A few years ago I was facilitating a workshop with my beloved teachers in Hastings, NE. We were exploring rituals of entering the classroom. A ritual is a repetition of action. Each morning teachers enter the classroom and perform a ritual of preparation for the day. The lights go on. Papers are arranged. Desks are organized. Many seemingly simple tasks of are executed just as they were executed the day before and the day before that. I asked the teachers in the workshop to create a simulation of their classroom and one at a time to enter the space and perform their ritual of preparation for the day. It was not long before the group recognized that their rituals were rituals of control; they were preparing to control their students. It is one of the major confusions in the American public school system: we’ve confused control with teaching.

Next, I asked them to perform their students’ ritual of entry into the classroom. After much laughter and caricature, one at a time, they demonstrated how their students entered the learning space. They knew intimately their students’ ritual: who would enter first and how. In each case there were disrupters and the disappeared. The teachers’ revelation was breathtaking: the students’ ritual was a challenge to control. The entire game, the frame of the experience each and every day, was a game of control and challenge. Keep in mind that this was a group of superior teachers, some of the best I have ever known. Their game of control was systemic. They were, until that day, unconscious of the game. They work within a system designed to reinforce the control/challenge game. They must play the game to get paid.

This morning as I was taking a walk with my greatest teacher – Tripper the Australian Shepherd, Circus Dog, six months on the planet with no need to figure stuff out, just happy to be alive and barking – I remembered that day with the teachers and the amazing discussion that followed. Tripper is teaching me a lesson about the line between control and teaching. I am trying to teach Circus Dog lots of things, like “sit” and “stay,” “heel” and “fetch.” There are days when I attempt to control him and things do not go well, especially for me. I get frustrated and behave miserably. There are days when I know that I am teaching him. We have fun. We have patience with each other. And, he teaches me something that I already know: instead of controlling him, the best learning happens when I help him learn how to control himself.

Like all children, he wants to please. He wants to belong with the pack. He wants to understand how and where he fits. When I make it my mission to control him, he makes it his mission to challenge my need to control. I would do the same thing. I have done the same thing. My very natural response to controllers is to pull and push and disrupt. When I make it my mission to help him learn, he does his best to respond to what I am asking of him. Sometimes that takes time. In fact, it always takes time and patience, and repetition. It is a different kind of ritual.

Another phrase that I used to say but have recently retired due to wrinkled brows, is that the best learning happens when we help students (children, little people who want to understand how and where they fit in this big world) to be self-directed and self-regulated. Personal power is the fruit of self-direction and self-regulation. As Saul taught me, to orient to the self is to see the vast field of possibilities bubbling right in front of you. Trying to control “the other” makes one short sighted.

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