Recently, I had to run an errand. I was in a bit of a hurry and had a lot of things swirling in my head so in this state of mind, I snatched my keys and stepped out the back door to go to the garage. I pull the door open and as I step out, something below just catches my attention in my peripheral vision before disappearing under my extended foot. I recoil mid-step and quickly look to see what lie beneath my foot. To my complete astonishment, I see that it’s a baby bird huddled in the crease of the door frame. I crouch down to get a better look at it. I suspect it to be a mourning dove. Unlike what I associate with the young of many animals, baby doves (or as my neighbor later corrects me, a dove fledgling) are not what I personally find to be proportionately beautiful to what I associate with the young of other animal counterparts. They are gangly with ruffled unkempt feathers and outsized eyes. But what startles me is not its appearance, it’s the fact that it doesn’t seem overly frightened of me and doesn’t make any attempt to move away from me. Not knowing what to do, I consult with two of my neighbors and Google and the consensus is to put it into a basket and then try to place it up off the ground in hopes that its mother will return. Thankfully, I didn’t have too much concern that the mother would not return because I noticed a particularly watchful dove occupying various perches in the trees just outside of my backdoor. In the end, not having a basket, I found a small empty planter, put some greenery I harvested from a nearby Cypress tree in the bottom of it, and gently guided the fledgling into her temporary nest. I placed the makeshift dwelling up on the recyling bin so that she could not be so high up that a fall would injure her but be high enough to avoid being easy prey for a neighborhood cat. As soon as I placed the planter on top of the recycling bin, the fledgling immediately hopped up on the rim of the planter and just sat there. She seemed quite content. So I left her there hoping that my absence might encourage her mother to accompany her. When I returned from running my errand, as I came out of my garage and approached my backdoor, I noticed that the mother had indeed joined her. She was sitting across from her on the other side of the planter. I stood and watched for a moment. The mother would cock her head and look at her little one. The fledgling remained motionless, only occasionally turning her head a little. Finally, the mother starts scooting around the rim of the planter until she is right next to the fledgling. She proceeds to examine her and then begins vigorously preening her. Still, the fledgling was motionless. The mother, upon finishing her chore, becomes still. After a couple of minutes passed, momma dove suddenly bumps her little one abruptly and then cocks her head to observe the reaction. Nothing. It was almost like a mom trying to urge a teenager to abandon the sofa and her preoccupation with her iPhone. Once again, the mother bumped the fledgling and stared intently waiting for a response from her recalcitrant offspring. Once again, nothing.
It suddenly dawned on me what the mother was doing. She was trying to “encourage” the fledgling to fly. It’s a common experience, I have since come to learn, for fledglings to fall out of their nest due to their desire to, in typical teenager fashion, “get out of the house” and see the world. They experiment with using the feathery appendages attached to their body. Up to this point on this particular morning, this adolescent had very little interest in moving at all much less attempting to fly. Perhaps the initial failure to leave the nest was so discouraging that it didn’t want to make a second attempt. Resigning herself to her little one’s general disinterest in movement, the mother dove seems to have decided to simply be content to provide company. So she sits, like a parent next to her child on a park bench, staring at the playground. A couple of more minutes goes by and neither mother nor fledgling moves. I decide to go inside the house and leave them alone. About an hour goes by and I am sitting in my home office at the back of the house when through the window, I can see my elderly neighbor slowly approaching the recycling bin with a bowl of water. I wonder how close she would be able to get. Surprisingly. Quite close. Once she gets within three feet, the mother suddenly flies off into the neighboring tree. The fledgling remains but now her head is moving as she is carefully inspecting her large approaching visitor. Then, right as my neighbor is gently placing the water next to the planter on the recycling bin, the fledgling suddenly starts frantically flapping her wings and she lunges airborne to a low hanging branch just behind her. Flight.
Watching this scene play out made me reflect on my own experience working with language learners over the last twenty years. I would estimate that I’ve easily taught English to a few thousand students from immersion style ESL programs to groups of kids to business English students at offices in corporate environments. Often, as teachers, we are dealing with students who have a fledgling mindset in that there is an underlying deep curiosity and fascination with the great unknown of the landscape of the language and culture they are on the threshold of crossing into. And yet, there is a fragility to their confidence that is in need of a good steward—someone to guide them through this unknown territory much as Sacagawea did for Lewis and Clark in their journey into the unknown vast western wilderness of the US in search of the mythical Northwest Passage. Like Lewis and Clark, they are eager to explore their new world of a foreign language and inevitably, upon their first encounter with the language, discover that they cannot immediately take flight with it. Sometimes, they come crashing to the earth. Egos bruised and feeling discouraged, they too naturally resist risking further injury, frustration or humiliation. Like that mother dove, when we as teachers are doing our job well, we have to recognize how to modulate between challenging and encouraging our students and being patient. It’s not one or the other but rather a dance between both. If we push too hard and too insistently, they may be tempted to quit but if we provide no prodding, they risk stagnating in their own passivity. The beginning of a learning journey is always the most tenuous and it is in that time that the teacher recognizes that he must be the keeper of the student’s faith until such time the student is ready to take possession of it back from the teacher—until such time when he is ready to take flight under his own power. Until then, we are there dancing on the rim of their threshold alternating between being a kind of mischievous provocateur and a silent cheerleader. Having the discernment and the patience to know when and how to apply one or the other is what defines greatness in a teacher. Maybe we could all benefit from watching mother doves and their fledglings.