This post by Frank Nappi from The Badass Teachers Association is fantastic! I relate to it in a few ways. A long time ago, I was an educator /counselor in the Israeli army education branch (Gadna) of the IDF in 1985-1987 for my two-year service. I worked in a poor and disadvantaged rural community in the Northern Negev. Many of the children I worked with had illiterate parents with minimal grade school or no education of their own. They were some of the most warm, welcoming, caring, and generous people I’ve ever met. And they were also suspicious of me, the army, and outsiders in general. They held patriarchal, conservative, religious, and superstitious views of society. Women’s roles were defined as wives, mothers, caregivers, food makers, house cleaners–traditional, old world views that were entrenched in their lives and viewpoints which they had brought with them from the social norms of the day in various Middle Eastern countries.
They had been placed in these remote settlements, in my opinion, wrongfully set aside and marginalized by the establishment of the country. They felt ignored and for good reason. They made the best of their situation as they had no choice. One family grew flowers. One had fields of radishes. Their homes were small but very clean. They made delicious food and hung laundry on clothes lines outside.
The women seemed to work harder than the men, and they showed it in their bodies which appeared older than their ages, always serving others. They were tired, but never stopped. They always wanted the best for their children.
When I entered their homes, I was treated with respect and the well-known, Middle Eastern hospitality; immediate offers to sit down, and an abundance of food and drink placed before me in an instant. It was considered an insult to refuse and I learned quickly to always accept tea, water, a delicious pastry–something. The children I worked with ranged from elementary school to high school and beyond. I taught in classrooms, in fields, in bomb shelters, around kitchen tables, on the side of dirt roads, etc. It took a while to gain their trust. To do that, I made house calls. One house at a time, meeting the parents and grandparents, explaining why I was there. Showing them that even though I was a woman and in the army (which they generally disapproved of), that I was a decent person, that I meant no harm, that I was there to help their children. I listened to their stories.
I realized early on that the children primarily needed attention and love along with help channeling aggression and frustration. They needed me to show up and wait for our group meetings even though no one came at first. I told them when I’d be there and I waited. Eventually, they started coming. Just a few, then more, then all the kids that could. We played theater games and role played situations to help them deal with all kinds of issues and problems. I did art projects with them and we played for hours. I had a general curriculum we were expected to follow, but within that, I had a lot of flexibility to do whatever worked with my group. I made sure to follow what was prescribed to us, but I made it as fun as I could, and I often added my own topics or ways of delivery.
One of the older students was the leader and all the others followed her. She was smart, funny, cheeky, and gave me the hardest time. I started bringing a camera to my meetings and visits. I started photographing the children and showing them the pictures. Many suffered from low self-esteem, so I decided that showing them how I perceived them, how I saw their surroundings (they thought it was ugly, but I saw beauty in it), would maybe help them start seeing themselves as worthy and beautiful human beings.
It worked. It also gave me chance to hand my camera to the students themselves, and I showed them how to use the camera. A camera was not something most of them had, so it was a novelty. My father gave me one of his Nikon cameras to use. That was kind of big deal. I was always afraid it would get ruined by the sand and dust that was everywhere, but it survived just fine.
The students had a blast posing for the camera and thought it was silly that I kept telling them, Just do your thing and I’ll grab the pictures. You don’t have to pose. But pose they did. Showing off bike tricks, running, “Look what we can do!” I praised them for their strengths and abilities and offered support and help where they lacked confidence or knowledge. I often helped them with homework, never doing it for them, but tutoring and helping them arrive at their own answers. The most difficult student came around to me. She loved the camera and taking pictures. Once she accepted me and started changing her attitude, the rest followed suit.
Long after I finished my army service, I learned that she had become a photographer. It was a truly gratifying moment. I wondered if my work with her had anything to do with her choice to pursue photography. I’ll never know for sure, but it could be, and that’s enough to think about how much one person can influence another when you’re able to teach in the best possible way. No tests or punishments. Just love, attention, communication, and learning to develop a relationship based on mutual trust and respect. The information and academics followed from that and were weaved in between the games, playing, conversations about things that mattered to the students. All the topics got covered, but first the work was about building relationships. They had to trust me first. I had to meet them where they were.
As was written in The Little Prince by Antoine St. Exupery:
“What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Love and peace,