Encouragement

Leaves are falling, there’s a snap in the air, students seem more exhausted, stressed, and overwhelmed, and faculty are strained and spread thin. It must be midterms. The hopes of the beginning of the semester always seem to dissolve into the time constraints of academic life this time of year. My best intentions—to embrace active learning, to be present and vulnerable with my students, to create a supportive community in the classroom—all bend a bit these days. In the business and busyness of mid-semester life, I find myself losing sight of the core of my teaching as peripheral objects crowd my vision and pull focus.

In this context, I’ve been thinking about encouragement.

The word comes from the Latin for “heart,” as in, “to instil heart-ness.” It is a close cousin of the word “courage,” a kind of bravery born out of acting from the core of one’s being. I like to think of it as “whole-heart-ness.” Midsemester is the time of year when I—and my students—begin to lose heart.

In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer writes about good teaching:

“In every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students, and to connect them with the subject, depend less on the methods I use then on the degree to which I know and trust my selfhood—and I am willing to make it available and vulnerable in the service of learning.”

Palmer wants to remind us that the subjects we teach are more than dry facts floating around somewhere “out there.” They are immediate in us. They touch us, shape us. Our ability to see the connections between what we teach and who we are is at the literal and figurative heart of what we do. It’s what opens us up to transformation and renewal.

This connectedness is also, not coincidentally, at the center of some of the more rigorous understandings of deep learning, advocated by folks such as Stephen Chew and Ken Bain. Put simply, being able to understand the connections between our fields and our lives is the result of and results in thorough articulations of our academic fields. Far from being some touchy-feely approach to learning, teaching with courage requires a committed investment in our disciplines.

In this space, I want to be a source of encouragement for my students. I want to create space for them to find the heart of their learning and themselves. This requires that I first make space for myself to rediscover—or discover for the first time—the heart of the subjects I teach. I have no easy answers here. It takes time, connection, and curiosity: three things that are in short supply these days. And yet, the need to find these resources is imperative.

I encourage you to join me in resisting the urge to lose heart. I’m going to be cultivating small practices: setting aside 20 minutes to get lost in an idea, picking up a good academic or pedagogical book, having lunch or taking a walk with a colleague to talk about what’s happening in my classes. I’m hoping these small acts of self-encouragement will branch into my classrooms and inspire my students. I invite you to join me.

Want to read Palmer’s book? Read it for free online at Belmont’s library!

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