Thursday, August 28, 2014


“It’s important you spend time making sure your ‘weakest’ students feel most welcome.”––Andy Couturier, author of Writing Open the Mind and A Different Kind of Luxury

Teaching can be a lonely job. In any given California Community College writing classroom there are about 30 students but only one teacher.

Like many instructors, I am a shy person, and teaching requires great acts of extroversion, so the thought of a new semester, used to feel me with dread

To walk into an English classroom on the first day, is to walk into a room of people on edge. For many, writing is the source of much anxiety. Students in a typical writing classroom have already experienced all sorts of small shames, tiny cruelties, and large misunderstanding when it comes to sharing their work with others––the dismissive, “I don’t get it” or even worse, “It’s good” that comes from a parent or friend. Their most heartfelt confessions on a page returned with the teacher’s bright red marks and failing grades.

And then comes you––the new one––a focal point of all those bad memories and fear. For me, there is loneliness in it, not the power some faculty experience.

A few years ago though I met a fantastic writing teacher, Andy Couturier, of the Opening. He offered a different sort of training, one based on a lot of experimentation, game playing, and an explicit building of community and ritual within the classroom.

Among the many wise words he shared were those in the epigraph that opens this post.

He deepened my understanding of classroom community. In my early years of teaching, I had gotten it wrong. Back then I built classroom community for me, hoping to find my own comfort as my students gained theirs. Instead of walking into a room of dread, the hope was I could walk into a room of smiles.

Andy offered another angle. After all, as the “teacher” I’m the only person in the room charged with making the others feel welcome. My own comfort is beside the point. Such vulnerability comes with the job; it’s unnatural to expect students to like me. Though pleasant when they do, their liking me shouldn’t be necessary in the performance of my role.

Oddly, this knowledge has freed me to become more explicit and direct in providing students with a bigger welcome. I both model it for them, and ask for their participation in creating a welcoming environment for each other.

This has changed my classrooms in profound ways.

“Weakest” student is a relative term and fluid too. It may mean poorest writer, but it may also mean shyest student, or most afraid, or student with the heaviest accent, or the one with under-developed social skills, a learning disability, or toughest facade.

Instead of accepting that I probably won’t be hearing a lot from that kind of student, maybe even feeling relief that the student in the corner eating his boogers won’t be asking a lot from me with his questions or comments, I now zero in on him. Making sure by deed, tone, and words he knows he is included–-and not only included but is invited even prodded to actively participate.

I take time to open a classroom to all questions and contributions, even if they come at an inopportune time, ensuring no other student will laugh or feel she has a right to lose patience with the whispering English language learner in the back. At many points in my writing classroom, content is not our focus; community is.

Earlier in my career, I would have thought engaging a “weak” student would invite laughter from others, so I was somehow protecting the shy or the silent by not demanding they share their ideas. After all, mockery is often how fearful people gain comfort, and I didn’t want to embarrass anyone or put them on the spot.

Instead, I have been surprised. The more time taken to demonstrate how “weak” students are just as welcome as “strong” ones, the more I find my classrooms become much warmer, adventurous, exciting spaces for all, me included! 

In each of us is the capacity for weakness as well as the capacity for strength, and when an environment is created that narrows the distinction, everyone gets brave. In my experience, that's when learning really begins.

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