The Healing Classroom
When I finished my baccalaureate with honors in two and a half years, something deep inside me had shifted. My education had come with an unexpected side effect .To my surprise, I was beginning to heal from my depression and suicidality. Although I was still struggling financially, I took a leap of faith, applied, and was accepted to graduate school on full scholarship. Somehow, a seed of hope had grown within me. My undergraduate professors had taught me far more than their mere disciplines. My studies opened my eyes to the infinite world of knowledge that eclipsed the world of pain and loneliness I was living in. I began to see the beauty of the world and the myriad interrelationships it contained, and my suffering made sense in a new way. Rather than defining me as a solitary being...I realized it was just one of many ways of being connected to the world. Unbeknownst to them, my teachers contributed to saving my life. While I was alone and still quite shaky, I was ready to live and wanted to begin the next phase of the journey.
Although the primary craft of teaching is generally characterized along the lines of effectively imparting discipline based knowledge to our respective students, the act of teaching is also a relational skill. Hence, the fine navigation we undertake in our courses, as we endeavor to create communities of learning. While we focus upon our classrooms, whether we cultivate this intentionally or not, we are in relationships with our students that can mean quite a great deal to them, for many reasons. Naturally, all of us are individuals, with different styles of relating to one another, and to ourselves. As students undertake the college experience, some find deep healing in the acquisition of information as it transforms into knowledge. Others may appear to give little thought - either to the subject matter of our classes, or to their relationships with us. Yet other students may disrupt our classrooms. While we may not know what lies hidden beneath the surface of our students and their lives, what we do know is that students perceive their classroom experiences holistically. In other words, we ourselves are part of their learning experience. We've all had students who have connected with us, but not with their classroom cohorts. Yet other students may seem disengaged throughout the semester. Sometimes our efforts make inroads, and we can remediate this, and other times not. Like any interpersonal relationship, we can only do the best we can do on our ends. We can build a classroom that is safe and inclusive, because we know as educators that feeling emotionally safe is a prerequisite to learning. We can try to engage, motivate, and inspire our students. But, we cannot reach a student when he is not willing or ready to be reached, or invite a shy, fearful student to participate if that student chooses not to walk through the (metaphoric) doors we try to open for her.
What we can do, though, is just that: open doors, and by being inclusive and inviting, welcome students to try different things that to us may seem ordinary - perhaps speaking up in class, critically thinking, applying a concept, or writing a research paper. To some students these may seem impossible tasks that far exceed their capabilities. But, we extend the invitation to learn and expand one's base of knowledge, because that is what teachers do. These invitations are analogous to one of the core tenets of doing effective psychotherapy: inviting individuals to have a different, and more expanded experience of themselves. To some students, this expansion of the self might mean a chance to see themselves as capable, as they have experiences of mastery and competency. To others, it might mean addressing and overcoming anxiety, perhaps around math or public speaking. For some, it might involve falling in the love with learning. Yet to others, it might mean something more social and relational, such as "belonging", an especially critical experience for those students who have experienced the altogether too common heartbreaks of social rejection, bullying, or perhaps being a member of a societally marginalized group. Even if this sounds unfamiliar to you, I'd encourage you not to discount that the "presence lessons", or, who you are with students, matters, and makes a difference.
That brings us to an important point: the transparency of our teaching relationships. In many of our relationships with students, we have a sense of how they may be experiencing our classroom communities. In other cases, the nature of these relationships may be a bit more obscure. In my role as Campus Psychologist, students have voiced many perspectives about their classroom experience. Not all have been positive, but just about all have been impactful and meaningful for the students. Needless to say, there are many times when students do not share their experiences directly with us in a transparent manner. What many Harper students have described to me, though, is that the classroom is a healing space in many ways, just a few of which include:
- The process of learning itself. Exposure to new ideas, intellectual growth.
- Being treated inclusively and being thought of as having value (i.e. mattering).
- Exploring the topic at hand in a course safely, without fears of being judged harshly if they make a mistake.
- Being taken seriously.
- Having consistently and fairly enforced "rules" in class, such as attendance policies or grading rubrics, which engenders feelings of safety and belonging.
- On that note, belonging to a community itself is a something many students have expressed as being a powerful healing experience.
- Having opportunities for emotionally safe and positive connections with faculty and with peers/their classroom cohorts.
- Being encouraged by faculty.
- Being appreciated by the classroom cohort.
- Having instructors share information (both with individual students and with the class as a whole), about services available on campus.
- Receiving honest feedback about academic performance, even when it is negative.
- Having a different experience of themselves.
Whether the idea of the classroom as a healing space resonates with you or not, consider this. Related to times of adversity and dissension, whether these are personal struggles or classroom conflicts, as hard as this is, as faculty leaders, we can strive to practice and exemplify compassion. When students fail a task, like an exam or a paper, we can convey to them that failing a task does not equate with "being" a failure. We can model civility, kindness, scholarship, flexibility, etc. We can reframe and normalize adversity with eyes on "the big picture". In this contentious world, the classroom might be one of few places where students can have this experience. Perhaps it might even reframe some of the stress that comes with our own work....and give us a different experience of ourselves, and the powers inherent in our roles.