Many years ago, when I took my little girls to see Namu, The Killer Whale at Sea World, Namu was having a bad day and refused to do the little tricks expected of him. He swam listlessly around and around the far end of the pool only reluctantly coming to the surface to spout a diminutive burst of bubbles into the tremulous Florida sunshine. His trainer told us that occasionally he had these bad days and that since he would not perform everyone could get their money back at the gate. Almost everybody left. My daughters were madly in love with Namu and insisted on staying to gaze tenderly at this magnificent beast so sadly swimming circles in his Lilliputian ocean.
The trainer sat on the edge of the pool dangling her legs in the water. Pretty soon Namu shyly sidled over to her, made a slow pass by her feet, circled back and nudged his noble snout beside her and she stroked his head and told him how beautiful he was. After a while she got up and walked to the other end of the pool and called gently to him. When he came she gave him a fresh salmon and he swam off with perceptible enthusiasm. The trainer occupied herself for a few minutes coiling some hoses pretending not to notice that Namu had swum over to her side of the pool. Then she turned around and said cheerfully, “Oh, Namu, are you feeling better?” and she went to the edge of the pool and stroked his gleaming black head and he snorted enthusiastically spouting a big spray and she laughed from this affectionate deluge. She got up and held a salmon high above her head and Namu leaped up to take it out of her hand. In a little while he was happily doing his old tricks again.
Not that this was an Epiphany for me, but it confirmed my own personal belief — gleaned through sports, teaching and parenting — in affirmative reinforcement as the only foundation upon which to build whatever method or philosophy of teaching one chooses. People are too special and life too brief for even a suggestion of punitive, adversarial paradigms. I would not presume to suggest what the purpose of life might be, but I do know that it is an adventure and that as a teacher I am simply a guide through the labyrinth. Guides often don’t necessarily know the way either, but they need to be encouraging, optimistic, helpful and good-humored through the dark and doubtful rainy Novembers of our lives.
Of course, I want my students to work hard, produce their best, strive for the summit, but I also realize and appreciate the fact that we don’t all share these same goals or the capacity to achieve them and that youth has wonderfully strange and subtle ways of exercising perogatives. Perhaps it all boils down to mutual respect. Given respect I think we all produce our best work.