Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Tue, 25 Dec 2001 09:54:33 -0500 (EST)
Random Thought: Kind Teaching

Season's greetings to all, and to all a brrrrr! Well, almost brrrrrr. It's beginning to feel a tad like Christmas just as Christmas is passing. I went out walking in my grubbies a bit late this Christmas morning. In the gray light of overcast dawn, a semi-bundled up runner came from the other direction. We looked like two rag bags meeting a Good Will station. He passed me with a breathless "happy holiday." I replied with a similar greeting. It felt good. Another exercising stranger passed with a smiling exchange of "merry Christmas." That, too, felt good. We have met before. We have passed in the twilight mornings before without a hint of greeting from their lips or eyes. Always my "hello" or "good morning" went unanswered. Not today. And suddenly I was struck the rest of my walk, by a touching message from my dear friend, Margo. She ended her message with the greeting: "I know Hanukah is over but may the light that is core to Hanukah shine brightly in your heart and the hearts of all whom you love, not only throughout the holiday season but throughout all of next year."

"But throughout all of next year." That phrase hung in the slightly chilled air, along with images of the seasonal greetings and smiles. And, I wondered. Why do we distinguish the holiday season from the rest of the year as if we live two lives? Why do we greet each other with smiles for a few days and then ignore each other the rest of the days of the year?

I think the true meaning of this season, the "light" of which Margo speaks, is not found in the temporary Menorah candlelights or electrified Christmas decorations. It is found in Dickens' renewed Scrooge. It is a ethical and moral replacement of heedless into heeding. It is putting aside the dark, casual, foolish inattentiveness of busy people and replacing it with the joy of caring people paying close attention to each other. It means hark the people, not just the heralding angels. More importantly, it means to fully live out the season throughout the year long after the trees have been mulched rather than to confine it to a few basic gestures, a few simple greetings, a few bars of song, a few lighted decorations, a few cozy classic movies, a few parties, a few delicious dinners, a few wrapped gifts during a few days.

I think the essence of life is found in the nature of living. And so, too, as Claire wrote me, the essence of education is found in the nature of our teaching. Do you know that students, like most of us, yearn for good will, for respect, for being heeded. Do we harken them? Do we respond with constant and sincere glad-heartedness and glad-tidings? After all, we all have the same "title." Professors and students, what's the real difference. We're all human being. So, when we enter the classrooms at the beginning of the term next year, will the real holiday spirit endure after the holiday season is over? Will we keep singing that yule tide refrain, "it's the most wonderful time of the year?" Will the spirit of giving and kindness that catches on for a few week stay on? Will each day in the classroom witness one of those random acts of kindness that everyone writes about during the holiday season? Will we seek out the hurting eyes, fearful hearts, scared faces and replace them with smiles and thankful hearts? Will we dwell on the sorrows of "they aren't like they used to be" or go out and make a difference? Will we do something for each student and feel that most wonderful feeling in the world? Will we make the classroom a special place? Will we make the classroom a festive experience? Will we make the classroom a better place for all of us? Each moment of teaching should be a random act of attentiveness and of kindness. Each day, from the first to the last, we should fill our cup with cheer; each day should be a cherishing of the promise of a new day; each day should be a gift of hope; each day should be greeted with an exhilarated "wow" instead of an resigned "ugh" or tired "whew." Each day the magic of the season should be in our eyes, on our faces, and in our hearts. Each day we should go on campus, enter classrooms, meet students with love and uplifted spirits, treat students with dignity and respect and, yes, with brotherhood. Glad-heartedness is our secret weapon that too few of us wield.

Sound whimpy? Think it's corny? Ready to pass the kleenex? Why? The feelings of this season mean the most when they are out of season. Our faith counts most when no one is counting. Why should the humbug Scrooginess before the visits of the ghosts prevail on the other days? Why don't we follow the example of the Scrooginess of a reborn Scrooge? I don't believe it is hokey to say we all should think and feel and act kindly about and towards students, that we should struggle to understand and be aware of and be sensitive to each of them, that we should edify each of them. I have never known of an unkind thought or statement that left a sweet taste in someone's mouth, and I have never known of a kind thought or statement that left a sour one.

I don't think kindness is hackneyed. I will tell you after a few heart-rendering conversations I had with a student and the student's parents, after receiving a letter yesterday from another student, kindness is not a weakness. Kind teachers have the stronger relationships, the stronger bonds of trust, the most profound respect, the greatest love, the deepest faith, the highest hopes. They have the most happiness with themselves and others. They have the greatest pleasure of teaching--and living.

I can attest personally that the teacher who stands out most is the one who encouraged or discouraged with words, who was kind or unkind with actions. Who shall we be: nurturer or weeder? In what direction shall we push: up and forward or back and down? Each time we utter something, each time we do something, we have the power to heal or hurt, to enliven or deaden. There is nothing wrong about replacing hurtful attitudes with healing ones, discouraging words with encouraging ones, impovishing actions with enriching ones. Even if you merely go through the kindness motions, I warned you that the motions so often have a sneaky way of worming their way into your spirit, warming up your soul, and slowly are no longer mere motions. They become your being. They become true celebrations and you will feel a spiritual exuberance. And, I can personally attest that you will feel better about yourself, each student, where you are, and what you do.

And yet, so many of us make many of our classrooms seem like a world so distant from life that we use the differentiating term "real world" when we talk in our classes. We don't see our classrooms in the "real world" or treat them as such. Maybe we each should struggle to ask what is important in the life of our classes. Maybe we live too much in regrets and anxieties. Maybe we live too much in expectations of fearlessness and perfection. We need to make time for the true complexity of celebration. We must want to know of student needs, get to know of them, and then know how to make a difference. It is our acts of kindness that can and do make the difference. And, I don't necessarily mean grand gestures, for little acts can make great differences.

Maybe, like the great haiku poets in no more than seventeen syllables, we each should understand that the life of teaching, like life, itself resides in magnificent and palatial castles built of individual bricks of small kindnesses and events. We should define teaching in the small kindnessess and things of today's incidental moments. We each should see the universe of teaching in small occurrences, capture that universe in one fleeting moment, and appreciate each one of them. Maybe when we bump into each other and ask how things are going, we shouldn't try to speak of the grandiose or perfect or honors. Maybe we kindly should say it was enough to hear the students laughing as they entered class, and as they left; that it is enough that one student ventured to whisper an opinion; that it is enough that there was a momentary glint of confidence in a student's eye; that it is enough that another student helped someone else; that it is enough that a student took one small step out from fear or despair; that it is enough that a student caught sight of hope. Our classes should be a universe of small things and we should savor the gift of small moments. I have found that in a universe of imperfect, small, and kind things, I am much more sensitive to the notion that what I do in this tucked-away room in a building on the campus of a less-than-prominent South Georgia school does matter to the world. The universe of small things allows me to heed, makes me believe in miracles, let's me see miracles, the miracles of showing cynics that angels do dwell within each of us and among us every day.

We can take a lot for granted. And, so we do. We can't take for granted what it is being a kind teacher.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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