#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.

Letters Home #10 "Forgiveness"

You can listen to me read this letter here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

Letter #10 “Forgiveness"

Give me confusion and forgive me my pride,
All I wanted was improvement.
(Daniel 15:09)

Right now I’m at my desk. Its a large dining table positioned slightly off centre in a room fifteen paces by five. The table is made of wood, has a hazelnut stain, a simple box apron and four turned legs. Its not so old to demand special treatment, nor so young to be without a story. It has two chairs, one faces a window, the other - at its head - faces into the room. I sit mostly in the former, though sometimes I work in the latter - which is where I am now.

At night before bed I like to work with the front door open. That way the room fills with cool dark air and the scent of campfires. One night the porch light turned on and behind the screen door stood a tabby cat. She was ash grey with charcoal stripes and yellow eyes. I’d been writing for hours and mostly about longing so I saw in those eyes a welcome intrusion. I opened the door and she came in, circled me a few times then brushed her coat against my legs and the legs of my table. I sat on the floor and watched her with caution. She came up, rolled on her back and purred at my touch. I felt flush with warmth and I smiled. 

I told a friend about the cat. She cooed a little and said she often thought about taking in a stray cat, or a dog. There are so many around. The dogs are battered and cats make good housemates. I reminisced about my old cat called Blue, the way he used to sleep on my chest. A few weeks later my friend found a kitten and kept it. I went round to visit and the little grey huntress was chasing lizards. I laughed and cheered her on. But my friend wasn’t amused. She complained that the lizards were native and since the cat moved in she hadn’t seen so many around. I found myself siding with the cat. “Leave her be,” I said, “she lives here too."

A week later I was out bush with some Yolngu Rangers. They’re employed for the purpose of conservation and land management. In many ways they stand on rare common ground between Yolngu knowledge and Western science. We visited a dry river bed. The ground beneath our feet was broken into big chunks of caked mud. The work of feral pigs and buffalo. Years ago, the Rangers said, the river bed was flat, green and abundant with water chestnuts. Now its a salty barren badlands. 

Years ago people collected the chestnuts and found water by the sound of small birds, whose twills and chirps inspired melodies for songs, and whose movements were made into dances. Children learned the dances and recognised the birds. They passed on the knowledge and seldom went thirsty. Years later the birds flew away. Too many cats. The people kept dancing and singing. Children kept learning but they couldn’t see the birds. The old people told them how they used to find water. But the children drank from taps and were thirsty.

On World Indigenous People Day they celebrated their culture with songs and dances, stories and dreams that everyone agreed should be preserved and protected. Don’t forget who you are, the children were told, don’t forget where you come from. Be proud of your roots and your culture. Learn the stories and dreams, help pass them on. Take care of this land. And across the nation people will honour you whenever they meet. They will pay their respects to you and your elders, past present and future.

A child raised his hand. “Are their stories about cats?” he asked.
“Cats?” his teacher echoed.
“Yes, cats!” said the child. “I know to be proud of my culture and to take care of this land. So what should I do about cats?”

His teacher conferred with the Rangers. It was their job to conserve and manage the land. But the Rangers weren’t sure. They’d tried killing the cats, but people kept them as pets, so inevitably the problem outlived that solution. They’d encouraged people to keep them indoors and have them desexed. But some left them be, to hunt and prosper. After all, they lived there too. There was word of a new innovation from overseas but it would be years before the innovation itself would reach the Rangers.

The teacher returned disappointed. “I’m sorry,” he said to the child, “the Rangers aren’t sure. Yolngu knowledge has nothing to tell about cats, and Western science tells stories about future technology."

The child raised his hand, which was unusual. Both for the fact that the teacher stood right in front of him and for the unlikelihood that there might still be a question to ask. “What about Western knowledge?” said the child.
Knowledge?” replied his teacher.
“Yes!” said the child. “Does your culture have stories about cats?”

The teacher was stunned. Who am I? He thought. Where do I come from? Does my culture have stories about cats? He recalled with some difficulty a time when his culture was also made of stories and dreams. They were stories about heroes and heroins and the spirits that dwelt in unseeable spaces. But something had happened - he tried to remember - people searched for spirits but couldn’t find them. So they consulted the Rationalists, who’s job it was to reveal and manage the truth. The Rationalists had technology that could see into unseeable spaces. But they couldn’t see any spirits and soon the people stopped telling their stories. After all, they knew who they were and where they came from, but now they were somewhere new.

“I’m sorry,” said the teacher. “I don’t know any stories about cats.”
The child scrunched his face so that his lips were crumpled and his eyes scanned the air just out of reach to his left. After a few seconds deep in thought he raised his hand.
“Yes?” said the teacher.
“How about snakes?”
“Snakes?”
“Yes. Do you have any stories about snakes?”
The teacher hesitated, “I guess so… but they’re only myths.”
“Whats a myth?” said the child.
“Kind of a story. An old story - but more like a dream. It isn’t —“ the teacher stopped. There was a word on the tip of his tongue but he wasn’t quite sure what it meant. He looked at the child and took a deep breath. “Okay," he began, “I’ll tell you the story. Once there was a beautiful garden, full of plants and animals and fresh flowing water. A man and a woman lived there and took care of the land. It was a time before knowledge and the man and woman didn’t know who they were. They weren’t afraid and never went hungry. Nothing did. One of the trees in the garden was called the tree of knowledge. But the man and the woman weren’t supposed to eat from that tree."
The child was rapt. “Was there a snake in the garden?”
The teacher smiled at the child’s curiosity and felt encouraged to continue the telling. “Yes. There was a snake. It was subtle and smart, it lived in the tree of knowledge and it spoke to the woman. It told her to eat from the tree and find out who she was.”
The child raised his hand and the teacher laughed. “I think I know what you’re going to say,” he said. “You’re going to ask why she wasn’t supposed to know who she was.”
“Yes!” said the child, “Why not?”
“Well, the garden was only for people who didn’t know. If she ate the fruit, she’d have to leave.”
“So what did she do?”
“She ate the fruit.”
“And she had to leave?”
“Yes, and the man too. They left together.”
“Where did they go?”
“Well, they didn’t go anywhere. More like, they woke up.”
“You mean it was all a dream?”

The child was confused and so was the teacher. He felt some embarrassment at having told the story. Such things were no longer told to children and perhaps for good reason. Then he felt the child’s hand enter his own. It brushed the skin of his palm and was dry and soft like a petal. The child’s interest was innocent and genuine. He couldn’t know the tension these stories conjured in the hearts and minds of teachers. “You know what?” he asked.
The teacher hoped for once the child had an answer, “What?” he replied.
“I know who you are!”
Surprised, the teacher turned to the child. He wanted so desperately to know that he laughed a little and casually said, “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah! You’re the same as me. Your job is to care for the land.”
The teacher felt flush with warmth. “I guess you’re right.”
The child scrunched his face in thought. “Now if only we had a story about cats.”

The next morning I woke up and went to the shop to buy some pears. A man I know barrelled in after me and asked if I’d like to go hunting with some men. I said I would, it was my first hunt. Soon I sat by a river with kangaroo on a fire and blood on my hands. Later I stood at the home of a mythical python snake. Later still I helped skin the first buffalo I’d ever seen. On our way home we washed in the river as the sun was setting and the men suggested we say a prayer of thanksgiving, for a day so flush with life.

I can’t say who I prayed to, but I know what I prayed for. I prayed for forgiveness.

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