Walking the Tightrope

BrianKnowing when to let a student dig more in the book, and when to explain, is a tightrope walk both for the instructor and for the student. It’s a trick to find the least amount to say in order to maximize the student’s own sense of discovery.

If too little is said, the fragile student might freeze up and think, “My instructor needs to explain more.” If too much is said, not enough respect is given to inventive tension.

We all know the pithy story of the caterpillar struggling to get out of the cocoon and how it’s the struggle that makes for the butterfly. God has perfectly calibrated the process to make it work perfectly, and human intervention to ease the caterpillar’s struggle upsets the perfect tension that results in a healthy butterfly.

Luna moth emerging from silk cocoon.With students, it’s not apparent always where to intervene or where to remain at a respectful distance while someone learns to learn. Helping is not always helping. Maybe “lending a helping hand” needs to be the instructor “keeping the helping hand in a shoulder harness” a bit longer.

Cover of "The Road Less Traveled"In the 1980s, the study of codependency was the rage. “Enabling” became a pop term. These ideas are still around but challenging to practice when risking a student’s displeasure. A college can begin to look more like a restaurant where the goal is to please the customer. We go out to eat for pleasure only, not to learn through a difficult experience.

But a college is not a restaurant. I remember Scott Peck’s books The Road Less Traveled and People of the Lie. He was a realistic psychiatrist, and somewhere in his books he says that therapists who work with a client over a substantial period of time eventually experience bearing the brunt of negative emotions from the client.

Really, this makes sense. It’s not that one wants to elicit negative emotions. It’s just normal. Parenting, teaching, and leading cause people to rub. When the rub comes from over-directing or under-guiding a person, adjustment is certainly in order.The feet of a tightrope walker.

Where the rub is the healthy struggle of both instructor and student to let the process of inventive tension find its necessary balance, it’s good to let it be what it is and look at the higher end in view.

That’s what makes teaching so hard to define and makes it the adventure that keeps life from descending into rote monotony.

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