Pass It On

What bit of real-life competency have you passed on lately?

Whatever you know, give it back. If you know how to check the air pressure in a tire, show someone how to do that. If you know how to make an antivirus medicine from Oregon Grape root, take someone with you next time you go to collect the root. If you know how to plant and trellis peas, show someone that skill, and tell them stories while you do.

We all need each other’s skills. Even more than the skills, we need each other’s coaching and mentoring.

This isn’t about the skills learned in school, it’s about life. School should give our young people the essential and basic ideas and skills they need to make a go of it in society, and we need to remember and pass on that life is much more than “making a go of it”.

Young folks, pay attention. Older folks, develop your patience. Much older folks, remember how you learned.

I learned to garden from watching my father, and (sometimes reluctantly) by helping. Later, when I was ready to have my own garden and he wasn’t there, I read books to find answers to my questions. I missed him. Now I ask Dr. Google.

There are three distinct ways of helping others learn. They are teaching, coaching, and mentoring, and they all have their place.

Teaching is telling someone something. Your expectation is that they will make notes and go away to practice or study what you’ve passed on to them, and apply it when appropriate.

Coaching is more immediate. You make suggestions to the student about how to improve a specific skill, usually something that they are working with right now. They improve by following your guidance.

Mentoring is the most subtle of the three. You don’t tell the student much at all, either about right now or about something they may use in the future. You do something that engages you while they’re around, and allow them to become interested if they wish. You set “attention traps”, small things that will call to their curiosity, or you invite them to participate with you: “C’mon, let’s make some cookies!”, or “Would you give me a hand setting this frame up for the beans to climb?” If they ask about something, you ask a question right back about what they think, or what they’ve observed, or if they’d like to have a try. You tell stories about what you’re doing, from other times or places, and you bury useful information in those stories. You may, but only if they need it and preferably with their permission, make a suggestion or provide a bit of factual information to help them to the next level of understanding. You don’t become impatient, take over, micromanage, or do any of those other things you never liked when you were on the receiving end.

These three techniques all have a different effect on learning. Consider mentoring. If the learner is encouraged, even required, to try a new activity or learn something factual or practical on their own, and if most of the time they’re doing it with someone they believe in, they learn to trust their own interests and motivations. They become self-confident. They will make mistakes; they may hurt themselves. You accept this because you know that allowing their learning will empower them. On your end of the mentoring relationship, you may be surprised by how quickly and how much you come to care for your students.

Once a student is self-motivated, you become more of a coach, guiding them to new experiences and offering suggestions.

I first learned to track and hunt from older men in my life. Then, when I became fascinated with tracking, Tom Brown Jr. showed me how to take tracking to a level I could not have imagined. Since then, my passion has provided all the motivation I need. I’ve developed that skill through many hours of dirt time, and I’m still curious and still learning every time I go out.

The technique I call “teaching” is not concerned with the student’s curiosity or self-motivation. It is based on the idea that the teacher knows and the student needs to know. Whether the student agrees with this or not is often irrelevant, usually because there is a certain amount of material to be passed on and “We don’t have all day.”

Coaching lies somewhere between these two techniques. It involves some questioning and some suggesting, in a mix that works for the student and allows him or her to bring out knowledge and understanding from within as well as acquiring it from without.

We need more good mentoring and more good coaching. We need to ask questions of our students, tell them stories, and help them discover their own best path.

I have a strong feeling for the natural world. So I look for ways to pass that on. I look for ways to trade the Wall of Green (what many people see when they look at a forest – no details, just an impenetrable green wall) for a personal connection with the birds and plants of my students’ back yards or the park down the street – or even the cracks in the sidewalk and the lamppost on the corner.

How do you give back? What’s your “pass-on passion?”

Published Aug 8 2021

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