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Teaching Students Where They Are

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18 Aug 2015
Stories from the Front
Tags: teaching for transformation   |   student learning   |   social justice   |   critically reflective teaching

Teach students where they are!  This forthright adage is deceptively difficult.  The question becomes – where are they in proximity to my own location? In other words, what does it mean for the effectiveness of my teaching if the cost of locating my students is heart wrenching?

I am invested in doing more than simply mirroring back to students their own social location.  Adding an African-American author to the reading list for the Black students or adding a female voice to the syllabus for the women creates a climate of ill-preparedness for all students.  I hope to inspire students into louder, clearer voices for justice.  I want them to be empowered to fight for the minoritized.  I wish for them to become coalition builders, collaborators and to develop unorthodox partnerships.  I want students from the majority cultures to be change agents, as much as I expect students from marginalized constituencies to be prophetic.  These lofty hopes send me on a journey to find them in familiar and unfamiliar places.  Teaching in the unfamiliar is the heart challenge. 

Locating the multiple whereabouts of students means acknowledging their diversity and recognizing that differences are not deficiencies.  I have learned that understanding the constitutive parts of any diversity is a key to teaching well in diversity.  That being said, the diversity in my classrooms can be overwhelming.  I am eager to learn more about the dynamics of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation so that I might better design more relevant lessons.  When the categories of diversity get so intricate as to include adult learning styles, theological perspective, regional/national and international cultures, consumer mindsets, etc., I am bowled over.  Am I expected to have sound knowledge about each of their categories of diversity?  Which diversity(ies) is significant regarding their learning and formation?

The whereabouts of the students who trouble my heart the most are the students who are not conservative in their thinking, but conservative about thinking itself.  They bring to the classroom a very narrow experience of life, with a constricted curiosity, and a truncated imagination for thinking new thoughts about old ideas.  Or worse yet, they believe that thinking and faith are antithetical and attempt to silence those who believe otherwise.  These students signal with their behavior that they expect to be affirmed and rewarded for what they already know rather than being challenged to expand and grow. I am stymied when I locate my students and find them in isolation, xenophobia and disconnection.  It is heartbreaking when my work is reduced to coaxing resentful, parochial students into reflecting upon their unexamined privilege, rage and brokenness. 

The cost of my commitment to locating my students is too often my own broken heart.  My jaw drops in disbelief each time an African American woman speaks in favor of the sexism and misogyny in the Black Church.  I am still caught off guard when white students assure me that issues of racism were solved in the 1960’s.  Each semester, earnest straight students feel offended when our Christian seminary curriculum supports the ordination of homosexuals.  Suppose locating my students takes me to places I do not respect, places which are uncomfortable to my own values and sensibilities?  What if I am unsafe or repulsed by their values? What happens to my own spiritual health when I am drawn into the loveless places they inhabit?

My struggle to locate my students in unfamiliar-to-me places is eased when I draw upon proven competencies.  I have learned that empathy is one of the strongest tools of teaching in the unfamiliar and uncomfortable locales.  I believe empathy is a choice that is made moment to moment and student to student.  My hunch is that empathy is a critical pedagogical tool for fostering consistency in diversity. When I allow myself to reflect upon my personal experiences of fear about learning, I have more compassion for my students.  In the best moments, this kind of vulnerability nurtures authentic conversations between me and them.  We learn, in cautious baby steps, to trust one another.

Finally, the quest to locate the whereabouts of my students means being aware of my own location - it means knowing my own heart.  Students ask me the powerful, un-spoken question, “Do you practice these ideas on liberation and justice in your own life?  What will be risked if we adopt these ideals?”  Teaching students in unfamiliar locations requires that I can answer these questions with integrity and that I know how to heal my own heart.       



This is the 1st post in this series by Nancy Lynne Westfield this semester (Fall 2015).

Nancy Lynne Westfield

About Nancy Lynne Westfield

Professor of Religious Education
Drew Theological School

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Well stated!
    Thank you for wisely raising and effectively addressing this very complex issue having to do with recognizing and honoring diversity across its various dimensions in the classroom, including the diversity and values that one as a teacher brings to the classroom experience, while in that same space granting immediacy, purpose and enhancement of spirituality in ways that opens the door to a profound opportunity to learn and grow towards being better humans.

  2. Looking forward to more though-provoking entries from you! Thanx for mining this adage that seems straight forward on the surface for its depths of meaning and for reminding us that education takes place when teachers and students are open to new possibilities.

  3. Greetings, it is apparent that the “Knowing Oneself,” through being… present and mirroring offer students the opportunity to see themselves. Moreover, the idea of “locating ones students,” takes the teacher off of the pedestal/podium of judgement to relate with another human being. Based on my observations the latter allows for the teachable moments… the ahaaah moment and most importantly, the opportunity for the teacher and students to constantly exchange roles. Simply, a brilliant beginning in the learning process.

  4. Thank you, Lynne, for your thoughtful statement. The notion of “multiple whereabouts of students” surely characterizes the situation well. When you shift to the notion of “diversity,” I think it is esp. astute to mention “other categories of diversity,” e.g. different learning styles. From a pedagogical position, such categories are often critical. Similarly astute is your identification of empathy as a virtue and as a pedagogical tool. Reference to your own (or to any instructor’s own) experience in this context strikes me as esp. valuable, particularly when that experience involves moments or areas of difficulty. At root, I think you are indicating how much of teaching involves modelling behavior. Perhaps this is obvious, but it is nonetheless a valuable point. Finally, your metaphor of “location” is intriguing precisely because it is not solely sedentary or immobile. That is, I think the location metaphor also implies movement across time and space (variously understood), e.g. where one (either student or teacher) will be, as well as where one is.

  5. Thank you, Dr.Westfield for the creativeness you bring to the life of teaching and for your level of commitment to go beyond merely mirroring back the social location of your students to inspiring them to find their voice for justice. I am excited about being empowered to fight for minoritized groups and discovering new and creative ways to encourage those from majority cultures to be change agents.

  6. Thank You Professor Westfield. So much is packed into those seven brief paragraphs and much of it resonates and challenges myself. Two things came to mind upon my initial read, one of which was your statement of being “bowled over” at the prospect of understanding some many diverse categories (in order to attempt to meet persons where they are). I recall the same feeling when engaged with Dr. Pressley in his Pastoral Care class. Much of our classwork was centered around understanding the location / context of those who we may be caring for vs. the blocking and tackling of taking care. I recall feeling as if it was/is such an immense task to know in any meaningful way the complex circumstances by which each of us comes to a situation. My instinct was (and often still is) to seek a simpler approach and just lean on … loving one another,” but yet the better parts of me recognizes that such love entails more fully understanding the sum total of each person’s experience that I care for.

    My second reaction led me to think about some of more difficult topics in which I’ve often “danced around” from the pulpit rather than take on more directly, out of fear that the place from which my audience was coming, would not be able to hear such words without a reaction that would only decrease a future opportunity to speak in an increasingly prophetic way. In those situation however, I’m left with wondering if I’ve compromised too much – failed to speak the more powerful and prophetic truth so as not to offend vs. some sort of sensitivity to where people may be on controversial and riskier issues of justice.

    Grace & Peace,
    Anthony

  7. I am always amazed by a perspective that I have pondered but avoided in discussion with colleagues who would react in disgust when contemplating the offer you suggested to take with students. The use of empathy is one I use and many of my colleagues use then there is the teaching point and pressure to respond to the end result. By the end of the semester where are the student’s in their learning? I work with a population that is highly diverse and each individual has their own story. Some of the stories can be overwhelming to the degree the need to refocus to the coursework becomes productive. Therefore, I create a space for the “story” and challenges that each one faces as they are aiming to complete the course objectives. Your sharing the fear of learning with your own personal struggles or at least connecting to the student by allowing yourself to experience your own is always key. I look forward to continuing this conversation. This year more than ever the issues that have caused reactions from the community have visited the classroom in a context that was powerful. I always emphasize that they matter to me.

    Blessings,
    Nilsa

  8. Thank you Professor Wesfield. You touched on a topic with such a powerful and refreshing perspective that it caught me “off guard”. How do I respond to an issue that sits close to “home” for me with students in the midst of South Bronx. I do emphasize the reality of engaging in a process of teaching and honesty. Integrity is something that is searched by the students of their professors. I allow for a “space” toa be created in the classroom that can become overwhelming for the group and myself. That is why a space is created with care and the content that is introduced often allows for a conversation that enhances what took place. You have addressed an issue of complexity and one that is taking place today with a younger generation of social media focused energy. I am looking forward to a continued conversation on these issues.

    Blessings,
    Nilsa

  9. This is a very empathically affirming post that certainly sheds light on the collective need to connect with one another (and with where we are). I appreciate the encouraging challenge to continually reevaluate and reflect on my own specific location in relation to those around me. It’s something to be reminded of – to always provide yourself the space and opportunity to evolve and grow in more communally honest ways.

  10. I read an book recently wherein the author commented that Christians need to be reminded that the ground upon which a muslim walks is also hallowed ground. That is, we serve the same God and He is reaching out to both Christian and muslim alike. The comment blew me away, because I had not even thought about the fact that maybe God reaches human kind in different ways and that because I believe that Jesus Christ is the only way, I cannot close my mind to another possibility. The revelation also shocked and revealed to me own prejudice.

    When I think that Dr. Westfield has to teach in an environment where she has to tear apart deeply held beliefs and open minds that are shuttered, pad locked, chained and boarded up. My God,the frustration! But for the student that allows education to free the mind and reveal new possibilities, the “aha” moments are wonderful! I know, I have had so many of my own. I have fifty-four years of baptist church mis-education to thank. I am not saying it is all bad and it certainly is not, but I do have empathy for Dr. Westfield’s having to carve a path path to find us (students) where we are.

    Thank you for courage to make the journey to where I am.

  11. Thank you Professor for your honesty and transparency. A few times over my educational life, I can recall hearing and seeing teachers who wanted the classroom filled with miniature replicas of themselves, and God forbid a student broke that mold, all hell broke loose! You bring to the table one of Jesus’ characteristics of a Christ-like nature – you speak of compassion and empathy – two needed attributes in practicing “liberation and justice.” Our Jewish Rabbi many times was called to action as the gospel verbalized his communal movements “Jesus saw and had compassion,” “Jesus moved with compassion”; “Jesus looked and had compassion.” What brought about this, as you clearly stated, there are a mirage of varied peoples: “the multiple whereabouts of students means acknowledging their diversity and recognizing that differences are not deficiencies.” We have to be consciously mindful not to just tolerant people as though they are insignificant objects but persons who have a heart and mind.
    (“Awaken my mindfulness O Lord, as I go forward.”)

  12. Well stated Dr. Westfield. Thank you for highlighting your internal struggle regarding teaching to students that limit their growth in terms of thinking and expansion beyond their own narrow scopes. As an educator, I too struggle with this. However, as a students, I relate more so because it causes me to examine my limited scope of understanding, thinking, etc.
    It really causes us to think about our roles as facilitators and to examine as you stated our own locations. The bigger picture is how to we galvanize,as educators all of our students from the various walks to join in the progression justice. As you stated, empathy for our students can and is a human identifiable emotion that we can all relate to. Empathy can be a great starting point of entry for all of us to begin the process of learning and growing from each other.

  13. I am intrigued by Deborah Winston’s reference to the “aha” moments and the wonder which occurs in those expereinces of learning and life shared, reflected upon. They are, indeed, spiritual epiphanies. I believe that every spiritual experience which some of us are accustomed to happening in worship, can and does happen in the classroom. Experiences of revelation, forgiveness, rejoicing, intrigue and re-interpretation of the holy text(s), acts of grace and mercy — all are moments of aha! – grace unfolding and God being revealed in new and needed ways. I especially want to note moments of healing in the classroom. I believe, like many others, that ideas can save lives, heal our emotions, psychies, and bodies. Such ideas as democracy, freedom, equality, free will, and self-determination even the idea of community — all are ideas which have saved us and which can, if we work, continue to save us, restore us, redeem us, heal us. The classroom, is a space like few other spaces. We are able to sit in classrooms due, in part, to the sacrifice of many others. I am deeply grateful for their sacrifice that we might encounter the Holy in ways which only classrooms open. I do not take classroom spaces or the spaces created for learning through courses, for granted. When the aha! moments come, I count them no less than the movement of the Holy Spirit in our midst. I believe our job, as students, is not to wait passively – idolly guessing if the moments will happen. I believe our jobs are to learn to conjure, welcome, command, and summon the Holy Spirit that would choose to bless, transform and bid that we grow.

  14. I am so grateful for your commitment to teaching your students where they are. One of the reasons I continue to take your classes is that you do take the time to know your students and to know yourself and then use the merging of those two places to teach and affect change. Our differences are not deficiencies, as you stated and our bridging of those differences with the use of empathy and good pedagogies is how we grow together to take those baby steps of trust. I also want to thank you for your honesty in your classrooms, for those of us who come from narrow experiences, your ability to compassionately point out the ‘isms’ is more helpful than you may know. Keep up the great work and know that it is effective and appreciated.!

  15. Thank you for your strong statement! I had your class last year, and I look forward I could learn deeply through this class. From your statement, some key words reminded me again such as social location, diversity, and experience. Also I am focusing on word “narrow experience” and “new thoughts.” My social location is an international students, Asian, and female. When I was in South Korea, I was not interested in diversity that much. I really didn’t know about equality, discrimination, racism, sexual orientation, and etc. Now I see all –ism in here and I am trying to seek an effectiveness of teaching, because everyone has different backgrounds and histories. Teaching cannot be a generalized guide for certain sex, gender or age. Three years ago, the U.S was unfamiliar place to me, now here is the place where I live, learn, and experience. Absolutely my perspective of life has expanded from new thoughts in here.

  16. As I read your post, I feel my stomach churn. I live in tension between our culture’s longing for embracing diversity (while merely tolerating it) and the real complexity and challenges of diversity(ies in any context). These challenges intensify in the context of a classroom with diverse voices and ways of thinking. I welcome your “hunch” about the importance of empathy and compassion in the classroom. In my own experience, I have had to be self-aware, of my own privilege as someone who has lived in different contexts, cities, and communities. When compared to others who have never left their small towns or communities or have been exposed to different thoughts; I have had to restrain the temptation to think I can “school” my students. I believe one way empathy and compassion may take form is by listening so deeply, that students can hear themselves, their lives stories, and the ways in which those stories have colored their worldview.

  17. Dr. Westfield, getting in from my social location in this diversity of privilege and marginalization, is a call to be in front of the different issues intersectionally and pluralism. In our teaching with students from different locations, socioeconomic, racism, sexism, preconceived ideas and prejudices in which our life is exposed to be confronted before them from our own liberation and justice take a time. Today, as educators of life with creativity and freely active (Palmer, 39) life cannot be mere passive agents that do not confront the privileged generations and other marginalized generations. Privileged and marginalized are in the same classroom and even in the same community where they constantly look, but not observed, but are not great. It’s in our hands the opportunity to impact with a transforming education and care to promote dialogue for this “violent process” (Nouwen, 5). Exactly those positions for possible solutions in the process can be tedious and tense at the same a healing process to build it up a better location for the better community.

  18. This post is one of the many reasons why I choose Drew for my Theological education. I feel as though most of the teachers that I have had so far, are willing to meet us where we are, or at least trying to figure out what makes each student who they are. I really appreciate that there is a sense of community around these ideas. I think that this post also gets at the heart of growth through seminary. That we as students need to stretch outside of our comfort zones to learn and grow. It is not easy, and sometimes we want to push away from the teachers rather than grow, but I think that we need to embrace the stretching moments. Sometimes its hard, but it is an integral part of the seminary experience. I appreciate the way that Dr. Westfield approaches the need for this to happen.

  19. “Each one, Teach one” The learning experience that happens in the classroom is not subject to the student only but as one hand washes the other, one teaches the other. Dr. Westfield, there is a word you used in this blog that struck the cords in my own heart and that was empathy. In my experiences behind the desk as a high school teacher I saw that the ability to empathize where a child was…coming down to from that mountain and being with them was something that was lost with other teachers. Lost maybe because maybe it caused one to drop their title and pick up a towel…a towel to help mend the wounds of another. Bringing them to a place of equality so that one can teach from their heart. This might be difficult especially when it pulls the teacher out of their place of comfort. “Teaching in the unfamiliar is the heart challenge.” I would venture off on the side of the student to say that learning in the unfamiliar is a heart challenge as well.

  20. “Locating the multiple whereabouts of students means acknowledging their diversity and recognizing that differences are not deficiencies.” I appreciate the education I am receiving at Drew and the fact that the differences that I bring because of who I am and my personal experiences can be shared and recognized to be of value. This response has certainly made me more sensitive to the diversity around me and how I respond to others.

  21. Within my own schooling I have taken and continue to take courses on diversity and ethics. I believe a person can never know enough. Every different class I take involves different voices and ideas. The diversity in the classroom always enriches the experience. As a white woman I learned upon entering my first class in 2005 that I am white and privileged. That I am racist because I do not stand up for others who are being persecuted. The first class I had taken had a reading of the book, “White Privilege” by Paul Rothenberg, boy was that an eye opener for me. I have always had friends from diverse sexuality, cultures and religions. I was not brought us racist at all-or at least that I knew at the time. Here was a class and book that was letting me know how the town I grew up in and my own lack of action perpetuated racism. From that point on I have taken as many classes on diversity and ethics as I can. I do not feel at any point I will be able to completely relate to others who have massive history of persecution towards them. My hope is to continue on a path of observation and action to try and help others who are persecuted. Through my position in the church-hopefully ordination-I can vote and stand up for the injustices that my religion of Methodism represents in the continuation of persecution of any “other” that Methodist think they are better than or that they fear; which is the root of racism. I do more today than I have in the past and I hope to do more tomorrow than I have done today. I welcome the opportunity to learn more and remain open minded to whatever anyone wants to enlighten me about ethically.

  22. Wow! I thank God for you Dr. Westfield for your candidness and stand to speak from your heart to enhance those who are called to make a difference for those who are otherwise voiceless. As a relatively new student to seminary, I welcome the empowering to be well preprepared and not “fearful” of my limitation being exposed at the expense of being a sharpened tool to advocate for justice to the all who are marginalized. Thank you for the investment in doing more than simply mirroring back to students their own social location. In addition, while doing so, exposing your very own sensibilities. Look forward to the journey of becoming a stronger, louder and clearer for voice for justice.

    I

  23. Well stated Dr. Westfield. I am always intrigued as to the endless possibilities of learning that can occur between teacher and student. Many will agree the marks of a great teacher is one who can teach a student where they are however your comment on “teaching in the unfamiliar is the heart challenge” was pivotal for me.

    This teaching in the unfamiliar requires some risk taking on both, the teacher and student. It is in this risk taking the teacher may hold a dual role as teacher and student. I have also learned over the years, this willingness to teach in the unfamiliar places requires a commitment that tenure does not produce. It is through this commitment that allows the teacher to display empathy while teaching in the unfamiliar. It is this risk taking approach to education that transforms the minds of students who believe they should be awarded for what they already know and embrace the challenge to expand and grow.

  24. The resounding passion you feel to reach the depths of your students bleeds through the words you’ve expressed. There’s an old adage in business jargon “If the cost outweighs the benefits, then it is worth the risk….buy, buy, buy!” I use this business jargon as a bridge to aide in framing this post. The cost of locating your students becomes a heart wrenching task that yields a benefit that far exceeds the classroom. In essence, classroom lessons become lifelong lessons learned because you took the chance or risk of investing the heart wrenching time with delving into the various layers of diversity.

    Inevitably, teaching people where they are requires some sifting through because we just don’t have enough time in a semester to address every area of diversity; nevertheless, it doesn’t mean we should not scratch at the surface.