Soft Teaching, VI

So, what were some of those lessons of the transforming process that led me to “soft teach” which I had to learn and take to heart? First, the overall lesson. I had an explosive epiphany in the autumn of 1991 that would turn out to be my springtime only if I admitted that I had to do something with it. It was hard, oh so hard, to learn that lesson, and all the derivative ones to come. I needed to change my personal and professional and social vocabulary and gaits, as well as the entire trajectory of my life. And, they often were learned unsteadily and incrementally over the years to come.

For me, learning about myself was really what I already secretly knew, but had ignored or disguised or rationalized away or buried or locked up. That sudden epiphany erupted with three simple, yet profound and meaningful, challenge questions for me : “Do you want to let go of the influence of those debilitating parts of your life?” “Do you want a new future?” “Do you have it in you to do what has to be done?” To my own astonishment, before I could think about it, I heard my immediate answer was an unhesitant, firm, and resounding “Yes!” So, I tearfully issued a respectful invitation to myself for a deeper and more honest conversation with myself.

The point of that exchange would be to face my inner pain, heartache, fear, disappointment, weakened self-esteem and self-confidence, and subtle sense of failure that was I was allowing to restrict me; to face those who had hurt me—including myself—and to face up to it all in order to face them all down. Slowly I gave my life to become to who I am now and who I will be down the short road that’s left for me to walk. Was it worth it? Boy, was it.

Those lessons challenged me to brave rearranging how I was put together, to break the covenant of the “research and publish scholar,” to move from “professor” to a student serving “teacher,” to move from appearances to authenticities, to transition from being in information business to being in a “people” business, to cut through layers and layers to arrive at liberation and self-empowerment. They were complex self-redefinitions that slowly worked their way from the inside to the outside. I and my inner spirit, who had been somewhat at odds for many decades, slowly came to like each other. We were to become life-long bosom buddies.

I slowly stopped arguing for my limitations, overcame fear, strengthened self-esteem, built up self-confidence, and beheld wonder. It was a wonder that created a sense of connectedness with each student, an attentiveness to the needs of each student, and a desire to be in the service of her or him. I slowly replaced the outwardness of my degrees, titles, and resume with my inward humanity to define the academic me, the personal me, and a socialized me—the everything together me— as well.

It was only recently that I discovered that during all these decades I had been experiencing what the research of UC-Berkeley’s Dacher Keltner, NYU’s Jonathan Haidt, and others had revealed: soul-stirring wonder imbues a person with a different sense of self; with a transcendent, exuberant, imaginative, creative, optimistic, flexible, caring, empathic, sympathetic, kindly, and serving self. From my experience, I would add an overall faithful, hopeful, and loving self.

The bottom line, as the noted psychologist, Robert Brooks, says, is that these characteristics generated by wonder all have a positive impact on our physical and emotional well-being. They are the rock-solid foundations for community and a sense of community; for meaning, purpose, serving. And, it behooves us to learn to be constantly awe-struck by finding, seeing, and listening to such wonder in the most mundane, daily experiences. That describes my mood setting pre-dawn meditative “wonder contemplations,” sipping a wondrously freshly brewed coffee, by my koi pond each morning, my every-other-morning 7 mile meditative “wonder walks,” my awesome conversations with my flowers, my daily end-of-day gratitude exercise, and, above all, my wondrous daily chats with my beloved Susie over a glass of evening wine. As for people in general and students in particular, for me, I have learned to inoculate into our academic “wonder-deprived” culture by constantly seeing and listening to angels walking before each person pronouncing “Make way! Make way for someone created in the image of God.” That powerful and profound image causes me to see the hitherto hidden sacredness, nobility, and uniqueness in each person that in my eyes makes each of them a “phenomenal you.” That’s how I find that exuberant wonder in other people and begin my faithful, hopeful, and loving connection with them.


Soft Teaching, V

I just read Parker Palmer quoting a line from the poem by Maya Spector titled “JAILBREAK.” It struck a cord, and I, thinking of this series on “soft teaching” and “soft living,” presumptuously wrote him the following : “You quote the line: ‘Why make a cell your home when the door is unlocked and the garden is waiting for you?’ I couldn’t agree more. Easily asked, however, not so easily answered and done. I don’t think people realize what you ask is not for the impatient seeking immediate gratification. It’s not something that happens overnight. There are no magic hats or wands. There are no short-cut corner cutters. There are no sure-fire tricks. There are no guarantees. There’s just all that putting-your-nose-to-the-grindstone, globs of elbow grease, and a bunch of burning candles. But, it does show why self-imposed or culture-imposed limits are such a mistake and waste. How well I know. Aside for becoming a template of how to live my life, as an academic, it was a guide for a particular journey of discovery, of becoming a student of learning, during the entire second half of my professional career. It had been an unending learning curve, spanning over two decades, of tireless inquiry, constant reflection, endless leaps of faith, daily exercises to develop inner strength, incessant application, persistent risk-taking, and having an unquivering voice to speak out from my depths since I had surrendered to the power of that moment of my epiphany in the autumn of 1991. It was akin to becoming an academic athlete who had to enter that classroom with a mental and emotional preparation and strength of believing in myself, feeling special inside, and accepting that it was okay—if not essential and crucial—to do things differently as I cut a new path to inspire students—to be up on my game–day after day after day, to endure the pressure of “being there, live,” to show a positive example of what is possible. That moment of my epiphany had the sense of urgency of a spiritual drama. It was, as you said, like a breakout from a bleak and wintery prison of my life into a warm and blossoming spring. It was indeed like thinking my inner doors were locked tight only to find that it would take only a push, albeit a heavy push, to fling them open. That push, and the more to follow on several doors, initiated a transforming process of self-examination and self-knowledge that offered the professional consequence of academic justice. That transformation led to an academic justice of inclusion and nurturing that denied selection or exclusion; it ultimately recalibrated my heart and brain that students weren’t in the rigid category of “others,” categorically different from me; it changed cold separation to compassionate and empathetic connection; it welcomed each student, unconditionally; it respected each student, unconditionally; it cared for each student, unconditionally; it emphasized that the moral and intellectual journeys were inseparably intertwined, that for a student to truly succeed and achieve the proverbial “life-long learning,” there had to be a fervent effort towards character education. It made me see my mission in the classroom had to be organized around the first line of what was ultimately to be my TEACHER’S OATH: “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!” It made me a friend of both uncertainty and the unknown. It made me comfortable with the discomfort of risk, and there’s no mistaking that I could deal with mistake. Its gravitational pull brought distant horizons near by way of adventure, reconnoiter, invitation, opportunity, possibility, and acceptance. It had been a constant classroom construction project of breaking barriers of aloneness and loneliness and strangerness, of building bridges to span chasms, inviting each student to use those bridges and become part of forging a caring classroom community. It had taken me to a deeper and richer place that does not usually meet the approval of academia’s demands. It gave me a sense of knowing what I was for, and what I was in the classroom for. It gave me a vision that endowed a meaning and purpose that refused to allow any setback to send me into frustration, anger, cynicism, and selfishness. I had become what the poet, David Whyte, called a morphing ‘moveable frontier,’ moving from learned helplessness and fearfulness to learned helpfulness and fearlessness. Every day, engaged in deep reflection, I moved the line and thereby deepened and broadened my identity. Every day, I had awakened wanting to do better, and every evening, as I did my gratitude exercise, I knew I could do still better and thought of how to do be better the next day.”

Enough for now. More later on the several lessons I learned during this transforming process that I had to take to heart.


Soft Teaching, IV

You know, Cicero said nothing people do that more approaches the gods than being a healer. I don’t think “soft teachers” are far behind. “Soft teaching” is a pledge, a moral act, a value system, a covenant, an ongoing connection, and a “we” consciousness. “Soft teaching” at its core is really about both the flourishing and the transformation of both teacher and student, for the “soft teacher” teaches in a way that brings out the better person in both teacher and student. “Soft teachers” unconditionally love each student not because they want to teach those students, but because they’re loving people. They buy an “all in,” not letting frustration, resentment, and anger dominate their awareness and skew their vision. Their attitudes aren’t skewed by negative preconceptions, generalities, stereotypes, and labels. They just respect and serve whomever enters the classroom. They are nurturers, not weeders. They know that if you want to retain and prepare all students for the future, you have to have a strong caring classroom that enables all students to thrive in it. I found “soft teaching” is a stronger force than academic elitism, proud ego, and self-interest—far more than renown, resume, title, and position. It brings out the deepest happiness, joy, meaning, and purpose. Like I said, “soft teaching” is neither for softies nor pessimists.

You see, to be a “soft teacher,” you have to pass “optimism” and “loving” tests before you can pass over the classroom’s threshold. Your guiding principles have to be empathy and student wellbeing. It takes strength and courage, reinforced by purpose to step back, take a deep breath, and leave negative feelings and thoughts behind. As Abraham Maslow said, it’s easy to stay with safety, but it’s hard to go daringly forward. It’s hard to let go of limiting preconceptions, biased thinking, and fixed feelings. It’s hard to fight the tendency to label others quickly on the basis of superficialities like GPAs. It’s hard to understand some of the dynamics that are happening beneath the surface that come up to the surface in vocal tones, facial expressions, and body language. It’s hard to reject previously held anecdotal evidence that told you your attitudes were warranted. It’s hard to ask yourself honestly, “How much of my attitude toward students is really about my lens on them?” It’s just downright hard to both learn and unlearn. But, what would happen to the environment within you if you brought into the classroom that wonderful feeling of just being alive, of delighting in living, of seeing an extraordinary, staggering, pulsating, sacred, nobility in each person? What would happen if you greeted each person with breathtaking awe? Just think of the smile that would be put on your face every day. Just think of the dance it would put in your step every day. Just think of the fire it would feed every day. That is what I discovered “soft teaching” can do for both teacher and student.

I know. It all happened to me. There I was, in the mid-point of my academic career, an accomplished researching and publishing scholar of some renown—until my epiphany in 1991. In that unexpected and unplanned sudden moment, I zoomed in on who I was at the moment and who I wanted to be in the moments to come. It was an inner upheaval of earthquake proportions that broke the imprinting chains of past personal experiences. I slowly, cautiously, over the years I took those dark memories I brought up from the dark recesses of my soul and made them into a personal story that made sense of my ongoing transformation. It wasn’t something I just figured out or admitted; it was literally a hard to explain feeling of talking myself into a new perception of the world. I learned to draw on the power of love, the power of caring, the power of commitment, the power of perseverance, the power of commitment to myself, the power of faith in myself, the power of hope for myself, and the power of loving myself. I started going from a need to be important and to impress to doing important things, from wanting to look good to doing good works. My first priority shifted from lengthening my resume to developing my inner self. To my surprise, I discovered that deep sense of accomplishment and satisfaction lay in those few moments I tore myself away from thinking about my scholarship, focused on a student in the classroom, and felt myself come alive. The classroom, I had to admit, was the place where I really felt a breathless purpose. That’s where I came to decide to lay my values and my identity. I had to admit that I wasn’t truly getting fulfillment in both my professional and personal life from my books, articles, grants or conference papers. I always felt and knew, though I did not admit it until that moment, that I was being driven to please and cater to others. It was when my search for meaning, for my own reality, abruptly took me out from archive and into the classroom, when I did a “meaning self-appraisal” and a “purpose self-evaluation,” when I consequently broke free from doing what was expected of me and from what I was told I was supposed to do, when I saw I was really in the people business as much as, if not more, in the information transmission and skill development business, when I went cold turkey on scholarly research and publication, and when I voluntarily turned to the classroom whole hog to transform from a researching and publishing scholarly professor to an intensely student-loving teacher.

Over the decades, I’ve discovered several things about what I am now calling “humanization by ‘soft teaching.’” First, to paraphrase Emerson, a person’s opinion of students is a confession of her or his character. We all infuse into thoughts, feelings, spoken words, and actions a sense of who we are, what someone called, a feeling of your spirit or soul. So, it was and is with me. The development of “soft teaching,” revealed a lot about who I was—my fears, my needs, my fallibilities, unimaginable imagination, incalculable opportunities, unexplored potential, hidden truths, untapped strength and courage—and who I could be. Second, I learned that my past, like anyone else’s, was not my potential; it was not a determinate of my future; I was. So, as I no longer needed to hold on to fixed views—including judgments I had about myself, other people, and the world—I could see and listen to fresh and new faces coming on campus every day and every term. In my own little world of the classroom, I could deal with the dilemma of retention by converting what might be called a “crisis of weeding out” with a “blessing of caring and nurturing.” Third, it’s an identity wrestling match: between the researching and publishing scholar and the classroom servant teacher; between focusing on student limitations and concentrating on student potentials; between seeing education as a business of information transmissions and skill development business on one hand and seeing it as a people business on the other; between minimal involvement with students and maximum engagement to them. Fourth, it’s an adventurous venturing out from the accepted, comfortable, known, and safe, as uncertain and scary as that is. Fifth, I’ve found a practicality in “soft teaching.” “Soft eyes,” “soft ears,” and “soft heart” slowed me down and put me into the conscious “now” of things. It makes you to “pay attention,” and you discover that anything you do is improved by paying full attention to it. It is the most basic way to connect with my inner self and with another person. Studies show that attention is one way the brain answers the question, “Is this worthwhile?” Sixth, it changed the way I moved among the students. It gave me a high. I felt feel wonder awaken inside me. I was awed. I thought and felt anew. I noticed my thoughts and feelings daringly moving from the information in lecture notes to the person of the student. My imagination was sparked. I became malleable and adaptable to that student I saw and listened to details or perspectives that I never noticed before or maybe even chose to ignore. Seventh, that slowing down revealed the complexity in the classroom that defies simplistic and distorting stereotyping, generalizing, and labelling. It helped me see myself and students in gentle technicolor instead of stark black and white. That made me more tender towards everyone, marvel how often so many students rose to the occasions far beyond their expectations. And, I learned not to be frustrated and resentful, though sad, when things don’t go right and don’t work. And finally, someone said that you cannot truly appreciate the glory of life until you’ve experienced and acknowledge life’s dark side. Similarly, I’m not sure you can practice the golden rule until you polish your own tarnished self. As Benjamin Disraeli said, “There is no better education like adversity.” Some of the most valuable experiences I’ve had—my epiphany, cancer, and cerebral hemorrhage—were not the most enjoyable, not the most painless, not the most comfortable, not the easiest to deal with, and not the least challenging.