Recently at my niece’s school, I was walking along a hallway lined up with pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classrooms. In front of each classroom, there was a board showcasing the kids’ recent work, which at the time happened to be about what they wanted to be when they grew up. While their professional interests covered a spectrum of professions – from doctors to police officers and from ballet dancers to firefighters – the most common profession seemed to be teachers, not surprisingly since these kids spent most of their days with their teachers. These boards brought back the memory of my younger years. Like these kids, I had many interests for my future profession. Unlike many of these kids, however, I knew for sure at that very young age that I did not want to become a teacher. I learned early on that being a good teacher was hard, and I didn’t think that I had what it would take to be a good one.
Once upon a time in a faraway land, my mother taught math in a secondary school. She also gave lessons after school and on weekends, not only to students who struggled with the materials but also to students who were really smart but wanted more. Since we lived near Mom’s school and there was no one to watch the little me and my little brother, we often ended up hanging around the tutoring table as Mom worked through math problems with her students. Even though I had my homework to do, books to read, pictures to draw and my little brother to keep my left eye on, I paid occasional attention to what was going on between Mom and her students.
With 20/20 hindsight and with the wisdom that I have gained over the few decades since, this is how I would describe the interactions between Mom and her students. The students were not satisfied with the level of their math knowledge, and whether it was out of necessity (trying to avoid an F) or of their own personal drive (wanting to learn Grade 12 materials as a 10 Grader and go to medical school at the age of sixteen), they wanted to do better. Mom also wanted her students to do better. The teacher and the students had a shared goal. Their common tool to achieve the goal was math problems. They met each other physically at the tutoring table. Intellectually, however, it was my Mom’s job to meet each student where he or she was and to take that student along a journey to his or her own potential. That was a hard process.
As we might expect, Mom had to explain concepts and theories, give examples, grade assignments, review mistakes with the students, and assess whether a mistake was one-off or a pattern that required further explanations. But Mom also had to answer questions like these: “Can I do it this way, too?”, “What’s wrong with the way I did it?”, or “My other teacher said this, so why are you saying differently?” Or she had to respond to comments like this: “I really don’t understand what you are saying.” Mom addressed them all, both in one-on-one sessions and in group sessions where things could get complicated with students from various levels of knowledge and with different types of questions. There would be moments of frustration, and there would be moments of laughter. Whatever happened, Mom and her students would continue to meet at the tutoring table through the semesters and through the years. From my corner of the table, I would later hear about students who got into universities, or who moved on to graduate schools, or who became doctors, engineers, business owners, artists, and teachers. There were payoffs at the end of this long, arduous process.
Mom was not the only teacher doing the tutoring. Her other colleagues did it, too, and from their tutoring tables, I observed similar interactions to those at Mom’s. The teachers met their students where they were, committed to a process, and did their best to help each student reach his or her own potential. The students met the teachers, committed to a process, and did the best they could to do better.
From these observations, I learned that being a good teacher was tough. For me, solving a math problem or any problem was already hard. Having to explain my logic for others to understand was even harder. Having to listen to others’ logics or approaches, reconcile them with mine, and explain to them how we were both right or one of us was right, and having to do so with care, kindness, inclusivity and encouragement, would be overwhelming and scary. What if I didn’t understand my students? What would I do? How would I guide them? And the thought of having to figure out how to say the same thing in different ways hoping that a student would finally get the concept would leave me exhausted, if not frustrated. If the quality that I observed in these teachers at the tutoring tables was an element of making someone a good teacher, I didn’t think I had it in me.
I have recently read Something Big, by Sylvie Neeman and Ingrid Godon. It reads like a story of Mom and her students at the tutoring table, but in this case it is a story of the big one and the little one at the dining table. The little one is upset because he wants to do something big, but he can’t articulate what exactly something big is and is frustrated that he is too small to do it. The big one wants to help the little one do something big, but he can’t quite understand exactly what the little one wants. They go on a long, slow, arduous, frustrating dialogue, similar to what I witnessed at Mom’s tutoring table. There are a lot of questions and answers. There are guesses. There are moments of feeling unsure. At times, the dialogue gives me hope that the big one gets closer to understanding the little one and that the littler one gets closer to articulating his idea, but they never quite get there. Just like at Mom’s tutoring table, I observed active listening, patience, reassurance, validation and trust, all of which build over time and mutually come from both the big one and the little one. The big one also exercises restraints, approaches the little one gently, and gives him space. At the end, there is a payoff. While they don’t know quite yet what something big really is, the big one and the little one become closer and have a mutual sense of what something big could feel like for the little one at this moment given where he is with his size and capacity. The story leaves me hopeful that with their commitment to meeting each other where they are and to work through a difficult dialogue despite the uncertainty, the fear or the frustration, the big one and the little one will continue to work together to help the little one realize his something big one day.
We play the role of either the big one or the little one all the time in the many relationships in our lives. How many times have we played the role of the little one and tried to pitch our big ideas to our bosses, our funders or investors, our mayors, our political representatives or our leaders? How many times have we played the role of the big one to our teams or our stakeholders, and helped them see a vision, even when it is abstract or uncertain, and move forward. And regardless of the role, have we felt frustrated, if not exhausted, in a process like this? Stories like Something Big or the one from my Mom’s tutoring table serve as a reminder that meeting someone where they are is not an encounter as the word “meeting” might suggest, but a long, arduous process that is potentially frustrating and unnerving and that requires active listening, commitment, mutual respect and trust. The phrase “meeting people where they are” is inspirational and makes us feel good, and like other inspirational things, it is not easy and takes efforts to do.
Good teachers have what it takes to meet people where they are. That is a quality that we all can learn from them beyond the subject matter that they teach us. Even though not many of us become teachers when we grow up, we all can still exhibit the quality of good teachers in our jobs and in our lives.
Recently, I was in a meeting where the core management team met and the leader of the group socialized a new vision. At the end of the meeting, the leader of the group looked at me and let out a big exhale, “That was exhausting!” I smiled and replied, “I think that was a good sign. You are meeting them where they are.” I thought to myself, maybe there is chance that we could do something big.
As I was leaving the hallway at my niece’s school, I hoped that there would be teachers, parents, grandparents, friends, mentors and others to meet these kids wherever they are along their life journeys to help them become doctors, police officers, dancers, firefighters, teachers or whatever something big they wanted to be.