Over my holiday, I read a number of books but the one that inspired this blog article was My Stroke of Insight, by Dr. Jill Bolton Taylor. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it as a journey into the life of a stroke survivor’s recovery and the challenges she faced along her path to recovery. As an educator, Dr. Bolton Taylor helped me understand more deeply the learning process because her recovery was really about rediscovering in a very intimate way what she needed as a human being to learn or recapture her full neural capacity.
In December of 1996, Dr. Bolton Taylor, a Harvard researcher and neuroanatomist, suffered a debilitating stroke as a result of a congenital arteriovenous malformation (AVM). The blood vessel hemorrhaged and flooded her left cerebral hemisphere with blood, a clot formed, and she lost capacity of many neurological functions associated with her left cerebral hemisphere. Her recovery process, while quite successful and miraculous, was a long, eight-year journey to wholeness. I will not review the first 12 or so interesting chapters that take the reader on a detailed look at the consequences of her stroke and the details of her recovery. I want to focus on what I learned from chapter 13, What I Needed Most? I think this chapter sets the stage for what every teacher needs to consider when working with a group of eager, anxious, and sometimes insecure learners.
Dr. Bolton Taylor presents a series of lessons she learned about what her caregivers, doctors, family and friends gave her to help with recovery, as well as what she needed to do as the patient to assist with the recovery. Seeing many parallels to teaching, I decided to reframe her lessons from the perspective of the teacher-student relationship in the classroom. With each “lesson” I reference the page where she discusses how it impacted her learning and recovery.
For a successful learning it is important that students focus on their abilities not their disabilities. (p. 117)
Students desperately need teachers to treat them as though each can learn. (p. 110)
Students need people around them to believe in the plasticity of their brain and its ability to grow, learn, and recover. (p. 110)
Students need teachers to care for them not for what the teachers want them to be but for who the students can become. (p. 112)
Students need teachers to be encouraging, valuing them for who they are, and affirming that each of them have dreams to work towards. (p. 113)
Students need teachers to offer them questions that make them choose and think rather than asking questions that have yes or no answers. (p. 113)
Students need teachers to celebrate the triumphs they make everyday because small successes inspire students to improve. (p. 118)
Students need to welcome support, caring, and help from their teachers and fellow students. (p. 118)
Successful learning experiences are dependent upon the learner’s ability to break every task down into smaller and simpler steps of action and teachers need to instruct how to accomplish this. (p. 119)
Students need teachers to instruct them with care and patience. (p. 119)
Students need teachers to bring them their positive energy in the learning experience. (p. 119)
What I found fascinating about chapter 13 and the lessons she learned from her recovery is that learning (or relearning in her case) is a highly relational experience. Her ability to relearn all that she had lost from the damage of the AVM was a function of the relationships she established with her mother, friends, doctors, and other caregivers, as well as her own dedication to the recovery process.
As we begin a new school year, we need to remember the importance of establishing effective and caring relationships with all of our students and understand that when they do not seem to be learning, we cannot place blame on them as learners. As teachers, we should ask ourselves some deeper questions about what is it “that we might not doing to engage the learner.”
I love this quote on page 120 in chapter 13:
We encouraged everyone to soften their brow, open their heart, and bring me their love. Extremely nervous, anxious, or angry people were counter-productive to my healing.
I think the same premise applies to the dynamic between student and teacher.
If you are interested in watching Dr. Jill Taylor’s TED talk about her stroke and recovery, here is the link. I found the talk to be very inspiring as well.