Lessons from the classroom: reflecting on 27 years of teaching

Every moment and every being we encounter can be our teacher if we are educable. Yet not all teachers offer the same quality of instruction. I love asking folks if you could go back and thank any teacher, in the broadest sense of the word, for a lesson imparted, who would you thank and why? We tend to remember the teachers who understood us, truly saw us, listened to us, intuited what we might need—and we remember the ones who scarred us. Not surprisingly, I have encountered many co-learners who want to be teachers to spare future students from the humiliations they suffered. Few adults are left unscathed or uninspired by teachers. It is potentially powerful and humbling work. Because I generally liked school and loved learning throughout childhood, it occurred to me , in my early twenties I might want to teach.

I don’t know what inspired the awareness. I just recall telling the hostess at the seafood restaurant where I worked as a prep cook during the summer of 1983 that I wanted to teach. She suggested I contact the adult enrichment program in a neighboring town, and in short order I began teaching GED Prep. Truthfully, I was ill- equipped since I never progressed beyond (or even grasped the concepts in) Algebra I or basic Biology but I parlayed that stint into another, teaching a non-credit cooking course before I decided to pursue my own lifelong interest in writing and attend graduate school. While in grad school at UNH, I wanted to offer a writing workshop for incarcerated women so I contacted a local jail and got permission to volunteer. The director of programs told me the population of females at the jail would fluctuate but the week I started, there had been a recent arrest of protestors at the nearby nuclear power plant so we had a robust group. A dozen women sat in a circle and the correctional officer assigned to us accepted my invitation to join us.

We all wrote for a bit and then read aloud whatever we wished to share. I returned the following week so excited by the first session. Of course the civil disobedience protestors had been released, and Dolly, the lovely correctional officer, wasn’t there. I inquired as to her whereabouts. “She was new,” a woman told me, “and didn’t know she wasn’t allowed to sit with us. She got reassigned.” That stuck with me because it was my first lesson in how the carceral state depends on us and them. When we imagine ourselves co-learners, and co-teachers, that threatens the hierarchy of a correctional facility, an educational institution,  and the striated culture at large.

Perhaps the childhood I experienced as an outsider,  a disrupter of the status quo primed me to be an educator interested in continuing the disruption. I could scarcely believe at age twenty-six, with no real preparation other than many years as a student and a writer, the university saw fit to unleash me in a class of twenty 18-year-olds. As a writer, I wasn’t someone who amassed a great body of knowledge to pass along or deposit into the developing minds of slightly younger people fulfilling a college requirement. I didn’t lecture. I engaged—with texts and people I hoped would want to engage with me and the written word. I channeled the passion I felt for learning. I eschewed desks in rows because we couldn’t all see each other. I welcomed controversy and complexity. I even encouraged trust falls off of a table in the classroom, or in the case of prison, I simply asked the men in the” exploring ethics through drama” class to form a circle around me and keep me from falling when I stopped holding myself up.

35 years later, I acknowledge my naivete around trust exercises  and I know that unless we build trust in the classroom it’s hard to learn in a way that goes deeper than memorizing facts.

Teaching at its best is relational, not transactional. Famed Brazilian educator Paulo Freire advocated education “centered on developing critically conscious ‘humanized’ learners who act to liberate themselves and the world from injustice.”[1]  The wonderful poet professor Ross Gay writes, “When class is not a site of evaluation, but one of mutual bewilderment, encouragement, support, and witness—i.e. unabashed being with; unabashed care—we learn better.”

Teaching blooms when learning flowers. And learning happens in relationship.

A couple of years after I began teaching at the University of New Hampshire, I got a grant to teach a summer writing course for college credit at the New Hampshire State Prison. When I got assigned to teach in the Protective Custody Unit I had no clue who I would encounter there. I didn’t pay any attention to what “protective custody” might suggest. I just noticed that the five men in the class were all polite. A couple were charming, and I did my best to impart the skills necessary for clear cogent writing. I didn’t realize what I was about to learn at the end of the summer after class ended and I stepped inside the Offender Records Room on my way out of the building.

There’s an ethic in prison that teachers, volunteers, outsiders such as me do not inquire about a person’s crime. My role was simply to teach writing. Still my curiosity got the better of me so I pulled the files of the men in the class. Michael had already disclosed that his armed robbery was not really armed since the gun he used in the convenience store holdup was empty. He explained he would never want to hurt anybody. It came as no surprise that Dwayne was serving time for forgery since he had plagiarized every paper from the World Book Encyclopedia. When I got to the last two files of my favorite guys, I assumed they were in for drugs, nothing too terrible. So when I discovered they were both serving time for rape, I faced the most significant lesson in my life thus far: how to hold the both/and, how to bear the cognitive and affective dissonance of realizing people we care about (including ourselves) behave in ways that cause harm.

Many years later, a great friend, mentor and professor at the university taught me that it is only in an uncondemned state that any of us can change. The state might convict a person but condemnation—the absolute declaration that a person is unworthy of belonging to the human family—leaves no room or reason to heal, improve, or change.

And that wisdom informs not only my teaching—it shapes my life.

Had I written those two men off because of the horrible harm they caused, I would have surrendered a relationship that continued to instruct me for many years after our initial contact. Those two men, Steve and R.K., remained powerful teachers of mine, demonstrating how untended trauma can morph into violence activated against self and other. They taught me that empathy can be lost and regained, cultivated until tenderness blossoms along trellises of compassion.

Back in college classrooms, my co-learners taught me to be curious. Admittedly, sometimes I learned slowly, stuck in my ways. I had high standards. I sought to achieve excellence and I couldn’t understand why everyone in my classes didn’t share my commitment. A wise therapist told me there was nothing wrong with my high standards as long as I recognized they were mine, not theirs. Probably 25 years later, when I joined the ungrading movement and asked co-learners what grade they felt they had earned, I struggled at first when a young person fervently believed they had earned an A for a portfolio of work I would not have considered outstanding. And that’s when I truly learned that they knew better than I did what constituted excellence for them.

And that made me wonder what would happen if I asked them what they needed or wanted to learn. What did they want to devote their attention to most? I still assigned reading. We watched videos and discussed them in class. I crafted writing assignments and then when the Covid pandemic hit, and I had to learn how to conduct class online and build an online course, suddenly, everything changed. The pandemic provided several lessons in humility, vulnerability, mortality, impermanence, and the necessity of connection. Relationship became more important than ever. Even on a Zoom screen, we learned to bond. To call each other by name and recognize our unmasked faces. To acknowledge the emotion in our voices, to read the subtext of an “off-camera ”screen. We learned to be tender with each other and stop demanding that presence required visibility or that the only effort worth noting entailed written work. Some days, signing on and sending a private message explaining the need for being off-screen was all a person could muster. We learned together that it’s okay not to be okay. And I decided that any assignment I gave was an invitation not an obligation.

When we relate with each other as full human beings, our capacity to learn increases. Partly, this is neurological. When we feel safe in our surroundings, our prefrontal cortex can function at full capacity. If we feel threatened, triggered, on high alert, the region of the brain responsible for critical thinking  goes offline. As my co-learners this semester astutely noted the last day of class, what worked about our class was that we devoted our energy to building trust and establishing genuine community. We spent our class time mostly in circle, except when we got into small groups for conversation or the days we took a walk or made origami cranes and then distributed them in various buildings on campus.

The bonds we formed allowed us to be in community, to feel our connectedness, to engage in the restorative practices of noticing, wondering, acknowledging and appreciating. On the last day of class as we passed the sharing piece, noting any tender spots and exuberances, several co-learners said their tender spot was that this was our last class. That alone testifies to the power of creating a beloved community. When I think of the spaces where young adults can congregate in ways that invite authenticity and offer spiritual nurture, there are few. To feel our connectedness, to understand that we are part of something larger matters, be it life’s longing for itself or a star that exploded too long ago to imagine, or the divine light that permeates all being. It’s what foments hope in a class where we spent weeks discussing the art, writing, and Buddhist practice of Obie Weathers who’s been living on death row for 22 years. When my co-learners this semester eagerly agreed to read a book that compiles the letters and paintings of Obie and includes responses to his creative work and his teaching through correspondence, I was thrilled. I knew that meeting Obie through the book would be no less transformational than my experiences meeting Steve and R.K. and numerous other incarcerated co-learners over the decades whose luminosity shone from the darkest places.

Watching young people encounter someone who made fatal decisions at their age, who now chooses a life of accountability where the only viable amends is to become a person who doesn’t repeat the harm, who instead supplants racism and childhood trauma with the most carefully tended regimen of healing and compassion, teaches all of us that transformation gestates and flourishes in the context of loving relationship.

Many years ago I stood in line for coffee and a former co-learner excitedly approached me. I hadn’t seen her for ten years. In that time she had volunteered with the Peace Corps and done important work at a non-profit tangibly advancing social justice. When she asked if I was still teaching I shrugged at the thought of all my years trying to coax writing out first-year college folks. Instantly, Beverly said, “Don’t shrug, Leaf.  You changed my life.”

On my prayer table sits an embodied engagement project another co-learner made last year, a glass jar lined with faces representing incarcerated people trapped in a carceral system that does not allow them to flourish. Further down the narrow table are the tiny origami vase and elaborate dragon two young male co-learners made for me. On my bedroom wall, a photograph hangs of a firepit rendered with sticks and fallen red leaves that two co-learners made last October when we went outside during class to express and ritualize our grief. Pasted in my journal is the final self-assessment from Evan who wrote: “A class’s value is not about the amount of work; it’s about how much I learned. Leaf, your class quite literally saved me.”

The objects are artifacts that evince connection, that demonstrate how teaching and learning meld into a dance of discovery moving to the rhythm of curiosity. Over the last three decades hundreds of co-learners have taught me how to teach, how to learn, how to notice, wonder, acknowledge, and appreciate so that no matter how bleak the news, how grim the world’s suffering, the classroom offered the possibility for transformations large and small.

It’s been a profound gift to engage in a vocation I could not have fully imagined the day I told the restaurant hostess I wanted to teach. I must have intuited that really, I just wanted to be in community and learn—which is to say, practice being fully human.

[1] https://ncca.ie/media/2581/paulo-freire-v2.pdf

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