Yeah, I know, I’m sharing a lot lately. It’s still partly the hangover from the Lilly-South conference on collegiate teaching, as well as the occurrence of another strange, you-just-don’t-ask confluence. This time it was a rich conversation about attitudes towards students happening at the same time I received an unexpected message couple of days ago from an ex-student who contacted me from out of the blue after 39 years. His words hit me like a proverbial bolt of lightning. I must admit, I don’t remember the student, the situation, or my words. I’ve read his message over and over again, pondered it over and over again, eyes tearing up over and over again, breathing heavy over and over again:
I just finished reading some of your Random Thoughts and wanted to pass along my thanks for your thoughts and for a discussion with me in 1971. I began VSU in the fall of 1970 just after returning home from a tour in Vietnam with the Navy-a very confusing time. I had absolutely no idea of what I wanted or where I was going.
During a very lackluster 2 semesters at VSC, you pulled me aside and confronted me about a very poor-quality paper I had turned in. That has always stuck with me and always motivated me.
I finally joined the Air Force in 1972, determined to chart a course and achieve something. Over the years I became an AF Master Instructor, finished my BS degree in 1978, and retired as a senior master sergeant. After retirement in 1995, I became a Director of a Discipline Alternative School here in Texas, completed my M. Ed., and earned principal and superintendent certifications. I am now the principal at the Gainesville State School–Texas Youth Commission. We work with the most challenging students in Texas. (I will read more of your thoughts and welcome any suggestions to reach these kids).
Your discussion with me is a deep part of what I have done to excel in the Air Force and in education.
Now, I’m not tooting my horn. It’s just that his words should remind us that without a deep sense of awareness and otherness–and perhaps not even then–we sometimes just don’t know the impact–therapeutic or pathological, curative or toxic–we have, or don’t learn of it until decades later. The point is that we should never forget that “you just don’t know,” and how do we assess that with whatever instrument. Think about it. All these years, I was within him and whatever I said he kept as an encouraging whisper in his ears. It’s also that his words reinforce what I had told some colleagues a few days ago as part of that rich exchange. This is what I said to them:
I have said over and over and over again that we educators are in the people business. That means education is a human issue. It’s about human life, human hopes, human dreams, human futures. At least, for me, there is nothing impersonal, detached, abstract, theoretical, or cold about issues dealing with real people. We can fool ourselves into believing that our job is just to teach a subject, to transmit information, and to develop critical thinking skills. But, if we use those thinking skills we’d realize that no action by a teacher is impersonal and no attitude is detached. Our teaching is determined largely by the attitude we bring into the classroom to each student, that is, by the way our hearts and minds look at each of those human beings in the class with us. Like it or not, by gesture or word or glance, by display of concern or disinterest or disdain, by inclusion or exclusion, we touch students’ lives. We open or close minds and hearts and souls to what’s out there by whether we’re in the “ugh zone” or the “ho-hum zone” or the “wow zone.” We foster or shatter dreams. I am not loyal to any educational structure that puts labels on students or places them into a box. I have reservations about an educational structure that excludes or culls out. I have a deep, emotional, unswerving commitment to an educational structure that affirms and respects the dignity of each student, to an institution of acceptance and inclusion, that is dedicated to the principle of individual cultivation and even reclamation, and that has an educational approach that provides standards of opportunity to develop each student’s unique potential to achieve no less than academic standards.
You know, I read student daily journal entries, about 180 every weekday. I have been doing this since I first instituted journaling in the fall term, 1996. In a very unscientific way, I’ve learned a lot about students. In this case, it’s been brought to home over and over again that students are far more likely to perform best in respectful environments, in situations where they are respected as individuals. After reading thousands of daily journal entries, I’ve concluded that students don’t want to be respected as a ploy just so they can get better grades. They don’t want to be respected just because of their grades and GPAs. They want to be just respected; they want unconditional and positive regard just because of who they are as individual human beings. Respect is the most powerful route any of us can take to reach out and touch each of them. So it is around respect for each student that I have fashioned my vision, my philosophy of education, and the structure of my classes. It is around unconditional respect, faith in, belief in, hope for, and love of each student as an individual that I have structured working, living principles governing what takes place in my heart and soul, in my emotions, and in my attitude. They determine the depth of my awareness of each individual, the intensity of my sense of otherness, the extent of my sense of service, and simply how I behave and why and what I pedagogically do in class. Why not. The three most powerful tools in our pedagogical kit are not technique or technology. They are attitude, attitude, attitude: our attitude towards ourselves, our attitude about our purpose, and our attitude towards the students. So, I on the plane back from the Lilly conference in Greensboro on Super bowl Sunday, I wrote my academic version of the Hippocratic Oath of dong no harm. I’m going to call it, “A TEACHER’S OATH.” “Oath” has a weightier feel of commitment while “rules” has a feel of mere compliance. Here’s my newly fashioned oath that’s already taped above my computer and is going into my syllabi beginning this Fall semester. Place your right hand on your textbook, raise your left hand and repeat after me:
I swear by Athena, Goddess of Learning, Métis, Goddess of Wisdom and Thought, St. Gregory the Great, Patron Saint of Teachers, and St. Thomas Aquinas, Patron Saint of Students, and all the wise rabbis of the Talmud I will fulfill this oath and covenant:
I will give a damn about each person in the class! I will care! I will support! I will encourage! I won’t just mouth it, I will live it! Each day, unconditionally!
I will teach to nurture, not to weed out. I will greet and embrace and accept each student. I will not greet anyone with the expectation that he or she will fail. I will not treat anyone as dumb and unwanted. I will treat everyone as capable and belonging here. I will greet each person knowing she or he has a unique potential to be cultivated. I will greet each person knowing that she or he can learn, achieve, and succeed. I will have faith in, belief in, hope for, and love of each person. Each day, unconditionally!
I will treat each class as a “gathering of sacred ones,” of diverse, individual, noble, and very special human beings. I will treat each person with equal dignity and unqualified respect. I will not let anyone go unnoticed; I will not allow anyone’s face to get erased;
I will not let anyone go nameless; I will not place anyone in the background; I will not place anyone in the shadows of the corners; I will not shun; I will not ignore; I will not belittle; I will not demean. Everyone will start with a clean slate; I will not judge anyone by the ring in her belly button or the tattoo on his arm or the clothes she wears or the whispers of other people or a GPA or the accent of their speech or the color of their his or her ethnicity or his religion or her gender or his sexual preference or whatever else;
I will never be negative. I will be upbeat, offering nothing less than praise and/or positive, constructive critique. I will focus on each student and her or his learning, and worry about my teaching later.
I will be there to help each student help herself or himself become the person she or he is capable of becoming.
And, nothing will mean a thing if I don’t help each student help herself or himself become a better person and live the good life.
I make these promises solemnly, freely, and upon my honor. And if I keep this oath faithfully each day, may I enjoy a life overflowing with fulfillment, meaning, purpose, accomplishment, and satisfaction, respected by all in all times; but if I swerve from it or violate it, may the reverse be my lot.