A while back, I had just come in from a late, but invigorating, meditative walk. I grabbed a cup of hot, freshly brewed coffee, fussed about this one-cup-at-a-time gizmo by Susie had bought, sat down by the computer and nonchalantly started reading student journal entries. I opened a long one from a student whose class performance in all aspects hadn't been stellar. "Abysmal" would be a better descriptive. I read slower, and slower, and slower. Went cold. Took deep, long breaths. Eyes got watery. It was hard to read the horrifying words and phrases and sentences of what I would describe as a "spiritual vomit." Words and phrases assaulted me: "having troubles," "need to speak about it," "come from an abusive household," "father would beat me," "older brother would beat me," "everyone smoked and shot up," "had to fend for myself," "lived in abandoned stores," "no water or electricity," "disconnected from everything," "very good at faking it," "did drugs," "took pills," "smoked pot," "drank," "got away from it," "want to be happy but can't," "detached," "can't feel," "dead inside," "got away from it," "see a pattern forming again," "terrified," "don't want this to happen again," "can't sleep," "wanted to talk with someone," "you won't judge me," "thank you for being here."
I got up. Walked away from the computer feeling like a zombie. Left the room. Went over to Susie in the den and gave her a soft kiss. She knew something was troubling me. I told her that I just read a gut-wrenching call for help. We talked. I turned. Went back into the den. Paced the floor. Opened the class folder. Picked up my cell phone and called. It wasn't long before I heard "thankful crying." As we talked I knew I had come to the line which I dare not cross. I suggested to Max (not a real name or gender) professional help that I could not offer. I desperately hoped Max would agree. Max did. I asked for permission to call my friend who was head of the University's counseling service as well as to send him a copy of the journal entry. Max agreed. I hung up and immediately called. I called Max and said everything was set up, even offered to go along for introductions Max said agreed to go. "Thank you for being you. I wasn't sure I could have made it without you calling." Max whimpered. I hung up with tears in my eyes, slumped in the chair, emotionally exhausted by those 30 minutes. But, I began to understand why Max was and was not doing.
Max and an op-ed piece by David Brooks a couple of weeks ago titled "A Psych Approach," as well as a professor who just condemned me offline as "touchy feely" has gotten my lather up. So, here goes. And, you're telling me that we're not in the people business? Read the "fine print!" It says that if you're interested, truly interested, in nothing else than a student's achievement, even in grades and test scores and GPAs, you still must be concerned with that student as a person. You must understand and deal with what goes on outside the classroom, for it comes into the classroom; you must take into account and honor that what goes on inside a student has an enormous impact on what comes out. There is a link between lives lived and performance. As David Brooks said, we just may have to psychologize higher education. If we don't, we fall into what the psychologists call "attribution error;" we misinterpret the reasons for action or inaction. Now, you say, "It's not my job." Fine. You day, "I don't have the time." Fine. Then, don't say, "I care." Stop pretending!
You know, if you do read the "fine print," you'll see that school failure, the drop out rate, flow more from psychological spring wells than have intelligence roots. Dysfunction comes in all forms, can impede achievement, and can ruin a student. I read about 120 journal entries a day. I read of debilitating pain, fear, focusing on short comings, depression, feeling threatened, spread thin, running helter-skelter, sickness, drugs, alcohol, deaths of friends, stress, accidents, law-breaking, dying family members, loss, insecure relationships, abusive relationships, sex, peer pressure, distractions by rushing and sports and theater and music, feeling lost and without direction, impatience, quirkiness, pregnancy, abortion, lack of funds, economic pressures, sadness, jobs, children, husbands, wives, controlling parents, divorcing parents, vulnerabilities, loneliness, frustration, pressure, cheating girlfriends, cheating boyfriends, disability, embarrassment, inexperience with life, rush of hormones, and a host of other slings and arrows. There are a lot of stressed, unhappy, pessimistic, insecure, disbelieving, confused, inexperienced young people in our classrooms in desperate need of guidance, caring, faith, encouragement, support--and love. Their lives are not simple, easy, safe, convenient, comfortable. They feel they are in an exhausting three-ring circus. These emotional, social, personal, and economic anchors produce dragging stress and distraction. They throw the students out of focus, don't allow them to function, lead to "quirky" and often illegal behavior, and undermine effort. All that too often trumps intellectual assets, hinders academic progress, and are barriers to success. Instead, so many of us revere, recognize, and award the "highest" while demeaning and having little patience with the "lowest.
So, I ask, "Do you really know each student beyond a name?" "Do you see the human being within?" "Do you know what and why is going on beneath the surface?" "Do see such a student in your class from where you stand?" In your class do you ask students to listen to you, but do you listen to each of them? Do you get upset and frustrated when they don't listen? Do they have a right to feel the same way when you don't listen to them and hear each's voice? Are you engaged? With whom or with what? Are you disengaged? From whom and from what?
Education has nothing to do with information or technology or even assessment, however so many focus on those things, unless.... Unless, academics who "thingify," teaching and learning, and that includes the overwhelming majority, remember one thing: education has everything to do with psychology. If you believe you're in the people business, you have to be interested in each person in that classroom with you; you have to study each person; you have to get to know each person; you have be aware of what is ticking inside of each and outside the classroom. You can't just look at them or look through them; you have to see them and see into them. And, that includes yourself. It's the only way to truly care, to be truly empathetic, to be truly sympathetic.
What I am talking about is an attitude, a state of mind, that let's you understand what it is to be human--and alive. Beneath the apparently simple and smooth skin, which under a microscope reveals its own complexity, is an intricacy of veins, arteries, muscles, organs, blood, sera, bone, tendons, blood cells, lymphocytes, t-cells, bacteria, etc, etc, etc. The performance of each has an impact on all. With a torn rotator cuff, how well I know that. So, there are complex and complicated and mysterious persons in that classroom, including you There are thoughts and emotions, and lives going on, including your own.
Want me to roll your eyes? Watch: "I love what I do and am doing what I love. I love each and every student unconditionally." See? How many of you rolled your eyes? But, loyalty to a petrified perception doesn't give you agility. Now, in academia, it's cool to feel those arctic icy emotions of hate, anger, resignation, frustration, dissatisfaction, disappointment, hurt, and even fear. But, to love? We hide from it; we shun its utterance. We condemned it's use as "touchy-feely," fuzzy, "feel good." And, thereby we stunt our language of significance, narrow our vocabulary of living purposefully, and take out a part of the human dimension of teaching and learning. I mean how far do you really think the negatives carry you? How much of the "best" in you do they bring to the surface? How much to they fill the emptiness? How powerful are they to assail inhibitions and destroy prohibitions? How strong are they to pry away pretenses? How rich do they make your life? Ask the Scrooge of his "bah, humbug" self-regarded life before the visit of the three ghosts; ask the Scrooge after his visitations.
You say that warm, lush feeling is quirky, naive, weird, uncool, off-the-wall? Yet, I assert that love will carry you beyond your wildest dreams and help you reach plateaus you never dreamed possible. Love is purpose, a process, a way of living, a constant and unattained quest. It's a way to a fuller and truer self; the discovery of a more valuable and sacred self; it nourishes, redeems, endows meaning, fulfills, deepens, focuses, renews, transforms, sedates. Do you know what love is? Thinking of my feelings for my Susie and for each student, it's, as someone said, that feeling whereby the happiness of someone else is crucial to your own happiness. It's an emotion filled with otherness, service, awareness, attentiveness, alertness, belief, faith, and hope. So, if you don't want to be starved by an indigestible self-centeredness, disfigured by emptiness, scared by purposelessness, be uncool to love, be weird enough to use the word love, be "touchy feely" to reach out and touch and be touched and to feel, be fuzzy so to see and listen clearly, be quirky to be renewed, be off-the-wall enough to have a deeply reflected, articulated, and guiding purpose, be naive enough to feel a meaningfulness and to feel fulfilled. And, if anyone rolls their eyes at you, jeers at or mocks you, love her or him. She or he needs it, probably desperately so.
Make it a good day
Louis Schmier http://www.therandomthoughts.edublogs.org
Department of History http://www.therandomthoughts.com
Valdosta State University
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