years old! For three hundred million years we’ve been learning to stand tall.”
The bird was stunned. Suddenly a strong gust of wind blew through the forest. The tree swayed, and the bird fluttered from the branch, then landed again.
“Wind!” Called the bird.
“Yes?”
“I need your help again. I want to be a tree! They’ve been learning to stand tall for three hundred million years!”

What does it mean to demonstrate understanding? To be an old tree surrounded by frightened birds of nervous flutter. In that question, suspended between pillars of knowing, are stories about setting examples. When I first started working with children I thought it was their example that I should follow. The wide-eyed way they went about their games and activities, the freedom with which they expressed how they were really feeling. But as I’ve grown so I’ve leaned that wide-eyed wonder comes in different forms. And there are times to join in the fun, and times to stand back and concentrate on standing tall. 

The word that I think most aptly describes the relationship between the tree and the bird, between teacher and student, therapist and client, between those who give and the whole world; is forgiveness. And to forgive is to withhold. The prefix for- is an injunction on the root word give. To forgive is to give not. Which is different from not caring. Anyone in a position to forgive is likely to care. And perhaps only a caring person can forgive. Perhaps only a person for whom it doesn’t come naturally can create an empty space between themselves and their students, into which the latter might grow. And all the while demonstrate a capacity to remain standing, by caring for themselves. 

An unknown bird in Alice Springs.

An unknown bird in Alice Springs.