Over the years at Talking Stick I have come to realize what is the most important aspect of the work we do: The Facilitation. The physical environment, the materials used and the content offered pale in comparison to the integral nature of the quality of the adult facilitation. The people who currently work and those who have worked in the past at Talking Stick have mostly developed their communication style as an extension of their homeschooling methods. Which is why we often have a staff completely made up of parents. Some are certified teachers but for the most part they all have a natural tendency toward being incredibly conscious of how the way they interact with young people can affect them.
Let’s explore what it means to be a facilitator at Talking Stick. When strangers ask me what I do, sometimes I just say that I’m a teacher to keep the conversation uncomplicated. But that is an inaccurate characterization. I am in fact a facilitator of the learning process.
The word “Teacher” has an image problem. The “Teacher” is perceived as authoritative, sadistic, and unsympathetic . We fear the teacher, we mock the teacher, and we wish the teacher would sit on chewed gum. Then there’s the opposite impression: the “Teacher” is a hero, selfless, and dedicated. The “Teacher” is unappreciated, underpaid, and unsung. This is the “Teacher” as noble savage. The reality is that teachers are a diverse people with a variety motivations, skill levels, areas of expertise and levels of compassion. Their main role, however, is to impart information that is to be memorized, tested, and then theoretically applied to real life. Most teachers are set up to fail by being given too many students in one classroom that operate within too wide a spectrum of academic and social skills.
Facilitators, on the other hand, are expected to give support in areas beyond only academic, such as interpersonal and fine motor skills. Facilitation is a process that is used to add content, process, and structure to meet the needs of an individual or a group. The facilitator focuses on the process of a person or persons as they obtain knowledge and information, work collaboratively, and accomplish their objectives. The facilitator does not decide what those objectives are but helps participants to identify what they want to do and draws from the participants ideas about how to implement their desires.
The facilitator offers new content and activities since people need to be exposed to things in order to decide whether they want to partake in them. However, the facilitator does not try to coerce participants to engage in any particular activity. We don’t even try to manipulate people to “do something” although most people are “doing” something at any given time. If someone is just sitting on the couch looking around, we think about the possibilities before we approach. Maybe this person needs to slowly take in his or her surroundings before joining. Or maybe this person is desperately shy and waiting for help (or facilitation) to find an opening. An adult may grab a book and sit down next to the person sitting on the couch and ask if they would like to hear the story or what they had for breakfast. The adult is initiating interaction to ascertain whether this person is content to just sit or could benefit from someone reaching out to them. After this initial interaction, the facilitator may ask if they would like to, for example, join in on some lego building and then sit down with the young person to act as a social bridge.
We facilitate problem solving as well. This facilitation entails an acute awareness of individuals’ abilities in the area being explored. For example, one of the most common requests for help in the Day program concerns the opening of some package or another at lunch. One option is to just open the item for the person which gives them no room to develop problem solving and motor abilities. Another approach is to ask a series of thought provoking questions such as “What have you tried so far?” “What has worked in the past?” and “what tool could you use to open it?” Usually one of these prompts will lead to a solution but sometimes the facilitator needs to be careful of meeting people where they are “at”. “What part would you like me to do?” or “I recommend using scissors” are helpful next steps. Very rarely do facilitators end up doing the action for them unless it turns out to be a ridiculously tight thermos lid or a defective straw hole in a juice box.
Facilitators give instructions when asked to but refrain from giving direction before that. We also model problem solving and healthy self-esteem. Like facilitators of a meeting, Talking Stick facilitators bring participants attention back to the process of what they are doing rather than then rushing to an outcome that may not work for everyone.
Expect quality facilitation at Talking Stick. The adults working here are compassionate, creative, and competent. They can “read” children, they are intuitive about feelings, needs, and wants. They choose or develop curriculum that is engaging, playful, and meaningful. I am extremely proud and honored to be working with a group whose talents and level of commitment never cease to amaze me.
Now if only most people under seven years old could pronounce the word “facilitator”.