I can say with certainty that becoming a gentle teacher has changed the trajectory of my life. I wish there was a way to say that without sounding quite so melodramatic, but nevertheless it’s true. I know now that the change happened due to the simple fact that gentle teaching isn’t something that I do when I go to work, it is a part of who I am and it guides how I do things in all aspects of my life. But it took me quite a while to really understand that.
Gentle teaching was a big part of why I chose to take a position at SAI at a time when I was only looking to add some token human service experience to my resume before applying into a Bachelor of Social Work degree program. Despite other opportunities that were going to pay more and be less of a scheduling hassle, my gut said to go with SAI. My pre-interview research had taken me down a rabbit hole of gentle teaching intro videos and articles far surpassing the time and interest I would have normally invested; I was hooked. I knew that this was the type of place I wanted to be involved with and the type of people I wanted to be around, and that trumped the conveniences other opportunities offered. I didn’t know it then, but this was the start of the trajectory change. The subsequent experiences that I had with the folks that welcomed me into their lives and the mentors I got to learn from as I grew into a gentle teacher confirmed that gut feeling. The more I learned the more certain I became that this place, these people, and this way of doing things were what I in my life for the long haul. So, I found myself building my life and my education plans around this job that was supposed to be a resume builder. At this point, I still didn’t recognize the role that becoming a gentle teacher was playing in shaping my life, I just knew I didn’t want to leave the people I’d grown to love, and I didn’t want to ever have to work somewhere where I would be expected to treat people differently than I believed was right.
As I embraced this shift, I decided that I wanted to commit to deepening my understanding of gentle teaching and take steps towards becoming certified as a mentor. If choosing SAI is what initiated the trajectory change, this decision is what locked it in. The more I immersed myself in gentle teaching, the more questions I had about things I thought I knew (which is still the case to this day), and the more certain I became that I believed in this with my whole heart. This was especially true of a message I heard over and over: that gentle teaching isn’t a hat you can wear at work and then take off when you leave, because it isn’t what you do it’s who you are. I believed that, I taught it to others, and strived to embrace it, but I struggled to understand what it truly meant for me personally or see how I could live it intentionally. What finally clarified it for me was having my younger sister join the agency and watching her grow into gentle teaching.
About eight months into her time at SAI, there was a distinct moment, completely outside of our support roles, when I saw that gentle teaching had become part of who she is. It happened as I watched her interact with our nine-year-old niece on a run of the mill Saturday afternoon at the swimming pool. It was one of those slow-motion moments where you swear you can hear the click in your head as something that you’ve been wrestling with finally snaps into place. Since a very young age my niece has struggled with anxiety, worrying about things that no child’s heart should be weighed down by. It can be heartbreaking to watch and often leaves me feeling entirely helpless. On this particular day nothing about her anxiety was different; she worried about being left behind and losing the love and approval of important people in her world over a simple mistake, and it was as heartbreaking as ever to hear. But as I watched my sister work through those moments with her, my feeling of helplessness was lessened. I could see clearly how gentle teaching was shaping their interaction; I couldn’t even pinpoint a tangible difference in the reassurances she was giving, but her presence was radiating safe and loved. It left all three of us feeling better about the tough moments and more connected to each other.
After that experience, I had a new lens through which to view myself that has allowed me to see the many ways that gentle teaching has become a part of who I am. Just like my sister with my niece, I can see how many of my interactions and relationships have been improved by my instinctive use of the tools and by the ever-increasing value that I place on companionship and community. I see it when I encounter a store clerk with a snarky attitude and I consciously choose to maintain a gentle presence and respectful conduct regardless of the frustration we both feel, because I believe in their inherent worth as a human being and the subsequent conduct that that demands of me. I see it when I place higher value on interdependence and togetherness than on the acts of independence that hold clout in broader society but that I know feed disconnection. I felt it in the process of writing this story, as I was driven to get the permission not only of my sisters but more importantly of my niece before sharing her story. When I paused to think about where that drive was coming from, I realized the influence of gentle teaching on my values means that sharing my part of the story is not worth even the smallest risk of compromising her knowledge that she is safe with me and loved by me, unconditionally.
This new understanding has made it so much easier for me to be intentional about cultivating gentle teaching in my life. For instance, seeing the influence on my conduct in relationships, I can choose to let that influence take precedence over other incompatible ways of being that I no longer want to engage in. I can work to spread gentle teaching in my life in new ways. I now bring a world view shaped by gentle teaching into every social work class that I participate in. This not only shapes my learning, but also creates opportunity to educate others about gentle teaching and potentially inspire them to begin their own journey to embracing a culture of gentleness. These are the type of small opportunities that I intentionally seek out in order to cultivate gentle teaching as intrinsic to who I am.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to grow something that you can’t even identify clearly; not impossible, but it sure adds an unnecessary level of difficulty. By finding your own clarity on how you are bringing gentle teaching into your life, you open up opportunities to solidify it in all aspects of who you are. And so, I invite you to start by stepping back to look and question where gentle teaching fits in your life. Be intentional about seeking this understanding, so you can then begin he work of expanding its influence into all areas of your life.
For me, making the choice to cultivate gentle teaching is what keeps me on the path that started with the decision to trust my gut and choose SAI. It might have taken me longer to get the lesson than it does for some, but now it’s rooted in who I am, steadfast. Whatever other life changes may come my way, I’m confident that Gentle Teaching will shape whatever I do because it will always be a part of who I am.