When the Pupil is Ready

Over the years I’ve been blessed with great teachers. Paul Fleming, my 12th grade English teacher, taught me the language of classical rhetoric. We would write arguments based on an assigned piece of British literature (“Resolved: Hamlet Was Mad”) and then read the paper in front of our classmates who would then challenge each premise, clause, qualifier, and conclusion. When the class finished with us, Mr. Fleming would begin. In all honesty, I don’t remember particularly liking Mr. Fleming, but I was aware, even then, that he was providing a remarkable educational experience. Mr. Fleming taught a method of thinking and speaking and writing that has served me well my entire life.
In my junior year at the University of South Florida Professor Jack Sandler introduced me to behavioral psychology, to the puzzle of autism, and to methods of applied research with children and families. In later years, during scenario-based trainings in which he demonstrated an uncanny ability to create a host of believable characters, he taught subtle and fluid applications of behavioral techniques for working with young people.

During my senior year, I joined the peer counseling unit of the University Counseling Center. There were two programs at the Center. Mine was the unfortunately named Peer Management Program, which sounds like a fascist youth organization but actually offered behavioral techniques to help fellow students with study skills, smoking cessation, and weight management. The other program was called the Rap Cadre and was staffed primarily by students from the Rehabilitation Counseling department who were heavily into Fritz Perls.

Apparently, I chose the right program. The screening process included a stress interview with a professional staff member, and mine was with the resident Freudian analyst. During the debriefing she told me – in what I presume was an authentic Viennese accent – “Well, you are completely out of touch with your feelings. I ask you what you feel and you tell me what you think. Behavior modification is ideal for you”. Ouch. I felt that.

When I became coordinator of the entire unit, and responsible for both programs, I was anxious about the Cadre folks. I didn’t know much about Gestalt Therapy, and I represented a model that people misunderstood and tended to regard with antagonism. I turned to Jack Sandler for advice. “How can I coordinate the whole program when the Cadre people are so dismissive of behaviorism? How can I convince them to listen to me?” Jack said, “You don’t have to convince anyone of anything. Just be a person they can like and respect and then naturally they will want to listen to you.” And it must follow, as the night the day… That lesson has stayed with me my entire professional life.

More than a decade later, after moving to Delaware and taking a job in the adult mental health system, I came under the tutelage of another great teacher. Mario Pazzaglini, with doctorates in both psychology and neuroscience, was erudite, impish, and perpetually amused by life. If you spent any time with Mario you got smarter. He was the high tide that raises all boats. He was not only a walking reference library on neuropathology, psychopharmacology, and psychotherapy; he had an earthy wisdom that informed everything he did. He once said to me, “Never confuse having a credential with being competent. There’s a world of difference between knowledge and skill, experience and wisdom, and between knowing how and being able.”

These teachers have been just where I expected them to be; in classrooms, laboratories, and clinics, and they were the kinds of people I expected them to be – instructors, professors, and supervisors. But teachers often appear unlooked for and in places we don’t expect.

A few months ago I met a woman named Mary who attended a training I was leading. Mary owned and operated a group home for adults with cognitive disabilities. Mary didn’t have extensive education or much formal training, but she had a good heart and a lot of quiet wisdom. After my presentation on functional assessment – a term she had never before heard – Mary told me the story of a woman who had recently come to live in her group home. This woman wouldn’t eat anything that didn’t come from McDonald’s. She refused all other foods, despite encouragement from Mary and her staff. Attempts to serve other food were met with anger and unpleasant behavior. Mary and her team became increasingly concerned about the woman’s health (did you see “Supersize Me”?) and were getting pressure from state monitors to provide this woman with a varied diet.

Mary was facing a classic support professional dilemma, how to honor a person’s preferences but encourage healthier choices. How do you do this while navigating conflicting policies and fending off attacks by quality assurance hit squads? Some people’s response would be a tough love approach and it’s easy to imagine the resultant conflict, frustration, and unhappiness on all sides.

Mary’s answer was to figure out exactly which features of McDonald’s food the woman found so essential. Was it the saltiness? The grease? The aroma? The special sauce? The sesame seeds? The wilted lettuce? The charming ambience of the restaurant itself?

Mary was determined to see past the obvious, superficial aspects of the situation. This is sometimes hard to do, especially with something as ubiquitous in human services as McDonald’s. It seems like everyone, no matter the level of cognitive impairment, recognizes McDonald’s. Consequently, trips to McDonald’s are used as reinforcers for people with disabilities all across the country thousands of times per week. Over the years, McDonald’s french fries have been incorporated into so many treatment plans that they could probably be regulated as pharmaceuticals.

With no training in behavior analytic methods, Mary conducted an informal and intuitive functional analysis by presenting various combinations of foods while isolating differing sensory aspects of them. She discovered that the key experience for this woman was the act of opening and removing the food item from the paper wrapper in which it came. Mary’s staff simply began serving the woman a variety of foods in paper sandwich wrappers. Her solution was simple, elegant, and produced no conflict or strained relationships. Some might argue – and I’m sure they have – that it is not “normal” for someone to eat all her foods from sandwich wrappers. Okay, but with the nutritional alarms silenced, Mary’s staff now have a place to begin a calm, respectful process of supporting this woman to expand her flexibility with food over time.

Mary taught me an important lesson about the power of compassion and the will to understand. Because Mary was humble enough to accept the woman she was supporting as her teacher, she was able to go further in understanding than I might have, despite my extensive training. Sometimes in conducting functional assessments we do not look deeply enough and assume we understand something when we don’t. This can lead us to make erroneous conclusions that result in ineffective interventions.

Lucyshyn, Horner, Dunlap, Albin, and Ben got it just right when they identified “humility” as an essential component of positive behavior support with families in the chapter they wrote for the book Families & Positive Behavior Support (2002, Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.). Without the humility to accept the people we support as our teachers we compromise our ability to help. By allowing them to teach us we are better able to truly identify people’s strengths, talents, and gifts on which to build our services. Not in some cynical fill-in-the-blank paper compliance way either, but in a genuine way that leads us in healthy directions of support and growth.

Mary was my teacher that day. She was there for me with the right story at the right time, and because she was I came to see with more depth a process I thought I understood. Life surrounds us with such teachers, although they often go unrecognized. They are our children and students, our friends and co-workers, they are people for whom we provide services, they are our neighbors, and they are strangers. Sometimes they care about us; sometimes they dislike us and wish us harm. They may be people we meet one time in passing or they may be people we have only read about. Sometimes we learn lessons from people whose names we will never know, and they will move along without any awareness of the wisdom they impart. Just staying alert to those opportunities invites teachers into our lives, and our openness prepares us to receive their lessons.

There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “When the pupil is ready the teacher will appear.” Humility creates that readiness. Wisdom is the gift our teachers give us. Being ready is the gift we give ourselves.

-February 2006