Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Thu 6/20/2002 5:45 AM
Random Thought: Say, Do, Feel

As my feet rowed through the heavily humid morning air, I felt a tinge of poignancy. I won't tell you what triggered these thoughts other than say that unexpectedly I had an extremely heart-rendering and highly confidential telephone conversation with an ex-student. And, then, something happened in class yesterday. At that moment, the two touched like wires on a hot line. There was a proverbial spark. A jolt of juice went sizzling through my soul. I was reminded of how time after time after time students so often will forget what you have said. They will so often forget what you've done. They never forget how you've said something or how you've done something. They never forget how you've made them feel. How you've treated them is burned into the emotional memory of their souls.

That's the foundation of education. For better or worse, positively or negatively, the fundamentals of teaching and learning rest on relationships. Most students don't really care about what you know; they do care about who you are.

We cannot live only for ourselves. Like a spider's web, a thousand fibers connect us with each student. And, on those threads our actions vibrate one way and revirberate as effects and impacts. In one way or another, we must realize that each of us makes a difference with our life. Each of us impacts the world around us every single day. We have a choice to use or not to bother to use the gift of our life; we have the choice to make someone around us and hence the world better or worse.

Nevertheless, those relationships are pivotal to the climate and culture of every classroom and are by their very nature profoundly emotional. I'll go out on the a limb and say that, like it or not, know it or now, in this human space we call the classroom or campus, we teachers are emotionally "significant others" to students in a variety of ways. We so often are looked to by students to set the tone, create the mood, to be honest, to be open minded, to be fair, to be trustworthy, and to be concerned. We have an obligation not only to know and to do and to say, but also to feel. It's the kind of thing that makes the classroom skies stormy, cloudy, or clear.

Let's be real. To the distanced and disinterested, the climate isn't always apparent to the naked eye. It takes a discerning observer to detect the real conditions in the air. Whether seen or unseen, the emotions are at the foundation of the way we each experience our individual realities. Why shouldn't it be as true in the classroom as it is elsewhere. It is. Teaching is a part of life. It's not apart from it. Even if we pretend emotions are as wanted in the classroom as foraging south Georgia mosquitos, they aren't pesky interlopers. They're imbedded at the heart of teaching just as they are at the heart of any and all human relationships.

The emotional qualities of these relationships make a great deal of difference. In evaluation after evaluation after evaluation students say they did or learned to do whatever it took to accomplish when they felt "wanted," "respected," "noticed," "valued" "cared about," "listened to," "comfortable," "belong," "empowered," "at ease," "heard," "hopeful," "appreciated," "acknowledged," "respected," "good about myself," "understood," "worthy," "trusted," "happy," "proud," "satisfied," "secure," "unafraid," "noticed," "encouraged," "believed in," "part of a community," and so on. These interpretations of the interaction between me and them, as well as among them, as they said, affected their confidence, creativity, imagination, motivation, passion, enjoyment, appreciation, enthusiasm, outlook, expectations, growth, change, commitment, perseverance, dedication, self-esteem, self-confidence, willingness to do whatever it takes, willingness to take risks, striving for excellences, and ability to achieve.

There is something very personal in being devalued or values Teaching is not just a technical or technological or intellectual practice. It is an emotional practice. It is a human practice. Students and their future careers are vulnerable to the attitudes and approaches of their teachers. When we are disbelieving, dispirited, cynical, pervasively suspicious, distrusting we dim the chances for confidence and optimism in students. It bad enough that most students come to us in higher education with the experience of little more than a manipulative "power over" style of teaching and learning. It bad enough that they already have deprivating educational battle scars and open wounds from which ooze their self-confidence. And, then, we professors so often increase their angst; we freshen up their stale memories and experiences; we continue their torture of a thousand cuts; we open new wounds with addition discomfort, unfairness, favoritism, control, manipulation, disinterest, hurt, humiliation, threat, disrespect, invalidation.

When teachers harm students' belief in their personal selves, there is fallout. Some dropout; some change their trajectory; some go to other institutions; most play the game by hankering down, silencing their voice, keeping their heads down, resignly surrendering their hopes for an exciting and inviting classroom experience, seeking identity elsewhere outside the classroom. Too often the music of the educational spheres resounds with dissonant primal notes of fear and resignation. And, the entire institution is consequently impovished.

When we balkanize knowledge and technique and technology and emotion, when we separate student from student, when we build chasms between us and students, we create an emotional disconnection. It is what Neitzche spoke of as the "horror of the unobserved life." It is the pernicious appearance of what I call a hobbling "threatened and pressured self" that encourages students to hold back, not to take any chances, and to play it safe. That is, when a student thinks his or hers is the is "unobserved life"--alone, invisible, unheard, and unappreciated--a debilitating culture of fear, distance, disconnection, isolation, and mistrust appears. It can be subtle, masked, overt. However it is manifested, students begin to act like threatened prey. The eyes start stealthily moving back and forth searching for way to lessen the threat, the muscles go taut ready to evade a predator, the senses go on alert to minimize the danger, body movements are camouflaged to blend in with the scenery and avoid attention, and there emerges a negative, constricting, and restricting "what will they think" and "what does the prof want" self-surveillance. You know, word travels fast on the student grapevine and "emotional vine." The student who says something in a discussion with which the teacher disagrees, or asks a question to the dislike of the teacher, or does an assignment that doesn't meet the expectation of the teacher and is rewarded with words and gestures of displeasure, censure and even humiliation, quickly learns a painful and paralyzing lesson from others and from personal experience: "Don't try anything 'too imaginative,' don't be 'too creative,' don't take the risk because if it fails, you will be sorry. Just find out what the prof wants and give it to him or her."

But, in a climate of closeness, authenticity, personal interest, appreciation, belief, faith, hope, encouragement where a web of connections comes from above and beside, where a student knows he or she is in a friendly community where he or she is seen, heard, approved of, and appreciated, the bolstering what I call the "blessing of the observed life"--a culture of courage and creativity-- appears that leads to better practice and more creative risk-taking based on the expectation that the student is safe, no matter how what the student does turns out. Where there are kept at arm's length, where there is what I call an "emotional embracing," a self-generating, a thriving and boundless emotional energy "flow" has a better chance of appearing and doing its marvelous work.

Emotion, I have found time and time and time again does matter. It matters to students. It matters because it should be a matter of concern to our understanding of learning. The will, the spirit, the desire to do it, to go on, the personal power to do whatever it takes is first and last a fundamentally emotion driven phenomenon. The wise teachers knows this and respects the powerful potential that lies therein.

Students so often will forget what you have said. They will so often forget what you've done. They never forget how you've said something or how you've done something. They never forget how you've made them feel. How you've treated them is burned into the emotional memory of their souls.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
                                 /     \__/         \/  /  /\ /~\/         \
                          /\/\-/ /^\_____\____________/__/_______/^\
                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

Return to The Complete Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier
Return to the Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier