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Match Strength

I apologize for another horse analogy, but I’m learning not to question where my inspiration comes from anymore and just follow my muse.

I love the country song by Darius Rucker, When Was the Last Time.  The chorus is, “when was the last time, you did something for the first time.”  As you know if you follow this blog, I’ve had lots of firsts this last year.  Everything from living in a new area to learning how to manage 5 acres and a host of new animals.  One of the animals we’ve introduced to our new lifestyle is the horse.  My lesson this week with a horse really gave me pause to think about this country song and how it relates to so many things in education and my world.

My daughter and I volunteered to help with a horse and rescue training for police officers and fire fighters.  In an equestrian community like ours, it is important for them to know how to handle a horse, but many don’t have much experience in this arena.  My first lesson was watching my daughter be an instructor for a fire fighter.  Here’s a guy who walks into fires for a living.  Brave right.  He wasn’t exactly afraid of the horse, but let’s just say my daughter was the only one exuding confidence in this relationship.  To her, dealing with a horse is as simple as breathing.  She almost couldn’t explain the steps, because to her it’s not steps, it’s just one fluid movement.  I on the other hand, spent the morning putting a halter on and off her horse because no matter how many times someone shows me how to do it, I still struggle to visualize just how this mass of ropes and buckles is supposed to line up on a horses’ head.  I was able to share a few helpful pointers as he looked at the halter with the same trepidation as I had earlier.

After the officers and fire fighters had some time to practice moving and leading their horse around the arena and through obstacles, they were directed to walk out to the outdoor arenas and release their horses.  Even the first part of this direction was a challenge.  Most were not familiar with the types of locks on gates or how you need to open wide and move through ahead of your horse.  As a new volunteer, I was given the opportunity to join the arena training.  So here we stood.  4 newbies and 4 horses.  We took off their harnesses and let them run.  Our only task was to get control of the horses and halter them.  We were practiced and ready.  So were the horses.  They quickly thwarted our efforts to bring them in easily, deciding instead to jump and run around the arena.  One by one, the horses were caught until only mine remained.  She had no intention of coming quietly.

I approached with confidence, halter and lead rope ready.  I was determined to match the horse’s strength with my own.  She darted the other direction.  I tried again, and she went the other way.  The more I pushed, the more she ran.  My strength was not leading us in the right direction.  I could feel my frustration mounting, when my neighbor, who I secretly call the horse and people whisperer, reminded me to think about what other direction I could take it.  Instantly, I dropped my hands and stopped approaching the horse.  I walked toward the food and grabbed a chunk of hay.  I turned my back to the horse and held the hay to my side.  The running stopped and she became curious.  She sniffed the hay and took it from me.  I slowly wrapped the lead rope around her neck and then put on the harness.  I did it, I matched the horse’s strength, not with force but understanding.  I created a safe place and signals she understood.  I let go, without giving in.

My lesson for the day was far from over.  Fast forward a few hours to homework time.  We all sat in the kitchen, our arena, with the task looming before us.  Lead ropes and halters were replaced with math, but the reaction was much the same.  Our kids’ brains bucked and ran from thinking.  The more we pushed, the more they resisted.  Tears and frustration hung heavy in the room.  Sometimes it’s hard for us to be patient as we teach and explain our thinking.  We’ve done this type of thinking so much, we’ve forgotten what it feels like to solve them for the first time.  We’ve learned what it takes to work through a problem and how to use the clues and math strategies to solve them.  For them, it’s still learning for the first time and it’s hard, scary and frustrating.  But we matched their refusal with strength.  We sat and explained again.  Encouraged them to try again. We tried to put the dots closer together so they could make connections, and pointed out errors in their thinking.  We asked them to show their thinking.  We stuck with it, and eventually we got the horse, or homework in this case, under control.

As we drifted off to bed, my daughter said, “Math is hard,”  probably looking for a reason to give up, but I matched her strength with mine.  “Getting a horse under control is hard too.  I guess we can both do hard things when we put our mind to it,” I replied. She smiled. By taking a risk myself, and showing my weakness, we formed a strong connection.

We can all do hard things and help others do hard things too. But we can’t force learning on others any more than we can force a horse to yield to a halter or follow our lead.  We must meet learners where they are and remember what it is like to do something for the first time.  We must be firm in our resolve.   We match their strength to give in to resistance and fear with our openness to opportunities for new connections and learning.

Are you looking to be a better teacher or leader as a parent, teacher, friend or colleague?  Match their strength; not with force, but understanding.  Learn something for the first time and apply these lessons when you work with a learner.

F – Find out what they are thinking or needing.  Look, listen and learn.

I –  Imagine yourself in their shoes and what it feels like to learn for the first time.

R – Ready yourself to match their resistance or fear with your strength and resolve.

S – See don’t seize.  Look for opportunities to guide the learner but don’t be the hero, let them

do the learning and find their own superhero power.

T – Take your time.  Patience and persistence is more powerful in the long run than plowing

through just to get the job done.

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