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Click Here for Freedom

Could I have done more? This is the regrettable question many teachers struggle with at the mid-term break and at the end of the school year. In spite of a teacher’s best efforts throughout the previous months, inevitably, there are a few students who struggle, and with grades occupying an outsized degree of importance, this can create substantial strife and stress for students and parents. And so a teacher’s thoughts and actions return once more to reviewing all possible angles of the student’s circumstances, confirming what is evident, providing grace where possible, and finally coming to terms with a thoroughly measured mark of accountability. Still, the question persists…Could I have done more?

Could I have done more? It’s also a question that afflicts parents for a lifetime. We want so much for our children and we hate seeing them struggle. Sometimes the “doing more” question comes from a place of shame, guilt, or even bitterness as we confront the realities of material limitations and our capacity to support our children’s dreams. Other times, it’s regret. We look back and wish we had been more present, more patient, more something-else-that-would-make-me-feel-better-about-my-child’s-current-struggles. It’s the natural response; we want to do more when those we care about seem stuck or in distress. But what if doing more wasn’t our response?

A few weeks back I went down a really big rabbit hole with my last CrossCurrents post. Now it’s time to start making my way back out by shining a flashlight down the numerous veins that the previous post introduced. Today’s topics - accompaniment, agency, and relevance.

Accompaniment is a big topic in education right now as we attempt to address the mental fragility, lethargy, and/or skill deficiency many students are manifesting. How can we help our students better manage periods of struggle, build resilience and confidence, and engage more fully in their learning? In principle, the idea behind accompaniment is fairly straightforward. Teachers should strive to connect at the points along a learning continuum at which the individual students are in order to help guide them to and through their learning. Rather than a forced march, students enter into their own journeys of discovery aided by the capable presence and support of their teacher, thus heightening students’ agency and sense of relevance/connectedness to course resources. This sounds attractive. In practice, however, accompaniment is much more nuanced and difficult mostly because we fail to fully account for the complexities of accompaniment and the forces acting against it.

Five commonly recognized characteristics of accompaniment are Presence, Understanding, Supportive Action, Collaboration, and Adaptability. In some fashion, I will touch on all of these but the focus will be on the first two primarily because Presence and Understanding need to be in place for the other three to matter. Before diving in, I want to share a line from Elizabeth Oldfield’s beautiful article An Accumulation of Meaning, “Technology can liberate, but it also shapes us around its needs to form us toward efficiency.” More than ever before, we have the freedom to choose with whom, where, when, and how we transact and consume - all because our society has largely been conformed to our technologies. Why does this matter? Because while our society prioritizes convenience, speed, and choice, accompaniment prioritizes constraint and commitment. Though not antithetical, oftentimes the pursuit of these sets of priorities take us down separate paths.

Most new learning models - particularly those involving educational technologies - place a premium on student choice and individual pacing (i.e. convenience and speed). They lead students down a variety of predefined pathways based on a student’s preferences, all designed to increase the rates of engagement and knowledge acquisition by making learning more relevant. Formative assessment components are sprinkled throughout for students and teachers to gauge progress toward desired outcomes, providing opportunities for teachers to fill in learning gaps along the way.

While this seems appealing and right-minded as a way of connecting learning to “the real world”, it is incomplete as these models generally don’t foster the kind of discovery that hones the skills of critical thinking and self-transcendence. By employing the strategy of student choice, students pursue subject-matter mastery through a specific, familiar, and (most often) comfortable context. They are looking outward, but only through a window they’ve looked through before. In this way, the pursuit of “relevance” has opened students up to deeper levels of understanding while simultaneously closing them off from a broadening perspective.

Occasionally at the end of such scenarios, a student may be encouraged to look through another window, but having already met the objective of the required learning task, many students forgo this heavier lift (or do the minimum required) in order to move on to the next item on the learning agenda. This isn’t just true of students. How often have I personally - having met the learning objective I set out for - forgone further learning (mostly because that’s where things remain unreconciled)? Sadly, too often to count. A few posts back I referenced the idea of seeking discomfort. This is the key to building the skills of critical thinking and self-transcendence. It’s also where accompaniment can and should play a role.

Earlier I introduced the characteristics of Presence and Understanding as foundational to accompaniment. What strikes me about Presence is that it is location based and relational. It’s about the teacher-accompanist and the student-accompanee agreeing to meet regularly at the specific place the student is at at a singular point in time in order to construct a shared and updated Understanding of a) how the student has come to arrive at that location, b) where that location is in relation to the destiny/objective, and c) how the student might proceed.

The word might is of critical importance here as it defines the tension of mutuality that exists within the student/teacher relationship where each person possesses power. The student recognizes the expertise and authority of the teacher while the teacher recognizes the student’s power over their own actions and learning. Notre Dame’s Steve Reifenberg compares good accompaniment to the work of a physical therapist, noting that, “There needs to be listening as well as advice, addressing and strategizing how to overcome obstacles, confronting setbacks, and at times even prodding and cajoling, with the expectation that the relationship will not be static.” This last part is the hardest for a teacher to acknowledge and accept. At the end of the day, it’s up to the student.

Mutuality isn’t easy, but it can also be powerful for adolescent learners. It’s where the teacher says to the student, “You’re too big to carry,” and the student says to the teacher, “That’s good because I am ready to start trying it on my own.” If together, while acting within the accompaniment framework, the student and teacher determine that the student is significantly off track, an appropriate Supportive Action the teacher might employ would be to instruct the student to perform certain corrective actions. Often, however, the most suitable Supportive Action is to simply ask the next best question that allows the student to proceed further and go deeper. And, just like a physical therapist who isn’t seeing progress, sometimes the teacher’s next best question is simply, “What’s preventing you from moving?”

Young people want to find relevance in their learning, but having little practice in its pursuit, many have not yet figured out that the only way that will occur is through the hard work of their own introspection. This is necessarily slow and messy while technology is pressing them to consider how to speed things up. In the end, this is why accompaniment is so important and why teaching is so difficult. Ultimately, when conducting the final analysis of a student’s learning at the end of the term, perhaps a teacher’s greatest consolation could be when their students are the ones not only asking, “Could I have done more?” but also, “What’s next?”

Thank you for allowing me the space to unpack this. Next up I will further explore the slow and messy practice of introspection.


CONTRIBUTOR: Jeff Hausman, AVLI President

vol 6 issue 5

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