Friday, August 3, 2018

Sabbatical Project: Love & Learning

“I am aware that I tend to romanticize education. It is my chosen object; the longest and most beneficial relationship to which I have ever committed. I hate when teachers corrupt education because I simply love school. I love its ideals and values. I believe in its promises. Even though I have endured much emotional and physical trauma throughout my schooling, usually perpetuated by teachers who did not understand how or why I value education, I still hold education to be true and good. ”
––Tapo Chimbganda, The Classroom as Privileged Space: Psychoanalytic Paradigms for Social Justice in Pedagogy

It is ever more evident to me, as it is to many others, the energy of love itself is supportive of, maybe even critical to learning.

My own best teachers introduced me to the following idea; a loving environment is recognizable by the presence of three distinct elements:
  • Safety (physical, emotional, and spiritual)
  • Validation and acceptance (no one is trying to “fix” anyone else)
  • Inter-relationship and connectedness (to people, shared activities, and texts)

Since being introduced to this working definition of love, I’ve found it useful in surveying my own classrooms for love's presence. My assumption being, that when love is in the room tensions ease and learning deepens.

Love is a kind of nutrient, feeding students and teachers alike. It allows for greater intellectual and creative risks, and it provides a sense of purpose and hope when the other less pleasing and inevitable aspects of learning arise––challenge, discomfort, and threat. After all, in order to integrate new ideas, we often have to let go what we already believe to be true. That’s seldom pleasant, especially if it brushes up against what we call the self.

Chimbganda, a Canadian psychotherapist and educator, who is quoted above, has a lot to say about these dynamics. She doesn’t shy away from the idea that aggression is naturally present in educational environments, but she also highlights the harmful ways aggression plays out in classrooms where historical, social, and political inequities are also part of the picture.

For example, at the rural community college where I teach most instructors and administrators are white, as am I, but most of our students are people of color. Nevertheless, we seldom explicitly reflect on how that might be affecting our campus or our classrooms. Part of this sabbatical project will be to better understand these dynamics and to look for ways to mitigate their harms.

Considering love’s three elements is one way for me to start a conversation.

At one time, it felt simple to believe my students and I were physically safe during a class, but the proliferation of guns and a more fearful and divided nation have lessened my sense that our campus is safe. Still, in order to teach, I must proceed from the assumption that in any given moment, at least, my students and I can grant each other physical safety.

To attain emotional safety, we must first become a community. This takes time to establish. Naming our purpose, forming and then agreeing to communication norms, experiencing classroom rituals, such as regular periods of freewriting, mindfulness, and movement between activities calm brain and body. 

This promotes a positive learning environment, especially as ideas and relationships get more complicated, as they are bound to do the more time we spend with each other and commit to our work.

The presence of emotional safety, however, doesn’t mean everyone is guaranteed constant emotional comfort. Learning is difficult. People are complicated. Teachers sometimes suffer for it. So do students. It helps when people are allowed to ask for what they need while being held accountable to a group’s larger purpose, a purpose the group itself collaborates in naming before the inevitable difficulties arise.

It also helps to remember we have choice. No one can make another person learn something. It’s never worked that way, even when we organize our schools and classrooms as if forced learning is possible, even preferable to a more collaborative approach.

Especially at the community college level, safety can sometimes be established simply by reminding ourselves, we chose to enter this classroom together, and it is possible to leave at any time.

Because of some specialized training I’ve had in trauma informed practices, I now invite rather than demand students engage in particular activities. “Are you willing?” I often ask them. Sometimes extending the question to include, “Are you willing to fail?” It’s meant as invitation, not threat. I find the more failure becomes possible, so do the joys that arise from creation.

Asking, “Are you willing?” reminds everyone, I can’t make students do anything they don’t want to. I can only work with them to set the conditions where desire and willingness bloom despite the specific barriers we each bring to the room.

In my profession, there is a long tradition of teachers claiming commitment to an asset model. In theory, this means we actively embrace and recognize students’ specific intellectual and expressive gifts.

But teaching is hard and often emotionally so. Chimbganda speaks of teaching as an “impossible” profession, one that largely happens through the complicated realm of human emotions, which are sometimes only marginally connected to class content. Teachers and students alike are swimming in feeling as they make through various assignments and some of those feelings are attached to social, economic, and political marginalization.

At my school, for example, we teachers still easily fall into speaking about multi-lingual students as problems for us. Most of us are untrained in helping fix the particular sorts of errors they make in their writing. We feel like failures, and we focus on flaws (theirs and ours) rather than on the fact they these students are generally far more language fluid than us teachers and that such fluidity is a tangible benefit in and out of the classroom.

As with all things, it’s easier to identify the finite way in which something isn’t working than the infinite ways it may be working well. Such distinctions become especially stark at institutions like mine where there is ethnic and racial segregation between the people serving and the people being served.

Old ideas about who writes well and who lacks what are perpetuated within this structure, therefore, the expressive and linguistic bounty in our classrooms goes unnamed and the students unseen. 

But if I don’t see my students, I can’t understand them, and if I can’t understand them, I won’t ever recognize them for all that they are and all that they hold. This lessens the chance our classroom community (much less the institution as a whole) will ever become inclusive and strong. 

If this sabbatical project has taught me anything, it’s that I don’t see my students half as well as I thought I did.

Books like Chimbganda’s alongside Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, Gilda Ochoa’s Academic Profiling: Latinos, Asian Americans, and the Achievement Gap, Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi and other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us, and Robin Diangelo’s White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, sre helping me confront the limitations of my own perspective and understand why it’s necessary to acknowledge my limitations when working with students of color. That acknowledgement alone can validate a student’s experience.

My background closely mirrors that which the academy most values. My speaking and writing arise from its preferred linguistic and cultural practices. But these represent only one strand among many possible discourses. My students usually have a broader perspective and are engaged in many more possibilities each day. They speak languages I don’t, understand the world in ways I can’t name, and have experiences outside of what I can imagine.

If we can learn to name and welcome their viewpoints, realities, and earned wisdom the academy will benefit. They can help an old structure become more expansive, fluid, and useful to society in a time of great upheaval and change.

Perhaps, there will be no mastery here for me as a teacher; the sabbatical project is large and keeps growing and I feel more unsettled the deeper I go. I don’t yet know what any of it will mean for how I teach once I return to the classroom come spring. But I do see these questions are enlivening my sense of what may be.

I write this post in hopes that love will remain at the foundation of what I do and that the classrooms I enter will generate more of it.

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