"Can You Help Me?"

When we attribute the best possible motive consonant with reality to the cared-for, we confirm him; that is, we reveal to him an attainable image of himself that is lovelier than that manifested in his present acts. In an important sense, we embrace him as one with us in devotion to caring. In education, what we reveal to a student about himself as an ethical and intellectual being has the power to nurture the ethical ideal or to destroy it.
— Ne Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education

I watched this video probably fifteen times, in awe of this girl's confidence in her snake handling abilities. Picked up a five-foot long snake like it was a stick. I love when children haven't been taught to fear and so enter bravely into situations that adults would shy away from. 

Why I think this video is important, though, is because of what I noticed after having watched it about ten times. There is a point when her father tells her to throw it in the water and she decides to hold onto it and ask for help. Her dad then tells her to just throw it down, which she promptly does before bidding the snake goodbye.

For the first several views, I thought this girl was disobeying her father's instruction to throw the snake in the water. "She probably doesn't want to let it go," I speculated. That would be understandable as she has this incredibly interesting thing in her hand that hasn't given her any reason to let go of it. A little disobedience is excusable here.

But as I watched it again and again, I suddenly noticed something. A mere second after he father tells her to throw it in the water, she tries to pull up on the thing, but it wraps the very end of its tail around a stick to resist her pulling. The girl was trying to lift the snake up into a suitable throwing position that would give her enough leverage to get it in the water, but it wasn't wanting to go along with that plan. That was when she asked her dad for help. 

I think its funny, and more seriously, sometimes detrimental, when teachers and adults make false assumptions of a child's motives, actions, and desires. We start ascribing our own childhood experiences or adult understanding to the experience of a completely separate and different human being. If I was in this girl's position, I would have held onto it despite my parent's pleas because I thought it was interesting and more important than whatever they were saying. So I thought, naturally, this girl was doing the same. Wrong. Sometimes these assumptions are right--we can deduce motive and actions correctly. But sometimes, what we think is, isn't always.

The child usually suffers the consequence for our faulty understanding. Many, many times, I would mistake a child's well-intentioned action for something devious and subversive (I'm not paranoid). One example--I asked a student to stop talking during a lesson with some frustration in my voice, publicly shaming her. She kindly reminds me I asked her to translate my lessons into Spanish for the English language learner sitting next to her (insert foot in mouth here).

There is virtue to postponing assumptions, asking questions, and assuming the best. When we postpone judgement and instead seek to understand deeply--even after we think we understand--it helps maintain an emotionally safe environment for the child while also helping the teacher grow into a more empathetic and possibility-aware individual. I would argue that being aware of possibilities--in the world and in the realm of relation--serves a teacher well. We start to see different possible motives and outcomes by reflecting on our practice and observations from others, both of which give us the opportunity to see if what we thought happened actually did. This also applies to individual lessons--did the student's actually learn or did I just convince myself that they did?

Its hard to not jump to conclusions. Quick judgements send the message that you "know whats going on," while it is also takes more time and energy to investigate and reflect, and harder yet to change your own understanding of something, especially if that understanding has served you well in the past.

I don't want to be someone that is afraid of new things when I get older because my existing cognitive framework doesn't support the newness. I don't want to dodge learning new things because they are inconvenient. That, I believe, is part of the difficulty of teaching, but also one of the rewards good teachers let themselves be forced into.