The Kindness Factor

Am I being too obviously a softy to wonder why we cannot approach our students with some measure of kindness? I would wager that most teachers, when cornered about it, believe teaching to be at least partially an act of nurture. Teachers nurture the growth of the mind, they nurture people into new understanding, out of the shells of not-knowing, and more. Recently, I hired a new instructor who, a tad nervous about taking on 40 students this semester (previously, she’d only taught to a classroom of five), asked me for advice. I looked at her and said: “You’ll be fine. Just be a parent. To forty children. Love them, and let them know you want them to succeed.”

I am too much a softy, I suppose. I mean, listen to me. Love your students? What, buy them toys, dry their tears, bandage their boo-boos? I can hear teachers groaning restlessly, bringing out their vegetables and grumbling for me to get off the stage. Yet, I sort of want to insist: why wouldn’t we start out each new semester thinking first of our students’ delightful potentials, their own (albeit now and then latent) excitement for new knowledge? And how much they need us to coach them toward those things?

Starting in the Spring, I’m offering a total of three redesigned courses. In the world of online education, this means that three whole classes needed to be designed from top to bottom: all the lectures and assignments must be written, the syllabus must be arranged, a schedule put in place, the grade book set up. In addition, there’s a significant amount of navigational content that must be written and encoded. This navigational content takes the place of that moment when a classroom full of students rustle papers and get ready to leave and you shout out above the growing clamor: “Don’t forget, on Tuesday you need to bring your notebooks! And there’s a quiz on Friday! And remember that we have a guest speaker, so show up early on Monday!” The navigational content is pretty much the heart of the course insofar as it tells students what needs to be done, and how to do it.

Each time I have designed or supervised the design of a course, I follow one guiding principle: keep it simple. It should be easy for a student to get from one assignment to the next, or to go from a lecture to the reading material (most of my courses use online – or open – content instead of text books). Learning online can be challenging enough without a student getting muddled in the variety of accidents that can take place on the Internet. Many of the instructors who teach these courses come to enjoy the simplicity of a well-constructed online course, primarily because it saves them from answering dozens of e-mails asking how to submit an assignment, or where the reading is, or how to find the discussion board. But it really isn’t for the instructors that I follow that guiding principle; it’s out of kindness and consideration for the students.

In a course I recently supervised, the instructor presented a grading schema for my approval. He’d assigned various point values to discussions (from five to 50 points), various point values to assignments (anywhere from 30 to 150, with a 75 thrown in for good measure); and the total points possible in the course came to 920. Essentially, the grading schema was indecipherable to his students, and would leave them pretty much at his mercy all semester long. I was reminded of a mechanic telling me my whosits was broken and there would need to be a new valve and pad put in place or else I’d crash my car before I got home. I stared at the grading schema with the same bewilderment and consternation as I might the mechanic. I pictured shrugging and saying, “I guess he must be right,” powerless, surrendering.

I was talking to Jesse Stommel, a superb instructor at the University of Colorado at Boulder (whose Queer Literature course made national headlines), about this idea of powerlessness in the classroom. He said what he enjoyed most was sitting on the desk in front of his classroom, swinging his feet back and forth, and asking his students how their days were going, what they thought of the reading, and whether or not they’d seen any good films lately. He said his students should never feel powerless in his classroom because he is only there for them. Students in fact have all the power in the classroom because only they will chose to learn or not to learn; Jesse teaches because he enjoys it, not because he wants to coerce learning. Learning’s never coercive, it’s necessarily cooperative (anyone who’s ever had a teenage learner understands that).

I sometimes hear from instructors in my department with complaints about their students, about how they refuse to learn, how they are argumentative, or sullen, or inattentive, or confused. I know how they feel, of course. Work is work is work, and always there’s going to be something that’s less than happy about it. But then I remember my daughter, whom I home school, and the moments when she’s sullen or upset. I think about how I deal with her when that happens (lovingly, patiently), and wonder if maybe we shouldn’t, indeed, treat each of our students as we might our offspring.

When we open a class to students, we invite them to take chances, to make mistakes (even to fail). Hopefully, we give them an environment where they can stumble safely. Like learning to walk on soft rubber floors. Couldn’t our classrooms be like soft rubber floors? A place where we can tumble and roll and jump and fall together, never worrying about breaking an ankle or striking the wrong pose?

Other Resources:

Jesse Stommel

Create a Caring Classroom

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5 thoughts on “The Kindness Factor

  1. Well, well, well. We have a writer here! Your “What is Slam Teaching?” sidebar text articulates so well something I think about habitually. I really look forward to future posts on this.

    I just walked in the door from the airport after five days in Bangkok, and have to put my life back in its habitual disorder, but I’ll definitely be back to read your posts and figure out who and where you are.

    It’s a fresh angle, and a vital one. Nice to discover it. (And thanks for the link to my “BS” in the blogroll 😉 )

  2. I wish I had you as an instructor. I hope I am creating a caring classroom for my students, both those in my high school course and the entire K-12 population I see in the Library.

    Whether they say so or not, every child we come in contact with appreciates acknowledgment that they are unique and valued by an adult. It’s not always easy to remember this, but I try, and it’s certainly worth the effort.

    Rock on, Slam Teacher!

  3. I hate to bring my hellcat ways to your blog because I really am enjoying your work. But I just stumbled onto your blog from Clay’s, and it was no more than 20 minutes after I had just made a post saying something similar but opposite. I completely agree that students should know that we care about them, but I don’t think caring always means coddling. Students need respect. They need to be empowered. But they do not need any more mommies. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a student is refuse to play games and expect them to learn to navigate the world of emotional reality. The floor is soft, but the workout is hard.

    I’m not a meanie head. But I am a hard-ass.

  4. Hi Taylor,
    Thank you for your post! I’m glad you’re enjoying my work. I must say, I’ve been a little overwhelmed by the response.

    I don’t see your ways as hellcat at all. To me, a hellcat bucks the norm; but in my experience, I’ve seen more teachers take your stand than I see them taking any other.

    What’s funny is that I don’t think there’s soul who knows me well who would say I’m not demanding, exacting, and uncompromising. I am relentlessly these things. It was with no little chagrin that I admitted my “softy” side in this post. Nevertheless, I feel it’s possible to challenge students, to make them work (and, of course, to empower them) while being compassionate to the fact that they *will stumble, they *won’t do things perfectly. It is really those classrooms where students aren’t welcome to make mistakes (classrooms, for example, that grade down for late papers, or for incorrect citations, etc.) that make me wonder if instructors have lost sight of what the learning process really is: a *process in which one is never the expert (or, only the expert at exploring, questing, figuring out).

    I used to work with a group of developmentally disabled and autistic kids. They lived in a residential home in a neighborhood full of “regular” people. The philosophy behind the organization running the home was that these kids, who would never be not-disabled or not-autistic, could nonetheless participate in a life that resembled the lives of other kids their ages (12-19). So, where other kids went to public school, so did these kids. Where other kids went to Halloween parties and birthday parties, so did these kids. Where other kids ran around outside in the yard and climbed trees, so did these kids. Now, for a variety of reasons, none of these normal situations were perfectly safe for the kids at the home; but we supported them going out there anyway. When a 15-year-old autistic boy prone to seizures and weak muscles wanted to climb a tree, we let him. Daringly, frighteningly. Because the fact was, where other kids learn they can fall out of a tree by falling out of a tree, so did these kids.

    Coddling, in this case, would have meant removing the tree from the back yard. Coddling would have meant not having the kids help cook dinner (hot oven, hissing gas burners, boiling water). Coddling would have been to say “Don’t, please, don’t take a risk. You might get hurt.”

    And, you’re right. This brand of coddling pays no respect to the coddled. But, supplying a soft floor for learning gymnastics… well, those kids still fall, they still risk getting hurt. They just won’t break things, or bleed, or fail so hard they’ll never want to come back and try again.

    The sort of compassion that I’m talking about allows students to risk, but also provides that environment where risking isn’t going to cost them dearly. The workout, in other words, should be more surprising in its demands than unforgiving. Like a ROPES course, maybe, designed to show the student how much they are capable of, what they can accomplish, how really great they are. It should never be so hard that the student resists working out again.

    We need to give our students the dignity to risk; but what is teaching if it’s not about helping people try again and again? Until they no longer need the soft floor, the attendant staff watching the tree-climb?

    Does that make sense?
    Sean

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