Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Fri, 28 Jan 1994

It was damp out there this morning. A light drizzle hung in the black, tepid, morning air. I kept being splattered by drips from the overhanging tree limbs. Wish I had windshield wipers on my glasses. But, as I splashed through the small puddles, I was thinking about late last night in my office.

It had been one of those days. Ever have "one of those days" when everything seemed to come crashing down in a never ending avalanche? That was yesterday. It was one of those particularly long and hard days that everyone has nightmares about: not a walking day; a very early morning Minority Affairs Committee meeting--no doughnuts; a long painful conversation in my "hall office" with a tearful student afraid to try to achieve for fear of failing to meet the expectations of unreasonably demanding parents, and a walk to the University psychologist; politicking to get extra funding from anywhere so that I could attend a teaching conference where I am supposed to present two workshops; quietly reading student journals and marveling at their insights, honesty and reflections; tackled as I left the Dean's office with a refilled cup of coffee by an angry student who refused to work with the other members of his triad "who just aren't as good as I am," and discussing humility with him, asking him to think about how he would feel if I as the professor felt the same way toward him as the student; talking with a journal editor about two soon to be published photo essays; preparing a weekly quiz; grading weekly tidbits; a walk with an African-American student who doesn't know how to contend with the pressures of the "oreo syndrome"; lively and emotional and substantative class discussions about an assigned article, "The Founding Fathers and Slavery"; a discussion with a student who is self-conscious about his accent and taking him to the College of Education's speech clinic; a confrontation in the Faculty Senate with the President of the University conniving to undermine the Senate because he prefers the throne of Louis XIV to the chair of the Senate Head; a conversation with my younger son about giving it his best shot in everything he does; a walk back to the office to finish reading journals.

But, when I slowly opened my office door, tired and drained, I unexpectedly found a letter slipped under the door. It was written by a non-traditional student who had been in my class last quarter. She is a 27 year old mother of three who returned to get a college education ten years after she graduated high school: first in her family to attend college, wants to be a teacher, faced constant and vocal opposition from her husband's family about "my leaving my marrying duties"; always heard her own family's suspicion about "whether anything worthwhile can come of it." I'm not sure how long I sat at my cluttered desk reading this letter over and over again. Reading it rejuvenated me; it made me feel that it was all worth it. If someone asked me yesterday morning why I teach, I might have said something philosophical about preparing students to live truer lives or to teach students to improve the world in which we live. Last night, I would simply have said: "Debbie is one reason I teach."
Here's what she wrote:

Dr. Schmier:

I'm not really sure what I want to say here, but I feel I must say something. I'll do my best. I believe that I'm already saying a lot just by writing you this. I could never have thought to do such a thing at the beginning of last quarter before I got "trapped" in your class. I'm letting you know that I worked to do my best in your, no, in MY history 200 class. I may not be able to rattle off history facts or remember all the so-called "important" dates, but I can get those facts in a book. Besides I don't remember all that stuff I once had memorized in high school. I learned much more than that in this class. You opened up my eyes and mind to why things happened and how they influenced the future and me instead of the dull when, who, what, or where.

I learned how to work with people. If one of my triad members had a weakness in a particular area, say, tidbits, the other two of us used our strength in this area to help them learn how to get them right. I learned to rely upon others when we did our quizzes and trust them for the exams. I learned that I could be a leader.

I learned how to work with me. I learned that I have weaknesses. That wasn't easy. I've always put up a strong and quiet front to hide them, but you know that. You saw through me somehow. I learned not to dwell on that anymore like I used to because I learned that I had strengths and could use them to overcome my weaknesses. I now try continually to improve myself and reach that unique potential you said each of us had. I don't do this now for others. I learned to do it for myself. I have learned that there are people that I will never satisfy. But, if I don't like something about myself, I will work to "fix" me so that I am the best that I can be. So, I just worry about me. As long as I like me and the things about me, my ways, I don't have to worry about what you or anybody else thinks about me.

I am still kinda rusty from being out of school for such a long time. I am maybe a little slower for now than other students on picking up on things but I will catch up and probably pass. No , I will pass some of them.

It's kinda like something we learned in church. If you are doing something and God deals with you on it then you have discovered a fault that you have. Faults become sins when you still have the same ones year after year and you don't do anything about them. I guess your class has been like a church. It showed me my sins and has started cleansing me of them. I've tried in your class as I never have before, and that's a lot to me because at the beginning of last quarter, before taking your class, I would not have even tried. I believe that your teaching method has given me confidence that I did not have before. Who would have thought at the beginning of the quarter that I would help write an original song, stand up front of the class and sing it with the others in the triads, and then take the risk of helping give you a jigsaw puzzle to solve for our final exam. Not I. I guess that when it really comes down to it, it didn't matter what grade you gave me at the end of the quarter. Why? Because that's your judgement of my performance, and in the long run it's MY opinion of my performance that really has come to matter to me. Well, I'd better quit writing now before I put you to sleep. I'd like to say thanks for all your time and advice and for being so hard on us all. I needed it. I got a real education in your class.

As I see it, a large part of my role is to teach the students something they need to know, something that will hopefully make them more interesting human beings. If our educational system is only about grades and grade-point averages, only about jamming subject matter down a student's throat to be vomited forth for a test, it's way off the mark in my grade book. I don't grade a product. I encourage process and progress and development within the classroom and for a lifetime beyond it. Isn't that the point of education?

Now, this is not a matter of being "student oriented" or "subject oriented", and it's not an issue of either process or content. It's about "both"; it's a matter of "and." It's an ever-changing balancing act: the subject matter with its principles, concepts and people about whom I teach are balanced by my concern with the student's attitude. At the same time, attitude is a balance to subject content.

What I am trying to foster is courage, risk-taking, taking the plunge. I'm trying to bolster self-confidence and encourage growth. I am trying to promote knowledge of some principles. I am trying to develop critical thinking. I am trying to support the application of such skills, and I am trying to emphasize emotion or attitude. The competence demonstrated by a student should not only be a grasp of the subject, but the emergence of a greater self-assurance and self-confidence that would do her in good standing in the rest of the class, in other classes, and hopefully throughout her life.

So many students come into most classes with a bunch of hidden, non-academic, non-intellectual factors that limit or prevent their success. Singularly or in combination, these factors cause anxiety, apathy and/or chaos for many students. I just held an open evaluation in my classes. Do you know that few students doubted my authority or knowledge? Instead, they talked about whether I was fair, did I care about them as human beings, were they capable, did they have potential. The first reactions students exhibit in the class are not about whether the professor knows his/her stuff or not, not whether this is going to be a good course or not. They are about "Will the professor understand me"; "Does the professor care"; "In what ways can the professor connect this stuff to me and my issues." And, those issues, not necessarily conscious ones, are self-esteem, self-confidence, need for validation, and a need for affirmation.

All I'm saying is that the emotions are there. If we truly care for the students, then, we, as teachers, need to be more aware, less afraid of that dimension of our students AND of OURSELVES. We must be more honest and more authentic in what we're doing. The purpose for recognizing, naming and addressing tensions and emotions that exist within both the students and professors in the classroom is a means to help us become more comfortable with the spirit of inquiry and the joy of learning, become more aware of our intellectual powers. If a student believes he or she is mediocre, that is the best he or she will strive to become and will ever be. Fear and apathy have a debilitating impact on performance. The state of mind can affect the state of learning. It is manifest in the unquestioned self-descriptions of "I'm shy" or "I'm a listener" or "I can't write" or "I can't talk." And, it's all too easy to let immediate "can'ts" evolve into prolonged "won'ts" that mire into eternal "don'ts."

Teaching to emotions or attitude is motivational. The emotion drives and gives direction to the intellect. It leads to academic performance and deepens understanding. It focuses on the student's attention, arouses interest, connects the student's world to learning, and, in my classes, builds a classroom community.

I acknowledge the world of feelings and take very seriously the role that emotions play in teaching and learning, in the professor and in the student. Call me a spiritual teacher. I make no bones about it. I make no apology for it. I take pride in it. I teach with passion and compassion. I struggle to warm the learning atmosphere in my classes.

What's the purpose of what I do? It's to deliver on some teaching goals: helping students learn skills, acquire an appreciation and/or knowledge of my disciple, and to believe in themselves; helping them to possess a grasp of principles, concepts, formulas, axioms, and even facts; helping them to begin acquiring analytical skills, to begin learning to apply those skills, and, above all, to begin acquiring self-esteem, self-confidence, empowerment, integrity, honesty, humility, pursuit of excellence. It's the beginnings of an acquisition for the appreciation of learning and the wonders of life.

A very long time ago, I once gave a take-home exam in a World Civilization freshman course. The question was fairly simple, yet demanding. I asked: "Assume you are Charlemagne, write me a personal letter describing the world about you and your feelings about it." Two days later, in came the pile of completed answers. As I was going through them, I came across four, dog-eared, unsigned blank pages. Well, that one didn't take too long to grade. I scrawled a huge "F" across the entire page and wrote, "Think you ought to crack a book?" By a process of elimination, I discovered to whom this "answer" belonged. She wasn't one of the better students in the class, and I thought "what could I expect."

The day after I handed the exams back, she popped her head into the office. Our conversation went something like this:

"Dr. Schmier, can I talk to you about my grade on the exam?"

"What about it?"

"I think I deserve a better grade."

"For handing in nothing but four blank pages?"


With a tone of slight curiosity in my voice, I asked, "What grade do you think you deserve?"

"An 'A'."

"For four blank pages?"

"Yes. You told us to assume the identity of Charlemagne."

"Right, and you didn't."

"Charlemagne, creator of the Holy Roman Empire, originator of the feudal hierarchical system, admirer of Roman law and order and government, defender of Roman Christianity against the Arian heresy, introducer of learning in the early middle ages?"

"Yes, but you didn't write about any of that."

"I can't read or write. I'm illiterate in spite of all my titles and what I've done!"

I sat there in stunned silence. And then, without a hesitation, changed that student's grade and gave her an "A" because it all boils down to what I as a professor wanted that student to get out of the class experience. It takes courage to challenge the professorial authority figure. Most of us professors won't even do that with our colleagues much less with the administration. If this student bets on herself, bolsters herself, I'm not going to say, "Great idea. Good job. You've got a grasp of who Charlemagne was. You understand that being Holy Roman Emperor had nothing to do with education or intelligence. You took a risk and answered the question the way YOU thought it should be answered. Good job. You get an 'F'." That's a mixed message. If I did that, then all she would do the next time is worry about "what does he want" and seek to parrot me.

No, I think this student and Debbie got the most important thing that seldom they can get from books. I think maybe they started getting an appreciation not only for the subject, but more importantly for themselves and for the excitement of learning as a daring adventure. And that's the point of education: not so much to make sure the students "get it right," but to motivate them to aspire to their fullest potential, whatever that may be. If they do that, then they're getting it right.

Make it a good day.


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

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