A sort of book review: The Secrets of Being a Good Parent and Teacher

I had a nice exchange this week with a student I taught in the mid-1990s. I had seen a profile for him on Linkedin that shows him to be in the middle of an extra-ordinary career in South Korea and sent him a quick note.

Me: Very, very impressive work history. Brilliantly done!

Him: Thank you Alwyn. Bit of a different path to take and if you’d told me 20 years ago I would be living in Korea married with 3 kids I would have thought you were crazy. I have never ever forgotten my economics class with you back at TBC. Your teaching style and genuine interest in the students left a mark on me. A story you told about a rugby ball getting stuck between the posts because of the angle even today sticks in my mind. Thanks for messaging!

Me: No problem. I have loved being a teacher/educator and do not consider I have ever worked a day in my life. I still have that ball – grazes on both sides. Took ages to get down.

My two older children and their wives have welcomed their first child within the last 12 months. I haven’t attempted to give much advice. They either saw things they liked in the way Karen and I parented and will apply them or they will find better ways. The only thing I wanted them to know is that you don’t have a “baby” – you are bringing a human being into the world and your life will be invested in their existence from then on. (As an aside – imagine what these two humans will see in their lives as, in all likelihood, they will live the latter part of their lives in the 22nd Century).

Before I became a teacher I was fortunate to encounter the writings of C. S. Lewis. I have by no means always been perfect and lived up to the ideal – but one quote is in my head every day with students:

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit.”

I have just read a remarkable book called The Brain by Stanford neuroscientist David Eagleman. It is not his explicit intent but the information he imparts about the brain and human capabilities makes it clear that a great deal of our parenting, all levels of education, and life expectations are very last century – if not the one before.

I have always told students that if they have learned to walk and talk they can learn Math, writing, reading of great literature, remarkable skills (carpentry, art, dance, music). It is not necessarily easy – learning something well requires significant purposeful practice. – but it is possible.

Eagleman states the importance of Parents as First Teachers:

“If developing brains are not given the proper “expected” environment – one in which the child is nurtured and looked after – the brain will struggle to develop normally. Without an environment with emotional care and cognitive stimulation the human brain cannot develop normally.”

For teachers/parents who have the opportunity to care for children who have missed that nurture there is encouragement:

“The brain can often recover, to varying degrees, once the children are removed to a safe and loving environment. … We know that the process of building the human brain takes up to 25 years.”

If parents/teachers ability label students in front of them – either with speech or in their own minds – they are negatively impacting to what may be a critical extent. Just as C. S. Lewis notes that “There are no ordinary people.” … there are no “thick” kids. They are incredible human beings with brains equipped and plastic – needing love, encouragement, guidance, knowledge and challenge.

In the same way – there is no such thing as an “appropriate pathway” based on some prematurely defined ability set. As the student communicated to me above … “if you had told me 20 years ago …”. I would have had no right to limit him – a true teacher’s role is to teach every child as if there are no limits … despite what may have gone before for that person.

The good news for us over 25 – Eagleman tells us is: “In adulthood our brain continues to change. Experience changes it. We can’t stop the process of aging, but by practicing all of the skills in our cognitive toolbox, we may be able to slow it down. We’re not fixed. From the cradle to the grave we are works in progress.”

Alwyn Poole

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