Saturday, September 22, 2012

Love in the Classroom

I feel the love,” one of my students proclaimed in the middle of class this week. His impulsive remark was made in reference to me, explaining that he was so touched by my willingness to take extra time to assist him (in securing an internship). He also said that I was a person that was genuinely committed to helping him succeed and passionate about what I was teaching. The student was quite sincere in his comment and it caught me off guard.  Never in my thirty plus years as an educator has a student used the word love to describe my approach to instruction. Love, what’s love got to do with it?  
During this final year in academia,  I find myself going through some sort of transformative learning process; I have (finally) given myself permission to be real (authentic) and challenge my own assumptions and other people's opinions about me.  Reflecting upon the perception I have about being a teacher, words like dedicated, competent, creative, and at best commanding come to mind. My perception of my teacher persona has been heavily influenced by feedback I have received and the evaluations I have been subjected to.

It would be fair to say I'm a competent instructor. On RateMyProfessors students ranked me (4.7 on a 5.0 scale) and considering the evaluations are totally anonymous (and often cruel), that's not bad. The rankings on my official (Palomar College) student apprasials that I am subjugated to every three years, give me an overall score between 3.7-3.8 on a 4.0 scale.  The evaluations are filled with positive comments about  “engaging students, effective communication, and good rapport.”  In all fairness, I have also received my share of criticism: slave driver, anal about attendance, and my favorite, "reminds me of the nuns at school."
Graduation day is the happiest day of the year. In 2013 I will graduate!

Over the years I have invested much time and considerable effort to expand my education and develop competencies as an educator. During four sabbatical leaves, I have examined the art and science of teaching, exploring various types of pedagogy. I flew to Canada to learn to become an Instructional Skills Workshop facilitator, I traveled to Australia to research distance education in the Outback. I completed professional certificates at local universities (instructional design, career counseling, and addiction studies). The knowledge and skills I gained were valuable but not essential to my strength as an educator.  

Upon deeper reflection, I see within me a new teaching persona emerging: a woman who is compassionate, provocative and uninhibited, willing to make mistakes, admit the limitations of her expertise, express herself without censure and put her whole heart into her work. A little more Madonna and less Mother Theresa. A teacher that cares deeply and personally for her students and relates to them as one person relates to another. To my former teacher image I say, please do not hold me back, it is time for me to soar. I am once and for all, a teacher who has found my voice and discovered my personal power. 
One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the learner.  Carl Jung 

Here is what I know: my gift as an educator lies in my ability to establish trust and a sense of community in the classroom, fostering meaningful relationships with my students. It is my responsibility to teach in a way that arouses positive feelings and develops self-efficacy. It is especially important to connect to those students that push my buttons and expose my blind spots (the quiet, the immature, the disruptive). It is generally the students who sit in the back of the room, disconnected from the group, absorbed in a digital world with their smart phone or laptop--these quiet, isolated students I search out most of all. 

From the start of my classes, I establish a step up/ step down rule. Asking the the close-mouthed students to "step up" and contribute to the discussion, while requesting others to "step down" if they have dominated the classroom air time. After a few weeks of modeling appropriate classroom communication, my goal is to create a safe learning environment where all students are lifted out of isolation and given permission and openly encouraged to express their individuality. 

Dr. Joyce Dyer, writer and teacher:

As an undergraduate I was one of those introverted students (sans the digital technology that didn't exist in the 1970's). Hibernating in the corner of the class, or the back of a large lecture hall, I felt invisible as other students engaged in discussions. It wasn't that I didn't have ideas to share, I just felt more comfortable as the listener. Truth be told, I was acutely insecure and not confident enough to raise my hand and share my thoughts. 

But I was fortunate to have a freshman English teacher at Kent State (Joyce Dyer) who was not afraid to form a connection to me, seek out my opinion and provide praise for the ideas I shared. It was her genuine kindness that allowed me to let go of my critical self-evaluation and express myself creatively with words. 

Only a handful of years older than I was at the time, Ms. Dyer was a powerful role model: bright, articulate and filled with passion and curiosity. After losing track of Joyce for 40 years, I recently reconnected with her via Facebook...and I was honored to tell Dr. Dyer that she made a profound difference in my life and career.

How incredible that after four decades the impact of Joyce's kindness (authenticity) remains crisp in my soul. To this day, I remember the books we read in her class and our writing assignments; looking back, I "felt the love" in her classroom. 

Moving towards the end of my long academic journey, I have become a witness to myself as an educator. I have evolved from being a capable instructor to dare I say a loving and caring teacher. The adventure has taken a long time. Emotional habits that undermined my effectiveness had to be owned: the tendency to want to please others, to be passive aggressive rather than assertive and the compulsion to take control and fix things. So, the next time my students experience love in my classroom, I will pat myself on the back and with a sense of pride say to myself, "YES"
I expect to pass through life but once. If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again. William Penn


  1. Maria,
    What an amazingly genuine self-reflection you shared. I was impacted by the strength you found in facing your weakness and the equally powerful humility you found when voicing your strengths. If you remember, I was in your very first class (Counseling 101) and then two or three more after that. I had the privilege of witnessing some of the transformation you described. In the first class, we struggled with an ethical dilemma and how best to go forward with the other party. Then, by the last class (Group Therapy), you found your voice, gained confidence in what you could already accomplish, and became a powerful role model as we DID group therapy.
    You encouraged me along the way by your gentle example, which was part of the inspiration I needed to continue my education. Two days ago I received my diploma for a Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy. My theoretical approach leans heavily on Carl Rogers’ client centered genuineness and empathy, an approach you emphasized in the classes you taught.
    I now stand at the precipice looking at the vast horizon ahead of me as I embark on a new journey. Not unlike yourself, at the crossroads of a new focus on your journey. Thank you for your example of genuineness, your courage to let your voice be heard, and your willingness to humbly acknowledge all the gifts you have to share.
    Jo Henry

    1. Jo,
      I haven't been back to this blog until now. Sorry I didn't see your comment. Thank you sharing here, it means so much to read your experience as a student in the various classrooms we shared. What an amazing life journey is has been, especially as an educator being witness to so many students (like you) reach their goal and manifest their dreams. Now that you have secured your Masters, I do hope you will pursue college certainly have the heart for it.