Learning to Teach from the Red-Eyed Vireo

“What day is it?” It’s today squeaked Piglet. “My favorite day,” said Pooh.

                        -A. A. Milne

 Though, most have heard their call, most probably cannot identify the red-eyed vireo by sight. It has a bold face pattern with a white eyebrow, bordered above and below with black, and a ruby red eye. The body is blue-gray contrasting olive-colored back and wings. Except for the eye and the white eyebrow, this bird blends in with the leaves of a tree.

No matter where the vireo goes, his song follows. If you have walked in the woods, or even a park or neighborhood in North America, you are familiar with this bird. His call is so ever-present that it might be simply the “sound of the woods” to many people. The red-eyed vireo is the optimist of the woods. He never stops singing! Incessantly, he fills the woods with his short phrases: sawee, sawitt, cheer-o-wit, cher-ee, chit-a-wit. Not only is his constant chatter present, it is always cheerful. No matter if building his nest in the crotch between tree trunk and branch, foraging for caterpillars and aphids, or stuffing his mouth with berries, building fat before migrating as far south as South America, he just does not stop singing. Each male can sing up to 30 different calls of cheer. On May 27th, 1952, Louise de Kiriline Lawrence counted the songs from a single vireo at 22,197 songs during the 14 hours of daylight. If you break that down, that little guy sang for 10 hours out of the 14 hours of daylight. Phew! That is some serious stamina for cheer.

Optimism seems to work for the vireo. This little optimist has certainly found success in the world, with its range covering nearly all of North America, spreading into South America during the winter, and even hopping across the pond to Europe.

A few years ago, I made a conscious decision in my professional life as a teacher that I would purposefully approach all my students, my colleagues and the parents of my students with the naïve assumption that when I was dealing with them they were “bringing their best.” I recognize that this is indeed naïve and that in many cases, this is not the actuality. They are not doing the best they can with what gifts they have. But if I assumed they did how would that change my outlook toward them? And if I did not adopt this paradigm, what is the alternative? Frustration and anger? Maybe on that day, the best a student, colleague, or parent could do is simply to show up. Instead of greeting that effort (or lack-there-of) with frustration or worse yet anger, thus effectively creating a barrier between me and him or her, what if I were to greet him or her the same way the vireo greets me every time I walk through the woods? Maybe naïve, but what if we all took a lesson from the vireo, whether a teacher, spouse, cashier, doctor, or politician? It is not about lowering expectations or standards, it might be more about meeting someone where they are at, in that moment, and then rising up from that point, together and in collaboration.

Crazy optimism I know, but what if…?

2 thoughts on “Learning to Teach from the Red-Eyed Vireo

  1. Chris Sullivan says:

    Yes, Yes, Yes. This is indeed a paradigm shift and I think marks a mature and excellent teacher. I made this shift a number of years ago myself and what a difference it has made!

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