So, what does Japanese Flower Arranging and a Glaucoma Eye test have to do with teaching? Some might say it has nothing to do with teaching, but I say, it has everything to do with teaching.
Two summers ago, I had the distinct privilege of being part of a delegation of CPS and CCHS educators who traveled to Japan for a ten day period. Before some of you think this was a “junket” of sorts, I can assure you that a 26 hour day of travel, staying with a family who you have never met before, and who speak a little of your language was not an easy task. Luckily for me, I got placed with an incredible family — Mom and Dad who are schoolteachers, two teenagers, an eight year old, and the grandmother, named Kazuko. Kazuko spoke no English and I spoke barely any Japanese. The first night I was there, we spent time going through my Japanese-English dictionary, the way a student goes through a dictionary when they are trying to figure out how to spell a word. Not pretty, and hard work. On other occasions, Kazuko did her best to try and correct my incorrect manner of holding chopsticks. While my chopstick etiquette isn’t quite proper, I did manage to eat just plenty. On my second to last night at my host family’s home, Kazuko had gone out with her son to buy flowers to teach me how to do Japanese Flower Arranging. This is not your just stick some flowers in a vase routine. Japanese Flower arranging is an art, and for those of you who know me, you know I am not very artistic. So, we started off on our lesson. She very patiently guided my hand, placed some of the flowers herself, and we would nod and smile at each other (and sometimes laugh at one another). Even though we did not speak a word of each other’s language, we built the arrangement and I was very pleased with myself for how nice it looked. Well, it didn’t look nice for very long, as Kazuko disassembled the entire arrangement, and motioned for me to do it all by myself. I panicked! There was no way I could remember every single angle the plant pieces were placed, and where all the flowers were placed. But Kazuko again quietly encouraged me to keep on going, which I did. While I was trying my best to re-assemble it to somewhat resemble what it had been, I thought about my students and how they must feel when they are given a task that seems really difficult. Kazuko’s calm demeanor helped me to re-create the design, to almost what it looked like before. I will never forget that experience of how it felt to be a learner in a very difficult situation.
Fast forward about 16 months to my eye examination. I have to be honest, out of all the medical appointments, to me, this eye exam is the most tortuous of all. I was simply dreading it for weeks, because I am very sensitive to anything around my eyes (why I could never where contacts!). The puff of air shot into your eye, that blue thing that seems like it is going to hit you in the eye, and the multiple types of drops dropped in are to me, a forms of Medieval torture. I fretted and stewed about this exam all day. Pulling into the Emerson parking lot and having to find a spot way up in the garage, simply added to my stress. I registered, sat down, and began to read a Newseek. Usually, it seems like I am sitting there for an hour, wouldn’t you know it, five minutes later, my name was called and I was instructed to come sit at a seat with a device in the middle of the waiting room. “You’ve got to be kidding,” I thought to myself, “they are going to blow that puff of air in my eye in the middle of all these folks! Everyone is going to see me freak out here.” The optician immediately sensed my uncomfortableness around this test and quietly reassured me that all this was going to do was to do a measurement. No puff, no blue light! I followed her into the exam room and she introduced herself. We talked about my glasses, and she gave me a little test. “Now,” she said, “I’m going to put these drops in your eyes. Just close your eyes lightly while I drop them into the corner of your eye. Keep looking up at the ceiling, and blink so they get into your eyes.” This is one of my least favorite things to do. I hated putting eye lotion in my children’s eyes when they had conjunctivitis and I really hate putting them into my own eyes. I flinch, they roll out, I have to re-do it, and it seems like I’ve wasted the whole bottle of drops. But, I tried to do some deep breathing and before I knew it, it was done. She asked me about a family history of glaucoma. There is no glaucoma in my family, so I was feeling pretty confident that I was going to get out of doing the glaucoma test. “That’s great,” she said, “but you never know, you could still get glaucoma without having any family history.” “Great,” I thought to myself, “just the test I don’t want to do.” In years past, I haven’t been able to sit there still while this blue thing comes racing towards your eye. I’ve had some opticians become very impatient with my inability to do this test, thinking I was just being uncooperative. I wasn’t being uncooperative, I was just scared. But today, Marian, the optician, took everything out and showed me exactly how it worked. “The drops create a surface tension on your eye surface that helps measure the pressure in your eye. Between where your chin and forehead are and between my hand and this instrument, we can never meet, so there’s no way this is going to get into your eye. Just breathe easily and it will be over with quickly.” And lo and behold, with Marian’s great encouragement, in just two tries we were done, and I wasn’t stressed at all. Even though I still now needed the dilating drops, I just sat back, and in they went, easy as can be. This was the best eye exam ever, and it was all due to Marian’s encouragement ,acknowledging my fear, explaining everything to me, and being calm.
So, the upshot of all this is that with my students, I need to be reassuring, and make sure they fully understand what we are doing and why. I need to scaffold tasks for them at times and then gently sit beside them as they attempt it on their own. If they are nervous about doing something, I need to acknowledge their feelings, while at the same time encouraging them and providing them with the information for them to be successful. I need to laugh with them, and nod and smile at them. I need to remember what being a learner truly feels like. Japanese Flower arranging and a Glaucoma Eye Test were just the struggles I needed to constantly remind me of that fact.