Days of Awe, of Fear and Trembling, of the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), are upon we of the Jewish faith. As I sat in synagogue Thursday, listening to the supplications of the soulful prayer, “Avenu Malkenu,” asking “hear our voice.” I asked myself, “who should really hear my voice?” As I got lost in that question, I thought of the words of that past student I had met on my walk while waiting for the train to pass and I thought of a couple of e-colleagues with whom I was talking. And, two stories popped into my mind. I had read them long ago in the Midrash. I didn’t understand them until I had my epiphany in the early 1990s and they’ve been among my guiding tales. The first story says that during creation, God had decided to instill His divinity into human beings. The angels were outraged. How can something so pure, so precious, and so powerful be entrusted to an imperfect as human beings? If they had the Divine image, they reasoned, they will think like God thinks, and feel what God feels; they will create as God creates, and they will grasp eternity and live forever, as God lives forever. “We cannot let this happen!” they exclaimed. So they conspired, and the stole the Divine Image, and they decided to hide it., to hide it somewhere humankind would never find it. But where. ”Let us put it at the top of the highest mountain!” one angel suggested. “No,” responded a second angel. They will one day climb the mountain and find it.” ”Well, then, let us put it at the bottom of the sea!” another offered. “No, a fourth angel countered, ” they will dive to those depths one day and will find it.” ”I know,” a fifth angel said. ”We’ll put in the most inhospitable of deserts.” ”No,” rejected the angels, “they will bring fruit to the barrenness, dwell there, and find it.” Suggestion after suggestion was offer, but each was rejected because of man’s creativity, imagination, and ability would . Then, the cleverest of the angels stepped forward. “No, not at the top of the mountains, or at the bottom of the seas, or in the dry deserts, or hot jungles, or cold arctic. I know of a place they will never go to look for it. Let us place it in each of them, within their hearts, and within their souls. They’ll never think to search there; they’ll find it there; and so, they’ll never hear that sacred voice. And so, teaches the Midrash, the angels hid the precious Divine Image within the heart and soul of humankind where so often for most people it lies hidden to this day.
It’s was about 3:45 a.m. yesterday. Couldn’t sleep. Mind racing. Adrenaline flooding. I haven’t felt this way since a did a webinar for an LSU education class last Spring. Focusing. Getting in the groove. Putting on my game face. Going deep. I was preparing myself to go to the local Lowndes High School for an early morning 75 minute round table on teaching with my friend Amy Carter and 17 students who are interested in becoming teachers. I was racking my brain on how to “grab” them almost as soon as they sat down. Then, I thought of my own acronyms, HI (Hospitality Intelligence), LED (Love Every Day) and KISSED (Keep It Small and Significant Every Day). I came up with this: The only way to teach is to accept unconditionally each minute as an unrepeatable miracle of opportunities and possibilities; the only way to teach is to accept each student unconditionally as an unrepeatable miracle of opportunities and possibilities.
So, there I was Thursday morning. Out a bit late. Standing patiently at a railroad crossing, waiting, my walk interrupted by a long, long, slow freight train. Waiting, red lights flashing, waiting, warning bells ringing, waiting for that interminable train to pass, waiting to continue my walk. I notice a gorgeous luxury car idling in line next to me.
As part of this discussion I had recently mentioned, I explained to a bunch of complaining professors that teaching has a gleaming, but masking, veneer to it. To make something seem simple is very complex; to make teaching a giving of yourself takes a lot of self-possession; to make teaching imaginative and creative and invite others to be imaginative and creative takes a lot of contemplation; to make teaching a matter of relinquishing control requires a lot of self-control; to make teaching a matter of asking challenging questions–rather than answering them–is a challenge; to make teaching look easy is very difficult; to make teaching look and feel effortless takes a lot effort; to teach excitedly takes a lot of self-control; to teach with spontaneity takes a lot of preparation and deliberation; to make teaching an awakening of each student’s unique potential demands an intense alertness and awareness; to teach with random acts of kindness takes a lot of planning;and, to teach with fun and inviting others to have fun requires a lot of seriousness.
Teaching is a way of finding yourself in the service of others. Teaching is being an emotional match-maker, of putting your heart into what you’re doing while having a good pulse on the moods and emotions of each student. Teaching is using your sense to have a strong and accurate sense of each student’s emotional state, and to match your fervor to each of them. Teaching is a combination of intelligence with kindness, generosity, and service to others. Teaching is a combination of seriousness with joyfulness, unabashed sincerity, quiet eccentricity, energetic serendipity, and excited discovery. Yeah, your have to have a reflected upon and articulated talk if you want to avoid an aimless walk.
Hot, hot, hot! I went out before the sun came up and it was still 82 degrees with a heat factor of 89! That heat factor was high because it was also wet, wet, wet! It was so humid I was swimming more than walking my 5 1/2 miles, and I discovered why they call this week “Shark Week.” Last week a bear strolled across by route two hours before I hit the streets. This morning I was convinced I’d meet a Great White jaw to jaw.
Haven’t really been interested in sharing lately. I’ve had another thing on my heart and mind. These haven’t been the best of times. But, they sure have been testing times. I’ve been focused, maybe “distracted” is a good word, or “concerned” is a better word, or maybe “consumed” is the best word, with Susie’s sudden, inexplicable, untreatable, and apparently irreversible blindness that she experienced in her left eye upon awakening one morning four weeks ago while we were on a family care-giving mission in Boston. Then quickly–and at times frustratingly not so quickly–followed referrals to an opthalmologist, referral to a retina-opthalmologist, referral to a neuro-opthalmologist, referral to a neurosurgeon, blasé secretaries, rigidly disinterested schedulers, inflexible by-the-rules staffers, nurses, PAs, hospitals, triages, emergency rooms, blood tests, CAT scan, spinal tap, arterial biopsy, high doses of bloating steroids, fear, depression, anger, and total uncertainty. You name it. The words “urgent,” “immediate,” and “emergency” were often used in a life-threatening context, but so often it was of no matter. Too many did not listen! As I said on my Facebook page, I am wondering how urgent an urgency must be for people to act urgently. So, it was so often a war of battle after battle after battle of self-advocacy to break through battlements of an unbending and unfeeling medical bureaucracy that was so often deaf and blind, so often void of empathy, sadly so absent of a sense of humanity. Now, to be fair, we did encounter a few listening and loving angels. Thank goodness for them. But, they weren’t in the majority.
As you can imagine, “listening,” “attention,” “loving,” and “empathy” have been especially on my mind lately. Then, yesterday, out of the blue, came a voice from the past, the second one in a week. ”Hey, doc, I finally found you. At least, I hope this is you…..in case it is, I just want to say to you that I had figured out the secret madness to your teaching method, what I found to be the most important learning I had taken with me from our class, although I didn’t realize it at the time and until some time later. That secret was the best gift you could give each of us. And, once I unlocked your secret, I started using it in my business every day with every person, employees and customers, and with family and friends alike. You always had said that each of us was a noble, sacred, human being with untapped potential. Your secret attitude and action toward us was to live your words with what I now call ‘respectful listening.’ You listened to each of us. You noticed each of us. I mean by that that you did far more than merely hear our words. I mean you zeroed in on us and blocked out everything else; you intently considered what’s being said by whom; you were intensely interested in what is being said and why it was said; you showed that you sincerely valued the person talking; and, so, you showed that each of us was important and valuable. You never faked listening; you never was thinking of something else while we talked; you never ignored or dismissed as ‘what do they know’ foolishness what we had to say. I never saw you roll your eyes or have an empty stare or have a bored gaze or have a blank face. And, never did a denigrating word come out from your mouth or did a smirk appear on your face. You listened more with your eyes and heart than with your ears. You were always, always interested in what we had to say and especially why we said what we said. And, you did this because you gave a damn for each of us. You treated each of us as a human being in whom you believed. You didn’t just love to teach, you loved people. And, that is why you loved to teach and reach and lift up. And, that made it reassuringly safe for each of us, no matter what anyone said. So, if this is you, thanks for your secret gift. It, more than anything else in any class, has made me successful over these years both in business and life.”
I read that heaven-sent message over and over and over again. Would the many medical personnel Susie and I encountered in the last few weeks have known and lived that secret. But, sadly “disrespectful and insincere listening” is too often the way of too many people in every way of life, including academics. Yet, did you know that the greatest need we each have is to be noticed and heard? Did you know that greatest teaching tool you have at your disposal is to notice and listen? Did you know that the greatest form of support and encouragement, of instilling self-confidence, of valuing, of respecting, is attention? Without listening there can be no empathy or sympathy, no compassion, no respect. Attention is the most basic form of love. Love and attention are poetry of the soul. Attention is an exercise in mindfulness. And, we can behave this way in everything we do. We can respectfully listen to every person, be intently attentive to every experience, be sensitively alert of all that is around us, and be intensely aware of every moment we live. Grace has to be more than an expression; it has to be expressed in the way of living.
I’ve always found that my experiences are formed by the words and ideas I attach to them. That is, if I name, or attach the meaning of, “fun” to my teaching rather than “work,” it made all the difference between “labor of love” and laboriousness, between happiness and unhappiness, between excitement and drudgery, between a moral call and a job, between mindfulness and mindlessness. Now, before anyone jumps on me, the opposite of “fun” is not “work” or “seriousness.”. I repeat, it is not “work” or “seriousness.” The opposite of “fun” is “boredom.” And, I’ve found that the difference is the simple fact that if you love teaching and have fun doing it–or anything for that matter–you love people. That love is found in he simple act of of intently and actively being aware of and noticing yourself, other people, and things rather than being oblivious to what is going on both inside and outside. When you actively notice things, you put yourself in both the sensitive and contextual “know” and “now” of people and things and situations.
Understanding that who I am, what I feel, and what I do are the keys to my success–not some technique, technology, strategy, program, information bank–I would go into a classroom each day, or any place for that matter, and notice five new things about the people about me. Do that and I’ll guarantee that you’ll consciously see how people and situations come alive for you.
A professor called me today out of the blue to ask how I stay constantly serene. She was ready to tear her hair out because of “these students.” People can get bald by all that end-of-the-term stuff. if they allow it. We talked a while. I thought I’d share a thumbnail sketch of my side of the conversation. The first of my five-part answer was, “Thank goodness I don’t have to deal with that uneducational stuff like finals and grades anymore.” My second part was, “I don’t buy into the recruiting and fundraising PR images of pretty smiling faces of self-motivated mini Ph.D.s walking walking hand-in-hand with totally student oriented faculty on a pristine campus that create false expectations. See the real individual people in the classroom and on a real campus.” My third was: ”I never disrespect a student in thought or action, whether in “I didn’t mean anything by it” or “it’s just fun talk” among colleagues or non-academic friends. Never. I have an unshakeable–unshakeable–faith in, belief in, hope for, and love of each student–even if they don’t have it for themselves. Fourth, I told her, “Remember what Carl Rogers, the psychologist, said. To paraphrase him, ’You can’t teach anyone; you can only help him help himself find his unique abilities, talents, and potential.’”
My final part was, “I was not born in Assisi. A saint I’m not.” But, I told her that I don’t have unreal expectations. I know nothing is perfect, not everything will go my way, not everything will work out, and not everything will go right. I accept that. I accept that I will screw up; I’m ready for things to go awry. And, it usually works out. I told “usually” because I experience emotional downers. I can get bored, be disappointed, be sad, be frustrated, and be angry. But, when I do, I usually catch myself quickly and don’t allow those feeling to get me or become me. Part of the reason is that I have learned to use them to teach me more about the serenity prayer: what I cannot control, what I can control, and to know the difference.
Another reason is to understand that no accomplishment, nothing rewarding, occurs without travail. What I told this professor was that all the facets of mindfulness–alertness, awareness, attentiveness, otherness–don’t offer superpowers of zeroing in only on joy and serenity. It’s a step-in/step-back being aware of, noticing, and acknowledging the emotions I am experiencing.
Sounds good, doesn’t it. Well, I don’t always initially follow my own philosophy. I didn’t the last semester before my retirement. When I felt a tad defenseless against a subtle age discrimination sneak attack that made me decide to retire a year and a half ago, I was angry. I almost lost it for that entire last semester. I didn’t want to let go; I didn’t want to go quietly into the still night. I was not a model of peacefulness or calmness; I wasn’t carrying a grateful smile. To be honest, and Susie will verify this, I was a growling bear. This sudden, unexpected, unwanted letting go was almost too much for me. This was one class offered by the school of hard knocks I did not want to attend.
Thank goodness for mindfulness! I discovered that I was ignoring Rumi’s chiding: ”Why are you so enchanted by this world, when a mine of gold lies within you?” “Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open….? ”Why should I stay at the bottom of a well, when a strong rope is in my hand?” Now, I didn’t have some quick fix to walk through that door or climb that rope to make my anger–or fear–dissipate. What I did have was mindfulness. I constantly questioned myself, asking what’s going on? Why am I angry? At what am I angry? At whom am I angry? And so, as I constantly asked all that of myself, I slowly found the door knob and the rope, and the inner gold.
You see, mindfulness is a mood minder; it is also a mood reminder. It has taught me to ask myself constantly what I need, over what I have control, what I need to leave behind, what I need to look forward to, and what I must do to go on. Denial only makes uncomfortable feelings unmanageable. Avoidance leads only to getting lost. Mindfulness allows me to admit, acknowledge, identify, and deal with my emotions. It’s like, as Rumi said, when I start walking a path, the path appears. This allows me to see myself more clearly, and find a path of action rather than mindlessly fling about reacting.
Goodness knows I can’t escape the twist and turns or ups and downs of life anymore than anyone else can. If nothing else, an unexpected epiphany, cancer, a massive cerebral hemorrhage, and an unwanted retirement have shown me that. When we can learn to hit those curve balls life throws at us, however,we can see they’re all really ugly ducklings by learning from them, making our lives more graceful, richer, more interesting, more exciting, more meaningful, more wonderful, and more grateful. If we learn to “fall up” by “falling down,” we see Rumi was right: ”God turns you from one feeling to another and teaches you by means of opposites, so that you will have two wings to fly — not one.”
I was still thinking again about Jane as I got involved in a Linkedin discussion group about teaching. I could hear echoes of Edgar Allan Poe: ”Blame, blame, blame. The tintinnabulation of blame, blame, blame.” All I can say is that when some academics, far too many academics, say “oh, those students,” they get less a than subtle snarl on their face, or slump in self-pitying resignation, or annoyed grimace without a demonstration of one scintilla of empathy. Some, say the word “student” with such a cursedness that they should have their mouths washed with soap.
You know, our actions are actions are demonstrations of our values. We are steeped in our imagination. We are wrapped in our own mantra. Every step we take is muscled by our perception. Every breathe we take fills our lungs with assumption. Our opinion of students is not a description of any student. It’s a reflection of ourselves. It’s a window into our own character, not the students’.. I don’t think pessimistic moaning and groaning changes anything or gets us anywhere except that they sap our strength, commitment, perseverance, and determination. Too often, the seeds we plant in our perception, assumption, and imagination that spring to life in the day-to-day reality of our classroom experience are choking weeds. And, thus we so narrow and degrade ourselves with each “ugh.”
Too many profs have a myopic tendency to blame poor performing students on being among the “letting anyone in” or the “don’t belongs” who are diluting academic rigor. Too many academics, when they see a student in need, their first impulse is to reproach rather than help, to resist, reject or condemn any help as coddling, to attack second chances as watering down, to reject hope as fluffy, to oppose faith as soft, to criticize love as touchy-feely and weak. Sometimes I wonder if resume, tenure, degrees act as eroding agents on compassion and empathy. Sometimes I wonder if the length of a resume lengthens the distance between them and students. Sometimes I wonder if the higher the degree the more blurred their vision from on high. Sometimes I wonder if the amount of scholarship academics write quickens their inclination to write off students.
What would happen, then, if we choked the choking weeds? What would happen if we felt a little of life’s goodness in the classroom and let that goodness be magnified throughout our being. Do you know what would happen if we assumed the best instead of the worse, if we stopped assuming disappointment, gave the classroom a place in our lives? Well, let me tell you a little secret. The only things that matters in that classroom is how much you have chosen to matter in a student’s life and that you become more meaningful to both yourself and each student by giving and serving.
And, therein lies the real secret of all those teachers who make a difference. They offer helping hands rather than pointing fingers. The name of their game is to be game, not to blame. They smile rather than sneer. They regard each student as a possible. They’re opportunists in the best sense of the word. They stir up love, not judgment. They smile, not sneer. They wrap their love around each student, whatever happens, and make good things happen. Their imagination is anchored in belief, hope, faith, and love. They use each moment to express them. They are a force of goodness, and live that goodness each moment. They are beautiful in their own way, and that special beauty is a gift to each student. And, when they say, “Oh, those students,” it is an ode to joy; it is uttered with a warm and embracing smile, not a cold and pushing away grimace. They wake up each morning with an inner light that is brighter than the light of the day. They walk enveloped in an aura of joy. They are out and out optimists. They’re a source of light.
If we truly want to judge a teacher, judge him or her by his or her hope. If we truly want to measure a teacher, measure him or her by the size of his or her dream. To the teacher who dreams and hopes and believe, and acts on them, there is no such person as impossible, untouchable, and hopeless.
You see, most students are touched most by those teachers who dream and hope and believe the most of them.