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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care
CYC-Online Issue 68 SEPTEMBER 2004 / BACK
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On being a student

It’s September here in the Canadian part of the Northern Hemisphere. It’s a time of renewal. I know most of us think of spring as a time of renewal “like some of you are enjoying now “but for me, and I suspect for a lot of North Americans, fall is also a time of renewal. Especially for the young. Summer ends, with its long days and warm evenings; moons more brilliant and encompassing that the moons of winter; grasshoppers leaping startled around your feet; beaches finally warmed by a summer sun; rocks hot to the touch; a wealth of flowers and soft rains.

And with the end of summer come the shorter days, cooler nights, leaves yellowing in a softening sun, fruit and vegetables ripe for the picking, gardens starting the transition, once again, to dormancy and barrenness.

But there is also a new beginning here in Canada for those of us cycled so long through the seasons of education within which early summer marks the end of school, and fall the beginning of the new academic year. A fresh start “the foolish errors of the last academic year composted with the other remnants of a year gone by. Sadness tinged with excitement. Loss tempered by renewal.

I was having lunch with my friend Ernie the other day “I just wanted to acknowledge him here and let him know that I think of him as “friend” “beside a wondrous lake in Nova Scotia. As we sat there catching up “picking over the pieces of our individual lives while picking through the food which was no more than a vehicle for being together “Ernie asked me one of those questions he is fond of posing. “When are you a student, Thom? Just a student?"

Well, I blustered and fumbled, searching for an answer appropriate to our relationship, feeling as if there was a “right answer” somewhere and I hadn’t done my homework. Finally, grasping for a clich”, I responded with, “Well, in many of my relationships I am both a student and a teacher."

"But when are you just a student," he repeated, obviously seeing through my cover-up and insisting that I answer honestly.

So, I talked about my relationship with Henry for a while “how he has been my teacher and mentor for so many years, but how now I see him less than in years gone by. I talked about the past.

"But, now, when are you just a student?" Ernie persisted like a dreaded home-room teacher, seeing through the time tested, often effective, “talk but don’t answer the question” defense.

And I realized that as my relationship with my own mentor had changed, I had entered into a relationship with a Tai Chi Master to learn a different way of being. And in this relationship I am only a student. Nothing more. Sometimes my Tai Chi Master encourages me to study to be an instructor and my response is always the same. “No. This is the place where I am a student. And that is all I want to be."

"But when are you a student in our field?" Ernie hammered away, brushing aside the last of my childhood-learned strategies.

Gosh, I was back in grade five for a moment, so, as I learned to do in grade give, I finally gave in and tried to answer the question, knowing full well, as I did way back then, that I was about to answer a question for which I wasn’t fully prepared.

"I’m a student now," I responded. “When you demand these things of me, I am learning."

"Yes, but that isn’t always the way it is. Most of the time you are not a student in this relationship."

And I realized, thanks to Ernie, as we sat there on the patio overlooking the lake “talking, pushing, pulling, discovering “that I need to be a student. I need to feel myself as a learner. I need to be positioned as a student in my life and my field. Thanks Ernie. Learning is a wonderful thing.

As I grow older it becomes more difficult. Because somehow, somewhere in my head, I think that real teachers need to be older than me. And I wondered about that.

So I wrote my friend Mark (I know you don’t care he is my friend, but I do) and asked him about “being a student” in his own life. Mark has been in the field as long, and is about the same age, as me. And he responded as I suspected he might, about how we are all both student and teacher. We learn and we teach. How he and I are both learner and teacher, for example, with each other. And this is the answer I expected because this is how I also experience this relationship.

Then, without struggle, the conversation deepened. And in the deepening I discovered another way of thinking and believing. Thanks Mark. I came to appreciate that “being a student” is a role, and like all roles it can be present, or absent, at any given time in any relationship. That it is not always necessary to occupy only one role consistently within any particular relationship. Now, I think I have always known this intellectually, as a concept, an idea. But I am not sure that I always “got it”.

Got what? That, ideally, we all occupy a variety of roles in all our relationships and that being in a role, really “being” in a role, requires that you give yourself, for however long it might be, to “being” that role. That it is not enough to say I am learning from someone. If I am not “being” the student, then I am probably not really in that role.

So, in the end, this conversation with Ernie and Mark was not so much about being a student, but about being, really giving oneself, to a particular role at a particular time. Not being the teacher being the student. But being the student being the student.

Just like in Child and Youth Care practice we might want to make a distinction between “being the helper being the student”, and being the learner in this relationship of helping. And we might want to ask ourselves if one is more real, or might be experienced as more real by the other person.

All got me thinking, of course, about how often we place young people in one particular role while they are in our programs (learner, trouble-maker, assistant, troubled ... ) and how we place ourselves in another (authority, helper, teacher, tyrant ... ). And then we try to keep these roles consistent throughout all our exchanges. But that’s an aside and you can go there alone if you wish.

In the end it is all about me, isn’t it? As it always is. The point is that in the context of the two relationships which I have chosen to mention here, I learned only when I allowed myself to be the learner. In one exchange I needed help, and in the other I didn’t. And that’s because of how I had the relationships framed.

Helping, I think, sometimes involves helping the other to re-position self before learning can take place.

And I wonder ... is there any greater gift that we could give other than to help them position themselves as a student of their own life? And wouldn’t everyone you meet, and try to help, benefit from that?


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