I’ve actually plowed with a mule. How’s that for showing one’s age?
Mule plowing wasn’t a regular event for me. I only did it a couple of times. Usually, Dad paid a man with a tractor to come plow our field every spring. At the very least, we had a rented tiller to help with the job. Having that big plot ready for planting was a necessity for our family. We had stuff to plant so we’d have stuff to eat.
But occasionally, when the money got tight, Dad borrowed a mule and plow to do the work. It was the way he did it when he was younger. As soon as he felt I was old enough, he wanted me to learn the skill as well.
It looks easier than it is. I mean, all a guy’s gotta do is guide the plow handles to keep it straight, hold the reins and follow the mule, right? I thought it was cool, but the novelty soon wore off.
I was pretty scrawny, so I had to lean on the plow in an effort to make the furrows a little deeper. I was pretty proud of myself.
Until that danged mule just up and stopped.
I mean that ornery beast just plain quit on me in the middle of a row. I didn’t possess much of a cussing vocabulary back then, but I used what I knew. Didn’t work. The mule just stood there and refused to budge.
Had to be the origin of Oppositional Defiance Disorder, right?
At first, I tried shaking the reins and yelling from behind. Nope. Nothing.
I tried moving up to the animal’s rear and pushing, and nearly took a hoof to the side of my head for my troubles. That was the only movement the mule made. He still stood in the same spot.
So I moved in front and grabbed his bridle, thinking my little skinny butt could drag a few hundred pounds of mule. That lazy brute actually sat down in front of me. No way that wasn’t on purpose.
Since I wasn’t going to get to join my friends for our afternoon baseball game until I finished digging up that plot of dirt, I had to find a way to get the obstinate donkey/horse mix to cooperate.
Finally, I stood next to him. I held his bridle, careful not to grind the bit against his big teeth, and I talked to him. I was nice about it. I have no idea why, but I felt the need to demonstrate, and I tried to show the animal what I wanted him to do. I explained my need to join my friends and coaxed Mr. Mule into standing, and eventually I got him to walk beside me. The plow was all over the place at first, but at least I had a moving mule. After a few steps, I was able to get out of his way and let him resume his progress.
If I ever needed an experience to prepare me for teaching, that had to be it. I’m not comparing kids to mules ... wait. Yes, I am. There are plenty of similarities involved. Kids, stubborn? No way.
When I think back to my own teachers and coaches, I can see just how much of a mule I was. When I think of my time in a classroom, I really, really get the correlation.
I’ve learned that standing behind a kid and yelling out instructions doesn’t really work. The kid feels as if he or she is going at it alone, and they’re already uncertain as to the destination.
Pushing doesn’t help, either. Nobody likes feeling pushed. If a kid doesn’t feel ready to move, he or she is going to balk just like that old mule.
Standing in front while trying to yank ‘em forward isn’t really effective. The kid’s more than willing to let the adult go right ahead.
But standing or sitting next to a student while guiding them is by far the best way I’ve found to show the way. I think back to some of my teachers squeezing themselves into those little student desks so they could show me how to do something. I think back to coaches who stood next to me, sometimes using their hands to show me how to use mine. “Hands-on approach,” they call it. Works on kids and mules.
I’ve also learned the value of “scaffolding” in teaching. It’s just how it sounds. A teacher is helping “prop up” a student by giving clues and demonstrating in order to help the person figure out an answer. To do this usually takes sitting or standing next to the person trying to learn.
What happens with such an approach is the same thing I saw in the old mule. Once students figure out they can take a few steps on their own, they’re on their way. All we have to do is follow behind and watch while offering a little guidance.
Mules and kids. Plowmen and teachers or coaches. Fields and classrooms.
It all makes sense to me now.
We’re all just trying to plant something awesome.