Caring for Your Students, Caring for Yourselves
Dear NAU Graduate Student Teachers:
As 2009 fades into the background, a promising 2010 is upon us. This is a wonderful time for us all to take stock of the past year and to envision our positive goals for the future.
It is for this reason that I have pondered what I would write to you for a good long while. I knew that it could not be an essay about “the right way” to teach. Years of teaching have taught me that there are many very different and yet equally viable, successful right ways.
Instead, the most effective teaching I have witnessed has always been more about what the approach depended upon than anything else—its assumptions about people, about life, about the world. The very best teaching—in all its forms, with all of its varied methods and philosophies— is actually about something really basic, something absolutely fundamental.
It’s about embracing an “ethic of care.”
But what exactly do I mean by this phrase?
It might make sense to start by clarifying what I don’t mean. I don’t mean to suggest that teaching should be only about creating that warm, fuzzy feeling though, in my experience, the best teaching often makes the whole classroom community catch on fire, feel alive, hopeful, and invigorated.
I also don’t mean to imply that teaching should be about hand-holding or coddling, though the best teaching I’ve seen often makes the whole classroom community feel incredibly appreciated, respected, and honored as learners in a classroom as well as people in the world.
Simply put, adopting an “ethic of care” in the classroom for your students is about finding all sorts of positive ways to connect with them; about being spontaneous and offering students opportunities to express their creativity and to experience curiosity, freedom and discovery; about using humor and laughter to guide a classroom community toward knowledge-making; and about understanding our students’ cultural backgrounds, dreams, and goals so that we can make crucial connections between their lives and the subject matter
But adopting an ethic of care does not stop with our students. Just as importantly, adopting an ethic of care in the classroom is about you, their teachers. As graduate student teachers at NAU you are among our most important resources. You are on the front lines. You are absolutely essential to student retention; to students’ academic, social, and lifelong success; and to growing the learning community at NAU. So adopting an ethic of care is also about finding various ways to honor what you do every day, finding ways to rejuvenate your love for learning even when you feel tired and overworked, and discovering the most restorative ways to communicate your love for the subject matter to your students.
In the interest of providing you with something practical, something you might be able to use, I’ll offer just a few ideas about how to create this ethic of care for your students and for yourselves.
Caring for Your Students
- Foster Community, Trust, and Hope
Think about your students—whether a group of 23 or 300—as a community built on trust and hope. What helps to foster community? Oftentimes communities engage in cultural rituals of various kinds. How can you build ritual into your class? Perhaps you want to have five minutes of free writing at the beginning of each class to get everyone started. Perhaps you want to have students form tight-knit study groups. Perhaps you want to gather students for various community and campus activities. What helps to foster trust and hope in your classroom? Students need to know that they can come to you with their concerns, that you will listen and offer a variety of solutions. Students need to know that you believe in them and very much want them to succeed. They need to know that their success is, in fact, your success.
- Make Opportunities for Freedom
One of the things that can quell even the most passionate student’s love for learning is when learning becomes dull and routinized, when it’s more about memorization than creative integration. Give your students opportunities for freedom in learning, chances to express their curiosity and to discover new things. Even a small change can accomplish this. For instance, consider opening up an assignment to encourage different sorts of student responses that draw upon multiple intelligences (see Frames of Mind, 1983, in which Howard Gardner suggests that students need to not only engage linguistic, logical-mathematical, and spatial skills but, just as importantly, physical-kinesthetic, artistic/musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist skills. By doing this, you give students room to synthesize knowledge and truly make it their own. Short, informal (sometimes ungraded), intriguing assignments that allow for spontaneity, fluidity and students’ own imaginative responses can be very successful in making the classroom work feel less like a chore and more like taking part in building something of meaning together.
- Take Learning Outside the Classroom
The best learning environments take learning outside the confines of the classroom. They involve sharing one’s learning with family members, the larger NAU community, people in Flagstaff generally, or around the country and globe. But the learning need not go one way. Encourage students to learn by engaging not just with textbooks but also with people outside the classroom as they complete class projects. Who might they interview at NAU or in Flagstaff who could lend insight into what they are studying? What might your students be able to offer to these communities in terms of their time, their expertise, and their knowledge? Who might you bring into the classroom to speak with your students? Where might you arrange to have your students invited so that they can learn from others besides you and their classmates?
Caring for Yourselves
- Make Your Precious Time Count
You are trying to balance teaching, school work, and a social life. I’ve been where you are. This is no easy feat. However, learning to do so will help you throughout the rest of your life. You need to schedule how much time each aspect of your life will take and put this into a calendar. During each activity, remember to make room for short breaks to walk around, spend time with your partner, cook a good meal, or walk your dog. First, be sure to set aside a realistic amount of time just for your teaching duties. You should spend time only on teaching during this period. Turn off your phone. Don’t answer texts. Focus only on this. Then, when that scheduled time is up, you are done. Move on. Prepare for your own classes carefully. Read the assigned readings fully and take detailed notes that you can rely on in the future. Write your responses thoughtfully. Make sure that you have something interesting and insightful to contribute to each class meeting.
- Enrich Your Spirit to Renew Your Mind
When your scheduled time for teaching and school work is over, move on. It’s very important to remember to schedule time for your social life. Don’t let it bleed into your teaching and schoolwork time. But don’t neglect it either. Your teaching and schoolwork have likely kept you fairly sedentary most of the day. Go outside. Play in the snow. Volunteer at a local nonprofit. Go out with friends. In short, get out there! You need this change in perspective in order to return to your other tasks with renewed strength and conviction. Also, find quiet contemplative time to relax—be it through walking, skiing, meditating, pleasure reading, running, snowboarding, whatever. Don’t underestimate the importance of enriching your spirit to renew your mind. This deserves time in your hectic schedule each and every day.
- Dare to Think Outside the Box
This goes for your teaching, your schoolwork, and your social life. When you teach, don’t be afraid to try new things. If you see students’ eyes drooping, change things up. Get them out of their seats. If you are having trouble doing your reading for classes, think outside your normal parameters. Find new places to do your reading that truly inspire you—a coffee shop, a spot on the red rocks, an art gallery, a new room with a view. If you don’t have time to go out with friends for a whole evening, instead arrange to go for a multi-tasking study-walk with a good friend and classmate.
These are just a few thoughts that come to mind about how to exercise an “ethic of care.” Since this is a letter, it is meant to encourage action and response, to be merely the beginning of a conversation. I urge you to brainstorm other ideas with your friends, classmates, mentors, and colleagues.
As you begin this new semester, remember to keep this notion in mind. At a time when many people are really struggling economically, when many people feel very uncertain and afraid, never forget that you are making a crucial difference. You are one of the most significant parts of your students’ educational and life experiences. You are bringing hope, care, and community to your students and to the many, many lives that touch theirs—their friends, their families, their neighbors. Consider these facts. And, always remember to extend this ethic of care to yourself as well. Give yourself the freedom and the change in perspective necessary to continue to fuel your own teaching and learning. Make time for the renewal necessary to continue to make the crucial impacts you are making on students each and every day.
Ultimately, it is only through all of us embracing this approach fully—this “ethic of care”— that a university community like NAU can continue to realize its mission and its great potential as a vital and growing community for the city of Flagstaff, the state of Arizona, as well as the nation and world beyond.
Thanks so much for your time. I hope that you have found some of my thoughts useful. My fondest wishes to you all for an absolutely wonderful spring 2010 semester!
Laura Gray-Rosendale, PhD
President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow
Professor of English and Director of S.T.A.R. English