True teaching is helping students find their hearts

June 21, 2000|By Thomas J. Cottle

BOSTON -- In every school, one discovers teachers renowned for their knowledge, pedagogic abilities, character and concern for students.

They are people able to describe their intellectual deliberations, teaching styles, and educational philosophies. They speak with insight, moreover, about their students and themselves, for they have explored not merely their reasons for becoming a teacher, but the way their interior world has been shaped and how it affects their learning and teaching.

Bev Francis -- not the real name of a Boston suburban social studies teacher -- is a woman in her mid-thirties. She prefers to keep her identity hidden, for she claims that with anonymity she can speak more freely about herself, her family and most especially the students who have shaped her interior world and in the process become the recipients of her many gifts.

Here is a piece of a longer conversation in which she reflects on her motives for teaching, and what makes it possible for her to find joy in a classroom:

"One mistake I made early in my career was to believe I had to love all my students, or they had to love me. Perhaps I recalled incidents in my own schooling where I imagined the classroom would have worked so much smoother had the teacher genuinely cared for us. Maybe we would have looked more at her, less at the clock or the reproductions of the Van Goghs.

"I lingered with this feeling, just as I lingered with that infamous phrase, `Bev isn't working up to her potential.' They wanted so much for us: They wanted us to touch the sun, burnt wings and all, and there I walked, never reaching my potential.

"Every report card: `Bev is wonderful to have in class, but she isn't working to her potential.' I'm not sure what my mother made of that description. She always would ask so plaintively, `You think it's true?' My father used to say, `I think you've got the cutest potential in America.'

"Potential be damned, I must have decided. Let them feel my love. Enough of the carrot and the stick routine, the question now would become, were the students living up to their actual? So it was no longer were they doing their best, but were they being their truest to themselves and to one another? Was I helping them get to the heart of the matter, and putting them in touch with their own hearts?

"It comes down to helping students discover their voices, their hearts, their being, although I warn them that explorations of the voice and heart are painful. What we read at times must be heart-breaking to be heart-opening.

"One must cry and shout and laugh and choke in order to find one's voice. And one's heart must race and pump and throb. Cardiologists have no monopoly on the heart.

"So the love days have ended, the heart and voice days have taken over. Nothing is more exquisite for me, and perfectly joyous, than classes where people reveal or discover their voices, their hearts, and of course, their minds.

"It cannot be done without purpose; it cannot be done without experiencing pain, or guilt or anger. We read together, we write, we converse, we befriend.

"I grope toward my actual because it is a greater challenge than hoping to reach some fantasized potential. Hunting for the actual frees me, because I can get there. The facades disappear, the dances disappear, and occasionally we stand before ourselves, before one another, having discovered what it is that makes us genuinely human."

Thomas J. Cottle, a sociologist and practicing clinical psychologist, is a professor of education at Boston University. His books include "Children's Secrets," "Children in Jail," "The Voices of School," "Barred from School" and the forthcoming "Hardest Times: The Trauma of Long Term Unemployment. "

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