Walls coming down

The following is a reflection from one of our 2012 Professional Year Graduates, Anthea Coxon.  I am grateful that she shared this reflection with me and is willing to have me share it here.  I so appreciated her persistence in building relationships with her students, being willing to pay attention to them in ways that assumed love for them as unique persons and faith in their inherent value.  This reflection also represents a reverent quality of spirit in Anthea’s teaching, as well as, a testimony to the miracle that can happen when we pray for our students in a self-emptying way.

I was once told that anything worthwhile is never easy, and that has certainly been true of this year. This year has consisted of countless late nights, daily early mornings, vacations spent planning, and weekends consumed with marking. Yet it is not the difficult things that have define the year, but rather it is the moments spent speaking with a student who is struggling, a flash of understanding about a difficult concept, the times of laughter as a class, and the sharing of successes that really stand out in my mind.

I love people. They are what make me get up in the morning. I love being able to build relationships, share joys and sorrows, and be a part of people’s day-to-day lives. It is this love of people and relationship that brought me to teaching in the first place, and I have certainly seen that teaching is all about relationship.

When I first started teaching I was tired, disappointed, and frustrated in trying to build relationships with students. Students showed up at class, did the bare minimum, and left without me knowing anything about their true selves. I tried to engage, tried to ask good questions, but it seemed as though there were walls between us. I was the teacher, they were the students, I was there to do a job and I wasn’t there to have a relationship with them. I tried to figure it out; did they not want relationship with teachers? Did they not expect to have relationship with teachers? Was I doing something wrong?

Yet every day I decided to choose to love my students, even if I felt as though they were unreceptive. I knew so many of them were so hurting, yet I felt as though I was powerless to do anything about it. So every day I began by praying “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy.” And slowly, very slowly, walls began to come down. A young girl shared with me struggles at home; a young boy told me about the recent death of his mother; another young man, after trying unsuccessfully to irritate me asked “why don’t you get mad at us?”; and the list goes on. It was those moments that made it all worth it. I learned that relationships take time, energy and effort. They take patience, persistence, and practical acts of care. I need to see my students as more than just students who need to learn something in my classroom; but as humans, with hopes, dreams, joys and pains. But most of all, we are built for relationship. We need one another.

Ladders and Higher Learning

I think we would all like to believe that education is transformative, that it brings about some good that is better or higher – a telos that is worthwhile in and of itself  or a process of formation that changes a person for the better, thereby making the world a better place.  I can’t think of any educator who doesn’t hold this ideal to some extent or at least long for it.   However, it is also easy to become cynical about the possibility of vertical ascent in an educational context that is deformed by the horizontal goals of consumerism, individualism and utilitarianism.

Education has often been referred to as a ladder – a ladder to success, a ladder to a job, a ladder to another degree.  Some have also called education a “hoop to jump through”, suggesting pejoratively that education is a means to an end or something to be suffered temporarily (images of slaves or prisoners in work camps come to mind).    In all of these references, the effort to climb or jump is largely understood as a matter of individualistic “muscular will”, as Simone Weil (1951) would say.  Echoes of this notion of learning as “muscular will” are found in every report card comment that encourages the learner to “work harder”, or every deduction for a late assignment given in “fairness”.   Playfulness, joy, reverence and wonder are absent in this discourse and I see the impact of such conditioning on the faces of my students every semester around exam time.  They are weighted down with the gravitas of time pressure, multiple assignments and high stakes assessments – weights I feel compelled to impose. Our higher learning institutions – even those that claim to understand higher learning as spiritual transformation seem to do their best to make it impossible for learners to even hope for a vertical step.

These utilitarian, consumerist and individualistic ladders differ greatly from spiritual ladders offered to us – Jacob’s ladder, the ladder of the beatitudes, or the ladder of the fruit of the spirit, to name just a few.  “Muscular will” can do little to help you ascend these ladders because the first rung is always humility or self-emptying (being destitute and experiencing the awesome presence of God in fear and trembling in the case of Jacob’s Ladder, accepting Christ’s words that being poor in spirit is a blessing, discovering that last fruit of the spirit – exercising self-control – is really the first rung of the ladder because all other fruits depend on this).  These ladders are more about descent than ascent.  They are always a synergy of God seeking us, descending to us, and inviting us, and helping us make our ascent possible through a process of self-emptying and looking for/paying attention to/waiting for God.  The goal of the ascent (to become like Christ/to participate in the life of God)  is so ontologically brilliant that it is very evident that all you can do is step off the path you are on, take off your shoes and stand as close to burning bush as you can. In fact, the more you try to climb these ladders through “muscular will” rather than a desire and longing for God, the more quickly you fall off.

It is no wonder, then, that we can become cynical or at least question the possibility of the current context of education as spiritual ascent.  Education that is focused on the “muscular will”, not only results in “apprentices without a trade” (see yesterday’s post), but a confusion about ascent.  We come to believe that we can move vertically under our own power, that growth/learning/transformation are not essentially gifts given in a loving relationship that fosters compassion and increasing desire for all that we come to know/can know.  We become people ‘‘who try to raise their souls like a man continually taking standing jumps in the hopes that, if he jumps higher every day, a time may come when he will no longer fall back but will go right up to the sky.  Thus occupied he cannot look at the sky.’ ( p. 127)  All education is transformative, but, sadly, the transformation is often a degenerative slide into the root cellar.

In order for education to be true higher learning, we must find ways to invite our students into learning that is not corrupted by ladders of consumerism, individualism and utilitarianism.  There are things we should do everything within our power to resist in order to provide learning that is enriched by time to look, time to wait, and time to desire, as well as, supported by educators who know how to extend these ladders and descend them in ways that help their students ascend.  Somehow we must find a way to do for our learners what God does for us – provide a ladder that is invitational, grace-filled, attentive, worth longing for and waiting for.  This doesn’t mean that learning is always “fun” – this kind of ladder is equally ego driven and horizontal.  Ascents are always a struggle and when we can’t rely on our “muscular will” or on “pleasure” the struggle is even greater.  I am simply expressing a heart that is often saddened by delusional learning ladders.  I am equating higher learning with the possibility of connecting with something that is real, beautiful, true and good for real, beautiful, true and good reasons.  I am still learning to do this as an educator.  Still looking.  Still longing.

Weil, S. (1951).  Waiting for God.  HarperCollins Publishers: New York.

Real students and the joy of learning

“Will power, the kind that, if need be, makes us set our teeth and endure suffering, is the principal weapon of the apprentice engaged in manual work.  But, contrary to the usual belief, it has practically no place in study.  The intelligence can only be led by desire.  For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work.  The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy.  The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running.  Where it is lacking there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade.

It is the part played by joy in our studies that makes of them a preparation for spiritual life, for desire directed toward God is the only power capable of raising the soul.  Or rather, it is God alone who comes down and possesses the soul, but desire alone draws God down.”

Weil, S. (1951).  Waiting for God.  HarperCollins Publishers: New York.

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