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  • Bethany Huebner

Coddling or Kegan? Why knowing which side of the bridge you are on means all the world.


I vowed to myself that this would never happen…but, here it is, it is happening.


I’m standing in the bathroom with my 3.5-year-old in utter shock. Somehow (and thankfully) I was snapped out of a robot trance that lack of sleep, increased workload, PhD classes, and general life needs had lulled me into.


“What did you say?” I asked.

“Mommy, pull down my pants. I can’t go potty until you do.” He said.


It was in this moment that I had an out of body experience where I saw myself in slow motion begin to move to pull his pants down for him, but then simultaneously my right mind kicked in halting me to question, “Why can’t he pull down his own pants? He has nothing in his hands, he has done this action hundreds of times before…what is stopping him?”


I somehow got to the exact place I said I would never be. My children will be self-sufficient. My children will be tough. My children will be…. And here I am doing the simplest of tasks for my son none the wiser. It was in that moment that I realized my son is a genius or a master manipulator (already). He has figured out how to lull me into a trance where I just follow his commands blindly.


This moment reminds me of a classroom debate. How do we balance teaching with coddling? When do we cross that line and how do we avoid crossing it? I have recently experienced a shift in learning styles and learning expectations in the classroom. Who knows what is causing it as there are so many variables out there in the world, I don’t think we can peg just one. But, nonetheless the students sitting in the chairs now are different than they were 5 years ago. I know I’m relatively new to the teaching front, so I won’t begin to say that this is a new phenomenon. More likely, this shift in learning styles and process is an ever changing thing.


Do you ever feel caught in the middle of debate and can’t decide which way to move? From a student perspective, I can see the way you expect to learn comes from how you have always learned before. From a teaching perspective, I can see the way students learn comes from how they have always learned before. But, those two assumptions aren’t typically the same assumption. Students now aren’t learning like they did before, so we as teachers need to begin to teach in ways we have never taught before.


This feels very uncomfortable, at least from my point of view as a teacher. You could choose to be in the camp that the student should learn to adjust to my way of teaching. Or you could choose to be in the camp that me as the teacher needs to adjust to their way of learning. Just like most things in life, I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. One of my favorite learning metaphors is Kegan’s Bridge Metaphor. Robert Kegan is a developmental psychologist that developed a metaphor to explain how the process of learning should occur.


Picture this: A rickety rope bridge spanning two cliffs. Between the two cliffs is a very far drop to a body of water filled with all sorts of harmful animals. You are standing on one side of the bridge and your students are standing on the other. You want to teach them how to get across the bridge, but all they see is the drop to their assured death with just a very untrustworthy bridge to cross. Some risk-taking students will cross that bridge despite what you do…they will learn what they need to learn to get to the other side. Most students won’t take that blind leap without some assurances. We can stand on the other side of the bridge and yell assurances that they will be safe, they will be fine, just trust us. Or we could meet them where they are and guide them across.


But then the debate begins…is this coddling or catering to a lazy learner or is Kegan just helping us understand how the brain works? If we went across the bridge and carried the student to the other side, we would be coddling them. If we cross the bridge and then returned together, I believe we are being the guide we are asked to be. They are still doing the work, they are still taking the steps, we are just there showing them the process and providing a trustworthy support along the way.

How does this look practically? Let’s take an example of the student who misses several questions on your exam that came straight out of the reading. You spoke at the beginning of the course how completing the reading was important, you mentioned during lecture that the reading will provide more insight…and they still didn’t read. We could just throw up our hands and roll our eyes, right!?! I mean we would have every right to stick it to them…they made a bad choice. But…..what if instead of leaving them over on their side we make the first move? What if we work with them to see how we can fit reading into their study schedule or how we can teach them about active reading note taking. We can still hold them responsible for their bad choice (they still miss questions on the exam), but we don’t have to be judgmental or belittling too.


Speaking from my mom persona, helping my son with all sorts of things is fulfilling. I love being needed and a part of his life in that way. I also believe it is my role to help him learn and grow in various areas of life skills, social skills, etc. Doing those things for him makes me feel good and productive. The problem with that…it is not about me. His learning should be about him and not how my needs can be met. What is best for him isn’t always going to make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. He needs a guide not a doer. He needs assistance and sometimes he will need to be carried, but I need to remember that his growth is about him. The same goes for our students. I know I have fallen into the trap of wanting to be liked by students which is a way for me to meet my needs…remember Bethany, it isn’t about you. This process of teaching is about the student and meeting them where they are to guide them across the learning bridge.


What side of the bridge are you on? Do you believe meeting them where they are is coddling?

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