Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Sat, 4 Mar 1995
Nice walk this morning. The air was crisp. The pattern of stars sparkled clear and bright through pinpricks in the sky's black velvet cover. I even heard some early birds chirping above me in the overhanging branches. I guess they were out early to get those worms. Anyway, I was thinking about a rather abrupt message I had received yesterday in which the person took exception to what I had to say about caring for students and challenged me to define what I meant by caring. On my walk this morning I decided that I can't! I won't. Why does everything have to be analyzed, quantified, defined? That doesn't certify its' existence. Why can't we just experience something without screening it or imposing limits in such a way that it becomes what we want it to be rather than what it is.? Caring is one of things that if you haven't felt it you won't understand it no matter how many dictionaries you've read, studies you've analyzed, numbers you've crunched. Caring is an outlook, not merely a word. It's is a verb, not a noun. Its a deed, not merely a professed statement. It's living, not just speaking.
But, so many of us--far too many of us--and until about four years ago myself included--think it is sufficient to issue either a private or public proclamation of caring for students. Yet, it is under the disguise of such pronouncements about being student oriented or student centered or of caring about students that the greatest violations of students by teachers so often occur. So often, too often, caring about students comes with a host of qualifications. "I will care about you if you're like me." "I will care about you if I think you belong here." "I will care about you if you do well in my class." "I will care if you mind your place and behave as I say." "I will care if you accept what I say." "I will care about you if you believe what I believe." "I am centered on you as long as you do what I want." "I am oriented towards you if you meet my standards." "I will care for you if you don't waste my time." "I will care for you if you make it easy for me." Or, "I will care if you're 'bright'."
I think the real mark of whether someone truly cares about students is not how many times they profess, "I care about students", but by the number negative moans and groans, forlorn sighs, snide snickers and sneers, laugh ats, cut-downs, and diminishing grimaces; by the amount of denouncing shakes of the head, the demeaning discussions, and derisive recounts of student bloopers; by the number of times their sharp tongue waggle "They don't belong here." "They won't do this." "They won't get me tenure." "They won't get me a promotion." "They can't do that." "They don't know." "I could be in the library." "They take up so much time I can be doing other things." "They shouldn't be here." "They're not college material." Or, "They don't count."
These teachers are what I call "Sunday carers", announcing their concern Sunday, but during the week, subtly or overtly, by word or gesture, consciously or otherwise, they blame, shame, order, boss, ridicule, belittle, threaten, control, and/or bribe students; they tell the students to distrust their own perceptions, disown their own feelings, doubt their worth, and question their future. I am not talking about earth-shaking events, but a series of small things: inconsiderate behavior, a thoughtless comment, a chilling gesture, a disrespectful response, a word left unspoken, or a demeaning sneer. Most of them are insignificant annoyances. None is important in and of itself, but we allow them to become a pattern, to irritate and fester.
On the other hand, the truly caring teacher honestly believes that each student does count, gives caring unconditionally, and is concerned with the goings on of things "out there." The really caring teacher consciously struggle to say through everyday actions, "I care about you NO MATTER WHAT!" With kind eyeballs, compassionate body language, and a sensitive tongue, that teacher tells the student--shows the student--"I see you." "I hear you." "I've got all the time for you." "You're important, the most important thing on this campus to me." "I give a damn about you." "You're not alone." "I will help you." No, the really caring teacher does not merely announce "I care," the caring teacher cares enough to enact his/her caring. The really caring teacher doesn't behave in a contradictory, self-defeating manner--or, at least, consciously works hard, gets dirty, cracks some nails, gets bruised in the struggle not to--listens to his or her own words, sees his/her own behavior, looks into the eyes of the students, respects the process of encounter, has a faith that the students will get there sometime, and, above all, understands that caring occurs only through the process of real communication. The caring teacher looks at him- or herself honestly and consciously with a dedication to themselves to change and grow.
I'm not talking about big scenes. I'm talking more often than not about little things, little ways of showing that you really, sincerely care. A little smile here; a slight nod there; a kind word; an encouraging word; a positive gesture; a supportive gesture. Sometimes all it takes is a "Mary, you changed your hair today." "John, you down today? Have a tootsie pop." "Jim, you've got another ring in your ear." "Judy, how's your father doing?"
But, sometimes, I recently learned, little things can turn out to be big stuff. I had a quiet student. He'd sit there straight faced day after every day. He merely jotted a word or two in his daily journal entry, nothing that would allow me to flesh him out. I talked with him, cheered him on, and encouraged him. But, I got the feeling that everything that came out from me as "you are" and "you can" went into him as "you're not" or "you don't." One day a couple of weeks ago, as I walked into class with my boom box lovingly playing some Sachmo and Ella duets. I saw his eyes brighten ever so slightly. We were to discuss the chapter on ante-bellum southern culture. I don't know why, but without thinking, I threw him a tootsie pop and said, "J.R. what can you do?" I don't know what I expected. Well, to be honest, I expected him to say, "what do you mean?" Or, "I don't know" Or, "Nothing." Or, just the usual silence.
"I can play some mean drums," he said as he sat up. "Did you know that jazz is really slave music?" Talk about being caught off guard and taught a lesson about underestimating a student. For the next thirty minutes he talked excitedly about music and the black experience. Everyone sat mesmerized. Then, a member of his triad said, "Hey, maybe we can use that and do our final exam in music." He sat up even straighter. His demeanor started to change since that moment. It was slight, ever so slight, but it was change.
Students are no different from us. They need a feeling of achievement, to be recognized for doing something well. Somebody's got to point that out and occasionally give a pat on the back or hand out a tootsie pop and say, "Good job." Just think of the difference between telling a student "you've missed 8 of the ten" and saying "you've got two right. Now let's work to improve on that."
I think if you really want to know who cares for students, look at the eyes of the students. I remember that someone once said that the mark of a person is not that he says he is friendly towards people, but whether he is someone's friend. And so, I think the mark of a caring teacher is not the whether a teacher says or does not say, "I care about students", but that the students care for the teacher.
Make it a good day. --Louis-- Louis Schmier (912-333-5947) email@example.com Department of History /~\ /\ /\ Valdosta State University /^\ / \ / /~ \ /~\__/\ Valdosta, Georgia 31698 / \__/ \/ / /\ /~ \ /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\ -_~ / "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\ _ _ / don't practice on mole hills" -\____