Learning to be Flexible

By Scott Knecht For a number of years I worked off and on in the construction industry, mostly as a plasterer. Construction work is satisfying in a different way than teaching. At the end of the day you, and everyone else, can see very specifically what you accomplished. In teaching it may take years, literally, before you really know how things turned out. It seems almost impossible to tell the effect of teaching at the end of a day.

Here is the thing about plastering: it is all hands on, as are all building trades. You use both hands all day long. It is a very visual, tactile skill – you learn to see it and feel it. And, you work on scaffolding almost all of the time, since even when you stand tall you can only reach up about 7 feet and all buildings are taller than that. You’ve probably seen scaffolding on a construction site. It is created with steel frames standing upright, braces holding them in place and with planks laid horizontally from frame to frame. You can make it go as high as you need it – just keep adding frames. The frames are tied to the building with wire and when the job is finished you tear the scaffolding down one level at a time, cut the wires and patch the spot where they were. If done correctly there is no indication that there was ever any scaffolding there.

Scaffolding looks secure and it is secure but you have to learn to accept this fact about it: it is constantly moving when people are on it. It moves gently side to side as you walk on it and the planks have some give to them so you also move up and down.

Summer is a good time to hire high school and college kids to come do some of the grunt work on a job site and let them earn a little money for school. You learn very quickly who is going to work and who won’t be back based on how they do on the scaffolding. Some just can’t abide the movement and when they feel it they grab the guard rail to steady themselves. Remember that this work can’t be done one handed and they have to be reminded of that. Most get accustomed to it but some never do – the unpredictable nature of the movement is more than they can deal with so they just leave.

Being a teacher is a lot like being on scaffolding for the whole class period. I have my prep time and use it to create lessons that I hope will be helpful. I think I know where the lesson is going – where it starts and where we want to arrive. But as soon as class starts there is movement. It’s not unexpected because it happens all the time. Students are antsy, talkative, sleepy, bored, or more or less engaged than I thought they would be. I have to spend more time gathering them in or less time explaining something. Some students understand quicker and others take a lot longer. Learning is messy work and all students move at their own speed. It is rarely a linear path for the whole class. It is a series of stops and starts and digging deeper and skimming over. The class is moving side to side and up and down. If you are a teacher who has to have a high level of order and total control you may be in for a wild ride. If you can learn to work with the movement that is inherent in every group of students; if you are flexible and can make adjustments on the move, the teaching and learning experience becomes a whole lot better.

One morning I came into a first period seminary class and the students were all quiet. They just stared at me. I had a lesson planned that was going to be powerful – by my own assessment. We started in and I was getting nothing from them. After about 5 minutes I said “Is everyone all right? You all seem far away.” One of them said “Don’t you know?” I didn’t, but quickly found out that one of their friends – same ward, different school – was killed that morning in a car accident. I knew her but had not heard the news. I stared at my lesson, felt the movement in the class, and set the lesson aside. Instead, we switched it up and began to learn about the resurrection in ways that they had never considered because now death was very, very real to them.

In a less dramatic example, one night I had a group of students in the corner of a big class of about 40 students. (Classes of that size can really get moving.) This little group of about 6 just kept talking among themselves, giggling, completely disengaged from what was happening in class. I knew them all real well and they were very good kids who just happened to be in their own world that night. I tried all of my normal things to get them to join in. They would smile and acknowledge me but nothing changed. I was scrambling a little trying to figure out what to do and decided that a little humor might help, so as I was still talking and leading a discussion I walked back to that group. I stopped talking long enough so that the rest of the class noticed and there was silence everywhere, except for the little chatty group. Soon they too were quiet and then I began to slowly wave my hand over the heads of the little group all the while staring up at the ceiling. Finally someone asked what I was doing. I said “There has to be some extra-terrestrial force coming through the ceiling to cause you all to be so lost tonight. I’m just trying to feel what it is.” The little group finally recognized what they were doing, everyone got a good laugh and were able to get back on track, the whole class together.

Classes and well planned lessons are just scaffolding to get us to some place higher. At the end of class we can dismantle it, cut the wires and take it away. If I’ve done my job, and the students have done theirs, we really won’t even know that the scaffolding was ever there. However, we will have built something together that is good and useful and can last.

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