What is it exactly that Abrome Facilitators do? Do you teach them anything?

These questions are often as accusatory as they are inquisitive. It is difficult to understand what Abrome Facilitators do if you are focused on what they do not do. It is doubly difficult if you believe that what teachers do at conventional schools is important or necessary. Conventional school teachers have very difficult jobs. Among other tasks, they have to develop curriculum and lesson plans, deliver the lessons day in and day out, test and assess students, all while managing their classrooms. They are expected to try to motivate and discipline students, and also serve as a guidance counselor and front line social worker. But most importantly, a teacher is expected to transfer very specific academic knowledge from very defined academic silos on age-based timelines in a way that allows parents, administrators, politicians, and college admissions officers to be able to judge whether or not a student has been sufficiently schooled, and what future opportunities the student should be allowed to access based on those judgements.

One of the wonderful aspects of Self-Directed Education (SDE) is that every young person is treated uniquely relative to everyone else. Without a mandated curriculum or age-based benchmarks that are imposed on children, every young person in an SDE environment has the freedom to pursue their own interests and goals in accordance with their needs and values. And without being expected to force young people to perform for other adults, Facilitators in SDE learning communities can pour their energies into creating space for and meeting the needs of Learners who may choose to focus on developing their sketching skills, figuring out how to hack websites, building towers, learning how to read, writing short stories, or making animated movies. The Learners have the opportunity to go deep in topics that matter to them in a way that schooled kids do not. And this sounds good to anxious guardians and skeptical educators who are trying to compare SDE outcomes to conventional schooling outcomes (on schoolish terms, of course).

But creating space for and meeting the needs of Learners provides benefits far beyond what kids can learn or produce for adults. Freed of unnecessary academic burdens, Facilitators have the opportunity to listen to and see young people. To be a sounding board for their concerns, fears, needs, desires, ambitions, and dreams. They can serve as a reliable anchor in the young person’s life, and they can provide a sense of safety and security that the young people can return to time and again. And unlike the relationships even the most mindful of parents and guardians have with their children, Facilitators do not have an inherently hierarchical relationship with young people. This opens up avenues for communication that can be rooted in trust as opposed to fear. Parents and educators can usually understand this expression of what is possible for Facilitators to do.

Expressing how we do it has proven much more difficult. Like other adults (e.g., teachers, guardians) we protect young people from harm. We model how to communicate with others and how to function in society (I am not saying all adults model healthy behavior). We also facilitate meetings and assist with conflict resolution, we maintain the learning environment, and we take care of administrative tasks. This is all easy enough to understand. It is the unmeasured, repeated, safe, nonjudgmental, intimate, individual interactions between a Facilitator and a Learner over an extended period of time that is perhaps the most important thing a good Facilitator does. But that is not easily expressed or understood.

I recently stumbled across a more effective way of expressing what a good Facilitator does as I read A Liberated Mind by Dr. Steven C. Hayes, the originator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). About a third of the way into the book, in an attempt to convey one’s capacity for psychological flexibility, Hayes asks the reader to consider the most empowering relationship they have had in their life. Someone who lifted them up and carried them forward. He then asks the reader to consider six questions about that relationship:

  1. Did you feel accepted for who you are by this person?

  2. Did you feel constantly judged and criticized?

  3. Was the person generally present with you when you were together?

  4. Did you normally have a sense of being seen by that person, as if they knew you deep down?

  5. Did what you care about matter to that person?

  6. Could you be together in different ways that best fit the situation and what you both wanted?

It is pretty clear what the answers to these questions will be if the relationship was empowering (yes, no, yes, yes, yes, yes). Hayes acknowledges that not everyone has had someone in their life who has lifted them up and carried them forward. That alone should serve as a striking rebuke of how our society supports young people, especially considering that we steal 15,000 hours of their life (over 13 years) for their own good. I would argue that that is because the adults in children’s lives spend so much time trying to shape and mold them that they do not create any space to see and hear them.

A good Facilitator, by eschewing attempts to manipulate children, can much more easily accept a young person for who they are today, free of criticism. They can be present with the Learner, they can see the Learner, and they can find value in what the Learner values. A good Facilitator is in relationship with the Learner, and that relationship is not only on the terms of the adult.

A good Facilitator does what all of us want our family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues to do for each of us—they just do it for children, as well.

(Cover Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay)