The Three “-Tudes.”

Today, standing by the koi pond, coffee cup in hand,  as I usually do at dawn, admiring the interplay of the going dark and coming light,  I was contemplating what happened a couple of nights ago.  Susie and I were walking towards the University’s Art Center excitedly looking forward to hearing Misty Copeland, the renown ballerina.  In front of us walked a couple.  The man turned his head and said,”Dr. Schmier.  How long has it been since I was in your class?  1994?  Long time.   That ‘trust fall’ and singing were something else.  Then, there were the  ’Triads.’  Nothing like them since.  They were something else and have been with me all these years.  You’re not someone to forget, nor what we did.”  We all laughed.

It seems this past week or ten days, there have been a cluster of “Hey, Dr. Schmier” suddenly flurrying all around me, all unexpected, all in the strangest places and at the strangest times:  at a coffee house, at a restaurant, at a gas station, at a food market, even from a visitor at the synagogue, and now at an event at the University.  They each have been creating a deepening joyous serenity and warmth within me as past students came up to me.  They presented themselves, though they didn’t know it,  as demonstrations that I had unwittingly passed what I call a real assessment, the “ten year test.”  There were hand shakes and hugs, teary eyes and smiles from these past students who were in class with me not five or seven years ago, but fifteen, twenty, and twenty-four years ago.From them, I discovered seeds that had unknowingly found fertile soil and thrived.  Seeds that had sprouted, had become deeply rooted, and had bloomed far beyond the confines of the classroom walls, the end of the term, and the completion of the college experience into the distant working and living realms.  Seeds that would slip under the radar of any traditional, subject oriented classroom assessment instrument on learning.  Seeds that moved me to tears time and time again as I found out that the character values that had come from my soul had found their way to the hearts and actions of others throughout their personal, professions, and family lives; values that had touched these people and altered the direction of their lives, values that had created an inspired and passionate vitality, values which had actually changed the world and altered the future.  I felt a profound feeling of deep accomplishment, meaning, and purpose.  And, I’ll leave it at that.

Well, actually I won’t.  I won’t because even though I am no longer in the classroom, contrary to what some think, my experiences, said through the students, can teach a lot to those who wish to learn.  I won’t because after hearing Misty Copland, I could have sworn she had read my “Teacher’s Oath” and been my classes.  She talked about the need for a conscious daily renewal of passion in order to stay away from the rut of dulling routine, of the need for what I call “the three ‘-tudes” of  attitude and aptitude and fortitude, of having hard and demanding fun at whatever we’re doing.  I won’t because these past students represent a need to comprehend, understand, and empathize with each student, each of whom comes into class walking on a different road.  I won’t because most of us reveal an ignorance of the latest research on brain development when we proclaim “They are adults” as if these college kids had suddenly metamorphosed from being quirky juveniles in high school to being rational adults in college two months later.  I won’t because these students, and goodness knows how many unknown others, demonstrate that while you cannot motivate people, you can inspire them to reach for their stars; that you can help students help themselves to break out of their confining prisons with your heart;  that you can help them circumvent constricting boundaries with your spirit; and, that you can see hidden realities with soulful eyes; that you can be that person who can help each student help her/himself strive to become the person he or she can become.

As they talked to me, their words struck my heart like bolts of lightning and reverberated through my soul like claps of thunder:  “It had everything to do with life, not just this class, and how I was going to use it and live it”…. “ You were a challenge to take a risk and make mistakes….” “It wasn’t just a history class, it was a class in the human experience, my human experience…” “We replaced the word ’stranger’ with ‘friend’ and ‘family’ so we would risk doing stuff we wouldn’t have done otherwise…” “That class was full of such support and encouragement I never felt in another class.”   “The class was good for my soul, and made me a better person and prepared me to be a better businessman, parent, and husband.”  “You could touch the energy in that class.  It was challenging and light hearted, demanding and easy-going, serious and smiling and laughing all at the same time because we were friends and family.  And, I never let it slip away in anything I did.”  “It was so much fun learning, serious fun, that it all seemed so ‘easy’…”  “There was so much love and trust in that class room….taught me a lesson about life inside and outside my profession.”  “I found confidence and self-esteem in that class.”  “I could make a mistake and learn from it instead of being crucified for committing it.  So, I took chances and learned a lot about who I was and what I am capable of doing, most of which I diddn’t know before I came into your class.”  “That class helped me see that a challenge was a possibility and opportunity, not a barrier.”  “The class was just plain magic.”  And, on and on and on it went.

These students are the visible embodied result of living my “Teacher’s Oath” in and out of the classroom.  They told me that I was right to see that while technology and pedagogy were important, we shouldn’t focus on them to the exclusion of focusing on the humanity of the individual and unique student; they told me that the classroom is a human world, not an information transmitting and receiving station; they told me that faith, hope, and love are antidotes to toxic dehumanizing perceptions and expectations generated by herding stereotypes and generalities and labels of students that poisoned every well;  they told me that faith, hope, and love lift and ennoble each moment; they told me that faith, hope, and love forge a safe haven with unconditional and non-judgmental respect, kindness, caring, empathy, compassion, support, and encouragement.

I’ll end this reflection with portions of two messages I recently received from two of those students.  One was in classroom nineteen years ago and is now special education teacher:  “I want you to know you were my unspoken mentor.  After reading over and over and over your ‘Teacher’s Oath’ that you just sent me, once again, I know why.  I alway felt you were teaching to me, that your caring eyes were always on me.  You noticed and cared about me, and were kind and patient with me,  in class like no one else had done because of my ADHD.  Saying it wasn’t enough for you or me.  You always had time for me.  You always read word for word what I wrote in my journal.  You always acted in that way, especially through your active loving support and encouragement.  I learned to trust you enough to pour out my heart and get things out into the open air through my journal entries.  You were always showing you loved me, had faith in me, and had hope for me, and I should start having confidence and believing myself.  I remember you writing the ‘Words For The Day” on the blackboard that said ‘Everyone has “dis-ability” and “dat-ability,” and don’t believe otherwise.’  I have been reading those words every day in the morning since.  That became and still is my motto in life.  It is the core of my teaching and living.”   The second student, who was in class twenty-four years ago, wrote:  “That trust fall and the singing in front of people—I sang the Flintstones theme—and the hands on projects using the class material in the triads all started teaching me a lot about myself, about trusting myself and others, and about respecting myself and others.  They gave me such a confidence build up that I truly needed and helped me start overcoming my fear-based shyness.  You made a heck of a difference in my life, how much I didn’t realize at the time.  I’m still ‘taking’ trust falls and ’singing’ in front of people, in a manner of speaking.  You taught me that learning, real learning, goes on and on beyond the classroom and college into myself.  And now, I see to it that it goes into all around me.  Every now and then you pop into my mind and what you once called ’the three -tudes in life’:  attitude, aptitude, and fortitude,’ and that the most important is ‘attitude.’  I haven’t thought about them in a while, but after seeing and talking with you, I see they’re still always there inside and with me.  I realize  I never really forgot them and am always using them, and helping my co-workers and, above all, my children to use them.…”


A Serendipitous Moment

I was savoring a cup of Tanzanian Peaberry coffee by the koi pond early this non-walking morning.  Images of a chance meeting the other day, a serendipitous meeting, with a past student I’ll call Bob in Lowes kept dancing across my mind.  I was struggling to recover, retain, and savor every word of our brief conversation.   To say it was an unexpected jolt would be an understatement.

I had run in to pick up some insecticide I had ordered online to protect my amaryillis.  As I was piling the two bags in the cart, I heard a “Dr. Schmier” coming from off to the side.  I turned.  It was Bob.  I hadn’t seen him in a couple of decades.  I had thought of him now and then over the years. wondering what had become of him after he dropped out of school.  Maybe it was because he had been afflicted with the same ADHD as my son, Robby; maybe it was because I often sadly bemoaned that he became a “one that got away.”  At least, so I thought.  How wrong I just discovered I was.  “….I’m still around because you refused to focus on the obnoxious pain in the ass I was because of my severe ADHD,” he said.  “You got past the defenses I had thrown up….You wouldn’t let me belittle myself as I always did.  Instead….you tried to help me find hope in myself and because, if I can say it, you loved me when no one else, including me, did.…I know you thought you had failed when I dropped out…..this is my surprise chance to tell you that you didn’t….You finally did it….I alway felt I let you down, but I recently admitted that I had been really letting myself down….All these years I’ve been ignoring you, but something wouldn’t let me stop hearing you.…’It’s never too late to start dreaming and always too early to stop dreaming’ and ‘Become master of your own story’  drummed in my ears over and over and over again….I stopped being angry….Now, I’m finally listening….got myself on meds….I’m breaking the circle of sabotaging myself.…I’m believing….I’m loving myself, finally….I’m going back to school.…Thank you”

I smiled as my eyes teared up.  All I said as I came around the counter with outstretched arms was, “Come here.”  I gave him a big hug as I whispered in his ear, “No, thank you!”  And, I rushed off to tell Susie, who was waiting in the car, of this “you don’t ask” moment.

There was a freshness of Spring in the air.  We’re between cleansing storms.  The pelting rains have started washing away the gilting pollen—at least until the next pollen storm.  It was dawn, as always a hope-full dawn, a chance to begin again dawn.  Silently watching the eastern skies gray, accompanied by the songs of the waterfall and the chorus of birds, is a declaration of certainty that the “this too shall pass” story never ends, that things do change.  Feeling the hopefulness of the dawn, then, is a nonverbal de-hectic action, a calm savoring, a cherishing of awareness and attentiveness, a silent reflection.  It’s a non-reactive stillness, a spacious looking around, an energizing pause, an offering of a way to live a nourishing life.  It is as if each appearing leaf, each melodic koi, each fern fond, each pine needle, each person is an illuminating and revealing verse of Scripture.  There is majesty all around and you begin to notice it, sound by sound, sight by sight, feel by feel, smell by smell that almost creates a Rumi-esque temptation to genuflect, kneel, and kiss the ground in gratitude.  That makes the koi pond, for me, as it did the classroom, a holy place where I can celebrate and experience what I value most deeply, and take it out into both the academic world and the world at large.  The dawn, as every dawn, is a love letter filled with beautiful images.  In it, as the day awakens with its depth, profundity, and beauty, I am slowly enveloped with a dawning sense of wonder, of possibility, of opportunity, and of responsibility to live dynamically as a human being, as a human becoming, and as a human belonging.

Recently first it was Dave, then John, and now Bob who have reminded me of the words of Rumi:  “Let the beauty we love be what we do.  There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”  And, like it or not, aware of it or not, I constantly ask myself in word and deed what does it mean for me to kneel and kiss the ground this day.  It means that for the last 27 years I’m not angry with others and especially myself; I no longer accept the story of me written by others that I allowed to make me my own enemy and be my own obstacle to happiness, meaning, purpose, and joy; I am at peace with a compassionate and empathetic light of love, hope, faith that has driven out the darkness.  So, I have a hopeful feeling of being a living answer to the questions, to the ticker tape questions:  “Who are you?” “Are you exerting the power of being your own storyteller?” “Are you fully living a joyful life?”   Wasn’t it Jung who said that we can get an understanding of ourselves by those who irritate and by those who delight us.  So, it is not difficult for me to answer as I constantly think of my angelic beloved Susie, of my two sons and their wives, of my three grandmunchkins, of those students such as Bob and John and Dave whom I’ve knowingly and unknowingly have touched, and of all students for that matter in whose lives I strode to matter.

More on “Think ‘Naked'”

It’s about 7:00. Slowly, the night’s blackness is starting to be pushed away by the approaching gray of dawn.   I’ll go out for my 7 mile walk in a few minutes when the sun is fully above the horizon and I can see where I’m going.  This dawning morning, sipping another cup of freshly brewed coffee by the computer, I had come in from standing by the koi pond.  I was listening to the music of the pond’s waterfall.  I could hear the warbling of an awakening bird above me.
I am always amazed by this time of the impending day.  Miraculous things occur everyday that most of us don’t sleep through or take for granted:  dawn, with its awakening sights and sounds.  It always causes me to pause.   A parade of gray, dancing colors, sounds, bright sun rays reveals a  newness in the air:  mysterious, unknown,  hopeful, instructive, beautiful, joyful.   You can feel the freshness and smell the wonder.  You can sense that everything has led up to being here this day.  Here is life, my life.  Here is when the past, my past, can change.  Here is when the future, my future, begins.  Here are new choices to choose.  Here I can exhale regret and dismay, and inhale new life into myself.   All this revolves around, involves, unconditional faith and hope and love that is tough, demanding, raw, gritty, active, involved, engaged, adventurous and very real; they are respecting, embracing, expansive, inclusive, connecting, generous, tender, kindly, caring, sympathetic, energetic, edifying.  They are the day’s starter kit.  In them, you find the love of living, loving and living big.  They are what make common things unique and sacred for me.  For me, they instill a fearless and supple hunger and thirst for what is and what may be.  They defeat defeat.  They reduce reducing.  They activate action.  They inspire inspiration.  They energize energy.  They are a celestial rhythm that makes possible the only thing we have:  today, now, with its challenges, opportunities, and possibilities.   So, if I have a mission, it is to see my own daily dawn, and assist others in doing likewise.  And, therein lies a seminal questions:  do we see the dawn in the likes of John?  Do we break the confines of our accustomed perceptions and expectations of the likes of him?  Do we hear the secrets of the birds’ song in the likes of him?  Do we see the bright rays of faith and hope and love pushing back the darkness of stereotype, generality, and label to reveal the beauty in each student?
That outlook was what I drew on when I responded to a question from a professor, “What did you say to John and do with him to get him to change?”
This was my answer.   “Your question got me to thinking about Carl Rogers’ On Becoming A Person.  In 1991, that 1961 groundbreaking book became a keystone in my life and my humanistic view of teaching, and my realization that we academics are in the people business, in the serving business, in the business of serving people.   In it he wrote that given the right conditions people can identify for themselves what hurts them and find their own way to personal growth.  So, my quick answer to the question is Nothing and everything.’  I did nothing:  no ‘curing,’ no ‘saving,’ no’fixing,’ no advice, no answers, not even motivating.  I never do any of that.  All I did with him as I have done with others was, with a strong emotional sense of  what I call ‘serving otherness.’ to be deeply present:  accepting, seeing, noticing, appreciating, attentive of, attentive to, aware of, alert to, sensitive of, listening to, believing, respecting, and, above all, connecting with the superglue of unconditional and nonjudgmental faith, hope, and love.   It’s piecing through, or tearing down, impersonal and dehumanizing herdlike stereotypes, generalities, and labels.  It’s living out the lyrics Mr. Rogers’ ‘It’s You I Like.’   It’s a kind of companionship presence that pushes aside “aloneness,”  that invites someone with her or his potential to show up:  no knee jerk assumptions, no intrusive questions, no ‘how are you,’ no forced conversation, no doing all the talking, no expectations of visible and immediate results.  It’s the only way John and others will come to terms with themselves, with who they are and who they truly can be.  It’s a quiet hands-off and a loud hearts-on involved approach that is not about me being seen.  It’s about them being seen, respected, and appreciated.  It’s about serving the needs of others in a way they can serve themselves with a patient ‘whenever you’re ready,’ and ‘whenever you can.’  When John first entered class he felt alone.  All I did was to offer him the bones of acceptance, of belonging, and of fitting in, and let him do the rest if he was so inclined to seize the opportunity.”
“After being slapped on the back with congratulations by his classmates, after getting a nod and a wink and a thumbs up from me, his daily journal entries became something of a spiritual vomit, expunging all the toxins that were poisoning his soul.   Each day, knowing I was reading his every word, he was acquiring a confidence he never had to search out the once unimaginable “I can do this” potential within himself.   Each day, he found that he had been driven by outside forces rather than those from within him.  Each day, he slowly discovered that he should not have been so certain of who he is, who he could be, and what he could do or not do.  Each day, he slowly understood that whatever limits he had accepted, he had placed on himself.
‘You know, Chicago’s John Cacioppo, a psychologist at Chicago, in his Lonliness, and Brene Brown at Houston in her Braving the Wilderness, say that it is all about making connection,  that Rousseau was right when he said, in modern parlance, that our DNA wires us  to be wanted and to belong, that connection’s core is believing in ourselves, that believing in ourselves means we must be authentic, and that being authentic means we can both belong and stand up alone at the same time.   Once John asked me how he could get out of his resigned malaise, how he could molt into a new and comfortable skin.  Remember, I have always said that I never give ‘you have to do’ advice.  I don’t because I don’t know anyone’s the entire story with its own set of unique experiences.  At best, I can read a sentence, hear paragraph, see a page, or, if I am lucky, take in a chapter.  But, never the entire story.  So, I answered him, as I have done with others, with a ‘this is what I did’ by telling him about my own experiences and the insight I drew from them: my family background as a second son that left me with an inner impovishment caused by a sense of not belonging in my family; about my consequent less than stellar student experiences; about being an outdider and of my need to belong which created an inauthenticity by being and doing what was expected of me by others; and about how I always felt  I was on the outside looking in.  Then, came my epiphany in 1991, followed by my successful dealing with cancer in 2005, and then followed by my survival of a massive cerebral hemorrhage in 2007, each of which took me to a crossroads.  I would tell them how I daringly used them to pull out the sapping tapeworm of weak self-esteem, weak self-confidence, and a host of other depreciating ‘selfs;’ how I drew on them to consciously understand my own story; how I made them into constant nudges that altered and keep altering the theme of my life in a positive direction; how I began more and more to speak truth to my own bullshit and that around me with a muscular empathy and civility;  how each one closed the gap between who I was and who I wanted to become; and how I reconfigured myself by changing the source of my joy and happiness and meaning.  I told him that all these experiences had the impact of raising my ’thought energy,’  an energy that was determined only by whatever I thought, that determined as much or as little drive I had, that determine what path I would take, and that drew on faith, hope, and love of myself as powerful strategies to defeat the crippling enemy of disbelief and fear.  ’They are,’ I once said to him, ‘my own form of constantly “thinking naked.”’  That’s all I said, and left him to raise the level and intensity of his own ‘thought energy,’ find his own strength and courage to understand his own story in order to nudge himself in the direction of his own answers and find the way to his own growth.”
“Sure, I asked a leading question now and then.  Sure, I made a supporting and encouraging comment here and there.  Sure, I shared by own ‘been there.’  Sure, I used the power of turning a life around, in the spirit of Leo Buscaglia, of a soft touch on his shoulder, an admiring smile directed at him, and a host of other small caring gestures and words.  But, I never, offer, offered, a prescribed “You must do this” remedy as an answer.   I was all about inspiration, not motivation.  That was for him to do:  to be inspired with a ‘I want to see in myself what he sees’ to motivate himself.  That’s the only true way a person can find lasting and continuing growth and change.  You know, that’s the true meaning of that adage that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.  All we can do is put salt in the horse’s oats to make him thirsty.  The salt I added is respectfully listening, sincerely believing, having deep faith and hope, and always, unfaltering loving.”
“I think the most meaningful words John ever spoke to me were at the end of our conversation on that sidewalk, ‘Thanks,’ he said, ‘for just being there.’  And, I knew at that moment that he was continuing on his own journey of self-discovery.  Can anyone question why I flew with the wings of Mercury on the rest of my walk and why after all these past two months have yet to alight?”

“Think Naked”

Been off the grid for a while.  Maybe it’s a combination of the colder than normal winter blahs, lots of holiday travel,  futile struggling to rescue my freeze ravaged tropical koi garden, just not being in the mood, or whatever.  Anyway, no, this isn’t a porn piece.  It’s about a student I’ll call John whom I chanced to meet in mid-December and about whom my memory has  gotten jogged over and over the past couple of months.   The first nudge was reading about Pope Francis’ New Year Eve homily, a description of “artisans of the common good,” in a January David Brooks Oped piece.  What a beautiful phrase to describe people who openly express love, who are constantly making the moral decision to care, who are attentive and kind to others, who assist others on their way.   “Artisans of the common good.”  There’s a great description, I thought, that should sum up our mission as teachers.  And, I thought of John.  I got another memory jolt about John when I came across something that Martin Luther King had said.  To paraphrase him, we become those “artisans of the common good” by merging faith, hope, love, and authority; that the exercise of authority’s power is at its best when we engage in kindly and caring acts of faith, hope, and love.  Then, just before Superbowl Sunday, I read a statement by Jack Easterby, the New England Patriots, official character coach.  “I just think that love wins,” he said at a news conference. “Communication with others wins. Servanthood wins.”    And, there before my mind’s eye jumped my conversation with John.  And finally, I just read a statement by Parker Palmer.  No punishment anyone can lay on another, he wrote, could be greater than the punishment we lay on ourselves by conspiring in our own diminishment.  And, any time we refuse to so conspire, we take a step towards “the good, the true, the just, and the beautiful.”  And, John once again popped up before my eyes.
So, to John.  John was in class just before I retired at the end of 2012.  I hadn’t seen him in quite a while until one morning when I was on the last mile of my morning walk in mid December.  I went out later than usual for that morning walk, and it  had been harder than usual.  Concentrating  to put each leadened step ahead of the other, I nearly “walked down” a person who was coming at me.  At the last minute, I turned my shoulders so as not to hit him.  I passed him.  Then, I heard from behind a jolting yell from a familiar voice, “Dr Schmier.”  I stop, turned, and there he was, John, smiling.  It must have been two years since we had one of our regular talks over the deli counter of a local grocery store where he had worked to earn tuition.   Jolted out from my mobile doldrums, I rushed back.  Smiling,  we shook hands.  We hugged.  Then we talked.
“Haven’t seen you at the deli counter for a while.  I thought you had left Valdosta.”

“I quit that job and went into construction…I decided I wanted to be an engineer….I worked and went to school on and off….Even got internships in construction….”  Then,  he added with a smile,  “….and always thinking ‘naked.’”

I just stood there for moment. Stunned.  Paralyzed.  A broad understanding smile formed on my face.  “After all these years,” I thought.

“Yeah,” he smiled as if he could read my thoughts.  “All these years it’s gotten me over a bunch of down times.”

 “You know you cost me $125.”
“Yeah, but it was worth it, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah.  It sure was.  Best money I ever spent.”
I have to back up.  How shall I describe John when I first met him?  As I greeted him at the door on the first day of class, I could see in his eyes that he was entering the classroom conspiring in the belief that he was one of those “awful.”   His body language spoke of low expectations.  From reading the answers to his biographical interview, I saw how he accepted that he was one of those “don’t belongs.”  His daily journal entries showed that he accepted that his past grades were accurate predictors of his future, that he was a tarnished  “they’re letting anyone in nowadays.”  He entered as a sullenly answered and accepting “I am” rather than a curiously questioning “Who can I become.”  He had accepted a degrading character assigned to him by others, especially by family and high school teachers.  He didn’t get to choose.  He was denigratingly objectified.  Unheard.  Unnoticed.  His high school grades were made into more an expression of his unworthiness of attention by others, more of who he was, rather than who he could become.  He had not been seen for who he truly was beneath his transcript and, much more importantly, appreciated for who he truly was.  And, that had made it easier for others to not invest themselves in him, not to champion him,  and to dismiss him as one of those who was “watering down education.”  Why not?  After all, he was not a visible A-lister.  He had not been among those high school graduates whose name was specifically in print among the honors and recognition recipients. He was relegated to the Z-list of those whose name you won’t read or remember.  That all made a meaningless make believe of the canned assertion, “I care about students.”  It all had taken aspiration out from his vocabulary.  Resignedly accepting, he was unmotivated.  He was disbelieving.  He didn’t see the “awe-full” in himself.  And, in his early daily  journal entries, I read that while he was accepting of his skin, he was not comfortable in it.  But, he didn’t know how to molt into a new skin.
Several off-the-cuff talks, didn’t seem to have any impact.  He was an unwilling participant in his classroom community.  In fact, others complained to me that he was a drag on them.  Then, a few weeks into the term it happened.
To give the students in all four classes an appreciation of their debt for the taken-for-granted life style they live, when we came to the history section on the “age of invention,” I came up with a “simple” assignment for them.  In the coming week, all anyone had to do was to live totally—totally—for three hours without any benefits of anything—anything—that was invented after 1860.  My incentive was that if just one person in a class  could do that, I would buy premium donuts for her or his class each day for an entire week.  That would have been four dozen donuts for five days costing a total of about $125.   Of course, I knew it was a safe bet.  After all, there was electricity, the synthetic fabrics of their clothing, plastics, cosmetics, cars, campus buses, phones, computers, flush toilets, elevators, air conditioning, television, radio, velcro, modern day medicines, and a host of things beyond the students’ imagination, even the lowly zipper.  The following Monday, I asked the first class if anyone had successful completed the assignment.  Every description a student came up with I respectfully rejected with an explained “nope.”  The word quickly got around.  In the second class:  not a hand went up.   Third class:  shaking heads.  Feeling confident that my wallet wouldn’t be emptied, I asked the students in the fourth class.  Initial silence.  Then, one raised hand—just one hand—slowly and hesitantly appeared.  It was John’s hand.  I looked at him, “And how did you do that?” I quietly asked, holding a waiting “nope” in my voice box.
“I went into a field and quietly sat there butt-naked for three hours doing absolutely nothing.”
I silently smiled, slightly nodded my head in approval.  A joyful chorus of “Donuts!!” arose in the class reminded me that $125 just flew out from my bank account.
Back to our meeting on the sidewalk.
“Do you remember what you said to me after that class?”
“Not exactly.  That was a long time ago.  I only remember telling you to ‘think “naked”’ whenever you come up against a wall.”
Well, John, told me that I had said that when he thought he couldn’t do something, if he ever felt a negative coming on to simply “think naked.”  “Those words would give me power over myself, a power soaked in faith, hope, and love; a power that striped anyone from having power over me.  And it worked.”   He reminded me that I said it could turn him into the ‘Big Good Wolf’ who could blow down his own confining house of cards and release him from the false and negative and loveless prison he had built for himself that was keeping him from who he wanted to become.  “You told me that I could change my story.  And every time I thought ’naked’ I would stop saying ‘I am’ and become a ‘I can be.’  You were right.  I owe you big time.  Thanks.  You constantly changed the direction of the path I was talking.”
After a few more minutes, we hugged and went our different ways.  I flew that last half mile, the lead in my feet having been transformed into the wings of Mercury.
Why do I tell this story?  Well, there are several reasons that I want to bullet point:
First, when I retired, mad as I was that I felt it was forced upon me, the centering mother of all questions, my starting point, in the spirit of Rumi, I asked myself was:  “Did you love well?  Did you look for and  find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against love?”  It’s the most profound question underlying all others, for it seeks answers on a human rather than an informational scale, planting seeds for new realities.   I’ve always said that I teach, that I live, guided by “three little big words”:  faith, love, and hope. For me faith stimulates, hope sustains, love sanctifies. I mean, how in the hell do you have faith, hope, and love without obligation, commitment, and dedication?  And, when those three little words are energized, you will plant even in the harshest of times.  You will touch lives and change paths.  Big miracles will occur.  John is one.   The question is also important because happiness and satisfaction and fulfillment rest, as Emily Smith says in her Power of Meaning, on meaning.  And, meaning is a composition of community, purpose, and transcendent service wrapped up a storytelling that is beyond merely a list of events or description of a singular instance.  Just as my story proved fungible, so is that of John’s and each of ours.  None are not fixed in stone.
Second,  “welcome” is, to paraphrase Parker Palmer, one of the best words we can say to a student. It is a display of what I have called “HI,” an Abrahamic “hospitality intelligence,” that meets powerful fear, disbelief, and self-deprivation with powerful love, a power that does not foster harmful distances and chasms.  I mean why should a student listen to someone whom deep down she or he feels doesn’t notice  her or him, or believes she or he shouldn’t be in that class.
Third, teaching involves a bunch of small almost unnoticed moral decisions.  It puts you in a position of asking a thousand often unspoken questions.  In each student, in each of us, personal issues and problems abound, and there is no sure fire way how best to navigate through the rocks of sensitive topics.  So, I see my role as a teacher beyond that of an information transmitter and skill developer.  I see myself as a servant to help each student, and myself, create a healthier self-viewpoint so that they each can become the kind of people each is capable of becoming.  If I succeed, they are more sustainable in just about everything they do and will do.
Fourth,  annoyance, frustrations, resignation are too often sneaky ways of becoming distanced, uncommitted, and lazy.  They face you into the shadows rather than toward the sunshine; they’re explanations for disinterest; they’re excuses for apathy and inaction; they’re rationales for disengagement.
And, finally, faith and hope and love are inside our consciousness; they’re not merely states of heart and mind; they’re not merely responses to circumstances.  They’re conditions of your spirit; they’re orientations of your life; they’re vital relationships; they’re energized actions of service that take us on roads outside and beyond ourselves.  I heard a rabbi once say that you don’t give something to those whom you love.  You love those to whom you give.  If you have given something to someone else, you’ve invested yourself in them.  True caring, he said, is a caring of giving.  There’s so much work for passionate and compassionate faith, hope, and love to do on our campuses.  Why?  Because all those supposed “don’t belongs” sure as hell do; because untold number of unpredictable and incalculable situations can often redeem lives; because the way we teach is a source of meaning to so many; because in the classroom we are witnesses to the human condition; because we can be better people in a better educational system that helps others to better themselves; because there’s an energizing cause and room for us teachers to intervene and assist; because we are one of the gifts of attentiveness, alertness, awareness, and serving otherness” that we all need; because to teach and learn well, we all need to teach and learn together; because sometimes you just have to fight like momma bears to help a student get through the cliche crap of stereotyping, generalizing, and labeling.
Oh, by the way, John graduated this past December as an “awe-full”  who is heading for engineering school as a vision of human dignity and respectability.  Who would have thought.  He didn’t when he arrived at VSU.  He didn’t when he entered my first year history classroom.   He does now because he always thinks “naked.”   And, so should each of us.

Just Joking Around

Well, it’s that time of the term when the Scroogey, bah humbug “student blooperers” are out in full force all over the cyber world, and so many in academia do themselves an injustice whenever, however briefly, they are suspending their charitable holiday spirit.

During my 46 years as an academic, do you know what I noticed, what I am still noticing, and want all of us to think about?  There is a gap between our professionally private and professionally public selves.  In the privacy being with colleagues, there’s the perennial moaning and groaning, the self-pitying frustration, the finger-pointing, the blaming, the bad mouthing, the snide comments, the demeaning jokes, and the offering of denigrating proofs how studens’t dumb mistakes reveal the “dumbing down” of higher education.   And, when held to task, all this is always justified as academia’s version of locker-room talk:  “innocent fun,” “idle chit-chat,” or “coffee talk.”   I wonder if any of them remember when they were a target of such unkind comments.  I wonder if they remember how they felt.  I was, and I do.  I can tell you that the less than politie words that I used showed that I didn’t appreciate their ridiculing “I didn’t mean anything by it” one little bit.  I didn’t then as a studet; I didn’t then a professor; I don’t now though I am retired.

Let’s start by admitting that professors do talk differently with their colleagues about students when students are not around.  In department meetings, at faculty socials, in faculty lounges, at  conferences, in email, on FaceBook, professor’s language and tone often change.   I’ve heard and seen it over and over and over, year after year.  Think about what such mental roping off of one personna from another does.  Understand how impatience and demeaning erodes understanding, lulls sympathy, and weakens efforts of support and encouragement.  Think about how they influence the treatment of a student with whom we come in contact.  Think about the emotional and performing cost to the student. Think about the emotional and performing cost to us academics.  Think about the justifications that come into play to demote the classroom to second place and students to the level of distraction in the quest for research, publication, promotion, security of tenure, and academic renown.   Think about how tenor and temperament and fundamental attitude matter; they really matter; they matter a great deal.  I mean why make the effort if you believe “it’s no use?”  Why continue to fight if you thrown up your hands in surrender.
Since late 1991, when my epiphany, that “deep time,” as focused and intense a spiritual experience as I ever will have, was a portal to thinking about numinous past personal experiences and daily current experiences, was and continues to be enormously important to me.  It ultimately led to my conscious daily living according to my self-composed “Ten Commandments of Teaching,” and to take the sacrements of my “Teacher’s Oath.”   Everything in and out of class revolved around abiding by those commandments and the tenets of that oath.   At their core is unconditional human dignity and respect for each individual and a treatment of each student as a sacred, noble, unique, and significant human being with untold potential:   not to be prejudiced against any student for any reason, not to shame a student, not to speak ill of any student, not to use a student as a punch-line, not to use students as a punching bag to vent frustration with and anger at the administration, not to use students in a power-trip, not to impose a powerlessness on a student, not to show up as someone different among peers when and where I could safely let my hair down, and not to have a different standard when among other professors from that when among students.
The problem is that such rationalizing and  blaming only exacerbates our anguish.  They’re merely a form of running away.  They don’t meet the true situation head on.  They don’t liberate anyone from frustration.  They don’t ease the ache and discontentment.  They’re a form of “look what I have to deal with” self-pity.  And, they aren’t very kind or caring. They don’t engender a true sense of service.  They don’t develop deep trust.  They don’t establish respect.  They darken rather than illuminate.  They don’t recognize any human parity, that sacredness, nobility, and uniqueness of each of us human beings.  They don’t don’t allow for unconditional faith, hope, and love.  They’re a barrier to being intently and intensely aware, alert, and attentive.  They cling to ignoble stereotypes, generalizations, and labels.  They perpetuate grudges.  They don’t help in the effort to prevent drop outs.  They don’t lead to an understanding that we’re in the people business, that education is about people, real people, living people, unforgettable people, compelling people, amazing people, flawed and incomplete people, people with contradictory characters.
The acquisition of a degree, the securing of a title, the gaining of tenure, the lengthening of a resume do not automatic in and of themselves create or negate our morality.  We to do that; we make that choice.  We have to ask what values did we inherit when we became academics, which ones should be retained, which ones should be discarded, which ones should be modified.  We have to ask those old values new questions.  We constantly and incessantly have to ask and sift through and rearticulate our sense of meaning and purpose, ask and sift through and rearticulate our sense of meaning and purpose, ask and sift through and rearticulate our sense of meaning and purpose, again, again, again.  Still venturing, still changing, still growing, still discovering. still finding ourselves.  And, be both unafraid and unashamed of doing it.
Now I know that not all profs to this, but most do.  Since 1991, I started asking and remaking the academic values I had inherited.  From then on, I consciously watched my feelings, thoughts, words and actions, knowing that when I demean a student, I demean myself.   I say and have said for decades that when someone says, “I didn’t mean anything by it,” of course she or he did; when they defended themselves with “it’s just innocent fun,” there’s no innocence about it; when they said in their defense, “it’s only a joke,” it’s never an devalued “only,” for they were dead serious; when they argue that “it means nothing,” sure it does, for it reveals the truth of deep-seated attitudes.  They’re all rationalizations for not talking a walk along that extra mile.  They’re excuses for not supporting efforts to retain students.  They’re all reasons offered for the need to cull the herd.  Each time any “look what I have to deal with” blooper is offered, I think of the helping and saving hand offered by Birdsal Viault to me when I as a student was a frequent target of  those “why try” and “it’s no use” bloopers.
Think I’m being a dour tight ass who should lighten up, that we need humor during this tense to alleviate the pressure-packed time of final exams and calculating final grades?  Well, my answer is why make jokes at someone’s expense.  You know, I am an amateur flower gardener.  I’ve learned some simple truths:  there is no such thing as a “no maintenance” or “low maintenance” garden; nothing will ever go by the book; nothing will ever be as we wish.   Bugs, pests, weeds, disease, and weather will see to that.   Plants will wilt; plants will wither; plants will be choked; plants will be eaten; plants will be diseased.  Do I give in and give up?  Do I sneer, gnarl, and curse?  Do I ridicule and blame?  Do I throw up my hands in disgust and walk away in surrender?  No, the best of my gardening skills are my commitment and dedication and perseverance, my willingness to get my hands and knees dirty, my quest for solutions, my willingness to adapt, my willingness to change my ways.  And, those skills will be revealed in the most challenging of times.  I see and listen deeply with a loving heart. I remain serene. In the face of all that I find new ways; I redesign; I replant; I trim and prim; I continue to plant new plants; I continue to embed new seeds; I continue to nourish new seedlings.   I patiently pull weeds; I deal the bugs and pests; I faithfully fertilize and water; I caringly nourish; I lovingly tend.  Only then will the flowers, all flowers, have the opportunity to thrive and bloom.   In the classroom, I am the gardener of my own life; I water and nourish and tend to my own inner garden.  It is the only way I know that I can I help each student, unconditionally, to have the opportunity to nourish the garden within each of them, and to blossom.

From an “Awful” to an “Awe-Full” Classroom, XI

Couldn’t sleep.  I guess I was still thinking about a student I’ll call Dave into whom I bumped a few days ago on the back leg of my walk.   We had an interesting conversation that I’ll tell you about at a later day.  For now, he gave me more of an answer to the professor who kept throwing cyber-barbs at me.
 “You accuse me of having a point of view,” I replied to the professor’s criticisms.  “Of course, I do.  Who doesn’t?  None of us are automatons.  You certainly do.  You reveal yours by the emotional tone and language of your flame throwing email.  Admit it; we’re all subjective human beings.    Cold, calculating, disengaged, distanced objectivity is a myth.  So, my point of view is summarized by my ‘Teacher’s Oath.’  In this age of overwhelming and consuming vocational credentialism in academia, we need more than satisfying the requirements of a major just to get a good job; we need to understand we are in the people business as much if not more than we are in the credentialing business; we should have a classroom starting counterpoint of unconditional faith, hope, and love to acquire the means to live a good life as well.  They are clarity and truth and belief.  They’re the light that pushes away the darkness.  They erase the limits imposed on unseen unique potential.  They strip away everything that stands between us and seeing—and unconditionally nurturing—the sacredness, uniqueness, nobility, beauty, potential, and awesomeness of each student.  They don’t allow anyone to get lost in the clutter of tests, grades, GPAs, awards, assessments, and recognitions.”
“There is a yiddish saying, ‘fun gornish gibt gornish.’  It means roughly ‘from nothing you’ll get nothing.’  So, what something comes from the nothing of poor mouthing or ridiculing any student behind her or his back?  Do you think such a negative attitude isn’t revealed in your actions, subtle or otherwise?  Where’s the morality in treating so many as if they’ve passed their ‘use by’ date?  What positives do you find in treating these less than stellar students as the Rodney Dangerfields of academia, giving them no respect?  What uplifting is achieved if your expressed purpose is to go into class, as I personally knew some of my colleagues intended and did, to ‘cull out the herd?’  What kind of excitement do we have if we believe we’re going into that classroom to face a hoard of those we judge to be the unwanted ‘don’t belongs.’   How do you look for, find, and save someone you already have surrendered that person as a lost ‘unprepared?’   How much true focus do we have on those whom we view as distractions from more important things?    How much effort do you exert for those whom you say you don’t have the time.  Tell me the benefits of ignoring those who too many brand as inferior ‘they’re letting anyone in?’  Who is going to walk that extra mile for those condemned as ‘hopeless?’  Is denigration and demeaning and blame creating the best of conditions for learning we can create for the majority of students?   Is forsaking all but the supposed best the only way forward?
“We all tell ourselves and others about how we got where we are.  I know I do.  All I’m asking is:  have you rewritten the story of how you got here, do you really believe you got here on your own, what can you do for those who are not there yet, how much is not enough or enough or too much, who is not a vital piece of the future; which student’s life is not precious; who should be cast out; who is not education’s purpose and meaning personified?  Do you know how easy it is for all this to remain abstract?  Do you know that the way in which we tell our own stories to ourselves and to other, as well as the language we use, has a huge influence on how we see other people’s potential, what we look at and hear about their inspiration and motivation and ability and potential—or lack thereof?  Are those students out there strangers whose stories we don’t know or don’t care to know or aren’t curious about?  What would your story be like if ‘hard work’ and ‘good fortune’ and ‘lucky breaks’ were replaced with ‘unequal advantages?’   Instead of pointing blaming fingers, maybe we should show up in community that what would shred the thin veneer of deafening and blinding ‘strangerness’ so we can be consciously in sight and sound of each other.  Maybe, instead of throwing up our hands in frustration or gnashing our teeth in anger or twisting our face in writhing dread, we ought to look at ourselves and ask ourselves better questions and ask better questions of each of them.  Maybe we should think about what happens when we do all that all the time.”
“Remember, what we think and feel, we practice; and, what we practice, we become.  If you can practice a positive language, if you can practice leaning into unconditional acceptance and connection in the classroom on a regular basis, you’ll start to reexamine your memories, and then you’re going to be more likely to do those practice more automatically.  It’s what the psychologists call a ‘learned response.’  For me, it has closed the distances.  It has removed all the angst and divisiveness.  And, it has replaced them with a loving. hopeful, supportive, encouraging, joyful, meaningful, purposeful, and ‘awe-full’ engagement.”
“Now, I understand that one of the hardest things to do in class is to stay in community when you feel a surge of agitation, disappointment, frustration, and despair.  What nourishes my spirit when I’m getting a feeling of being drained, is each day to read and to swear to live consciously by the tenets of my ‘Teacher’s Oath.’  I also understand that there can be great fear—and risk—in inviting the unknown into one’s life; there can be a horrible and disturbing disorientation behind all that anxiety and frustration.  But, if we accept the assurances offered by the ‘hard evidence’ of the scientific research on learning, we can see that no student is irreversibly a slacker;  we can see potential ‘human becomings’ rather than fixed ‘human beings’ in a class; we can move to a rhythm of wondrousness in the classroom; we can offer unconditional understanding, sympathy, compassion, caring, and kindness.  You know, I’ve been in education for all but the first five years of my life:  as a student in kindergarten, elementary school, junior high school, high school, college, and graduate school:  as a TA and part-time instructor; and, finally as a college professor for 46 years until I had to retire.  And, I can tell you that for me as a student and as a professor, the finest moments were the ones that had nothing to do with tests, grades, GPAs, degrees, titles, grants, publications, and recognitions; they weren’t ones you could really put your fingers on; they weren’t ones that you could assess and quantify—or, perhaps, even explain.”
“But, how to describe what I call those ‘you just don’t ask’ moments.  I like the serendipitous words ‘mysterious’ and ‘inexplicable,’ though so many academics gnash their teeth and contort their faces at the sounding of those words because they supposedly so go against the grain and are such an anathema to academics’ demand for objectivity and ‘hard evidence.’  Most academics love, have a lust for, answers, closure, resolution, clarity, certainty.   They live within imagined stereotypes, generalities, and labels that seems to conveniently and comfortably—and safely— explain everything about students.  Yet, the more we see and listen to each student, the closer we come to each of them, the more we see each is a proverbial “exception to the rule.”  Heck, if we saw and listened, we’d see that there are so many exceptions to the rule, the rule would be obliterated.  And so, the more we accept ambivalence, surrender to contradictions, are unafraid of paradoxes and seeming inconsistencies in both each student and ourselves, and almost everything else, we tolerate and become comfortable with ambiguity, not to feel the insatiable urge to make the classroom “unmysterious” and explicable.   I don’t truly know why I had the epiphany when I had it; I don’t know why I responded to it as I did; I don’t know why I accepted having had cancer as a gift as I did; I don’t know why I was uplifted by my cerebral hemorrhage and why being a “walking 5% miracle” made such a dramatic impact on my outlook on teaching in particular and life in general.  I do know this.  Each experience, and others, determined the course of my life; each proved to be a great gift to my aspirations; each readied me more and more to go into the ever deeper inner recesses of myself where I was wont to go, not knowing what I would come up against, and have a conversation with myself about things I hadn’t known or wanted to know, to see and to listen to and to face up to what I had buried, rationalized away, ignored, but which was that which was holding me back from reaching my full potential as both a teacher and human being.  And, it wasn’t as terrifying as I feared.  To the contrary, I was humbled, stood in awe and in wonder, before the inexplicable mystery of it all.  And, I understood how subjective all of our views—me, colleagues, students, everyone—of reality really is and how we have the power to choose to change our view of ourselves and others.”
“With your indulgence, I’m going back to something I shared almost six years ago to the day.  To quote myself, ‘What’s that saying about what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger? Maybe, then, we all too often don’t give thanks for the unwanted challenges, altered courses, and to things that turn our world upside down. After all, if you can’t hit the curve balls, you’ll sure as hell will strike out. Maybe, then again, we ought to give thanks for such unseen blessing, discovering that we can come out okay because bearing the burden and consequence, and facing down adversity, we emerge tougher and better than ever, able to be more, believe more, have faith more, have hope more, do more, be in community with others more, and imagine more.’”
“So, you see, I have come to believe in mystery and the inexplicable, and to trust them.  I’ve been close to too many students, read too many journal entries, had too many small talk and serious conversations, read too many of their “how I feel today” words, and have had too many unexpected personal experiences not to find that these two words, full of hints and guesses, bring full meaning into the lives of  those human beings in the classroom.   And, as such, I’ve found that each person is a mixture of the penetrable and impenetrable to reason, of the expected and surprise, of the seen and unseen, of the known and unknown, of the aware and unaware.    I  mean, tell me, why  is that when a hard and fast formula doesn’t fully solve and explain each student taken individually, we call that person “an exception to the rule?”  And, a sensitivity to this mixture, unseen in skewing impersonal percentage and stick-figure stereotype and cardboard generalization and flattened labelling, is essential for according to each student dignity and respect and nobility and sacredness and uniqueness, for being hospitably….and patiently….and generously…. open to and welcoming and seeing and embracing and supporting and encouraging and forgiving and listening to each student, for evaluating our feelings in terms of empathy and faith and hope and love and caring and kindness and compassion, for judging our reactions to what is happening around and before us in terms of focused and keen acknowledgement of the humanity and uniqueness and sacredness of each student in order for us to be human:  taking nothing and no one for granted; never treating anyone casually; never thinking anyone is less than phenomenal.”
“Now, I am not talking about dreamy head-in-the-clouds optimism or wispy gossamers of  assurances that everything will turn out okay or oozing beliefs that everything will be perfect.   I’m talking about a feet-on-the-ground struggle supported by insights from the finding of scientific research on learning.  And, yeah, it’s not a piece of cake.  It’s a struggle.  I’m talking about struggling to get students to believe I am sincere.  It’s a sweaty and achy struggle to rip out the restricting brambles of self-deprecation and fears.   So, yeah, it’s  a struggle to resist and to defy ‘ah, me’ pessimism and frustration.  It’s a struggle to be understanding rather than agitated when things inevitably don’t go as you wish and expect.  I’m talking about struggling to be continually empathetic, supportive and encouraging.  It’s a struggle not to throw up your hands and walk away with an ‘I give up.’  I’m talking about struggling to be committed, to remain determined, to continue to persevere.  I’m talking about being realistic, about seeing each student as she or he is, about who she or he could become, about who she or he might become, and about who she or he is afraid to chance becoming all at once.  Doing all that is a struggle, a struggle to tell each student what I see, a struggle to help each student see as I see, struggle to see all the new possibilities and opportunities, struggle to make that struggle worthwhile, struggle to make that struggle exciting, struggle to fill that struggle with joyfulness.  I’m talking about a struggle to make all that into realities.  And, that is why I say teaching is not easy, but oh so joyous.”

From an “Awful” to an “Awe-full” Classroom, X

 How to respond to a less than empathetic query from a professor.  I’ve been pondering her dismissal questions for quite a while.  Yeaterday, as I worked to come out from the fogs of my Thanksgiving tryptophan overdose on my 7 mile meditative power walk, I started  thinking about Dennis, and came up with a rather long answer.  Here is the first part of it:
“You know most education happens by contagion of either therapeutic or toxic emotion.   As Sigal Basade would say, if you want to retain students, increase their productivity, and raise the possibility of their success, welcome them, embrace them, love them, encourage and support them, each and everyone of them.  All life in that classroom, and elsewhere as well, is connected however you try to remain disconnected.  To be connected or to be disconnected, says Basade, is an emotional decision, not a technological or pedagogical or intellectual one.  And, however, you decide to feel and then act, as students such as Dennis reveal, your impact, overtly or subtly, expands, amplifies, lengthens, widens, deepens.   It cascades over miles, in lives, through the years.  It effects the world, it influences the future, in ways you don’t know or can’t imagine.  What you can imagine is that unconditional empathy and compassion, gentleness and love, kindness and caring, faith and hope, the intent to enrich the lives of others with support and encouragement, are essential for the nourishment of meaning and purpose in both your and students’ lives.”
“From personal and professional experience, I will tell you this:  there is a connection between service and joy, between empathy andhope, and between compassion and awe.  It is an acknowledgment, as Mother Teresa might say, that we belong to each other.  Human beings are influenced and shaped by kinship throughout their lives, and the classroom is no exception.  Human connection among students and between each student and the professor is the best teaching technique.  I have found a fullness in that connection, a call to delight in each student, a putting of flesh and bones and names and faces on the words ‘faith,’ ‘hope,’ and ‘love,’ and having an ability to be a man of innumerable second chances.  And, I have seen over and over and over again that its absence creates a cessation of caring, a fragility, a fear, a lethal absence of hope, and a cruel alienation.  Disconnection, sometimes called ‘being objective,’ is a form of spiritual ailment, a tiny spiritedness, a judgmentalism.  It’s what Abraham Herschel called an ‘eye disease’ that is a basis for an inability to see the full humanity of those fellow human beings we call ‘students.’  Now, no one can ‘humanize’ students into what they already are; no one can elevate students to the heights they already hold.  No, we cannot do anything to any student; we have to do it to ourselves.  Too many of us have to ask ourselves why do we presume there’s a distance between us and the students; why do we so often so readily hold tightly to impersonal and cardboard stereotypes, generalities, and labels; what is it that is blocking us so often from seeing the full humanity of each student.”
“I remember that in graduate school we graduates would grumble about how the professors treated us as ‘lower than whale shit.’  So, why do so many of us now turn around and treat so many students that way?   My refusal to do unto students what was done unto me  gives me the tools to release emotions.  It arms me with the ability to feel.  I allows me to be able to understand why, as Ed Deci would say, we do what we do—or don’t do.  It’s a constant exercise in increasing empathy and compassion.   It’s the way to becoming wiser, humbler, kinder, and more ‘awe-full.’  It slows; it provokes; it enriches; it uncovers and reveals hidden stories; it honors; it enlivens; it opens the eyes and heart; it recasts the personal we call ‘student,’ and even ourselves; and, it emboldens to break through what I call the ‘devalue line’ and to connect.”
“To do that, we have to focus more on establishing human connection than on changing methods, techniques, or technology.  We can’t practice an elitism that culls out the ‘don’t belongs.’  We can’t just focus on and blame the students.  We can’t place conditions on our caring.  You know sometimes, more often than I would like, think that academia is museum in which we professors practice an obscurantism with resumes, assessments, peripheral matters of pedagogy, assessment, getting promotion and tenure almost at any cost.  We ultimately have to shake out our pedagogical cobwebs.  We have to get expand our knowledge base beyond our discipline, to learn from the scientific literature on learning and apply its results.  And, we have to assume responsibility and change ourselves.  We have to see that that ‘eye disease,’ which demeans both student and professor with fear and disdain, is rooted in a deeper ‘heart disease’ of a disconnection resting on on the exercise of power and authority.  We have to see that our conditional ‘I care, if…’ is thin and imitation caring, a cheap caring that carries no weight.  We have to see and believe, and help each student to see and believe, that  there is so much more in both ourselves and each of them.  We have to see that the cure for that ‘eye disease’ and ‘heart disease’ is community that meshes that professorial power and authority with an unconditional faith, hope, and love.  When we apply that curative, I assure you, it will transform our vision from seeing an ‘awful’ student or class into an ‘awe-full’ one.”
“Now, it is not easy to change.  God, don’t I know that!  To transform ourselves, we have to explore our uncomfortable histories and habit.  We have to admit that they exist; we have to deal with what is it that wants to keep us safe and comfortable by avoiding the risks of adventuring into the unknown.  And, how well I know that kind of self-exploration can be painful and terrifying.  But, we must have it if we are to teach with integrity and wholeness.  We have to confront anything within us that is holding us back.  If we don’t work on our stuff, our stuff will continue to work on us.  It will continue to whisper in our ears; it will work on us however good our intentions may be; it will show up at every nook and cranny in our lives, and that controlling stuff will remain to us the ultimate truth voiced in “It’s not me,” “I’m not comfortable doing that.” “I can’t.” and “I don’t have tenure.”
“Now, this is not highfalutin or wishy-washy or fluff.  Let me go back to the research findings of Sigal Barsade and her 2016 article written with Olivia O’Neill in the Harvard Business Review titled ‘Manage Your Emotional Culture.’   That article led me to an earlier article in the HBR, ‘Employees Who Feel Love Perform Better,’ and then to still another that appeared in  the Administrative Science Quarterly, ‘What Does Love Have to Do With It?’  While they are writing about how emotions play in the workplace, their observations cut across all professions, and certainly are applicable to the classroom.  Two sentences in the first article caught my eye.  The first was at the beginning of the article:  ‘Most companies pay little attention to how employees are—or should be—feeling. They don’t realize how central emotions are to building the right culture.”’ Replace ‘companies’ with ‘professors.’  The other sentence was towards the end:   ‘Most leaders focus on how employees think and behave—but feelings matter just as much.’  Replace ‘employee’ with ‘students ‘and ‘leaders’ with “professors.”

“Between these two sentences, they argue, that what they call ‘cognitive culture’—thinking and behaving —is only part of the story.  The often ignored ‘emotional culture’—feeling expressed silently in unspoken facial expressions, body language, and vocal tones—is the crucial rest of the story.  And, when you gloss over ‘emotional culture,’ you’re ignoring what makes people tick.  That is, emotions determine how people perform tasks, how engaged they are, how imaginative and creative they are, how happy or sad they are, how fearless or fearful they are, how resilient or brittle they are, and how positive or negative they are.   They ask what if students came to class knowing you were really looking forward to seeing each of them and what if they came to class looking forward to seeing you.  They say that love was one of the strongest drivers of satisfaction and commitment and engagement.  What they call connecting ‘companionate love’—caring about and for one another, having a compassion for one another, having a tenderness towards one another, being kind to each other—generated better moods, better performance, more satisfaction, greater achievement.   Love’s opposite, as well as faith’s and hope’s, is disconnecting, objectifying indifference.  That indifference is a toxic attitude; it is a corrosive that makes it harder for anyone to perform.”

“For me, then, the findings of such researchers as Barsade and O’Neille communal ’awe-full,’ then, warms the icy chill of ‘awful.’  With ‘awe-full’ comes broad smiles rather than sneers and frowns, wide eyes instead of drooping eye lids, keen ears rather than deafness, an open and warm heart instead of a closed and cold one, welcoming handshakes instead of fists, embracing arms instead of folded ones, boundless energy instead of  lethargy, and, above all, a meaningful purpose.  Never old.  Never stale.  Never routine.  Never casual.  Never easy.  ‘Awe-full’ is that ‘radical amazement’ of Abraham Herschel.  He said, to paraphrase him, our goal should be to get up each morning and go through the day seeing the world in a way where everything and everyone is incredible.  Yeah, that pretty well sums up ‘awe-full.’”

From an “Awful” to an “Awe-full” Classroom, IX

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Was the Bard right?  Maybe.  Then, again, maybe not.  What we see depends on what we’re looking for.  If you’re looking for proof of “don’t belongs,” you’ll find plenty of evidence that they are.  Objective reality is impossible because of how our past experiences play on our memories, and that has as much to do with what we feel and think we are experiencing in the present. Our perspective and our attitude have a powerful and unavoidable influence on all aspects of our professional and personal lives.  It is my beliefs that beliefs, which are at the root of perceptions and expectations, are no small matter.  They’re just about the only thing that does matter.  They mean the difference between despair and joyous enthusiasm.  They mean the difference between stress and calmness.  And, to paraphrase Epictetus, events don’t cause stress or calmness. What causes stress or calmness are the views we have of events and people.  So, with the help of Harvard’s Ellen Langer, I think on this one, I’ll take the Bard on.
In a name, she say, rests how we interpret and respond to our environment, and how we interpret both our own behavior and that of others.  The difference of how we name a classroom is the difference of how we experience it.   How we see the classroom is formed by whether we attach “awe-full” or “awful” to those in it.  That difference in naming means the difference between creating a healthy and therapeutic climate on one hand and a toxic and pathological environment on the other.  It means the difference between delight and drudgery, enlivening and leadening, labor and laborious, meaningfulness or meaningless; it means the difference whether we care or could care less; it means the difference between patience and frustration; it means the difference between being invigorated with a “wow” and being drained by a “ah me” and “ho-hum;” it means the difference between empathy and indifference; it means the difference between being energetic and lethargic; it means the difference between encouragement and discouragement; it means the difference between confidence and doubt; it means the difference between whether we notice or ignore; it means the difference between connecting and distancing; it means the difference between being alert and ignoring; it means the difference between being attentive and being inattentive; it means the difference between being spry and being sluggish; it means the difference between being energetic and being apathetic; it means the difference between being attentive and inattentive; it means the difference between being aware and unaware; it means the difference between being mindful and mindless;  it means the difference between accepting or rejecting both students’ and our own imperfections; it means the difference between embracing and shunning; it means the difference between inner smiling and sneering; it means the difference between dancing and trudging into the classroom; it means the difference between possibility and impossibility; it means the difference between seeing a challenge as an opportunity and seeing a challenge as a halting barrier;  it means the difference between uncovering each student as a sacred and noble and unique person on one hand and hiding that flesh and blood person under the flattening, cardboard label, “don’t belong,” on the other.
So, what’s in a name?  A helluva lot!  Again, as Ellen Langer says, change the language and you get vastly different physical, intellectual, and emotional effects.  Just think about this.  Think about how so many of us react to “awful” and “honors.”  Whatever the labeling name—professor, student, administrator—it tends to render that other person as indistinctive.  But, to be human is to be unique and to feel unique.  Our degrees and titles and resumes notwithstanding, we each are human. That means we each want to be treated as sacred, noble, and unique person.    Just like everyone else.  Should we, then, treat other humans any differently?    So, what if we recognized and treated everybody else as sacred, noble, unique human beings?  What if  we stripped away those dehumanizing, flat stereotypes, generalities, and labels, with all their impersonalizing presumptions, and talked only of individual human beings?  We could.  It’s always our choice.  Every thought we think and every feeling we feel and every act we take is a choice we make.  The way we think and feel moment to moment determines how we live.  We could change our language from “awful” to “awe-full,” but we’d have to accept that, as Wharton School’s Sigal Barsade and George Mason’s Olivia O’Neill say, love, with faith and hope.

From an “Awful” to an “Awe-full” Classroom, VII

Please don’t think that I am flagellating myself when I talk of my 1991 life-changing epiphany.  I am not.  Painful as it was, I was experiencing that biblical adage:  the truth shall set you free.  Boy, did it.  It was the beginning of coming to terms with myself by acknowledging, recognizing, and accepting the truth that my emotions of insecurity and fear had had a significant impact on my attitudes, feelings, and actions towards myself, students, colleagues, and “the system.”   In the first half of my career,  I rationalized that the “system” had put me in a damnably untenable position so that I could not adequately simultaneously serve the two demanding masters of the classroom and archive; that to research and publish, and secure grants, I had to give research a higher priority than classroom teaching.  I mean how can an academia, resting on the inordinate prominence of research and publishing scholarship, not have an institutional subconscious bias that truly minimizes classroom teaching to all those supposed blank faced, “unprepared,” “unmotivated,” “unprepared,” mediocre or poor “don’t belongs.”  After all, if you don’t have passion and compassion for each and every students, you’ll enslave yourself to “the system,” perpetuate it by becoming part of it, and have little incentive to act on behalf of anyone beyond the select few “good students,” those “proto-professionals.”  How could academics rooted in this soil, then,  not be tainted by disparaging all but the “good” students.  How could academics standing on this ground not feel disconnected by the feeling that dealing with those less stellar “others” was a waste of their valuable knowledge and time?  Consequently, if we look closely and honestly, most academics subtly, if not overtly, have a pernicious concept of the priority of research and publication over classroom teaching.  It’s that thing known as “dedication to the discipline.”   If we look closely and honestly, so many would have to admit that the classroom did not have their sustained and undivided attention, that they had the constant feeling that while in class they needed to be somewhere else doing something else to lengthen their resume; that the demands of classroom teaching got in the way of meeting the more important demands of research and publication  necessary to acquire academic reputation, promotion, and the acquisition of that protective tenured position.  It’s really a kind of brutality—with all the best of intentions, proper  utterance, aspirations, and latest technologies—for all those “don’t belongs.”  Do you know how the toll that disinterest takes on so many students?  It makes so many students feel alone, disrespected, devalued, and abandoned in the classroom.  How I know that.  Not only was I one of the disposables in academia as a student, but as a teacher I read the students’ daily confidential journal entries in which they spilled their guts out.  And, that’s the thing most academics are missing:  knowing what’s ticking inside each student that’s having an impact on their time in class.
So, for me, in the years that followed my epiphany, as I honestly read my past story, I changed the theme of the coming chapters.  I acknowledged that my “I care” was so anemic; that I did not have the emotional fortitude needed to deal with the depth of the problem.  Over the following years, having heart-to-heart discussions with myself,  I broke with tradition; I no longer would let those who would practice an elitism and denigrate the less than stellar students teach me how to teach, nor would I follow their lead; I would no longer be the person others wanted me to be; I would be my own person; I “decentered,” if not abandoned,  “scholar-ness” in my professional life; and, I no longer saw education as solely a credentialing process.   To me, the purpose of an education was to see each student as a precious human being, to ensure the well-being of each and every students, to provide each of them with a path to a sense of fulfillment, to help them be the writers of their own story, to focus as much on helping them learn how to  live the good life as well as learning how to get a good job.
That exploded my whole sense of what I was doing as an academic.  I became less an academic and more of an educator.  I became more of a collaborator who empowered each student with an autonomy and treated each of them with respect and empathy than a “I know best and will tell you what to do” distant and disconnected authority figure.  To be sure, it was a huge challenge to clean the “don’t belong” mud off those gems.  First, of all I had to tear through the opaque curtain of labeling and find ways to delve into the depth of the real stories of what is happening with each student.  I had to learn to listen and see in order to be guided by knowing and understanding who each student was rather than merely hear, look at, talk to, and make assumptions dictated by cardboard stereotyping, generalizing, and labeling.  Second, I recognized my limitations, but, without knowing anything 100% or expecting to succeed 100%, I kept my options open in order to navigate through those limitations with each student.  And finally, even though I didn’t have all the necessary information, couldn’t always know my impact, could make mistakes, I decided that not to give it a shot was worse than taking a chance.  Only then could I live with and learn from the consequences, assume responsibility rather than blame, throw away techniques that didn’t work, and experiment with new techniques.  It’s the way I have found to aspire and then inspire
Please don’t think I’m being cavalier about the difficult and dangerous place any attempt to change and buck “the system” can put you in.  I was a victim of academic abuse.  Behind my back, I was denounced as “subversive” or ridiculed as “coddling” or denigrated as “new agey” or dismissed as “bosh” or demoted as “non-professional.”   I was accused by traditional colleagues of threatening them with my non-traditional methods.  And, even on more than one of those silly and irrelevant post-tenure reviews my changes and methods were used against me as evidence of weakness and possibly incompetence, and as proof that I wasn’t a collegial “team player.”    I was, however, lucky.  Protected by the result of my epiphany, those slaps didn’t bruise me.   I was now secure, very secure, in my own skin.  That  strong self-confidence and self-esteem meant I no longer was looking over my shoulder.  I no longer worried about what other people thought.  I no longer sought to please “the system.”  Drawing on the arsenal of the scientific research on teaching and learning gave me a imperviousness and resiliency against any slings and arrows hurled my way.  They had shown me and anyone who cared to read and listen that unconditional and nonjudgmental faith, hope, and love for each student were not “soft,” “soapy,” “fluffy,” or “touchy-feely.”   If anything, they were a call to arms.   When something as big as my epiphany happens, when you later “beat” cancer, when still later you survive a massive cerebral hemorrhage as a “5% walking miracle,” you know all the subsequent years are on the house.  You don’t waste your precious time pouting or “kissing up.”  You don’t dwell.  You find something that is lovelier and higher and more beautiful.  You find something bigger beyond yourself.  For me, that bigger something was becoming a servant teacher, reaching my hand out to each and every student, confidently knowing I could make a difference; that I could change the world and alter the future.  With that kind of attitude we can get to the higher ground and teach beautifully each and every student unconditionally, to have faith in and hope for and love of the “least” of the students, in a far too often tarnishing, selective, judgmental, weeding out, and snarky academic culture.
Over the years, as I read Rogers, Mazlow, Gardner, Deci, Dweck, Fredrickson, Goleman, Senge,and a host of others, as I studied the research on ”how we learn” and “why we do what we do,” and “resonant leadership” and “emotional intelligence” and “social intelligence,” as I experimented with ways to apply the results of that research, as I weaned myself away from lecturing and dispensed with testing and grading, as I threw the limiting question “how do I grade this” into the trash can, as I struggled to help both myself and each student change from a “fixed mindset” to a “growth mindset,” I realized that teaching and learning are personal.  They are as much, if not more, soulful as they are informational.  They demanded that I get my soul into the classroom.  They required that each day all of me had to be in that classroom.  Putting all my chips to the center of the table was the only way to get into the soul of each student and help each of them get their own soul into learning.  And, as I began to find ways to help each student believe in herself and himself, we all found that everyone deserved to be “let in” and no one was a “don’t belong.”  Some, like Dennis, just needed more attention, support, and encouragement to bring themselves along.  When I and the students didn’t feel marooned alone on an island, when we were aware of each other, when we were attentive to each other, when our relationship was based on the lubricants of authenticity, trust, respect, connection, we were at ease with each other.  The imprisoning walls of “strangerness,” “alone-ness,” and “loneliness” began to crumble before the assault of unconditioned faith, hope, and love..  Nothing felt forced or threatened, or threatening.  There was no constricting and toxic stress.  It created a creative, imaginative, fear-free relationship.  It created a sanctuary for the exercise of autonomy and ownership.  Students in the class grew to be comforting, supporting, and encouraging friends.  They could take risks without fear of recrimination, demeaning, or shaming.  In the classroom they had the opportunity to overcome themselves and see how awesome and awe-full they could be. They could see what potential lay within each of them.
The students always celebrated the fact that the likeliest thing to happen in class is that something unlikely would happen. The unspoken question in the class was whom would you like to become.  The unspoken answer was “let’s see.”  And, as those “others” transformed in both my and their eyes from “awful” to “awe-full, as teaching became meaningful and fulfilling to me, as teaching aligned with my personal and professional dreams and visions, as teaching came into sync with the core expression of my values ultimately expressed in my “Teacher’s Oath” and “Ten Commandments of Teaching,” as I came to believe I could make a difference, as teaching became the top priority in my professional life, as unconditional and nonjudgmental and nonselective compassion and empathy rooted in faith, hope, and love for each student became hallmarks of the classroom atmosphere, I became both inspired and, as the Dennis and that student in the car and a host of others have testified, inspiring.  It was as Dennis said, “I now see that achieving in that class was almost the same with becoming closer to who you truly could be—for both you and me.  Damn, we could almost taste our potential as you helped us to drag it up from deep within us ‘unbelievers’ and imagined ourselves being better than we thought we were.”
That’s what made teaching so damn “awe-full,” exuberant, exhilarating, satisfying—and fulfilling!

From an “Awful” to an “Awe-full” Classroom, VII

You know, when I talk of seeing a class as an “awe-full” gathering of “sacred ‘ones,’” I have to make a confession.  It was not always so.  For the first 25 years of my career in higher education I always had proclaimed that “I care about students.”  And, I believed it.  After all, I never poor-mouthed any students.  Never.  The true inkblot of that statement was, however, as I admitted when I experienced my explosive and unplanned epiphany in 1991, it lacked authenticity.  I was being dishonest with myself.  If I was asked, “Do you see this or that student?” I probably would have answered, “No.” With patronizing eyes, I saw the fiction I wanted to see in order to make me feel I was right.   I felt that since I was saying that I cared, no one could say I didn’t.  But I came to realize how wrong I was. I had not been living what I had espoused and what I had thought I meant.  I actually had been using a fake language of caring; or, at least, an incomplete sentence.  It should have been a highly selective and judgmental statement of  “I care about some students” and “I care about the good students.”   Like the onlookers in the story I told the professor in my previous reflection, I only asked those “others” to reach out to me; and if they did not, for whatever reason, it was fault; it was not my responsibility to do anymore.   I had not been like the saintly man who entered the river and extended a caring, loving, helping hand to help the “others.”  My epiphany started to change all that.
Now, before I go any further, I want to say that it’s okay to be frustrated, resigned, and even angry at times.  You don’t have to flay yourself if you occasionally experience these  emotions.  But, only occasionally.  Not all the time.  As a recovering “academic bias” addict, I can bear witness that while you can have negative feelings you can’t allow those negative feelings to have you.  When the negative feelings towards those “others,” are constant, they create an unconscious and addictive “academic bias.”  It’s not the negative feelings that I felt and lived out that were the problem; it was the fact of their constant presence and overwhelming control that was the real problem. But, the deeper problem than having an “academic bias” addication was not admitting to why I had those feelings in the first place.  Nevertheless, while being hooked on these negative attitudes made me feel that I was in the right, but they never made me feel joyful.  Those narrow attitudes proved to be a detriment to both me and those “others”—until I had my epiphany.  Before the epiphany I concentrated most of my time and energies on the “good students” and left the “others” to their own inadequate devices.  That was even truer when I went off on my scholarly research and publication binge between 1976 and 1991 in an effort to conform to the required image of the “academic norm” and to prove my own scholarly worthiness.  I admit that my addictive perception sapped my energy and creativity and imagination in the classroom.  Worse still, sniffing those emotions, I felt I was on high; my degrees, titles, position, and scholarly renown gave me the right to feel that I had made it, to feeling privileged, and maybe even feeling superior, to those “others.”  They allowed me to play convenient “head shaking” finger pointing blame games at both those “don’t belongs” “others” and “the system.”
At the core of my epiphany, was me.  For some mysterious reason, I found myself accepting rather than denying; I found that I didn’t become a combatant throwing self-righteous arguments at myself.  Somehow and for some reason, I was ripe for the pickings.  I was able to engage myself in calm conversation, to put myself under my own magnifying glass, and peer into my soul.  I brought long banished memories into the open, and in doing that I opened myself to new possibilities.  While I did not like what I found, somewhere I found the strength I didn’t know I had to deny them.  I discovered that unconscious “academic bias” hidden within me was masking the deeper biases I had against myself.  I was not at first comfortable with the confession that my family upbringing issues were still inadvertently and and unintentionally preying upon me, that I was still more of a prisoner of those experiences of being treated as an ignored second son, that I still had a need to be seen and be valued, and that I still needed constant reassurance to bolster my weaken self-esteem and self-confidence even at the expense of all those “others.”  I did not like seeing how so selective and limited were those “I care about students” words.  I was saddened when I realized how callous, corrosive, and cynical they made me toward those “others,” especially if they seemed to act as a dragging anchor on my insatiable quest to fulfill my own personal and professional needs.  Then, I came to see the evidence that was as obvious as the nose on my face.  By fulfilling my needs, I was ignoring the needs of those “others;” that quest for recognition and security and assurance had made me numb to the needs of those “others.”  I was doing to those “others” what had been done to me when I was one of them.
 Don’t think facing up to myself quick, easy, or simple to engage in honest self-awareness, self-examination, self-reflection, and ultimately self-admission was not challenging, if not painful.  But, I had to come clean with myself if I was going to get clean and clean up my act.  I had to find ways to no longer need my older needs that fed on my weaknesses and anxieties.  I had to find new drives, new directions, new dreams, new purposes, new visions, new meanings, new fulfillments.  To do that, I had to take personal responsibility for what’s happening to both me and those “others.”   I had to admit that I had been an unwitting accomplice, aiding and abetting in perpetuating the feeling of most of those “others” that they were “don’t belongs.”  I had to admit that I had voluntarily submitted to the demands of “the system.”   It was the only way to acquire a new consciousness, a new sense of self,  to transform myself form what the social psychologist at NYU, Jonathan Haidt, calls a “righteous mind” to a humble one, that would change both my attitude and my ways about both myself and all those “others.:   to find the “awe-full” in those I once had seen only as “awful.”
That adventurous feeling of finding ways to dispel conclusions I had long made about myself and each student, which were wrong more often than not, was thrilling.   To find ways to instill in myself a “growth mentality,” and help each student do likewise, was really freeing. When you start humbly to admit that you’ve made past mistakes, when you get to actually start understanding yourself, when you start understanding others, when both you and they let mutual trust and respect drop your and their guards, when you and they learn something new about yourself and each of them and themselves, when you and they see each other’s humanity, that’s really both a self-esteem and self-confidence builder.  And that, I think, is one of the most important potential emotional tools we have to foster learning.   Because once you open yourself and are open to new possibilities and new opportunities, once you truly unconditionally and non-judgmentally value both yourself and each student, once you’re motivated by empathy, once you replace hostility with the virtue of hospitality,  once that rubber hits the road with methods to open yourself and each student to each’s unique potential, once you see the results both in yourself and others, once those “don’t belongs” such as Dennis start revealing that they just might have the capacity to belong if given a real chance, once those “let anyone in” show they just might have it in them to deserve being “let in,” you can’t stop and let go.  You can’t go back into your previous blinding matrix.  You refuse to put back on your chains and go back into your prison.  You break out of your own echo chamber.  You begin to see that there is more to your own story and the story of each student, and are able to internalize those tales.  You just can’t put the genie back in the bottle.  It’s kind of a new addiction to caring and kindness, to faith and hope and love.  And that is an “awe-full” feeling.