Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Tues, 5 July 1994
Lordy!! Have you ever gone out power walking four miles before the sun rose and returned to find your shoes filled with the water that came pouring down your legs and that your skin and grubbies had turned green with mildew? That will give you some idea of the weather this morning. In fact, it's been raining every day for the last two weeks, and it hasn't even cooled off!
As I was "water skiing" through this south Georgia sweat bath, this day after the 218th birthday weekend of a country that sanctifies the nobility of the individual, I started thinking about how students have a right to be treated on campuses no less as the individuals that they are off campus, that all too many professors, more than most of us want to acknowledge, are so quick to proclaim, "I am student oriented." They give lip- service to the individuality of the students, and yet see and treat coldly them as the faceless and nameless in a crowd. It wasn't just that it was the day after watching the rockets red glare that got me thinking about this. It was also that a conversation I had with a non-traditional student last week popped into my head once again as it has almost every day for the last week or so.
It was the third day of class. I was sitting in a soft chair in the library. I was waiting for Maria (not her real name) who had come up to me at the end of the class and had said she wanted to talk with me after her next class. We agreed to meet in the library, my "office" for that day. I didn't know what it was all about. I thought she had a scheduling problem or wanted some help with the class library assignments or was needed some reassurance about my unique approach to teaching. When she arrived, she was very nervous. She quickly sat down.
"What can I help you with?" I asked. She hesitated. Look around anxiously to see if anyone was listening. She started talking. It was not what I expected.
"You touched me when you talked about your son in class and how what you went through with him changed your outlook on life, your attitude about yourself and people around you, and how you ran the class."
My "blueberries" came into play. I quickly riveted on every word and gesture. All the surrounding sounds stilled and the surrounding movements froze into a silent tableau. The background scenery faded into a darkness as if she were in a bright spot light. She tearfully told me about her endless struggles with her ADD teenage son, her bout with waves of guilt as a parent, her fears for her son's future, her fights with a less than supporting husband, her terror at an possibly impending divorce, her anger at unsupporting local medical and educational systems, and her combat with self-doubt and weak self-confidence. For over an hour she poured out her soul to me. For over an hour she did most of the talking and I did most of the listening. As I focused in her facial expressions and body language, tears periodically formed in my eyes, my breathe occasionally shortened, silent cries swelled in my throat. My heart ached. The cushioned chair could not cushion the hurt within her betrayed by her voice and face. "I can't get away from it or stop thinking about it," she with a quivering voice, "I can't sleep. I can't concentrate. I can't study. It's consuming me. What can I do? How did you handle it."
Without hesitation, I told about the road through hell each member of my family traveled together and separately: the misdiagnosis, the mistreatment, the indifference and uncooperation of the schools, the accusations, the poor treatment, the daily wars, the family disfunction, the trouble with the law, the failing grades, the frustration and anger, the attempts at escaping, the ostracism, the depression, the inability to think or feel, the isolation, the loneliness, the confusion, the doubt, the second-guessing, the drinking, the running away, the phone calls in the middle of the night, the climbing the walls at the sound of a siren, the tensing up at the ring of the telephone, at each other's throats, blaming everyone, cursing everyone, screaming at God, yelling at each other, and the desperation. Then, came the finding of a very special school, sacrificing our retirement nest egg, enduring virtual bankruptcy, the retreats, the challenge groups, the uncomfortable inward journey into ourselves, facing the hard truth about ourselves and each other, changing our values and outlooks, saving our son and ourselves, and beginning to find peace.
"I'm no fairy godfather with a magic wand that can turn your pumpkin into a coach.," I told her. "I don't give advice. I can only tell you what I did and what I learned. Forget the quick and easy cures that everyone will throw at you. There are none. But, if you walk the hard road and ask yourself the hard questions about yourself, and not rest until you start getting honest answers, when it's all over you will have started entering into another world. You'll have found something no one can give you. You'll have the knowledge that you are stronger and worthier inside than you ever thought you were. And you can apply that understanding to everything you do. I know. I've been there."
Finally, I asked her. "Why did you tell me all these personal things. After all, we've known each other for only the three hours of class time. We're strangers."
She answered something like, "I don't somehow feel you are. I don't know. I just felt that I could trust you with me, and that you cared, really cared. You could understand. You was honest about yourself with us. I thought I could be honest with you about me. When one of the others asked why you teach the way you teach so differently from everyone else, you didn't come up with some cockeyed, high-sounding bull shit we would expect from a professor. You respected us enough to be honest and open. A bunch of us talked after class and none of us have ever seen a professor be human enough to bare his soul to the students. It really impressed us."
"Thank you, but I'm sorry I couldn't really help you," I apologized.
"You helped me a great deal," she answered.
"What did I do?" I asked.
"You're the first one who cared enough to listen, just really listen, and let me get it out. I think I see what I have to do. If you could deal with it and find some peace, I think I can too. I just have to find the courage. You made me feel so much better and hopeful and confident."
I'm glad she did. I went home emotionally drained and physically exhausted.
I believe with all my heart and soul that caring, not technology or technique or subject mastery, is the most powerful teaching tool at our disposal. If we can put the student at ease, let the student know that we care, we'll have a better relationship. Now, don't confuse sympathy and understanding with slacking off. To the contrary, caring about each individual student makes teaching far less casual and cavalier than lecturing to a class and giving a standardized test that the computer grades. It's a struggle to balance understanding with being reasonably demanding. But if we care, if we stop talking enough to learn how to listen, no matter what we demand, the student is more likely to trust us and do what we're asking. I have seen over and over and over again that to be acutely sensitive to and understanding of students is the hammer and saw of teaching, that caring more about how they feel and think outside the classroom than how they answer a question or what they got on a quiz at times almost has a healing effect.
I think part of the public dismay with education is the almost loss of close human contact. Professors are almost totally concerned with asking of the student "what do you know?" So rarely do they care enough to ask "who are you?" The students are more than what they do. They are more than an I.D. number, a name on a seating chart and in a role book, a tuition payment, or an entry on a grade sheet or transcript. There's heart and soul and personality. They come into class with distracting and debilitating economic, social, psychological and spiritual issues.
Nothing proclaims this louder than an exercise I run about the second or third day of each class. It's part of the introductory bonding and trusting "stuff" I do for about a week or more at the beginning of each class. It's a simple exercise. I have the students draw two intersecting perpendicular lines on a sheet of paper. At each point of the compass, they write a word that expresses how they feel at that particular moment. Next, I ask them to list five personal concerns they have in their lives at the moment, marking the most urgent of the five. Finally, I ask them to write a few sentence statement about what they were thinking about at that moment. Then, they discuss the words and the reasons for these words with the members of their groups. Finally, I ask them to voluntarily share with the rest of the class. And, many do it.
This exercise usually offers one of the most heart-rendering insights into the students. For the past few days, I've been thinking about the meaning of the results of this exercise as well as the first journal entries as I work to get to know my students on a personal level. I will not deny they have made me sigh forlornly more than once or brought a tug in my heart and a tear to my eyes.
Of the 43 students in the class, 38 wrote two or more words associated with depression, stress or tension! They wrote words like: sad, concerned, confused, distrustful, anxious, stress-out, melancholy, frightened, angry, scared, worried, depressed, nervous, lazy, homesick, lonely, tense, apprehensive, impatient, lost, worthless, unsure, incapable, uncertain, hurting, worn, hollow, weak, and helpless, limited, doubt, distracted, and shallow.
Of those 43 students, 33 had three or more immediate non- academic concerns: pregnancy, parents, girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, husbands, children, housing, finances, illness, and jobs.
But, listen to what's going on in these student's lives and what's weighing heavily like the proverbial rock on their hearts and souls:
"I wonder if my folks know how to encourage anyone?"
"I was always told I couldn't get anything right."
"Everyone is telling me what's good for me and what to do. No one trusts me to make my own decisions."
"My husband is in Korea and I can't stop thinking and worrying about him."
"My folks and I just plain and simple hate each other, and I don't know what I did to deserve such shitty treatment."
"My father, the holier-than-thou preacher, disowned me and kicked me out of the house because I'm dating an African- American. So much for Christian love and charity."
"I am battling my fear of speaking with strangers. I've got to overcome this anxiety if I'm going to be a teacher."
"If I try to get ahead, all my so-called friends call me a whitey. If I lay back, I'm called a dumb nigger. It's a constant bitch."
"All I've been taught is to distrust people. I guess I am anti-social, but I don't want to be. It's effecting everything. My classes, my job, and my relationship with my boyfriend. I'm afraid I'm going to lose him and everything else if I don't find someone to help change me."
"I am frustrated trying to be a mother, go to school, be a wife, clean the house, cook the meals, be at my husband's XXXXXX beckoning. It's just too much, but I want to make something of myself and being everyone else's slave and getting no support doesn't help."
"My husband is jealous and scared that if I get a degree, I'll be smarter than he is and will leave him. I have to constantly reassure him. It's a tough distraction."
"I just pure and simple don't like myself and that makes everything suffer."
"I have a speech impediment. It's an endless battle. I've been reserve for years because of this. I feel so self-conscious about what others will think."
"I have a neat, safe bubble. I want out. But I'm so afraid to pop it and expose myself."
"I am struggling with the memories of a dysfunctional family with a father who was a weekend drunk and who tried to commit incest with all his daughters while my mom didn't do a damn thing about it. I'm 49 and I still feel so dirty and guilty after all these years."
"I'm homesick and miss by daddy and mommy."
"These days are especially hard. I just found out my dad is not my real father. Having my mother lie to me all my life has ruined by ability to believe and trust anyone."
"Our refrigerator is broke. We desperately need one. We have a new baby that my husband cares for while I'm at school. But we don't have no money."
"Things are rough at home because my husband doesn't enjoy his job and he brings his irritations into the house and takes it out on us and the kids."
"I don't want to become the drunken, doped-up person I was at FSU. This is my chance and I'm afraid I will screw up again."
"I'm so afraid my dad will die. He has diabetes real bad is going down hill real fast, but he wants me here to better myself. I am so scared I am shaking.
"I'm 21. I'm diabetic, but my attitude sucks. I don't care what happens. I really do because I just married a wonderful guy, but I'm just XXXXXX at God for doing this to me."
"My mind is everywhere but here. I just found out that my boyfriend has been f------g my best friend behind my back. It really hurts. What did I do to deserve this. I'm so depressed. I can't go two minutes without thinking about it."
"I've been out of school for 20 years. I don't know if I can cope."
"I'm going through my parents divorce. It's shattering, and killing my brother and sister. Can't think of anything else."
"My back is killing me a lot. I got hit by a DUI, am 6 months pregnant, can't take anything for the pain, just have to suffer through it."
"I want so much for this baby to improve things between me and my husband. I am so afraid that even after I have the baby I'll get divorced and be alone."
"I'm a single mom and my ex is trying to get the kids away from me."
"I've got to stop being down on myself and build up some self-esteem."
"Everyone tells me to act like an adult and they treat me like a child. I'm not sure what that means or how to do it."
"I worry, worry, worry, so much, I think too much, about grades. I don't have time to learn, but I need them to get into law school."
"I am the first in my family to go to college. Everyone has such high expectations of me. I am so afraid of failing them."
"My best friends just got killed by a damn DUI. Cut down by some drunken, redneck XXX XXXX. He was going to be an engineer. I just helped bury him. He ain't going to engineer nothing anymore. Why should I give a shit about anything? What's all this stuff for anyhow?
"I'm a struggling Christian. I have been reborn, but I have a heavy heart that my heart is not pure. I don't think I am worthy of my Saviour."
How could anyone not be touched by these struggles? Here are 33 students out of 43 who have expressed their inner feelings on the second day of class. The things they have talked about were about their personal experiences. They are very powerful. They're common, daily, experiences. That's heavy stuff, real heavy. The kind of anxiety these students have expressed preys on them, distracts them, quiets them, stunts them, wilts them.
They remind me that if we're deaf to what the student's are saying about themselves with word or gesture or even silence, we become blind to why they do what they do. And, when we become blind, we become uninvolved, cold, cynical and callous.
If you talk to the students who sit in the classes, and listen, you'd hear that the number one concern is something like "my professor is not the kind of person I want a teacher to be." I hear and read all the time such comments like: "She doesn't listen to me;" "He doesn't give a damn if I'm there or not;" "I'm just a number or a name," "She doesn't even know who I am; or "He just treat me as a person"; "He just talks and ignores us;" "None of us get any respect in the class."
What they do, or don't do, should not be a trigger merely to say coldly "they don't know" or "they can't do it" or "they don't belong." It should be a trip wire for to ask "what's going on in your life?" It should be a clue to ask that unusual question of "who are you?" and then to say, "tell me about yourself."
I think "touch" and "feel" is education's real professional secret. To ignore this truth is educational neglect. We just can't lecture, not lift up our eyes, treat student as background to our profession, listen to their questions and comments as if they were static that interferes with out brilliant oration, and walk out the room. So many of us haven't made the time to listen to their fears. We've been too busy talking, working on our committees, researching and writing, and deliberately avoiding. We must take the time to get to know the student, how that student lives, what are their values, what their social support is. If I don't know that a student is worried about her father's health and may die, I will be less effective in teaching her and she will be less likely to learn.
I probe the students as if each was a mystery to record. I don't have the ability to solve the mystery, but I want to recognize it and understand it as best I can, for my understanding, perception, imagination will affect the way I relate to the student. I want to know what the student wants, expects, fear, worries about. It's easy for us to say what a student knows and describe what a student does. We all can do that blindfolded with one hand tied behind our backs while standing on our heads. All to many of us merely look at a lack of information and lack of skills, and ignore what the student feels. It's the difference between merely observing that, "Johnny can't read" and realizing that "Everyone is telling Johnny he is not smart enough to read." The problem is not that Johnny can't read, it's that he believes what everyone is telling him and doesn't try to read.
I think we have so grossly underestimated the attitude with which students confront their education, and the impact such attitudes have on how they do in a class or during their entire class career, not to mention their lives. What kind of person they are, what they are feeling about themselves and other, filter what they what they read and hear and do. I can't teach students or help them learn if I do not know what makes them tick. A good teacher listens and then addresses the student's feeling.
So many students are from dysfunctional families and dysfunctional school systems. It's humble and frightening to think that sometimes the compassionate teacher is the closest they have come to having some kind of support. My mission is to share my understanding of the anxiety they feel, to help them feel something positive from what otherwise is a scary situation, and can deepen the emotional scars. I want each student to feel comfortable and special, to believe that they can do anything they want if they put their mind to it, to take charge of their circumstances, and through caring for themselves make a difference.
All this, then, raises the question for all of us. Do we want to get into the soul and heart, as well as the head, of the student? Do we have the generosity to do this, the desire to do this, the patience to do this, the strength to do this? If we don't, maybe we ought to sell shoes!
I think we need a need educational approach that goes beyond subject transmission. We have to think about education as a "caring" system as much as if not far more than as an "informing" or "training" system. I see education stretching beyond the confines of the classroom and restrictions of the subject. It roams into what we value in society and who we are as human beings. No, education begins with caring. Of course, then, so does everything else.
Make it a good day. --Louis-- Louis Schmier (912-333-5947) firstname.lastname@example.org Department of History /~\ /\ /\ Valdosta State University /^\ / \ / /~ \ /~\__/\ Valdosta, Georgia 31698 / \__/ \/ / /\ /~ \ /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\ -_~ / "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\ _ _ / don't practice on mole hills" -\____