Are You a Student Whisperer?


I never would have imagined I could get a fresh and humbling perspective on classroom management from a documentary about a horse trainer, but that is exactly what has happened.

Recently I saw the documentary Buck, the story of Buck Brannaman, a horse trainer (although he might say people trainer) and technical consultant for the movie the Horse Whisperer. In addition to its perfection as a film of integrity, beauty, insight and sensitivity, it resonates with me in a powerful way as a teacher and trainer who works frequently with, or on behalf of, some of the most vulnerable, trauma-impacted adult learners.

Here is a Master Trainer's quote to post on my office wall.

While every moment of this film was riveting for me, there were a couple of statements Buck made that continue to cause me to reflect more purposefully on this work that I do. He's a horse trainer working with horses and their people, but I think the following pearls of wisdom apply equally well to my work with trauma-impacted adult learners and their teachers. What do you think?

The horse is a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you will like what you see, and sometimes you won’t.
— Buck Brannaman

Is my learner a mirror to my soul? 

We can't take responsibility for the internal world of others or even their behavior, and as teachers and trainers, coaches and consultants, we certainly don't have the sustained influence that a parent has on the life of a child, but is there any part of this statement that might apply to us in this work? Is it possible that in the classroom the learner is a mirror to my soul? At the very least isn't my response to students and training participants a mirror to my soul?

I know that I am drawn from my soul to this teaching work: curriculum design, coaching and training for vulnerable learners in prison, consumers of social services, or in college programs designed for the academically underprepared. I even enjoy the rascally ones, the ones who don't edit much before speaking, not in a mean way, but in an authentic expression of their feelings and needs. 

I also admit that I can feel stressed by certain dynamics in some teaching and training situations. But when I'm able to receive folks where they are, without feeling like I need to change them, but rather come alongside them for a time on their journey, I like what the mirror shows me. 

When I allow myself to take something personally or to become stressed or ruffled when someone is doing something I think they shouldn't do, I don't like so much what the mirror shows me.

Who has the problem?

Rather than helping people with horse problems, I’m helping horses with people problems.
— Buck Brannaman

The application of this statement to the adult classroom is a bit provocative, but something about its raw truthfulness makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. In the most progressive and exciting social service and higher ed organizations I consult with there is a definite shift away from "fixing the student/client," to zooming back to give new attention to the systems and professionals who surround that client. 

In the most influential organizations I see a shift away from a singular focus on the vulnerable student to a broader view that includes the professional teachers, trainers, administrators and the systems in which they work. The newest and boldest efforts are focused on systemic practices and policies to change how we do our work and the structure of the systems that serve these vulnerable learners. Could it be said then that rather than helping teachers with student problems, our work must shift to or at least include helping students with teacher problems?

Watch this short trailer if you feel ready to examine your frame of reference.

I’m using Buck’s example to examine my frame of reference.

In my work with organizations devoted to using evidence-based interventions to support children and families, there is a principle of best practice that says if you want to change the behavior of a child, you need to pay attention and coach the behavior of the parent. Couldn't the same be said of our work with vulnerable learners? What part of the long standing systems and traditional practices of professionals need to change to support desired growth in our most vulnerable, trauma-impacted learners?

What practices does it take to influence gently and respectfully? How can we become so attractive in who we are on the inside that vulnerable, trauma-impacted learners let down their defenses and follow our invitation on their own volition? What does it take to be a Student Whisperer? 

Please see the film and join the conversation below!

If you work with vulnerable, trauma-impacted adult learners, I encourage you to see this amazing film to learn from the wise soul and Master Teacher Buck.

What are your best trauma-informed, student whisperer practices? 

I hope you'll share your good ideas for being a student whisperer in the comments section below.