The Sustainability of the Empathetic Teacher

By Shaina Lane

At 6:30 on a snowy Monday morning, I click my key into the lock of the school office to start my day.  There is never anyone there before me, which I prefer because it gives me enough time to get myself together before adolescent bodies start streaming through the door.  I set my stuff down, change out of my snow boots, and open up my daily classroom slides to go over what I have planned for the day.  In the thirty minutes between when I get to school and when the next human shows up, I gather myself to put on the best show I can.

Or at least that’s what I used to do.

When I first became a teacher, I viewed it as “being on stage”; my students are my audience, and I am their humble host.  This thought was both terrifying and thrilling for someone who, prior to her teaching career, never considered herself much of a stage presence, but it gave me the opportunity to really come out of my shell and become someone that the students were entertained by.  I had always been someone that thought was funny, but, as we all know, that doesn’t always translate to other people. I viewed teaching as the perfect opportunity for me to make jokes, tell stories that pertained to the material, and overall be the P.T. Barnum the students had longed for (without all of the exploitation).  Before I actually had my own classroom, I was under the impression that I could bring some of my personal life into the classroom, but only the stuff that fueled my performance.  

For example: When discussing Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and the power of a crush, I would tell the story of how Middle School Me used to pass notes between friends, wondering whether my crush liked me back and creating a world of possibilities and sorrows from thinking the feelings weren’t reciprocated.  I would go on and on to my students, in ever increasing desperation, about how I was so enamored by my middle school crush, so “in love,” that I would have cut off a leg just to get him to notice me.  I would walk around my classroom, switching back and forth between my “middle school” thoughts and my “adult voice” explanations, dramatically putting my hand to my forehead in a classic oh woe is me gesture, and exaggerating my every middle school emotion to prove a point: while many students think that it Romeo and Juliet is a dumb story about teenagers overreacting to someone they just met (which it is), it is also a timeless statement about the power a simple crush can have on a person.  This is the sort of personal-life stuff I would bring into the classroom to fuel the drama and engagement of my students (and I still use this when teaching the play), but anything I was actually struggling with would be off limits. I thought that I needed to be a spectacle in order to make my students like me and succeed, but only a certain kind of spectacle; a ridiculous, funny, over-the-top spectacle.

What a load of crap.

It’s hard to say where the idea of my being a “show” came from.  I suppose I could tie it to growing up with my father, a true performer who still makes everyone he meets fall in love with him because he’s such a ham.  I also could try to make a connection with my Midwestern heritage—how it was taboo to talk about more serious subjects in relation to yourself, but talking about them in a larger, funnier sense was perfectly fine.  Growing up, it was not the norm to be totally “real” about yourself, and you were expected to put on a show because that was what everyone else was doing.  It would be easy to say it came from those things, but I think the word “show” for me really came from myself. I have always been putting on a show, even though I have rarely been on stage.  As with most people, it is difficult for me to let people totally “in,” and so I have always put up a front of joviality, humor, and overall spunkiness to keep the masses from thinking that anything else was bubbling underneath. It is the age-old idea of “show the best, hide the rest,” and I have always done it well.  If I was having a bad day, I’d be especially peppy that day, my performer hat never tilting even an inch. Never let them see you sweat, right?  Even if it isn’t healthy.

This idea of performance carried into my teaching career.  I was convinced that it needed to be all about me, my actions, my thoughts, and my performances. I needed to put on the best show I could, sell out the box office every hour, and collect all of the roses at the end.  Even typing that makes me wince, because anyone who has taught for more than a few days quickly realizes that it’s not about them at all.  It never is. 

It is always, always about the students.

That sounds like it should be self-explanatory, right?  Every one of us has, at some point, heard the same joke from a non-teacher: “Well obviously it’s about the kids.  You sure didn’t go into that profession for the money!” Then it’s followed up by a hearty ha ha, snort-snort, I-know-what-teaching-is-like-because-I-was-a-student-once grin. All teachers have a conversation like that with one of their non-teacher friends, and if you haven’t had it yet, don’t worry—I promise you that you will.  The most frustrating part about those conversations is that they’re right. None of us entered the educational field for the money.  We entered it to help mold students, which brings me back to this statement: it is always, always about the students. Of course it is.  But, that being said, I have found myself asking a tougher question, a question that seems like it may be a bit unpopular or a little taboo, but one that also seems important: Yes, it is about the students, but this is also my job.  I live and breath this, therefore shouldn’t at least some of it be about me, too?

This is a question I have struggled with ever since my first day in my own classroom. The question of it “being about me” has shifted over the last five years from me wondering if I should “be a show” to me wondering how I can “be sustainable,” and whether that is even an attainable goal.

This profession we have chosen as our life’s work is not an easy one.  That statement alone could win me the Understatement of the Year Award, and yet it is something that isn’t necessarily mainstream information.  I hear about teachers making a difference, and many adults have referenced their various educators as pillars in their self-discovery, but the personal hardships of teachers are so rarely touched upon that they’re easy for someone that doesn’t personally know a teacher to forget about.  

With this idea of the secret struggle of teachers in mind, my thoughts have begun shifting from my day being all about the show to my day being all about the sustainability.  Yes, my students being engaged matters.  Yes, my students learning the material matters.  Yes, of course, my personal well being also matters, but it is incredibly hard to tell myself that when I have students approaching me with suicidal thoughts and actions, students who get beaten at home, and students who honestly don’t know where their next meal will come from.  How can I possibly be worried about myself being sustainable when my students can’t do the same?  How can I say to myself, “Okay, you need to take a step back and take time for you” when these lovely, incredible humans are dealing with all of this stuff outside of their school day, too?  Who am I to complain about being screamed at, called explicit names, and threatened by some high school student who simply has their emotions coming out sideways because of the things they are dealing with?

We teachers are some of the most empathetic people on the planet.  We have to be, right?  Our days revolve around making sure our students feel loved and supported, establishing healthy boundaries, and focusing on providing students with the love of knowledge in order to create lifelong learners.  The very nature of our job requires us to be compassionate human beings, but more and more often I find myself wondering if we are, on occasion, compassionate to a fault.  Do we take enough time to give ourselves a mental check-in to make sure that we are also doing okay and thriving?  Or do we instead tell ourselves that what we are dealing with isn’t nearly as bad as some of our students (even when that is not true) and so we need to suck it up?

More often than not, I find myself rationalizing not taking time for myself because I work with at-risk high school students who deal with so much on a daily basis that I cannot even imagine what it is like.  Sure, sometimes their dealing with those things comes out sideways at me, and I have a student screaming in my face that I’m a bitch, but I navigate that moment in the best way I can and I move on.  No more self-care is needed, right?

Right??

I had been feeling burnt out as of late and I was struggling to figure out why. I was getting enough sleep.  I had all of my lessons planned and was, miracle of miracles, caught up on grading.  I had a fantastic group of friends and family whom I go see as often as I please.  I was relatively healthy.  So what was the problem?  Why was I feeling that I no longer wanted to go to work, even though most of my students were dealing with profound emotional turmoil and they still made it on time?

Then it hit me: I was an emotional sponge that had never been wrung out.

My days were about lessons, yes, but they were mostly filled with personal connections with students I cared for unloading all of their problems on me.  I always tell my students that they can email me at any time with problems and I will do my best to be there for them. I once had a junior girl email at midnight telling me about her self-harming thoughts.  Hours were spent trying to contact the right people during the middle of the night to see if we could get her the help she needs because her father could pay for the schizophrenia medicine she needed in order to feel okay.  Phone calls were made, tears were shed, and I properly freaked out until finally receiving the call that she was okay and everything was being handled.  A coworker has had to cover a few classes of mine because another student was being bullied because of her weight and race, and she was having a mental breakdown in the hallway that was much more important than my lesson on commas for the day.  Money has been freely given to students so they can go to a wrestling camp for the weekend and get away from their drug-filled homelife, even though that student is incredibly proud and would never actually ask for money themselves. I am now on a first-name basis with the school psychologist and talk to them at least once a week about a few students. If I had to guess, it would be safe to say that 70% of my week is helping with emotional/home issues and 30% is actually teaching.  I always, always try to help those students with resources, contacting the right people, or being a shoulder to cry on, but I never unloaded what I was taking on.  I pride myself on being someone students connect with and feel comfortable enough talking to that they will tell me about the issues they’re dealing with. After all, I’m there to help!  However, I never took seriously the idea that I need to help myself, too.

After breaking down over and over in private, I started wondering if other teachers had the same feelings I did.  I began asking my coworkers, former colleagues, and teacher friends.  Did they feel the same way?  Did they feel overworked and emotionally exhausted, but never did anything about it because our burdens were “not as bad as our students”?

The answer was a resounding and overwhelming YES.

This is something that every teacher I spoke to was dealing with.  I felt vindicated that I was not the only one feeling this way, but also very sad that all of us were taking on this burden and never setting it down.  How exhausting it was to be carrying such a weight, unable to unload it simply because we knew that someone else’s weight was heavier.

Since then, I have made a change.  Before, I would have never thought to take a day off simply “for me,” but I have started to take one every few months just to have the day for myself to relax, unload, and unwind.  It may sound ridiculous and grandma-ish, but I have started to cross-stitch as something to occupy my busy thoughts and busy hands.  Get this: I have started to leave work AT WORK.  I now set boundaries for myself, too, and I not to bring any work home at all because otherwise I can’t shut my mind off.  I’ve started trying to run.  Now, I feel like I need to say this: I hate running.  I absolutely cannot stand it; it feels pointless to me because I’m not running from anything.  This being said, I wanted to see if I could learn to love something I hate and have really tried to get into it.  As of right now I still hate it, but I at least know that I can do it now!  

The biggest thing I have done, though, is this: I have stopped thinking of teaching as being something I’m “pigeon-holed” in and started thinking of it as something I “get” to do.  Can I say for sure that I will teach forever?  No, I can’t.  No one can say that they will do something forever.  I’m not sure where this life will take me, but I can say for certain now that thinking of teaching as something I “get” to do has been a hugely healthy shift.  I have tried to stop thinking of it as an emotional burden on some days and start thinking of it as an opportunity I get to help every single day.  On the days when it’s simply too much, I take time for me to unload and unwind.  I no longer put everything else above myself.  That’s simply not healthy; it’s not how to sustain myself as an empathetic teacher. All of these things have helped immensely, and I have now started telling myself over and over, “Your feelings also matter.”

My feelings also matter.  It is a little reminder throughout the day, when I start to rationalize that I need to just suck up whatever I’m feeling because some of my students are feeling more, that no, that is not correct.  I care so much about my students and their well being, but I also need to care for myself so I can continue to be there for them.

So, to all of my fellow teachers who are feeling like a full sponge, I am here to tell you to wring yourself out. You do not need to continue on simply because you know some of your students are dealing with a lot.  You are also dealing with a lot, and you are just as important to take care of.  Please, please love yourself and take care of yourself first so you can continue to do the work that you love.  If you are there for yourself first, you will be able to give the best version of yourself to your students and, just as importantly, to yourself.

 Your feelings also matter.

 

Internalizing the Message

By Kay J. Walter

I had a few extra minutes that day when I entered the classroom in which I was teaching composition to second-semester freshmen at my university. I teach at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, a public university in rural Arkansas attended mostly by first-generation students of higher education. I try to start each of my classes promptly, but I was early, and lots of my students were already there, each absorbed in a virtual world deep inside a smartphone. I covet their attention at times like this. I want them to begin shepherding their thoughts toward one another, our class, and me rather than careening recklessly from one website image to another.

To begin collecting them and their thoughts, I wrote a URL on the chalkboard. They are conditioned to virtual tasks and they quickly took the hint. Almost immediately they started finding their way to it. “What do you see?” I asked them. “You,” they replied, delighted with sure knowledge of a correct response, and they began reading the blog post intently. I had committed the novice error of distracting them when I needed their attention. I had their attention now but not on the lesson I had planned. “Monitor and adapt,” I heard a teacher’s voice in my head remind me.

I had planned to discuss “Graduation” by Maya Angelou, which I had assigned as reading homework from their textbook. I like to teach the Angelou text because it provides opportunities to point out the value of human potential, which the graduation speaker overlooks in the story. When Mr. Donleavy has the opportunity to talk to a rapt audience celebrating the achievement of local twelve-year-olds, he instead spends his time bragging of kindnesses he has done to benefit others. His talk amounts only to a campaign speech and ignores the real concerns and needs of his listeners. His attitude entirely dismisses the children who hear him, and his tone inspires only reluctant support.  Audience members no doubt recognized that his opposition for political office had nothing to offer them, not even the time and attention necessary to appear at their ceremony and orate in distracted words about someone else.

In a typical lesson on Angelou, I would discuss the responsibility adults have for encouraging all children and helping them optimize their potential because some of them may grow up to be famous writers who will tell stories of their childhood experiences. I like to say, “It matters how I treat each of you because one of you may go on to tell stories about me.” This lesson works especially well at my university because the story is set in southern Arkansas, not far from us, and the students understand the cultural implications intuitively. I take particular delight in pointing out that our university gets mentioned by a former name in this story and recount for them a history of our institution. Oh, I had big plans for lecturing that day, but teachable moments arise without warning, and spontaneous reaction is necessary to optimize learning. I could save Angelou for another day, but I couldn’t skip the lesson. In order to begin class, I had to redirect them, but it goes against my better judgement to disturb students when they want to read. So I decided we would read together—aloud, taking turns, finding our way through difficult pronunciations, unfamiliar words, and sinuous syntax. In this case, perhaps one text would be nearly as good as another in serving the reading lesson.

They seemed absorbed by the blog post, and their interest is always productive to learning because a need to know precedes long-term storage of information. When they have a problem to solve, they can exercise critical thinking skills and remember what they discover. As the school where I teach is my alma mater, I can sometimes think in harmony with them. We paused mid-thought to discuss implications. We read about the need to support teachers of color and considered why it is important for children to learn from them. We recalled teachers who had taught us about diversity and how their lessons helped prepare us for college experiences. We wondered as we went along. We considered why a family might move from Alaska to Arkansas and imagined the culture shock a child might undergo as a result.

We puzzled over the idea of preservice teachers and thought about the ways in which teachers are servants. We thought about the literacy experiences newborns and toddlers can have and reflected on our own and their influence on our successes in school. We considered the idea of lifelong learning and its implications for life beyond commencement. They wondered what they would want to study after graduation and imagined themselves in graduate school or taking lessons in fields of study beyond their majors. We talked about the elders in our families and the wisdom they embody. We envisioned ourselves as octogenarians with a variety of interests and expertise to share with our progeny. We thought about the challenges of being non-traditional learners and remembered the people in our lives who say “I wish I had gone to college.” We discussed the reasons why they don’t go to college now.

Perhaps most importantly, we discussed why it is important to be active participants in our own educations, what behaviors demonstrate our active learning to others, and how active learning can enhance educational experiences. We changed readers often, but I did not read to them. I let them read to one another. We soon found that I had outstretched their vocabularies. “Matrilineal,” I prompted—a mouthful. I said it three times “Matrilineal. Matrilineal. Matrilineal,” and they repeated it after me three times. Three is the magic number in writing—three points in an overt thesis statement, three multi-paragraph areas of support in a strong essay. A word repeated three times becomes familiar, but that does not provide meaning.

Reading aloud is hard work for the inexperienced. My students come from a literacy-poor culture. Their worlds have an impoverishment of aspiration and a paucity of encouragement to read. John Ruskin says, “The main thing which we ought to teach our youth is to see something, all that the eyes which God has given them are capable of seeing” (VI.483). They have been taught to read—to recognize high-use vocabulary and to sound out exotic words rapidly, to devour pages whole, at a glance, never pausing to rest their eyes upon and delight in the nuances of prose at play. They are good at looking, but too often they do not see. What Ruskin tells us about talking is true in their reading: “Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see” (V.333). I wrote unfamiliar words on the chalkboard under the URL and showed them the keys to unlocking meaning for themselves.

In “matrilineal,” I underlined the letters L-I-N-E. I put square brackets around the initial [MA] to help them see. I watched them smile as understanding dawned. “Your mama’s side,” they nodded. It was a bright moment. They could see what I’ve been telling them about words having families—mother, mama, matrilineal. We paused to learn patrilineal too, just for fun. We were linguists! We were wordsmiths! We were poets! After a few new words, my students saw the efficacy of making a list of unfamiliar words we wanted to master. Problem solvers! We were cheerfully at work, relishing the textures and sounds and tastes of new words. We were children with toys—taking words in with our ears and our mouths as well as our eyes. We had read, closely and thoroughly—an accomplishment surely, but these are college students, so mere reading wasn’t the entire lesson.

“What did we learn?” I asked them. Besides the new words and the idea that Arkansas is encouraging diversity, “How will you internalize the message?” I understand that they can read for comprehension. These are successful college students, the ones who didn’t flunk out the first semester. Like Faulkner’s victors, they endured. We have fast hold on the meaning. But what about the message? Understanding ideas doesn’t help much unless you can act upon them. An internalized message changes something about the reader’s ideas, beliefs, or behaviors. Reading matters most when it makes a difference. If they are enlightened, they have a light to share. Envisioning a means for sharing is the purpose of reading.

This took considerable thought, but eventually my students were able to vocalize ideas they were forming. There are children in their families whom they want to teach, to spend time with, to share ideas with, just as the teachers they read about are doing. These children can get excited about learning new things, and my students can become their mentors, helping them see just as the teachers we read about are mentoring the little ones in their lives. My students expressed the desire to learn their own fields of study so well that they too can be excited about having knowledge to pass along. They wanted to be passionate about their studies in the way that the teachers I wrote about in the blog post are passionate about their work. They want to have something of value to share with others just as those teachers do.

Learning is enlightenment, and enlightenment is joyous, but learning also brings responsibility. We must use the wisdom we gain for good, sharing the light we have with others lest we all stumble in darkness. It gave me pause when my students asked me, “Is learning always good? Isn’t it bad to learn to use drugs?” I had questions for them in response: Certainly recreational abuse of drugs is bad, but is it ever bad to LEARN? Is there a way to use even this learning for good? If I learn the process for cooking meth and use that acquired knowledge not to cook meth myself but to recognize when a family in my neighborhood is doing so, and if I act upon the responsibility which comes with my new knowledge to save the children of that family from an environment in which cooking meth is a customary way of life, does that redeem my learning? Does it make the learning good? We learned that complicated ideas have no easy answers, but education gives us the ability to consider their implications for ourselves.

Education comes with the responsibility to enlighten others, and good multiplies the potential for good. Ignoring these responsibilities is wickedness. Our duty as educated and enlightened teachers is to find a way to make the wisdom we have gained, the accumulated facts we have mastered, the knowledge we have acquired, into actions which promote good. We must better the lives of others if we want a better life. We must all progress together if we want a better world. What we choose to read matters greatly. When we read something beneath our capacity—intellectually, morally, or emotionally—we miss an opportunity for growth. We limit our light and our opportunity to share. We fail to learn. Most of the textbooks for university students are now written at the seventh-grade reading level, and students struggle through canonical novels which were once considered junior high entertainment. We limit their ability to read complex texts by providing information at a reading level they have already mastered.

Complex texts challenge our understanding and teach us the joy of development, and this is always good. But whenever we read something excellent and challenging, our reading shapes our lives. Comprehension is necessary to learning, but the way we internalize the message will predict the world we live in. Our actions publicly reveal the light we have to share, and making my classroom glow frequently is my duty as a teacher. How far the glow can spread is up to my students. A classroom filled with internalized light glowed brightly in my presence that day.

 

Works Cited

Ruskin, John. The Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin. Edited by E. T. Cook and A. Wedderburn, George Allen, 1903-1912, London.

The Same School Year: Narratives of Early- and Middle-Career Teachers in a U.S. Public School

By Lisa M. Dembouski & Kari Eloranta

At the Start of the Year

Kari:

I thought I was ready. Student teaching had been everything I’d dreamed it would be. I’d spent countless hours studying, training, and volunteering to be just the kind of teacher I had hoped to be. My teaching program prepped me with content and pedagogy and everything else I’d need. When I landed my first teaching job, I felt ready.

No one had described the butterflies I’d feel as I entered that room on day one. I’d arranged the desks in little collaborative pods and projected the seating chart on the wall. I had the Pandora Station “Pop Music” playing as the students came in.

They giggled nervously, seeing a young new teacher listening to “their music.” Many approached me right away and I started to feel good about the morning. The bell rang and I introduced myself and asked students to find their seats. I left the music on as they wandered around.

Fast forward to present day: I’m in my sixth year of teaching, and I made it to the semi-finals as 2018 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. I can honestly, unreservedly say I love my work and being a teacher. But if you had asked me two months into that first year if I liked my job, I would’ve lied and said I did. If you’d asked me halfway through it, I would’ve cried. And if you had asked again right before the end of third quarter, I would’ve told you I quit.

Lisa:

I returned to the classroom in the same school year, having spent the previous three in middle management hell as a TOSA—Teacher on Special Assignment—for my district. TOSA-ing, I’d thought, would be a delightful career move, an opportunity to apply my newly-earned Ph.D., and the chance to make a positive impact on a wider range of people. It actually just made me miserable. The TOSA role meant I spent most of my time with adults, with whom there is far less laughter and joy in one’s day-to-day. I was unprepared for the troubling and difficult challenges the grown-ups’ issues presented. And I was stuck in a position of having no power to actually effect any change, though the people I worked for believed I had such power. Only those at administrative levels above me could actually change anything, yet I was consistently expected to be someone who could. Or should.

So when I saw the opportunity to quit the TOSA position and return to the classroom, and to the same building in which I had already spent the majority of my teaching career, I seized it. This was an unexpected move that had its own negative repercussions, but I didn’t care: anything had to be better than what I’d just gone through.

“At last,” I thought with relief, “I can get back to my roots, do the work I know best, spend more time with kids, laugh again.” I felt positive and confident, eager to return to the familiar. It was going to be a great year.

Kari and Lisa:

We first met in a foundational class for teacher candidates that Lisa instructed as an adjunct for Kari’s teacher preparation program. We met again a year or so later when Kari took her first teaching job out of graduate school in the same district—and the same school—Lisa had taught in for most of her career up to that point. As it turned out, we even ended up across the hall from one another. Though we were literally just steps away, our paths rarely crossed, since we taught different students, subjects, and grade levels in that building.

Ours was a combined middle and high school in a large Minnesota city. The school district served nearly 40,000 students that year, and our building had over 1,000 of those. As urban schools go, it wasn’t that badly off. Paint and carpeting were added as our Principal could spare the funds, many of us had high-quality technology in our classrooms, and though it wasn’t perfect, it compared satisfactorily to other schools in the district and even around the state.

Nevertheless, we both left that school and district that academic year. We remained in touch in other ways, including co-authoring a book chapter about Kari’s preparation program (as yet unpublished, though the project is still in progress). In our collaboration, and as Kari shared more of her stories, Lisa recognized how instructional, emotionally engaging, and funny they were; it was refreshing to see this familiar school and district through the eyes of someone new. At the same time, it was difficult, extremely difficult, to read what Kari was enduring so silently there across the hall, to have had no idea what Kari was experiencing, and to have learned it well after the fact, after we both had left that district for other teaching ventures.

Now, Lisa finds the isolation and separation both shocking and unacceptable; she feels shame she did not recognize what Kari was going through—didn’t know she should reach out and offer support. Kari acknowledges she “felt bad” asking for anything from veteran teachers, who she could see were also swamped and struggling. At the time, immersed in the culture and chaos of the school, the fact that we rarely interacted with a known colleague teaching right across the hall didn’t seem all that strange.

We don’t often read stories of what happens to different teachers in the same school, during the same year, but during different stages of an educator’s career. We offer these glimpses into our 2013-14 academic year both to entertain and to instruct: how can we improve the quality of professional life for teachers in both their first and fifteenth years in the classroom, and what might have happened that would have kept us teaching there?

Improving Teacher Quality of Life, One Field Trip at a Time … or Not

Kari:

If there is any story I can tell that best epitomizes my first year of teaching, and embodies the reasons I left before the end of the school year, it’s this one about our all-school field trip.

Eighth graders are not what I expected; they can turn on you at any moment. Yes, they like and respect you, but they may also need to prove something to a peer or do something totally wild to gain respect. Those needs are more powerful than any relationship I had built so far. This understanding was cemented for me on an all-school field trip during the second week of school. Each grade headed somewhere different, and my eighth grade team was assigned to the zoo. As a first-year teacher, I was nervous and wondered how it would go. I didn’t know my students well enough to know how they’d act outside the school, but if my first week was any indication, it didn’t seem like it could go well. I tried to squelch my fears, trusting that this was what the building always did in the second week of school, and it would go fine. So, with my advisory class list in hand, we headed out to the bus.

We were only an hour into the field trip when zoo security asked all staff to make sure every eighth grader had an adult next to them. They were no longer allowed to walk around the zoo unattended. My group was surprised; what could their peers have done? We had been having such a great time! I walked around and found more eighth graders and welcomed them to my group. The students I started out with were helpful, pointing out other eighth graders that didn’t have an adult walking with them. I approached those students and asked them to join our posse, which was then about twenty students. Some wanted to stop and get ice cream. Some wanted to sit down. Most of them whined about the walking. I had to tell them to keep moving as one unit until we found another teacher. I found some of the kids who were in trouble for throwing food in the monkey cages. They weren’t throwing food for the monkeys to eat, but throwing food at the monkeys. The group was getting larger and more difficult to manage.

Seriously, why couldn’t I find another teacher?

I felt a tap on my shoulder.  “Ms. E., I don’t feel too good.”

“What do you mean? Are you dizzy, hungry—”

Before I could finish my question, I saw Harmony (pseudonym) start to flutter her eyes and fall backwards. I tried to stop her fall, but she had fifty pounds on me, and we both went crashing to the ground. My posse of eighth graders started to panic. I yelled to one of them to go get another adult.

I tapped her on the shoulder. “Harmony, can you hear me? Are you OK?”

Nothing.

Shit. Was I going to have to administer CPR?

“Harmony, let me know if you’re ok, otherwise I’m going to feel for your pulse.”

Maybe that will let her know, if she is just faking it, that I am very serious.

Still nothing. I started to feel for a pulse.

Thank god, I can feel it. But, what the hell do I do now? Why couldn’t I remember my CPR training? What do you do if a student collapses to the ground and has a pulse? And where was another adult?

I heard breath coming out of her lips, but she was still not answering me.

Finally, I saw the zoo First Aid Responder come running. I have never been so relieved in my life. I told him everything I knew. When he asked for her last name, I felt really dumb that I didn’t know. This was just another reason why we shouldn’t take a field trip on the ninth day of school. There were about 200 eighth graders on that trip. I saw about 170 of them in my classes. At that point, I was proud to have their first names down!

I ran over to my students and asked if any of them knew Harmony’s last name.

No one did.

Finally, another teacher showed up and I explained the situation again. He didn’t know her last name either. Thankfully, he did have important numbers in his phone like the school’s number and the teacher’s number who had Harmony in her advisory. He started making phone calls. After that day, I would buy a smartphone.

The ambulance arrived and Harmony still had not stirred.

They loaded her up on the stretcher. By then, about 100 eighth graders were watching. The only useful thing I did at that point was remind them to back up and give the EMTs some space.

The EMTs had some questions that were directed at me. I had to explain the situation again. I was so embarrassed that I tried to catch her and failed. Somehow the fact that I also fell didn’t justify that I didn’t catch her. The EMT tried to make me feel better by saying they don’t think she hit her head because her backpack was on and I helped slow her fall. Thank goodness.

The other teacher called the office and informed them that Harmony was being rushed to the hospital, and to tell her parents to meet her there. The EMTs needed to know whether we had a policy about a teacher needing to ride in the ambulance with a student. We had no idea. We called the school again. We did not have that kind of policy, so they rushed off to the hospital.

We gathered the rest of our students. There were still many kids wandering in the zoo who had no idea what was happening. A few teachers thought we should load the bus forty minutes early and head back to school after the incident of throwing food at the monkeys and now this. Almost all of our students were ready to go anyway. I rushed back into the zoo to make sure the other groups knew we were about to leave.

I started to count my students; I only had 25 of my 30. A couple other teachers were missing students as well. We even had a few teachers missing.

Another teacher ran back into the zoo. Apparently, a group of my students were playing in the elevator in the zoo lobby and got it stuck. Could the day get any worse?

Everyone was pissed. It was hot out. The zoo was “boring” and they knew they were in trouble. The ride back to school was silent.

We arrived with fifteen minutes left in the school day. My students told me that the administration would probably never let them go on a field trip again. I couldn’t disagree. The bell rang and I had never been so happy for a weekend in my life.

It was only my second week of teaching.

Lisa:

My experience of those all-school field trips is so different from Kari’s I can barely breathe. Their purpose was to highlight the school’s newer “environmental” focus. Because we served so many grades (six through twelve) and had such large classes, multiple field trips were dispatched to a variety of “environmental in some way” destinations. I didn’t really care which trip I took; I just knew how eager I was to get out of my classroom, a small one in the middle of the building with no windows and an average daily temperature of 88ºF that fall. Chewing gum melted in there, so I was looking forward to cool respite, courtesy of the environment.

Somehow I drew the long field trips straw and got to cruise a local waterway on a paddleboat with the senior class. I spent that day in breezy, seated comfort, taking multiple photos of scenic beauty, floating lazily down the river on a gorgeous autumn Friday. I was with students who by now totally knew how to do school and therefore had no conduct issues—who were, in fact, a delight to talk to as the day passed in easy fun. “They pay us to be here!” I exclaimed gleefully to my fellow educators on board. “What a wonderful day to be a teacher!”

By now I’ve read Kari’s zoo story over two dozen times, and on every reading, I see something new, something to question, problems to resolve with the comfort and ease of hindsight. Her story perfectly captures what that school culture always felt like—though it had been invisible to me, so I could never articulate as well as Kari does—and it tells me a great deal about the questions we asked earlier that frame our narratives here: what could have enhanced the professional quality of our lives on this field trip day, and what might have kept us teaching there?

Kari and Lisa:

Kari still thinks of that day with horror anytime someone says the word “zoo,” and probably will for the rest of her life. Lisa genuinely wonders whether the residual effects of traumatic teaching experiences like this could be something teachers carry with them forever. Thankfully, in her more recent years of teaching, Kari has not chaperoned a trip quite like it. She now realizes that that particular field trip was a bizarre and unusual occurrence.

We both agree that, nine days into the school year, Kari should never have been left to handle a large group of unfamiliar eighth graders on her own. Support in the form of veteran adults who knew the students should have been a given for any teacher new to the school (not just those new to teaching) that day.

Underlying this, and most everything in our stories (particularly Kari’s), is something we see all the time: teachers constantly thrown into untenable situations and expected to swim; sinking is not an option. They are given the loud and clear message that they are professional adults, entrusted with the care of children, and therefore must be responsible people—which, of course, they are. But why, particularly in the induction years, do we not also remember how much we relied on mentors in the early stages of our own careers? How we appreciated when someone understood and foresaw our challenges and provided support without our having to ask (because we didn’t yet know what would challenge us, did not realize what we didn’t already know, so therefore had no idea what to ask)? Why don’t we send them into the waters of their new profession with a co-captain and reliable ways to stay afloat?

What Ultimately Led to Our Leaving

Kari:

There were several things we didn’t cover in my teaching program—things that, as a new educator, I had to learn by living them. One such topic was a teacher’s prep hour. In my entire first year of teaching, I’m not sure I actually planned a single lesson during my prep hour. The first quarter of the year, I shared my room with the French teacher. So on my prep, I had to leave; I spent a lot of time organizing bins of papers to grade in a colleague’s room. I climbed a flight of stairs every day with those bins, praying I wouldn’t drop anything. Huge chunks of my time were spent just trying to decide which papers should go into which bins, and which I’d need for the big trek that hour.

Thankfully, by second quarter, I had my room back and could use my full prep hour, but I still didn’t manage to prep lessons. Instead, I spent more time cleaning my room after the day’s activities, or chasing down students who were so loud in the hall I couldn’t focus. Seriously, why were there so many kids in the hallway?

It seemed that the administration had bigger problems to worry about than why none of the kids were in class. And so, by week two of me asking where all these kids were supposed to be that hour, I devised a plan and informed them, “Any student left in the hallway in the next minute will be cleaning desks in my room.”

A few scattered back to their classes, but the majority wrongly thought that cleaning desks in the new teacher’s room would be fun. We got real cleaning supplies from the janitor’s closet. Every last piece of “Fuck you,” “Fuck this class,” “THOT,” and “Princess was here” was removed. The fumes were getting a little strong. Sadly, they joked about getting high. One student told me he wished he had gone to class on time, instead of this. I told him the best part: you still get to go to class.

Why was it that I, Ms. First Year Teacher, was the one who organized this plan of getting students out of the hallway? It seemed to work better than any phone call home or write-up ever did.

Once that problem was “solved,” I still managed to find something other than my lessons to work on during my prep hour. I started to use the time to connect with students who were at in-school suspension (ISS), making an affirming connection with them so they could get back on track in my class. I decided that I’d find a student who was in ISS and we’d apologize to each other for this morning when she swore at me and I kicked her out (a school policy I should’ve ignored), and then I’d make a positive call home. Great idea in theory, and I do thank my teaching program for that. I really believe it would’ve been a great moment if she had been in ISS. But, when I arrived at the room, she was not there.

I went to the office to let them know Tanya (pseudonym) was not in ISS.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I just checked.”

“Well, it says she was sent there 2nd hour.”

“Yes, I know. I was the teacher who sent her there 2nd hour.”

“Well, where is she?”

Deep breath. “That’s what I was wondering.”

I was directed to the IEP room. I’m not sure the secretary understood that the IEP room was for students on an IEP, which Tanya was not. But I went to check, and she was not there either. I reported back to the office and saw the usual ISS teacher. He had been in a meeting and there’d been a sub in ISS, which explained how Tanya disappeared.

Thankfully, he seemed to care just as much as I did that a student was gone. We joined forces and went to look for the missing Tanya.

The end of the school day quickly arrived, and I had just spent my entire prep hour looking for a student no one knew was missing. Right as the bell rang, we saw Tanya emerge with her friends. I called out her name and she turned her head back. After she saw me, she ran away. Literally ran down the hall. I looked at the ISS teacher. He only said, “Well, looks like that phone call home isn’t going to be a good one anymore.”

This moment stands out as one of the reasons I left this school. I felt like I cared too much. I don’t mean this in an “I’m good at everything, I just care too much” way. I just got so worked up about things other teachers had managed to put up blinders to. I cared so much that I’d spend a whole prep hour searching for a student who didn’t want to be found, and who knew no one else was looking for her. I think I could’ve survived the year had I kept to myself and just planned my lessons on my prep. But, as my teaching program taught me, simply planning your lessons is not what makes a good teacher. To be the kind of teacher I was trained (and wanted) to be meant connecting with students would always come before lesson planning; that’s what makes a good teacher.

Lisa:

I never used my prep hour to actually prep, either. Something more urgent always took precedence over teaching’s essential work like lesson planning. Often these related to following up on student issues or misbehaviors, as Kari describes above. There were always emails to answer, new (and, generally, reactive rather than proactive) building or district initiatives to be learned and implemented, and endless paperwork required of me as a SpEd teacher/IEP manager.

I also spent a good deal of time trying to convince my administrators that my teaching load was not making the best use of my training or experience. In an eight-period schedule, where one period was my prep, I taught a single class that actually utilized my knowledge and skills as an educator. The other six class periods were a mix of things, but the most galling was that I spent two of them commandeering the IEP room Kari mentioned above, which means I spent 90 minutes every day supervising kids with IEPs who were sent to the room because they weren’t meeting expectations in the class they were scheduled for that hour. The room was usually empty, too; in those days kids were rarely sent there. Now that I think back on it, I got more prep, grading, and paperwork done in those excruciatingly long and boring minutes every day than I ever did on my assigned prep.

As the year went on, and my pleas to actually be given classes to teach continued to be ignored, I realized that TOSA work wasn’t the only thing making me unhappy in that district. Rather, it was the impossible, demoralizing, and disempowering circumstances in which we were expected to work. Why wasn’t anyone listening to me? Why didn’t anyone care that I, an over-educated, mid-career teacher with 15 years of classroom experience, was languishing, sitting alone in an empty room for a large part of her day?

I finally acknowledged this was not what I had bargained for when I signed on as a teacher. My beloved job had been wrenched from my hands and mangled into something I no longer recognized. I also had to accept this truth: I was leaving that school and district at the end of the year. I actually had enough sick days accrued that I could have left sometime in January. I still don’t know why I didn’t just cash them in and walk away. I somehow felt a loyalty and a responsibility to my students that no one else even cared that I had. I could have saved myself so many sleepless nights, though, so many unpleasant thoughts and experiences, so many dreams of doing something—anything—except this.

When I realized that no one was going to change my situation in that building, I promised myself that, doctorate be damned, I’d rather open a tiki bar on a beach someplace than deal with this shit anymore. I was that burned out, that overcome. As comforting and restful as “tiki bar on a beach” may sound, I still knew it was not the best fit for me and my strengths, would not make a difference in this world that I so want to contribute to in positive ways.

My light at the end of the tunnel came in the form of the opportunity I am now in. By the end of that school year, somehow, all the planets aligned to bring me into my current role—teacher educator at a small liberal arts college—which I thoroughly enjoy. I do this new work in a community I love, and in systems and circumstances that more often than not include me when decisions are made about my professional work and expectations. I won’t lie to you, though: this new gig is still fraught with guilt, particularly my worry that I’m simply preparing lambs for slaughter as I train and send new teachers out into the world. I know the world I’m sending them into, because I left it the second I had the chance.

What Would Have Kept Us There

Kari:

I am so thankful now to be part of a district and building that is more able to support teachers. In my first year at my next school, I had an official mentor teacher. Her job on every Wednesday was to be available to all teachers, specifically new teachers. She was there to watch my class if I needed to run to the bathroom, make more copies when the printer was broken, and, best of all, just listen to me on my prep hour and talk through ideas I had for my students and lessons. More importantly, I also consider my principal a mentor. I know she is there for me, to support me in any way I need, which is an amazing feeling I wish all teachers could experience.

Now, I am able use my prep hour to plan lessons and grade assignments. Our building has enough staff that teachers aren’t responsible for hall monitoring, lunch duties, and any other issue that pops up. I know that my job is to teach students, and I don’t feel that I’m spread too thin.

Lisa:

Nothing. Nothing would have kept me there. It was tiki bar or bust.

I’ll admit that the (significant) pay cut moving to my new job has been a challenge, and I do miss working with younger students sometimes. However, I am so much happier and feel much more professionally rewarded now. I know I made the right decision; this move was a good one for me.

Kari and Lisa:

In the stories and comparisons above, we made several points critical to our experiences teaching in that school and juxtaposing those with what we’re doing now. We tried to illustrate what would have felt more supportive to us and our work, what might have kept us there. We parse out our key ideas more deliberately in the next sections.

What Would Have Made Things Better

The Right Kind of Mentoring

We both believe that a more consistent, responsive, and accessible mentor would have made a world of difference for Kari that year. Her official mentor was a representative in the district with whom Kari had to schedule time to meet. Kari would rather have had someone in the building who could come in to her room before, during, and after school, unannounced, and not have to arrange a time that worked with busy schedules to swing by and help with a problem that had likely turned into a different problem by the time they could meet.

Kari’s unofficial mentors were teachers she got to know and like, but if she asked them to help (and often she didn’t, because she could see it wasn’t just first-year teachers struggling), more often than not their response was the unhelpful, “You’re doing great, just keep going, it’s a tough job!” Resources, including the precious resource of trained and effective colleague and administrator time, must be a regular part of a student-centered/teacher-supportive school.

Realistic and Reliable Structures That Permit Teachers to Focus on Essential Tasks

We understand that teacher prep time, as well as the other, seemingly-infinite duties of the profession, are simply a part of one’s work, and that all jobs have these. We acknowledge the support that was there for us to do those tasks, in the form of allocated non-student-contact time built into our schedules each week.

Nevertheless, the time there for us “on paper” rarely translated to reality. Instead, that time was regularly on-contact with students—like chasing down a kid who wasn’t where she was supposed to be—and did not serve us for planning or other tasks essential to the actual pedagogical work we were there to do. The focus of teaching and learning was almost always subsumed into a much less urgent place in our daily hierarchies, and planning was usually something done on our own time, at home, on evenings, weekends, and even holidays.

We advocate that the focus of teachers’ school and work time be first and foremost on those essential teaching tasks. Relegate the extraneous, time-consuming demands that are unrelated to our work as professional pedagogues to a much lower and less important rung on our attention ladder, and let us use the school day for what we’re there to do: teach. While we’re at it, let us also devote our work day to the guts of good teaching: lesson planning and delivery, classroom management strategy development, relationship-building, providing effective feedback to students to support their learning, devising ways to better reach struggling learners, building our repertoires of inclusive teaching practices, and allowing us as educators to focus on why we’re there: to connect with students, facilitate their learning, and impart academic content to them.

Teacher Voice and Agency

We also craved a voice: the chance to see people trust our professional judgment, listen to our ideas for solutions to ongoing challenges, and utilize our strengths. It still baffles us that teaching is one of the few professions that is legislated and administered by everyone except teachers. Unquestionably, Lisa’s time was wasted supervising that IEP room, which these days is staffed by a paraprofessional—an aggravating fact given that Lisa had championed that exact change back when she was begging to be given students and classes to teach.

In the End

We could be here all day. Kari, in particular, has such vivid, descriptive memories and stories of her time in that school that she could simultaneously entertain and horrify you for hours. We imagine that this could be said for most teachers. We know what it’s like out there, day in and day out. We know the contexts in which we are expected to teach and how rarely those are determined by actual educatorsWe’ve had the joyous experiences, and the ones that pushed us beyond our limits or left us with scars that won’t ever fully heal. In the end, the outrageous challenges dominated, and we moved.

We didn’t go far, however, and we both currently find our career trajectories in education enormously fulfilling and, for the most part, positive. We feel healthy and stronger because of our trials by fire. We also know this: teachers should be allocated more time, more resources (human and otherwise), and more trust than they are given currently. We, as professionals, should be granted far more power and leadership opportunities that impact our careers and the teaching profession overall. We should be making the decisions that influence our work, because we understand the issues and have legitimate solutions that, if heard and implemented, would probably work. We need that chance, the opportunity to—at last!—be in charge of our own field, and to lead our profession into the future with the knowledge, expertise, and talents we all possess. The time is long overdue: teaching should belong to teachers.

Minding the Body: Towards a Pedagogy of Enactment

By Catherine Fox

Although unable to theorize it at the time, I dropped out of college when I was nineteen because the disconnect had become intolerable. To be a disembodied mind, taking in the “knowledge” of the professor and regurgitating it in the form of papers and exams, was severing me from the interconnectivity that, I now believe, is essential to a purposeful life. Driven by a passion to teach, I eventually found my way back to credentialed education, and like many in alternative educational circles, I have spent the better part of my career as an academic resisting the expectation that both professors and students be disembodied minds, talking heads divorced from our physical bodies as we engage in meaning-making processes.

It has become common within Composition Studies to situate discourse as embodied; however, actual bodies and their relationship to learning in general, and literacy practices in particular, are often curiously absent from these discussions.[1] As Kristie Fleckenstein argues, “[B]odies as sites of and participants in meaning-making have been elided” (“Writing Bodies” 281). Severing connection to our bodies and yet expecting fully engaged teachers and learners is one of the more egregious failures of higher education. Moved by my own battle with disconnection in education and Fleckenstein’s argument to bring bodies to bear on transformative pedagogies in ways that join them with the mind, I designed an experimental Honors first-year composition course named “Embodied Discourse” that thematically explores the mind/body relationship. Most importantly, I was committed to not reproducing the mind/body split of intellectual exploration that is devoid of attending to the material bodies in the classroom. Having practiced vinyassa yoga for nearly fifteen years and benefited from the ways in which attunement between body, mind, and breath allows for greater presence and mindfulness, I organized the course to begin with fifteen or twenty minutes of yoga practice, which was then followed by a more traditional discussion-oriented pedagogy. We would not just be talking heads discussing and composing texts that explored mind/body; we would be bodies and minds together, yoked through practices of yoga, listening, discussing, reading, and writing.

Often, we design classes out of an unnamed exigency, and what motivated the urgency to create a new learning experience for students gets fleshed out over time, sometimes after the class has ended. Although it challenged me, unnerved me, inspired me, and renewed my passion for teaching, learning, and writing, a nagging question persisted in the back of my mind: what does yoga have to do with writing? In this article, I explore this question in light of recent scholarship around issues of embodiment, agency, and responsibility. As a launching point, I use Marilyn Cooper’s conceptualization of rhetorical agency because she explicitly places embodiment at the center of her definition: “[A]gency is an emergent property of embodied individuals” (421). Central to Cooper’s theory of “responsible rhetorical agency” is the contention that students are already agents (entities that act and bring about change); thus, she argues that we need a pedagogy of responsibility, not a pedagogy of empowerment, in helping students better understand rhetorical agency. Disappointingly, although Cooper’s theory relies heavily on the idea of embodiment, her primary illustration draws almost exclusively on traditional textual analysis (a speech by President Obama). Equally important, her advocacy for a responsible pedagogy makes little mention of actual student bodies; embodiment is treated more as a neuroscientific concept in her theory of agency rather than a material reality to which we should attend.

In agreement with Cooper, I believe students are already agents; indeed, it is presumptuous to situate our roles within a framework of “empowerment.” However, devoid of material enactment and retreating into traditional textual analysis that solidifies the classic mind/body split, Cooper’s argument becomes a pedagogy of exhortation (Berthoff). Through an examination of my first-year composition course thematically designed to explore the relationship between mind and body, I offer to extend Cooper’s theory. Rather than a pedagogy of responsibility or empowerment, I advocate a pedagogy of enactment through which material engagement with bodies in the classroom can create the conditions whereby students are able to situate themselves as interconnected, meaning-making individuals. Yoga provides one means of achieving a pedagogy of enactment. I am not suggesting that daily yoga practice gives students explicit conceptual awareness of Cooper’s theory of agency, nor do I plan to prove that my students’ writing was more rhetorically responsible after sixteen weeks of a pedagogy of enactment. However, I contend that if we wish to develop responsible rhetorical agency in students, we need more holistic pedagogical enactments that engage both minds and bodies. Yoga is one such practice, and a powerful one, I argue, because it fosters a sense of mindful awareness and interconnectivity that can enable students to both understand and experience themselves as individuals within the context of a larger collective, a foundational premise for the practice of rhetorical responsibility.

Materiality of Moving Bodies in the Classroom

The materiality of the classroom, class size, and time within which we work significantly shape the degree to which we can meaningfully engage a pedagogy of enactment, particularly if we seek to integrate bodies and minds. Fortunately, I taught Embodied Discourse in 100-minute blocks twice weekly and had relatively low enrollment (13 students the first year, 19 students the second year). Before I offer a brief background on yoga and illustrate how the practice of yoga impacted students’ sense of interconnectivity and responsibility, I describe how yoga was incorporated into our daily routine. I offer this not as a recipe for a pedagogy of enactment, but as a backdrop for how we negotiated the material barriers in enacting a pedagogy that aimed to yoke mind with body.

I seek creative ways of helping students physically experience and reflect on how the material conditions of the classroom affect us. Classrooms in my department generally have four rows of long tables with eight students seated in each row, all facing the “smart” technology at the front of the room where the professor can literally hide behind a tall desk occupied by a large computer monitor, document camera, and several other pieces of equipment for commanding the technology. On the first day of Embodied Discourse, we begin in the departmentally sanctioned arrangement of desks with the typical first-day introductions.[2] I then ask students to bring awareness to how their bodies felt during the introductions and we free-write for a few minutes. After a brief discussion of their writing, I have students push all the desks together to create one large table with everyone sitting around the perimeter. We do another set of introductions (adding something new to our previous introductions), followed by the same free-write prompt, and another brief discussion. Finally, I have students move all the desks and chairs to the perimeter of the room, leaving the middle of the room entirely open. Sitting on the floor in a loose circle, we introduce ourselves a third time (again, adding something new) followed by the free-write prompt and discussion.

Materially experimenting with different arrangements and asking students to bring awareness to the physical experience of how classroom design and body arrangement affects them sets the framework for my pedagogy of enactment. This also allows me to introduce the theme and structure of the course: we would be exploring embodied discourse for the semester, but we would not just be intellectually discussing the mind/body relationship; instead, we would be both bodies and minds together each day, dedicating the first fifteen to twenty minutes to some sort of yoga practice and the remainder of each session to intellectual exploration. Another key element of a pedagogy of enactment for this course was explicitly introducing it as experimental.  Following in the tradition of écriture féminine from Helene Cixous, the purpose of “writing the body” is to move away from strict discursive forms and rules and instead engage a sense of play that opens fresh possibilities for writing. Thus, embodied discourse always retains a spirit of the ineffable. Enacting the spirit of the “unknown,” I explicitly frame the course as one in which we explore together; I don’t have any certain answers as to what “embodied discourse” might mean, nor where we might arrive at the end.[3]

There were many sideways glances and nervous facial expressions on the first day. Despite their clear hesitation, they were all willing to give the idea and practice of “being bodies and minds together” their best effort.[4] Beginning the second day of class, students stopped by my office, where they picked up a yoga mat; I gave them the key to the classroom and instructed them to move tables and chairs in any way they wished so that we would have room for moving bodies.[5] This became our daily routine: students arriving early to rearrange the classroom so that we had open floor space available for our mats and freedom of movement.

Even with my awareness of how classroom design orders bodies (and thus learning), I had no idea just how much of an impact this would have on students. Throughout both semesters that I taught Embodied Discourse, various students emphasized how “cool” it was that they got to move the tables and decide how to arrange their bodies. They had no problem moving the tables back to the sanctioned arrangement after class (I move the desks in each of my classes into different arrangements, and there are always a few in these other classes who get quite curmudgeonly about moving the desks each day). In retrospect, I also believe that the sensory experience of sitting on the floor together with our shoes off on multicolored mats in hues of purple, pink, yellow, and green contributed to students’ positive reception of the course. Thus, part of the success of Embodied Discourse was not only a pedagogy of enactment in which we were both thinking and doing beings, but also the materiality of making the classroom our own by moving desks and sitting on multi-colored mats in various arrangements that helped create a greater sense of collective ownership and control of the class. As mentioned above, I do believe that our students are already agents, but when forced to occupy space in pre-determined arrangements, their experience of being actors in their own processes of learning is diminished. Thus, a pedagogy of enactment sometimes requires literally turning the keys to the classroom over to the students to embody it in ways that reinforce that they are agents in their learning.

Yoking the Doing and Being Modes of Mind through Yoga

My choice of yoga for a pedagogy of enactment in Embodied Discourse was informed by Eastern philosophies of mindfulness and more recent scientific studies that integration of mind/body/breath leads not only to health and well-being, but also to greater meta-cognitive awareness.[6] Yoga is a contemplative art, where contemplation is understood as “cutting out” or marking out space for observation. It is a practice intended to bring about mindfulness, which Jon Kabat-Zinn defines as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are” (Mindful 47). In Contemplative Practices in Higher Education, Daniel P. Barbezat and Mirabai Bush explain, “The word yoga, from the Sanskrit word yuj, means to yoke or bind and is often interpreted as ‘union,’ or a method of discipline…Yoga is different from stretching or other kinds of fitness because it explicitly connects the movement of the body and the fluctuations of the mind to the rhythm of the breath…to direct attention inward to the cultivation of awareness” (168).

This cultivation of awareness acts as a vehicle for activating the “being” mode of mind, as opposed to the “doing” mode of mind. Centuries of mindfulness practices as well as contemporary research in neuroscience associate the being mode of mind with remaining present and open in the midst of the ebb and flow of reality (Kabat-Zinn Mindful). It recruits our capacity for curiosity, compassion, interconnection, and larger awareness. The doing mode of mind is generally associated with problem solving and critical thinking, skills foregrounded in higher education. This mode recruits our judgment, comparison, problem-solving, analysis, and evaluation capacities. As Kabat-Zinn points out, the being mode is not better than the doing mode, but it provides a “whole other way of living our lives and relating to our emotions, our stress, our thoughts, and our bodies” (Mindful 46). It is an often neglected, but inherent, human capacity. Yoga provides one such means of attending to and developing the being mode of mind.

Not insignificantly, the body plays an important part in these modes of mind through hormone production and activation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. In other words, these two modes of mind are not simply cognitive dispositions; we have to actually work with the body to develop them. Neuroscientist Alex Korb explains that yoga is not a “relaxing” activity in and of itself; instead, yoga poses intentionally produce discomfort and disorientation to essentially retrain the autopilot stress mode of the brain:

Your brain tends to react to discomfort and disorientation in an automatic way, by triggering the physiological stress response and activating anxious neural chatter between the prefrontal cortex and the more emotional limbic system. The stress response itself increases the likelihood of anxious thoughts, like “Oh god, I’m going to pull something,” or “I can’t hold this pushup any longer”…The twisting of your spine, the lactic acid building up in your straining muscles, the uneasy feeling of being upside down, the inability to breathe, are all different forms of discomfort and disorientation, and tend to lead reflexively to anxious thinking and activation of the stress response in the entire nervous system. However, just because this response is automatic, does not mean it is necessary. It is, in fact, just a habit of the brain. One of the main purposes of yoga is to retrain this habit so that your brain stops automatically invoking the stress response.

The brain (as part of the body) is an evolving, changing organ, not a static one. Brain imaging technologies support long-held philosophical beliefs that yoga can alter mind-body interactions to create greater calm and presence, which are key elements to the being mode of mind. Yoking body, mind, and breath, Korb explains, mediates the “anxious neural chatter between the prefrontal cortex and the more emotional limbic system.” Re-routing the autopilot stress mode of the brain through minding the body opens empathetic pathways and creates greater cognitive presence and sense of inter-connectivity.

In Embodied Discourse, our daily yoga practice was generally focused on some variation of Sun Salutation coupled with a few balancing poses, such as tree or eagle pose.[7] We began by standing still at the front of our mats, and I invited everyone to bring their minds and bodies to the present moment. Coaching students as we moved through the poses, I also iterated elements of the philosophy undergirding the practice. Of particular importance, each day I reminded students that yoga is a practice; it is not goal-oriented nor is it about achieving the perfect pose. We don’t focus on mastering a pose or increasing flexibility or even perfecting a sequence of movements. Instead, yoga is rooted in the assumption that a sense of balanced, calm, and connected awareness arises naturally when we approach the practice regularly with non-violence and non-judgment.[8] We work with the strengths and limitations of our individual bodies, which are ever-changing. One day we may find ourselves totally unable to do a pose we did the day before—this is particularly true with balancing poses. Flexible response to the fluidity of the changing body can translate, over time, into how we relate to ourselves and the world around us. The arc of our energy and attention in yoga is quieting the doing mode of mind and engaging the being mode of mind: opening the body through movement and observing sensations and changes in both mind and body with non-judgment.

As I guided students through the practice, I also consistently reminded them that we practice with ahimsa (non-violence), and this non-violence begins with the self. Practitioners of yoga push against their edges of comfort but not beyond them into the realm of pain; likewise, we do not push our bodies to do the poses that a practitioner on an adjacent mat may be doing. Ultimately, it was not my aim to turn students into yogis; yoga was a vehicle to engage a pedagogy of enactment in which we could slow down, develop a sense of curiosity, and see what would arise from yoking minds and bodies in the process of exploring embodied discourse.[9]

Although I taught Embodied Discourse twice, each year I remained committed to an intention of surrendering to the unknown. Suspending the will to know in order to see what would emerge from combining yoga with writing instruction is in keeping with the curiosity and openness of the being mode of mind that is central to yoga practice.[10] One specific form of surrender in this course was carving out space for students to engage in weekly writing in a meaning-making journal that was not read by me. I wanted them to write a lot, and I wanted to make sure that their writing was not always subjected to the “gaze” of the teacher so that their intellectual processes could emerge more organically. I divided writing assignments into two categories: writing to learn (to engage the being mode of mind) and learning to write (to engage the doing mode of mind). The writing-to-learn assignment was a standard weekly journal entry: write three full pages, front and back, in a (paper) notebook of their choosing for each class meeting (six pages per week). Their task was to “meet their mind” on the page; the focal point was our weekly text (a reading, a TED talk, a podcast, etc.). They could write about anything related to the texts we used in class as long as they were engaging their curiosity to observe and explore their mind. I promised them I would never read their writing nor require them to read it out-loud (although I often asked if volunteers wished to share passages of their writing to initiate a conversation, to which almost all the students responded with enthusiasm once they developed a sense of connection to one another).[11]

Students asked if they could use a laptop or digital notebook for their meaning-making journal, but I did not want digital screens creating a barrier between bodies because they also used their meaning-making journals for note-taking and workshop activities. If the given text for the week was a video or podcast, we listened to/watched it together in order to create a collective listening/viewing experience and we discussed it immediately afterwards or during the following class meeting. When we listened to a podcast or TED talk together, students would sprawl out on the floor, some seated cross-legged with their meaning-making journals propped in their laps, others lying either belly-down or belly-up on their yoga mats with their meaning-making journals at hand to take notes. Although there was some resistance to this older writing technology, it was part of the experimental nature of the course to remove barriers between bodies, to surrender to the unknown, and to create a vehicle for “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment.” Digital writing technologies have too many distractions to achieve these goals, which students seemed to understand after a few weeks of writing and note-taking in paper notebooks.

Yoking writing to learn (the being mode of mind) with learning to write (the doing mode of mind) was another way to engage students more holistically. The meaning-making journal entries and notes became the foundation for their formal papers.[12] I wanted to illustrate several things with this writing-to-learn assignment: good writing comes from writing regularly; good writing comes from observing, questioning, and exploring; and writing is an intellectual process that occurs over time and space, not a rigid formula or set a rules. Using writing as an additional contemplative art that cut out space for “meeting the mind” on the page, I wanted them to see that writing a ten-page paper could be a far less painful experience than the last-minute, all-night writing marathons many of them had experienced.

Our daily yoga practice was intended to complement their development as writers in three ways. First, yoga was a way to engage the primary “content” of the course (exploring the mind/body relationship). Our practice of yoga (reflecting on it, writing about it, and talking about it) became one of the “texts” for the course that complemented more traditional texts. Second, yoga served as an implicit metaphor for the kinds of writing practices I wanted to teach students, such as engaging in the process rather than focusing on the goal, embracing curiosity through observation, suspending judgment, creating spaciousness through learning to be more flexible, and most generally, trying to slow down and go deeper into thinking and writing. Finally, yoga served as a method of yoking the being and doing modes of mind so that daily discussions and workshop were framed with a lived practice of cultivating mindfulness and the interconnection of body/mind.

Yoga and other mindfulness practices often have been targeted specifically to help with stress reduction and emotional turmoil; however, in what follows, I argue that the presence and connectivity developed through activating the “being mode of mind” in yoga are a precursor to rhetorical responsibility that Cooper advocates. Instructing students only through the “doing mode of mind” to enact responsible rhetorical agency will fall short if we are not also cultivating the being mode of mind in which students can experience connectedness to themselves, their learning, the course material, their peers, and the professor. Engagement of both modes of mind is crucial in a pedagogy of enactment.

Connectivity: A Foundation for Open Responsiveness and Meaning Making

As discussed in the introduction, Cooper’s new model of agency holds much promise because it brings embodiment to long-held debates over agency. She contends that “agents are defined neither by mastery, nor by determination, nor by fragmentation. They are unique, embodied, and autonomous individuals in that they are self-organizing, but by virtue of that fact, they, as well as the surround with which they interact, are always changing” (425). Cooper’s use of embodiment draws largely on neuroscientific research and systems theory through which she illustrates that minds are meaning-making organisms rather than merely information-processing organs in which “neurons interact to create a pattern…that is unique to each sensing individual, shaped by each individual organism’s history and shaped anew in every iteration” (427). It is this dynamic process of unique meaning making in interaction with one’s surround where intentionality (and thus agency) can be located in a series of stages that Cooper maps out as a continuous loop of both conscious and non-conscious processes of the nervous system (429). Within her model of agency, intent (to make making) is central, and conscious awareness is not. And perhaps most importantly, agency is effected through circular causation rather than linear causation: “[C]hange arises not as the effect of a discrete cause, but from the dance of perturbation and response as agents interact” (421).

In many respects, Cooper’s theory echoes central tenets of yoga: that we are emergent beings in continual processes of becoming and that we are simultaneously individuals and participants in a larger collectivity. Drawing on Bruno Latour’s work that rejects the idea of mastery and orderliness at the heart of the subject/object split, Cooper instead uses his notion of the “collective” to situate agency as an emergent property. The agent (or actor, as Latour calls it), is defined as “what interrupts the closure and the composition of the collective. To put it crudely, human and nonhuman actors appear first of all as troublemakers” (Latour, quoted in Cooper 425). Agents are “entities that act; by virtue of their action they necessarily bring about changes” (424). However, this notion of action is undergirded by the changing and ephemeral nature of the collective. In Latour’s words, the collective “is not a thing in the world, a being with fixed and definitive borders, but a movement of establishing provisional cohesion that will have to be started all over again every single day” (quoted in Cooper 425).[13]

A pedagogy of responsibility, according to Cooper, would help students hold in one hand the individuality of each organism’s complex nervous system and life history in the meaning-making process and in the other hand an understanding of how rhetorical actions can effect change through the interplay of complex systems and circular causation. As mentioned earlier, central to Cooper’s theory is the contention that students are already agents:

[W]e need to help students understand that writing and speaking (rhetoric) are always serious actions…What they write or argue, as with all other actions they perform, makes them who they are. And though their actions do not directly cause anything to happen, their rhetorical actions, even if they are embedded in the confines of a college class, always have effects: they perturb anyone who reads or hears their words. They need to understand that thus their rhetoric can contribute to the effort to construct a good common world only to the extent that they recognize their audience as concrete others with their own spaces of meaning.If they are not to negate others in this effort, they need to understand that their own persuasive acts as invitations, not as affirmations of absolute truth: they need to recognize that they might be wrong. Rhetorical agency is a big responsibility. (443; emphasis mine)

Cooper’s assertion that students’ rhetoric can “contribute to the effort to construct a good common world” certainly begs further interrogation given that common good rests on an unexamined assumption of shared values which has historically been an issue with critical pedagogies. However, if one of our goals in educating students (no matter what the subject) is to help them become more responsible (for their acts as agents already), and this responsibility is based on recognizing their audience as concrete others with their own spaces of meanings, then we must find ways to help students engage in processes of recognition.

To recognize is to find and feel some sort of connection, and there are layers of connectivity that are necessary in order for a sense of responsibility to arise. Such an understanding of responsibility is not just accountability for the effect of one’s actions; it also entails an open, responsive/response-able stance. I borrow the term response-ability from the work of Michael Hassett who, following Kenneth Burke, argues that creating spaces in writing and writing pedagogies for audience response is a central element in an ethic of communication where dialectical meaning making is the goal: Working in conjunction with the other, we are able to mitigate our own blindnesses and achieve together something more than we might have achieved separately. This occurs only as we affect one another, as we both respond, and it becomes mutually enhancing—together we make meaning in a dialectical relationship of response” (191). “Responsibility” holds a dual meaning of accountability as well as an ability to be responsive/response-able (rather than reactive) in one’s meaning making process. This kind of accountable, open responsiveness is contingent on the degree to which there is connectivity to the self as well as the world outside the self.

As mentioned above, in our practice of yoga I encouraged students to meet their bodies each day with ahimsa, responding flexibility and non-competitively to its fluidity with a spirit of non-violence. Through informal class conversation as well as a focus group interview,[14] students explained that they had spent much of their academic careers very grade-oriented and in competition with their peers, but the emphasis on ahimsa and doing their practice without competition with the person on a neighboring mat helped them feel more calm and connected to their learning. “There are some things that can’t be taught,” explained Angela.“They have to be experienced. And it’s one thing for us to read about how the body affects the mind, but it’s another to experience it firsthand…and doing it the way the class is set up, by being a body in the first part, allows the mind to be stronger in the second part.” She went on to describe how she had been so focused on competition and getting the best grade that she never really thought about ideas and learning in her education. Yoga practice and the emphasis on working with the body’s limitations had made her begin to develop a different attitude  (less aggressive, less goal-focused) towards herself as a learner. A spirit of non-competition and non-aggression towards self opens what I contend is the first layer of connectivity: connection to self.

For their final paper, I asked students to explore what they believed embodied discourse might be and to make an attempt to actually embody their writing. Carlin described embodied discourse as awareness and integration:

Embodied discourse is being aware and conscious of your mind and body and unifying them as one. They are no longer two separate parts of a function, but one whole. Apart, they can do only as much as they allow themselves, but together, a whole new creation evolves…Embodied discourse is similar to creating music. You have a harmony and a melody, a chorus and a bridge. A treble clef and a bass clef. Countless measures of individual notes that intertwine together and create a beautiful symphony. Isolate each piece and you have the start of something great, a resounding “g” on the bass staff or a gorgeous triad in the harmony, but put them together and you have created the final piece as a whole with layering tones. You’ve interlaced the product with a substance like that of magic. It’s captivating.

The metaphor of music and creating something more magical and captivating through integration suggests a beautiful connection to self, one that I have found rare in traditional undergraduates. Similarly, Sondra came to define embodied discourse as a sense of wholeness that gives meaning to life:

It [yoga] was a fun thing to do at first, but I gradually realized that the yoga helped to slow down my mind and allowed me to listen and notice others more…To me embodied discourse is being present in both the body and mind; operating as a full person rather than just a body or just a mind…we are often not creating mind/body connections as college students, which puts us in a perpetual state of disconnection. Disconnection leads to non-attachment to the experiences that form our identities and create a meaningful life. Ultimately without the integration of mind and body we are living less meaningful lives…. I struggled at first to understand why we need to be present and aware. I thought that should be a personal choice and who cares if someone chooses to coast through life. I realized how much you actually miss out on without being a body and a mind. I realized that relationships will be much harder to form and your self-esteem will not be where it should. I realized the meaning of life and the reasons I enjoy living come from my experiences.

As she indicated in her paper, Sondra struggled immensely in the course. She could not connect meaningfully with some of the texts, and she was far more comfortable with a product-oriented approach to school writing in which she could fulfill the expectations of a course and, as she puts it, “coast through” in a non-attached, non-present mode. I fully expected a more traditional paper from Sondra in which she simply captured main ideas from texts we had discussed and delivered them in a tidy paper with an introduction, three supporting paragraphs and a conclusion. However, she had a breakthrough during a brainstorming activity in which was able to focus more on what the yoga practice did for her (rather than ideas from texts) and how that was connected to what was most important to her in life: meaningful interpersonal experiences (school learning was not a meaningful experience for Sondra). For her, yoga became more than just a fun experience; it created the presence that she could then link to experience and make the argument that without presence and awareness, living life is less meaningful. College is a time when many students are exploring who they are and how to give purpose and meaning to their lives as the passages from Sondra and Carlin illustrate. The use of yoga proved to be one method that helped to create a sense of connectivity to themselves that is the first layer of connectivity necessary for responsiveness/response-ability.

Students repeatedly emphasized that yoga was challenging not only because of the physical stress it puts on the body, but also because it was difficult to express to their peers outside of the class why they were doing yoga in a composition course. However, they also noticed early in the semester that it actually helped them feel more grounded and present in themselves for the more traditional intellectual activities of reading, writing, and discussing ideas. Thus, a second layer of connectivity was greater attachment to writing. Erin, who had taken it upon herself to practice sun salutations before writing outside of class, explained:

I feel like being a body…really helps you concentrate and focus on the next activity…just yesterday I went to work on the paper, like doing final revisions, and it was just so nice. I was able to get right into the paper more easily and…my mind was flowing already. At first I didn’t think it [yoga] would affect it that much but it was kind of cool…I’m usually not able to start [writing] this quickly. And that’s how it is in class too, you’re able to focus and start talking more quickly.

Much like Sondra did not initially connect yoga to a larger purpose beyond being fun, Erin also found that yoga served a greater function of metacognitive awareness and focus. In their respective arguments, Geraldine DeLuca and Christy Wenger both contend that yoga practices develop metacognitive skills such as thinking about thinking, awareness of writing as a process, and self-awareness. These metacognitive benefits, along with the sense of connectivity to self and learning, help shift the emphasis away from creating better texts and towards creating better writers—writers invested in the meaning-making process with a spirit of curiosity and openness.

The theme of greater presence and engagement as agents in their learning (as opposed to focusing on grades and fulfilling course requirements) as a result of opening class with yoga was echoed by several other students. Angela explained that the non-competitive embodiment in yoga had changed her relationship to her learning: “What we take [from this course] is not career lessons, it’s life lessons…like getting outside of your ego can make you more successful…and that you can actually be in charge of your own learning.” Referencing a TED talk by Sugata Mitra on self-organized learning we had listened to and discussed earlier in the semester, Rebecca commented, “We come here and we’re experiencing our own things and it’s like you are teaching us, but in a way you are allowing us to kind of teach ourselves what we are learning…instead of you saying this is what you have to learn.”

For other students, a larger purpose in education was solidified through the sense of presence and engagement that yoga provided. The third layer of connectivity I identify is in relation to their learning. Nolan, who was already an excellent writer and probably could have tested out of a First-Year Composition requirement, came to me with questions about a research project after he had completed Embodied Discourse. In the course of the conversation, he explained that the yoga had been challenging because he is not very physically active and much more comfortable residing in his mind. The daily yoga practice pushed him to feel more connected to his writing because he never knew the point of writing papers in school. The emphasis on ahimsa during yoga and not proving himself coupled with the first paper instructions to “make a contribution” to the conversation that we had entered over the course of the semester created an “ah-ha” moment for Nolan. “I never understood that part of writing papers,” he said. “It was all just finishing the assignment, but now I get it, I write to make a contribution. That was huge for me. How come nobody ever said that? Papers were just proving ourselves, not actually participating.” I never would have suspected this was so powerful for Nolan because he was already a very good writer, astutely analytical in class conversations, and seemingly uninhibited during yoga. His comment (and his enthusiasm) strike me as another instance of how enacting the union of body and mind can create a foundation of connectivity that can lead to a greater sense of ownership in learning and writing. Nolan ended our conversation telling me, “My writing is so much better because of that class. I’ve written a lot of papers in school, but the ones I wrote in your class I am most proud of.” Given his disposition, Nolan could have easily engaged the course material that explored the relationship between mind and body on a purely intellectual level. However, materially joining body and mind produced the conditions in which he was able to have that “ah-ha” moment that helped him connect to the larger purpose of education and learning to write: joining the conversation as an agent with voice and influence.

Student feedback and examples from their embodied discourse papers capture how yoga in the first fifteen minutes of class engaged the “being mode” of mind in such a way that it complemented the “doing mode” of mind: cultivating of awareness and presence created greater connection that enabled more meaningful engagement with the discussions and writing. Rather than simply going through the motions of “schooling,” they are agents who act, influencing their education as well as the education of their peers through the meaning-making process. It was not enough to raise cognitive awareness of their agency; material engagement with both modes of mind were necessary to genuinely uncover connectivity to themselves, their writing, and their learning in a manner that exceeded the competitive, goal-oriented, grade-oriented emphasis that had framed much of their previous education. As a caveat, I also want to mention it was not always easy to begin the class with yoga; there were days when students were just tired and didn’t want to move their bodies and I had to put forth more energy to motivate them, which had its own tax on me and sometimes caused me to question my approach. There were other days when I felt that we had so much to cover that perhaps we should just skip the embodied practice and get to the more cognitive aspects of the class. Had I allowed these things to override my original goal to be more than talking heads, I would have abandoned a pedagogy of enactment and thus not laid the groundwork for students to experience a sense of interconnectivity, which I believe is another kind of connection essential to responsible agency.

Interconnectivity: A Foundation for Recognition and the “Dance of Perturbation”

The second tier, interconnectivity, entails a sense of connection with elements outside themselves such as other students, course materials, larger philosophical and social questions, etc. In both semesters that I taught Embodied Discourse, students described themselves as more willing to take the risk of meaning making, digging deeper into ideas with curious and more spacious minds, and more open to being challenged and pushed by others. Todd, a relatively reserved participant, commented, “I’d never do yoga on my own, but stepping outside my box is easier because everyone else is doing it. And then in discussion it’s almost easier to go deeper with our own views because I feel more connected.” Of particular importance to the students was a combined sense of being individuals situated within a larger community (which they attributed not only to yoga but to my daily reminders to practice yoga with ahimsa).They experienced not only a sense of greater attachment to themselves and their learning through minding the body, but also a greater sense of interconnection to others.[15] Lisa explained, “Yes, we get freedom from traditional education, from desks…and it gives us the idea that we are one mind and one body, we are in one boat together.” Drawing on a piece by Paulo Freire, Erin opined, “We all read the information differently and we come to discuss it and while we come to some of the same claims we have our own personal experiences and opinions tied to it…it’s what Freire teaches, we need to come together to find truths but also maintain our own personal truths.”

Connectivity to themselves as individual learners and interconnectivity to the group are the foundation for engagement in genuine meaning making as well as a sense of responsibility to a larger collective. Perhaps most powerfully, Anna, who was generally very quiet, explained:

In this class I don’t just feel like a student, I feel like a person that’s actually got worth, almost…like what I say towards the class is meaningful and I also feel like yoga helps with that because it’s not like we go to class, you sit, you take your notes. You get to go and do some yoga, relax, and get into the conversation. And we get to sit on the floor. I love that. I love sitting on the floor.

Although there is a bit of a hedge with the use of “almost,” Anna captured some of my own impressions of how being bodies and minds together disrupted our habitual (and often static) modes of being disembodied minds in the classroom. Yoking the being and doing modes of mind allowed students to feel not only more like agents in their learning, but also co-agents in their education.

As Cooper points out in her theory of agency, our minds are meaning-making organs, not information processing organs. Much like others have argued (Kroll; DeLuca; Fishman et al.), we need to provide students with more multimodal opportunities so that they are not just “thinking” together—they are also experiencing a sense of being together that can create the interconnectivity necessary to “recognize…concrete others with their own spaces of meaning” (Cooper 443). My students’ excitement about practicing yoga and sitting on the floor instead of at desks might not seem to evoke the kind of seriousness in understanding rhetorical agency that Cooper explicates, but I firmly believe that engaging students’ bodies can open avenues for precisely the kind of responsibility she calls us to foster in our classrooms because it enacts the connectivity necessary for recognizing the individual within the collective. In yoga, we each did our own practice as was right for us and yet we also did it together. We refused the disconnected approach learning. This yoking created the connection for greater risk in the more traditional classroom activities like discussion, offering genuine feedback and critique of peer writing, etc.

Interconnectivity was illustrated most explicitly in a workshop I conducted when students were struggling with thesis statements in their first formal paper. Mid-semester, I gave students their first formal assignment: synthesize relevant ideas presented thus far in order to identify a problem and make a contribution to the conversation in the form of a deliberative argument. Students had a great deal of difficulty offering more complex and nuanced thesis statements that met the expectations of a deliberative argument. Our discussions had been engaged and thoughtful, but when it came time to write a formal paper, their thesis statements were typical of flat, disengaged product-oriented school writing. With such a small class, I decided to slow down the writing process and workshop each person’s thesis using the “smart” technology. The author stood at the front of the room behind the computer while projecting his or her thesis statement on the screen. Scattered about the floor on their multi-colored yoga mats in various degrees of recline, the rest of the class read and responded to the thesis statement with questions and suggestions while the author responded and typed revisions so that the class could see the development of the thesis.[16] With little hesitation, students began asking questions for clarification about the author’s primary claims, genuinely challenging the author to think about the impact of those claims on potential readers. They also offered suggestions to make connections to texts we had read (or re-consider their interpretations of those texts) as well as suggestions about how to re-word or organize the thesis statement. Although each author clearly was unnerved when she or he first stood at the front of the class with a thesis to be critiqued, as the workshop progressed (it took two weeks to workshop everyone’s thesis statement) the momentum of the collective effort eased some of the tension, particularly as we could all see their arguments becoming more fine-tuned and both true to what the author was genuinely invested in arguing and responsive to the disparate ideas shared by individual class members.[17]

I share this particular workshop because it was no “desultory,” “half-hearted” discussion, as Fishman et al. point out so often happens as a result of disembodiment in our composition classrooms (244). The conversation around each student’s thesis statement was focused, deeply engaged, and had moments of edginess wherein each participant was forced to think more expansively and flexibly through the process of being challenged. In many respects their negotiation of making meaning and asserting claims reflects the circular “dance of perturbation” through which Cooper’s model of agency arises (421). Although I had a sense that this was a particularly successful workshop prior to student feedback, I had no idea just how powerful it was for students, not only as an opportunity to strengthen their papers, but as an opportunity to genuinely think about meaning making as a complex process influenced by the interactions between the individual and the collective. Several students drew a parallel between the yoga practice (being a collective of individual bodies) and the thesis workshop. Anna explained that she had always struggled with making interesting thesis statements, but the workshop was an example of “being in one boat together” because “I felt like I had a voice with this larger whole and doing yoga helped with that because I had my own ideas but people pushed me to think about other things and I still got to have my ideas but then there were these other ideas and it made mine more interesting.” Todd shared, “The hard part of the major paper was really going deep, the workshop pushed me and made my paper deeper.” Responding flexibly and openly to their peers’ challenges and suggestions, they were able to maintain their sense of individual agency in the meaning-making process even as they were open to modifying their viewpoints based on interconnectivity to the larger collective of their classmates and the larger conversation (framed by the texts we read and discussed). Student comments during the focus group interview about the thesis workshop as well as my own interpretations point to how material enactment of embodiment in the classroom helped them feel more connected and interconnected such that they had greater awareness that concrete others have their own spaces of meaning. Cooper describes the dance of perturbation of rhetorical responsibility:

Respect for listeners’ opinions, being open even to “unreasonable” opinions, to “troublemakers,” means being open to them as responsive beings who, like the speaker, will understand or assimilate meanings in their own way. It means recognizing both speakers and listeners as agents in persuasion, as people who are free to change their minds. It is this recognition that I argue defines responsible rhetorical agency. (441)

As a final example of how connectivity and interconnectivity are a necessary foundation for responsible rhetorical agency, I offer a passage from Nolan’s final paper exploring embodied discourse. Drawing on Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Nolan connects language to agency:

Renowned novelist, professor and political commentator Toni Morrison once described the capacity of language as agency, not in the sense of measuring a human capacity, but rather in the sense of language itself being an agent: alive, volatile, being able to act of its own volition and fully capable of producing consequences, as any proper agent should.

He continues, linking agency to both the individual body/mind and collective social body:

If the student’s body is an expression of the student’s mind; if the student is the embodiment of the discourse of the mind, and our conscious minds express themselves through the independent agency of language, we must be the embodiment of our own capacities for language. Our minds, bodies, and, therefore, our identities, formulate and define our interactions with not only one another, but all in the world around, through our embodiment of language, which has its own agency and capacity for consequences, as previously described. Meaning, the definitions we use to describe the world around us are composed of the linguistic manifestations of the enactment of our personal will, which is, in turn, the outward projection of our conscious minds, of the embodiment of our capacity for language. Our language, our action, carries forth consequences of their own machinations, completely outside of the control of the individual they originated from. Furthermore, the individual consciousness does not operate within a vacuum, which means that the consequences that follow our embodied language affect not only the personal human body of their originator, but the collective “Human Body” of all of society.

In the remainder of his paper, Nolan reflects on the ethics of language use, urging readers “to understand ourselves in such a way as to leave the world a better place than we entered it…through our uniquely human capacity for language.” As mentioned above, Nolan was an exceptional student and an already well-read intellectual and analytical writer. In his paper, I read a level of connectivity to self and language and interconnectivity to others through language that I find rare. While I would not hold this out as an illustration of responsible rhetorical agency because he is theorizing agency and language, I am struck by how his discussion of embodied writing parallels key elements of Cooper’s theory: student writing makes them who they are and their rhetorical actions have influence in the “dance of perturbation” such that they can contribute to the larger collective of humans and should do so in a manner that is rhetorically responsible.

Cultivating What We Honor

In this paper I have attempted to extend Cooper’s theory by advocating a pedagogy of enactment in which material engagement of bodies and minds activates the being and doing modes of mind to create the conditions of connectivity necessary for rhetorical responsibility. Where disconnection flourishes, our sense of responsibility diminishes. To be responsible entails responsiveness, openness, accountability, a degree of flexibility and above all, a sense of connectivity. The yoking of mind and body that I sought early in my own education and now later in my career as a professor is both exhilarating and terrifying. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the latter. I was completely invested in the idea of joining minds and bodies in the classroom when it was an idea, an abstraction. However, both semesters that I taught Embodied Discourse, when it came down to actually being a body with my students, I literally broke out in a cold sweat. Over time I grew more comfortable in being a body with my students, but it always carried an edginess to it that I attribute to vulnerability.[18]

The risk of vulnerability is the heart of a pedagogy of enactment because it requires that we genuinely bring to the classroom all that motivates our desire to teach. In a word, it requires integrity. A pedagogy of enactment will be different for each one of us because it demands that we individually determine what defines our integrity and make that central in our classrooms. We cultivate that which we honor in our classrooms; when we honor our integrity through enactment, our professional lives can be infused with a renewed sense of purpose and meaning.

Notes

  1. When bodies do appear in our scholarship about writing pedagogy they tend to be focused on our embodied experiences as educators (Banks; Freedman and Holmes; Hindman; Kirsch; Moss; Royster) or on embodiment in texts (Alexander; Wilson and Lewiecki-Wilson; Fleckenstein). We give some attention to the fact that students are situated within particular kinds of bodies whose lived experiences affect their literacy practices, as Jenn Fishman, Andrea Lunsford, Beth McGregor, and Mark Otuteye do in “Performing Writing, Performing Literacy” when they argue that multi-modal performance in the class can “bring purposeful talk back to the center of the classroom” (244). However, we do little to bring the art of embodiment to the center of pedagogical practices.
  2. The students in these classes were relatively homogenous. They were primarily white Minnesotans who had fairly privileged academic backgrounds that had “tracked” them in college-preparatory classes in high school, which then led to their admittance to the Honors program. These students had experienced their bodies as relatively “unmarked” (in terms of race, class, gender-identification, and size) up until this course. Had the course been more heterogeneous, our conversations about the relationship between bodies and mind and bodies and learning would have shifted dramatically.
  3. Each semester I gave students the choice of returning to the chairs and desks after we finished the yoga practice as well as the option of choosing not to do the yoga practice if they didn’t feel up to it on any particular day. I also assured them that we could abandon the yoga if it became problematic or a hindrance to their learning.
  4. I received similar sideways glances from colleagues who often saw me walking to class with yoga mat in one hand and notebook in the other, which is part of what evoked that nagging question, “What does yoga have to do with writing?” Although unnerving to feel that I was operating under a cloud of doubt from both students and colleagues, it created an edginess that regularly renewed my commitment to enacting my belief that bodies and minds needed to be joined in the classroom. Interestingly, one of my colleagues approached me mid-semester and asked what I was doing in the class because he taught across the hall and regularly saw students arriving with their mats. He said, “They are always so excited and talkative; it’s exactly the kind of thing we dream of.”
  5. I purchased the yoga mats the first semester and students stored them in my office; the second semester I asked students to buy their own mats and bring them each day. Interestingly, the second time I taught “Embodied Discourse” students were often stopped on their walk across campus with inquiries about where they were doing yoga and how they might be able to get in the class. Whereas students the first semester wanted to store their mats in my office because it was “uncool” to carry a yoga mat on campus, the second semester students eventually became quite prideful in carrying their mats because of the positive feedback they received from other students.
  6. Wenger offers an extensive discussion of the philosophical underpinnings of yoga, particularly as it relates to a feminist pedagogy.
  7. All of the poses and movements we practiced were basic. I also always showed students how to modify poses to work with their particular limitations (knee-injuries, for example).
  8. DeLuca and Wenger echo this in their respective articles. DeLuca argues that presence in mind/body offers both a material and metaphorical reminder for writing instructors to return writing to a meaning-making process based in meta-cognitive awareness that cannot be reduced to a set of skills or formulas. Wenger argues that the use of pranayama (a form of focused, regulated breathing often practice in yoga) enables students to approach writing with greater physical ease, develops their meta-cognitive awareness of the writing process, and makes them more conscious of the ways bodies affect meaning making.
  9. I did not explicitly connect yoga philosophy or practices to writing, as Barry Kroll does in his use of aikido to teach particular rhetorical moves in deliberative writing. As mentioned above, I approached “Embodied Discourse” with a spirit of the ineffable. Rather than pre-defined objectives, I incorporated yoga into our daily routine simply as a means for getting curious about what might arise from enacting union of minds and bodies in the context of learning about writing. This open and curious approach also parallels a basic tenet of yoga. Although based in a set of guidelines, yoga is not designed to change people (make us stronger, more flexible); it is designed to allow a natural state of integration to emerge in us.
  10. Gesa Kirsch writes of a similar surrender to the unknown in her essay that explores how to create spaces of nurturance in the classroom where students are encouraged to bring their whole selves to the learning process (mind, body, heart). She describes it as a “risk of being vulnerable” (2) and encourages more experimental and experiential teaching and learning (8). However, where Kirsch emphasizes assignments that encourage reflective realization in her essay, I focus on how practices of embodiment through yoga can create the conditions for a sense of responsible rhetorical agency.
  11. Periodically throughout the semester when students were working with one another, I circulated around the room and asked them to flip through their journal to show me that they had completed the required “meaning-making writes” up to that point, thus they were still subject to a some form of the “gaze,” but I did not read their writing. Writing six pages, front and back, was the bulk of work assigned outside of class and I needed some way to keep them accountable. Additionally, I wanted them to take seriously the habit and discipline of using writing as a form of intellectual processing, so there was no partial credit for short or missed entries. I also wanted to remove some of the worry about grades and the ways in which students get caught up in writing as performance for what they believe the teacher wants them to write about, so I graded the journals as pass/fail—if they did of all the entries they received an A for this portion of their final grade.There were students who struggled at the beginning of the semester to completely fill three sheets of paper front and back because they didn’t have a familiarity with observing their minds in writing. I was able to work with these students through email exchanges, prompting them with questions and concepts they might explore from our course texts. Ultimately, I had to back off of the pass/fail approach a bit and I gave students one freebie week, which would drop their grade to a B instead of an A.
  12. The learning to write assignments were two deliberative arguments (spaced at the mid-term and the final) in which they synthesized material from course texts and conversations, proposed claims to identify a problem or set of problems, and offered conclusions about those problems. Other learning to write activities included fairly standard generative maps, flow charts, tree-maps, thesis statements, reverse outlines, and peer responses that all led up to the formal papers.
  13. Although often overlooked, Michel Foucault also articulated the space of impermanence and fluidity rather than stability as a place of hope in power relations whereby resistance to domination is possible through insubordination: “Every power relationship implies, at least in potentia, a strategy of struggle, in which the two forces are not superimposed, do not lose their specific nature, or do not finally become confused. Each constitutes for the other a kind of permanent limit, a point of possible reversal. A relationship of confrontation reaches its term, its final moment…when stable mechanisms replace the free play of antagonist reactions…It would not be possible for power relations to exist without points of insubordination which, by definition, are means of escape” (225).
  14. All students gave written consent to use their feedback and their writing. All names are pseudonyms. I conducted the focus group interview midway through the first semester I taught “Embodied Discourse” and the conversation was framed around the question, “What has it been like to be bodies and minds together in the classroom?”
  15. Interestingly, it was the fact that they didn’t know each other at the start that set the backdrop for their sense of greater connection as a collective, which Steve explained, “helped us take the risk of embarrassment together.”
  16. Most interesting to me about this particular workshop prior to the focus group interview was what the students did with their bodies. Normally in a peer workshop students’ bodies are huddled around a desk with their bodies closing in on either printed copies on their papers or laptops. In this particular workshop some were seated with notebooks in front of them, some were lying on their sides or their backs focused on the screen, and a few were leaning against the wall. Throughout the workshop they moved about freely, adjusting their positions or their vantage point in relation to the screen. Thecombination of their open, relaxed bodies and their engaged minds struck me as a wonderful visual representation of some of thephilosophical underpinnings of yoga practice I emphasized daily: flexibility and strength in the body opens avenues for greater flexibility and strength in being more present and open to the fluid nature of being in the world in connection to, and responsible to, others.
  17. By in large, I stayed out of the conversation. This was also a bit unnerving because there were times when it felt like chaos. Sometimes different members would push the author in different directions, but with small gestures on my part guiding them back to the author’s stated interests, they were able to stay relatively focused on the author’s primary standpoint.
  18. Gesa Kirsch also argues that teaching as whole beings (mind, body, spirit) involves the risk of vulnerability, but is far more professionally rewarding than teaching as partial beings.

 

Works Cited

Alexander, Jonathan. “Transgendered Rhetorics: (Re)Composition Narratives of the Gendered Body.” CCC 57.1 (2005): 45-82. Print.

Banks, William. “Written through the Body: Disruptions and ‘Personal’ Writing.” College English 66.1 (2003): 21-40. Print.

Barbezat, Daniel P. and Mirabai Bush. Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2014. Print.

Berthoff, Ann E. “Is Teaching Still Possible? Writing, Meaning, and Higher Order Reasoning.” College English 46.8 (1984): 743-755. Print.

Cixous, Hélène. “Laugh of the Medusa.”Signs 1.4 (1976): 875-93. Print.

Cooper, Marilyn.  “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted.“ College Composition and Communication 62.3 (2011): 420-449. Print.

DeLuca, Geraldine. “Headstands, Writing, and the Rhetoric of Radical Self-Acceptance.” Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning 11 (2005): 27-41. Print.

Fishman, Jenn, Andrea Lunsford, Beth McGregor, and Mark Otuteye. “Performing Writing, Performing Literacy.” College Composition and Communication 57.2 (2005): 224-252. Print.

Fleckenstein, Kristie. Embodied Literacies: Imageword and a Poetics of Teaching. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003. Print.

—. “Writing Bodies: Somatic Mind in Composition Studies.” College English 61.3 (1999): 281-306. Print.

Foucault, Michel. “The Subject and Power.” In Michel Foucault:  Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics.  Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, 208-227.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. Print.

Freedman, Diane and Martha Stoddard Holmes, eds. The Teacher’s Body: Embodiment, Authority and Identity in the Academy. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2003. Print.

Hassett, Michael. “Constructing an Ethical Writer for the Postmodern Scene.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 25 (1995): 179-196. Print.

Hindman, Jane. “Writing an Important Body of Scholarship: A Proposal for an Embodied Rhetoric of Professional Practice.” JAC 22.1 (2002): 93-118. Print.

Kabat-Zinn. Full Catastrophe Living. New York: Delta, 1990. Print.

—. Mindful Way through Depression. New York: Guilford Press. 2007. Print.

Kirsch, Gesa. “Creating Spaces for Listening, Learning, and Sustaining the Inner Lives of Students.” Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning 14 (2009): 5-67. Print.

Korb, Alex. “Yoga: Changing the Brain’s Stressful Habits.” PreFrontal Nudity: The Brain Exposed (blog). Psychology Today, 7 Sept. 2011. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.

Kroll, Barry.  The Open Hand: Arguing as an Art of Peace. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2014, Print.

Mitra, Sugata.  “Build a School in the Cloud.” TED.  Feb. 2013. Web. 7 Oct. 2016.

Moss, Beverly J. “Intersections of Race and Class in the Academy.” In Coming to Class: Pedagogy and the Social Class of Teachers. Ed. Alan Shepard, John McMillan, and Gary Tate, eds., 157-169. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton, 1998. Print.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones. Traces of Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000. Print.

Wenger, Christy I. “Writing Yogis: Breathing Our Way to Mindfulness and Balance in Embodied Writing Pedagogy.” Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning 18 (2013): 24-39. Print.

Yoga Minds, Writing Bodies: Contemplative Writing Pedagogy. Fort Collins, CO: Parlor Press. 2015. Print.

Wilson, James, C. and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson, eds. Embodied Rhetorics: Disability in Language and Culture. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011. Print.

Seriously, What’s the Difference?

Jeanette Lukowski

It all began with an article from The New York Times titled “The Community College / ‘Real College’ Divide.” The article was part of an assessment tool being used by the community college for whom I was an Adjunct English Instructor that fall semester of 2016; the Assessment Coordinator was asking all teachers of Composition I to use a set of common articles in the beginning of the course, and again at the end of the course. I had two sections, so agreed to help.

In December, then, as my Composition I students were working through the assessment activity during our last day of class, I read Kristin O’Keefe’s article for the first time. Published on The New York Times’s blog in February of 2015, O’Keefe seemed inflamed by comments made by “an educator explaining criteria for high school graduation…to her audience of parents and incoming freshmen: ‘here’s what you should take if you want to go to a real college – you know, not community college.’” Although I was not as annoyed as O’Keefe appeared to be, I was intrigued by the suggestion of there being a “divide” between the two types of schools.

I have a personal history with both 4-year universities and community colleges.

I grew up in Chicago, moving to Minnesota when I was in my twenties. While living in Chicago, I attended both community college and university; I also attended both types of schools in Minnesota, before receiving my B.A. as a non-traditional commuting mother of two young children.

My teaching credentials also encompass a wide array of experiences, from traditional classroom experience at both universities and community colleges to online teaching for each type of institution.

What, I wondered specifically, is this “divide” O’Keefe refers to?

When I met with the Provost several hours later to discuss his invitation to teach additional courses for the community college during spring semester (I was already committed to an adjunct load for the year with a four-year university seventy-five miles away), I asked about my ability to use the same textbook for the spring semester Composition II course as I would be using with the university’s equivalent course. Since many of the community college students transferred to that particular university, I would see if I could unearth this suggested “divide” in northern Minnesota.

The Provost agreed to my proposal; my rather informal, semester-long “assessment project” began.

*          *          *

The first challenge I faced was to align course syllabi for a M/W/F fifty-minute class with a T/Th seventy-five-minute class.

Additionally, the university ran on a fifteen-week class schedule, while the community college’s course would last sixteen weeks.

Oh, and their Spring Break weeks occurred at different times.

I wasn’t given much time to dwell on these matters, though, since there were only two weeks of “break” between the community college’s semesters—and the office personnel who do the printing of syllabi and ordering of textbooks close for official holidays like Christmas and New Year’s.

Again, because this was an informal assessment project being pulled together in a hurry, I made no firm plan of how to track the “data” I would be collecting; I simply made notes on one of the many legal tablets I carry around with me from class to class. Some notes were made while students were freewriting in class (to use Peter Elbow’s term), and some more notes were made while I sat alone, holding formal office hours on one or the other of the campuses.

The journal entries that follow are observations of and conversations with students I have had the pleasure to meet and work with over the years, and the correlations I choose to draw by way of possible connections.

*          *          *

Week 1:

The first day of every course, no matter where I am teaching, runs pretty much the same way. I hand out the syllabus, run through introductions and such, and—if time allows—have students compose an in-class journal entry.

The second day of class, the university students received a “fresh” version of a lecture, while the community college students received a more polished, practiced version of the same lecture—followed by class discussion about the set of essays they were assigned to have read for homework.

The class discussion with the university students the next day began with a similar opening question, but followed an entirely different trajectory, as all such conversations are apt to do.

*          *          *

Journal from February 9, 2017:

Conversation styles are throwing me this week. I have been having an impossible time getting the [university] students to talk—while almost the exact opposite is occurring at [the community college].

Tuesday, for instance, I was “lecturing” the class about the highlights of chapter 3 in our textbook—“Arguments in Media,” or whatever. [Female student] was answering every question—with her deep, loud voice—and never raised her hand.

When [male student] in the second row opened his mouth to contribute (also a deep voice, but not quite as loud), he was almost “silenced” (drowned-out) by the building lull of conversations going on behind him. Now, usually there are two groups (pairs) of young women talking all the time—but this day it was all three back rows?

I regularly practice two distinct types of teaching styles with students: Lecture Mode, when I instruct students about the serious matters I would like them to know from each portion of the textbook, and Discussion Circles, when we collaboratively explore the many nuances of writing in published essays. Pedagogically speaking, Lecture Mode is the time when I convey the many “rules” of writing (in this particular case, the ways academic arguments are constructed, and how to locate—then cite—all sources used according to MLA style), while Discussion Circle time is used to examine the many ways a variety of writers have incorporated argument(s) into their work.

When I am “imparting knowledge” during Lecture Mode, students sit in their regular rows or columns, depending on the configuration of each specific classroom, and while I neither require nor request it, most students will automatically raise their hand if they have a question or want to offer a comment. By contrast, when it is time for Discussion Circles, I ask students to arrange themselves in such a way that no one has his or her back to another student; they are invited to contribute to what I hope becomes a hearty conversation, the only requirements being that they respect our right to disagree with one another—and they don’t take the “debate” out of the classroom’s conversation.

Although I have heard about teachers who use tools such as a talking stick to maintain order within the discussion circle, I have never felt the need to micro-manage the conversation until this particular class at the community college. For reasons I could not fathom at the time, too many of my group of twenty-eight community college students were maintaining their rigid behaviors from high school: playing with their cell phones while I was in Lecture Mode and chit-chatting with their neighbors whenever the spirit moved them. (Discussion Circles made cell phone use during class too obvious for all but one of my most defiant students, but we as a class chose to ignore her bad behavior, and all breathed a collective sigh of relief on days she was absent.)

The twenty-five university students, on the other hand, would pretty much rely on five of their classmates to speak, no matter what the topic, or how the seating was arranged. I tried everything short of standing on my head or placing electric shock buzzers in their chairs, but there were literally only two days when I heard most of those students speak in class: the first day, when I asked them to introduce themselves, and the last few days, when each student was asked to give a five-minute informal presentation on the topic of their final paper.

Pulling teeth.

*          *          *

Journal from February 16, 2017:

What if the “difference” between a four-year university and a community college is nothing more than the difference between a city and a small town?

  • Everyone knows everyone else at C.C., vs. larger populations of Univ.
  • Many more opportunities at Univ.—since kids “live” on campus, vs. commuting from home to C.C.
  • People attending Univ. “move away” from home—perhaps staying in Univ. “town” after graduation, vs. C.C. students who have no intention of moving (part of reason they are at C.C. in first place?)
  • Students are focused: four years to completion (perhaps five), vs. C.C. students who fit college in, when they can, around other life events
  • Activities are focused on-campus—students don’t have tons of contact with off-campus locations early in their “careers” as students because many lack transportation, vs. C.C. activities taking place in a commons-area (high traffic)—or in partnership with an entity in the community (since most are commuting to the typical small—one-building—campus)

*          *          *

Journal from March 3, 2017:

While it is not scientifically proven, student athletes in each institution seem to have different foci. At [the community college], student athletes are being imported from other states—and the school seems to make extra “accommodations” for those students. (Academic struggle means withdrawing from the course just days before it ends, rather than letting the student fail?)

I have also read / heard about the “one-and-done” student athlete rule / philosophy at [the community college]; attendance is lax, attention to skills-learning in the classroom doesn’t seem to matter.

[The university], on the other hand, has presented me with two young men who have placed academics first. Both are “from” small towns in Minnesota (Roseau for one, Detroit Lakes for the other); one plays basketball for [the university], while the other decided to drop his hockey career for academics.

In the news, at the very time I was drafting this essay, a family of basketball players was under the lens of scrutiny. Although I have no connection to either the family or the institution, my retired teacher mother asked me the night the news broke, “How do those young men think they can get away with theft like that?”

I simply replied, “They weren’t thinking, Mom,” because I had seen similar attitudes of nonchalance from other student athletes.

I have had the opportunity to teach some very fine, honorable student athletes. Just as all teachers are not cut from the same cloth, students athletes run the gamut as well. But that incident brings the question back around for me: are colleges holding all students to the same level of academic rigor—whether athlete or musician, artist or writer?

*          *          *

Journal from March 14, 2017:

This morning, my clear-headed thought was that [the community college] teachers are focused on teaching a specific set of skills—but perhaps overlook the importance of critical thinking. [I had overheard a community college instructor giving students oral exams in the office space we shared. The instructor’s technique was problematic for me.]

Skills aren’t always “transferable” from one discipline to another, and students never think about using many of the skills beyond the immediate classroom.

Critical thinking, on the other hand, could/should be part of everything they do, once mastered.

Anyone can learn to use a computer; anyone can figure out a way to memorize “data” like the Periodic Table in chemistry; anyone can be taught the rudimentary skills of cooking, playing an instrument, or even learning how to dance. But THINKING, especially CRITICALLY, that takes a whole new layer of…changing computer keyboarding skills to programming, transforming a student into a scientist, a master-chef, a talented musician, a prima-ballerina.

Critical thinking raises the bar from proficiency to mastery. It makes one self-reliant. It allows us to problem-solve, not just monitor or identify that a problem exists.

My class(es) and I were also reading a novel this semester, an activity I like to include as part of their expanding look at published writing. I approach it like a book club rather than a literary analysis, and ask the different levels of classes to engage with the novel in differing ways.

This semester’s selection was T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, because it allowed us the opportunity to engage in some of the nation’s hot-button topics (immigration, the wall between the U.S.A. and Mexico) without the extra layer of political affiliation (the book was published in 1995).

One of my students at the community college—a young woman who had been home-schooled by what I assume are very conservative, Christian parents (based on conversations I had with the student throughout the semester)—was stunned by the compassion exhibited by the Mexican immigrant male towards his wealthy, Caucasian male “rival” at the novel’s end. While I no longer recall her specific words, I remember the feeling of euphoria accompanying me on my seventy-five-mile drive home that afternoon; oh, happy day, her critical thinking skills were developing!

*          *          *

Journal from April 2, 2017:

The hammer falls hard on the position essay.

 [The community college] problems include two students presenting papers written for another class (one talking about her experience at [XYZ] Community College? Another using the I-Search final paper she wrote for me in Comp. I, complete with multiple online sources viewed in Dec. of 2016), and one young man who turned in a paper with the clear statement, “women like me…”

Ugh.

Students are often still childlike; children test boundaries. Each semester, no matter where I teach, I tend to run across a student who blatantly plagiarizes a paper. This discovery was recorded so specifically because I was sitting on campus, either grading in my office between classes or silently fuming in the library with my students while they were independently researching for their final paper.

Each college has a specific protocol for handling plagiarism. I publish the institution’s specific language in my course syllabus, “punish” the student based on the infraction, and pass the information up the chain-of-command if deemed appropriate.

After that, I entrust the administration with the situation—never inquiring about their decision—just as I hope they trust me to continue to do my job without interference.

*          *          *

Going back to O’Keefe’s, “The Community College / ‘Real College’ Divide,” she writes of a “divide” between “people who believe in community colleges, and people who dismiss and even diminish them.”

I do not know where O’Keefe lives, nor what region she is writing about with regard to this article—but I know what I heard when my children were each introduced to their high school in Minnesota. The high school’s guidance counselors promoted a very specific set of courses for students who tested well in the years leading up to ninth grade, making them “college ready,” while the students who had not tested well were simply given a plan to graduate.

Is that the “divide” O’Keefe means?

When I look into a classroom of students each semester, I do see a different set of people depending on whether it is a community college or a four-year university; I also see a difference in student population with the time of day, regional location of the school, and current state of the nation’s economy.

The similarities vs. differences I observed this one semester in northern Minnesota were:

  1. The community college students were younger than what I encountered in another community college in another time and state. Without asking for their Name, Rank, and Serial Number (although three of them shared specific information about being sixteen years old in their writing), I ascertained that approximately half of my community college students were enrolled through their high school’s Post Secondary Enrollment Option (meaning they were driving over to the community college for a class or two while still engaging in high school curricula and activities). By contrast, I don’t recall a single PSEO student being in the university class, so the maturity level of any topic discussed was always higher in the university than the community college.
  2. Most of the PSEO students were attending the community college without a clear sense of purpose. Without a defined career path / major in mind, the PSEO students were working in a vacuum of sorts; their work was unfocused and random when compared to their university “peers” who were working towards a very specific goal—and already had enough knowledge about their field from which to prepare a decent academic argument.
  3. Finances seemed to dictate the students’ attending college. Since the local area had recently experienced an economic recession of its own, many of the students were identified as First Generation college students. Were they attending the community college as a way for their parents to avoid the financial burden in a year or two? Were they attending the community college because they couldn’t find a “good paying” job in the area? Were they attending the community college because the local high schools were cutting budgets by hiring fewer teachers / offering fewer courses? If one is offered an athletic scholarship to a top-tier program, or has parents who are financially supporting the venture, students tend to gravitate towards universities; if students are coming from homes where money is a concern, and/or students are paying for it themselves, community college tuition is often a more affordable way to complete those “core” courses most Bachelor’s degrees require.

Yes, there are tangible differences between the four-year university and a community college—reputations of specific programs, athletic team classifications, and the variety of Majors/Minors each can offer—but a “divide,” as in a chasm, or to separate into opposing factions? No.

Perhaps I’m just overly sensitive to the term “divide” right now, thanks to the divisive nature of the language many people in positions of power are using.

To borrow from Karl Marx, “Nothing can have value without being an object of utility.” So I challenge us all—as teachers, and as students—to focus on the value our education has brought into our life. The use will deem it a quality education.

A Few Confessions of an English Teacher

Alexandra Glynn

Preparing for classes rouses up the guilt again. I teach writing, but I don’t do what I tell my students to do. I plagiarize, in a sense, all the time. I don’t read articles; I skim them enough to make them seem read. And when I write, I really don’t consider any of the items that my textbook says to consider when considering audience.

Scorn not the plagiarist. If you are not plagiarizing, you are not reading; you are not bringing ancient music to our modern hearts. Or at least, that’s what I tell myself, as I browse through books looking for something someone wrote that I can put in my sentence, to cast the glory into it and dart a kind of luster into it that I could never fabricate on my own. I tell my students not to plagiarize, but I do it. If I haven’t knitted in some of the poets, the way the psalmist weaved through some of Moses (Botha 1) into Psalm 119, [1] I haven’t really said anything, and certainly haven’t said anything that is commonly thought but never so well expressed.

And I have a two hundred second rule for reading articles. I allow myself two hundred seconds per article and look for what argument the writer is making (fortunately, this is almost always in the beginning of the paper), then for what kinds of words they use, and based on those two data points, I decide whether or not I will look for any good quotes in the article. Then I cast almost all the articles aside, like lords lain low. And yet I tell my students to do diligent research, not to be lazy, and to carefully consider what they are reading. I console myself with Hegel, whose words I skew to mean that one should read “prefaces and first paragraphs” (43), and only those. [2]

And finally, I ignore large segments of my textbook, which right now is Bullock, Brody, and Weinberg’s Little Seagull Handbook. For example, they suggest that in considering audience, we consider which audience we want to reach, their background, their interests, demographic information, what they “already know—or believe—about [my] topic,” and the like. I skip all this, and only take the last suggestion: “How can you best appeal to your audience?” (W-1c 3). And I answer it the same for everything I write: I can best appeal “by patterning of sounds.” Everything else about my audience, which I am always telling my students to consider—faithfully referring them to the second book of Aristotle’s Rhetoric—I ignore it all. I only care that the members of my audience have a “Dr. Seuss gene” and they are caught by patterns of sound.

And of course, I would never advise my students to do anything like this. How would I dare? For what am I doing? Teaching them to chant the music like a tale of little meaning though the words are strong? Or training them all to be Shakespeare, who “was not a genius” but rather “he learnt techniques, he learnt tricks, and he learnt them well” (Forsyth 1). It often seems like I am lazily and lotus-like laboring to bleed out all the “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision” that Orwell feuded with. But meanwhile, I know that “the will to produce citizenship through the teaching of writing is strong” (Wan 28) and that since it is probably also true that “the teaching of writing involves the teaching of ethics and ethical language practices” (Duffy 230), I ought to spend all my time ensconcing my students in citizenship and ethics, or at least grammar. So I do this. I do this for their practicing of writing what I would not ever do for myself. And meanwhile, at a few moments during the sixteen weeks, like attempted flashes onto the inward eye, I slip unconscious crooks into the psyches of my students, hoping they will be enchanted into the poets, and after class, turn to them. For don’t they already do this in their music? Isn’t it true that a human being “is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Æolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody” (Shelley)?

Unresolved on this, I go to prepare for classes again, a hypocrite, pondering all these things weak and weary. And I consider that I am a poser, consoled only by the thought that not all my colleagues are such actors. That I am in a noble profession, in a place where, as the poet says, “walls come down, / valleys rise, / bridges stretch outward” (Kurtti 9).

Notes

[1] The full quote: “By alluding to, borrowing from, rephrasing, and reinterpreting segments of the Torah, Prophets, wisdom literature, and Psalms, the author of Psalm 119 created a new authoritative text by replicating and re-contextualising what must have been considered to be authoritative texts in his day” (Botha 1).

[2] The full quote: “Should anyone ask for a royal road to Science, there is no more easy-going way than to rely on sound common sense and for the rest, in order to keep up with the times, and with advances in philosophy, to read reviews of philosophical works, perhaps even to read their prefaces and first paragraphs” (Hegel 43).

Works Cited

Botha, Philippus. “Interpreting ‘Torah’ in Psalm 1 in the light of Psalm 119” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies 68.1 (2012).

Bullock, Richard, and Michal Brody and Francine Weinberg. “Writing Contexts” in The Little Seagull Handbook. Norton 2017, pp. W1-5.

Duffy, John. “The good writer: Virtue ethics and the teaching of writing” College English, vol. 79, no. 3, 2017, pp. 229-250.

Forsyth, Mark. The Elements of Eloquence. Penguin, 2013.

Hegel, G. F. W. Phenomenology of Spirit [1807]. A. V. Miller (transl). Oxford U Press, 1997.

Kurtti Pylvainen, Sandra. “Close Reading.English Journal, vol. 104, no. 4, 2015, p. 9.

Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language [1946]” orwell.ru. Retrieved from http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit/.

Shelley, Percy. “A defense of poetry [1840]” PoetryFoundation.org https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69388/a-defence-of-poetry.

Wan, Amy. “In the name of citizenship: The writing classroom and the promise of citizenship” College English, vol. 74, no. 1, 2011, pp. 28-49.

Works Plagiarized

Addison, Joseph. “The Spectator No 421. Thursday, July 3, 1712.” The Spectator. Retrieved from http://web.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/web%20publishing/addison421.htm.

McKay, Claude. “Invocation” in Selected Poems. Dover, 1999, p. 23.

Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Raven” in The Selected Writings of Edgar Allen Poe. G. R. Thompson (ed). Norton, 2004, pp. 58-61.

Pope, Alexander. “An essay on criticism.” PoetryFoundation.org. Retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69379/an-essay-on-criticism.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Song to the men of England” in English Romantic Poetry. Stanley Appelbaum (ed). Dover, 1996, pp. 149-150.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “The Lotus-eaters [1832]” PoetryFoundation.org. Retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45364/the-lotos-eaters.

Wordsworth, William “I wandered lonely.” PoetryFoundation.org. Retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45521/i-wandered-lonely-as-a-cloud.

Wordsworth, William. “Scorn not the sonnet” in English Romantic Poetry. Stanley Appelbaum (ed). Dover, 1996, p. 58.

 

Listening to the Silence: Addressing Anxiety Disorders in Our Schools

Abby Rosen

As teachers, we ask a lot of our students. We demand not only respect for our authority, but curiosity, effort, and perseverance in the face of failure and humiliation. They also ask a lot of us: content mastery, understanding, and the ability to constantly adapt to new challenges. Usually, students rise to our expectations with ease, as we do to theirs. But others struggle with grades, motivation, and self-esteem, while teachers face student disengagement, isolation, and—too often—burnout. Some students receive Individualized Education Programs to accommodate their learning challenges. Others who fail to meet our expectations are deemed lazy or unwilling, but a quieter but equally vicious cause is often at the root: anxiety disorders. Anxiety in teens is increasing (Schrobsdorff), and our schools have a responsibility to pay as much attention to these silent struggles as they do to the louder, more disruptive ones. Without proper training and ongoing support from mental health professionals, too many students and staff will continue to suffer and slink away from our schools in silence. Just like I did, until now.

Everyone has experienced anxiety—butterflies in the stomach or nervous excitement—but it also manifests as intense fear and behavioral paralysis leading to avoidance or social isolation. In other words, for those with clinical anxiety disorders, the butterflies never go away. They flutter from the moment you wake up until the second you fall asleep, coloring every thought you have and decision you make, sometimes making it impossible to act or ask for help. These disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder, and panic disorder. One in eight children have an anxiety disorder, but according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, eighty percent of youth with a diagnosable anxiety disorder are not receiving treatment (“Children and Teens”). These illnesses exist just under the surface and are compensated for or hidden, so others don’t know until it dramatically impacts that person’s life. Oftentimes, people like myself don’t even realize they have an anxiety disorder for years. They just think that they were made to overthink, worry, obsess or panic. People with anxiety disorders look at others being happy, taking risks, meeting deadlines, and achieving their goals with wistful envy. They also watch as others receive attention and care for their outward issues while they continue to quietly deteriorate. I’ve seen it in my own eyes and the eyes of my students in every classroom I’ve ever entered.

As far back as my memories go, so does my anxiety disorder. Most flashbacks play out like TV reruns because, like a studio audience, I sat still while my peers moved around me. I always wanted to know the rules of the game before I started to play, and I insisted everyone else adhere to the letter. In a lot of ways, I was lucky. My anxiety manifested itself as perfectionism, which served me well in school. I got good grades and was well-respected by teachers. No one noticed me struggling because why would they? Lots of my friends battled openly and viciously with self-injury, eating disorders, depression and suicidal ideation. Like many mentally ill teens, they did not want to tell their parents, so we spent hours online talking about their issues without any real progress being made. It brought us closer together, but this secret keeping harmed everyone involved. Over time, their behavior alerted concerned parents and school staff, leading to offers of therapy and school accommodations. This did not cure them of their mental illnesses, but it did allow them to deal with these issues in tandem with the social and academic problems their illnesses caused. I, on the other hand, told myself that my problems weren’t “bad enough,” and I stayed quiet. This allowed my anxiety to fester, and I graduated high school more anxious than ever.

Once I started college, I received my generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis, and I decided to pursue teaching to spread my own love of reading, the one thing that always quieted my mind. My teaching classes were full of people like me: INFJ’s bursting at the seams to help others, spread a love of learning and support each other through the next few years of teacher training. Again, I excelled in the academic aspects of my program, but I was wracked with constant worry. While others asked questions about “best practices for advanced students,” I stopped myself from asking things like, “What do you do once your students realize you’re incompetent?” The closer we got to student teaching, the more I realized that we were all about to be handed real classrooms full of real students who we really had to teach. While this concept terrified me, it excited my classmates and I felt the familiar divide of mentally healthy and mentally ill pushing me away from the otherwise like-minded people I once related to. The more stressed I became, the more I retreated into myself despite all the people around me reaching out to help. I saw this same retreat in a number of students during student teaching, but I didn’t know how to teach them and help them at the same time. I could have turned to my cooperating teacher for help, but I wanted to be seen as competent no matter what. Instead of committing my energy to becoming a better teacher, I gave in to the feelings of helplessness that came from being unable to help everyone and myself at the same time. Once student teaching ended and I got my degree, I told myself I’d done my due diligence, but teaching just wasn’t for me.

After only a year working in retail, I had enough distance to see what happened to me and to my students. School stress can compound feelings of anxiety and depression, as does isolation and self-doubt. School is a minefield for an anxious person, whether they are teaching or learning: lots of people in narrow hallways and cramped classrooms; unpredictability; forced social interaction and class participation; pressures to achieve, befriend, perform, and behave according to ever-changing rules out of your own control. I always expected to look around and see my colleagues fighting the same losing battle against these forces, but they weren’t. No one talked out loud about struggling mentally. The closest anyone got was joking about being Jekyll and Hyde before and after their morning caffeine. A mentor of mine once told me that I would “suck as a teacher for three years.” If I could just accept that, she said, I would be fine. Though she knew me well, I don’t think she knew just how hard it was to know I sucked for three minutes. I imagined my struggling students felt the same way. They saw themselves falling behind while others excelled without any signs of distress. This learned helplessness was enough to almost knock me out of the profession entirely, so it is no surprise that it claims so many students as well.

During our college courses, teacher stress was discussed but typically met with generic advice like “focus on your hobbies” or “find a healthy balance between work and home life.” For teachers not struggling with anxiety or depression, these things are still difficult to implement. While those platitudes are enough for some, others who struggle with boundary setting and emotional management are left with no real advice or strategies to deal with the onslaught of new stressors. Most of the long-term teachers I knew weren’t cold and jaded from the work they did; they just drew clear boundaries are stayed within them, insisting that others did the same. For others, like myself, the ability to define the line between my job performance and my self-worth would eventually prove to be too much. Before I even got my own classroom, I imagined myself failing over and over and over again if anyone ever gave me the chance to ruin my own classroom someday. All the while, I typed sincere cover letters and perfected my resume to trick some poor school into believing in me more than I believed in myself. It worked: I found my first job. It was a high school focusing on credit recovery. These students, I thought, knew what it’s like to struggle. Maybe, I thought, we could learn how to overcome our demons together. I reminded myself that my desire to help others was stronger than my inability to help myself. I told myself that my experience with anxiety gave me an advantage.

When I got hired, I shared a room with a math teacher. The two of us, both young white women, handled upwards of 70 “at-risk” students, managing their credit recovery, classroom engagement, and access to school and government resources. All teachers on our school’s small staff ran advisories, but our motley crew was a little different. We got the more “delicate” students, as one administrator put it, who struggled with mental health, addiction, identity, personal and social issues. At first, I held my roster of “fragile” students like a mother hen. I talked with them when I should have been differentiating my lesson plans, but the connections I made were more valuable than my planning time. Unlike my lessons, which often felt ineffective at best, I knew that these talks were significant to my students and to myself. Then, the world outside of my room started to seep in. I couldn’t keep an eye on all of my students at once. I had to teach. After parent calls, chasing down transcripts and missing credits, taking attendance and making sure they got to (and stayed in) class, I spent the rest of my time lesson planning in what little silence I could steal. More days that not, my carefully planned lessons dissolved within the first five minutes. When I wasn’t teaching or planning, there were always students waiting for help or to talk about today’s crisis. Every twenty, ten, or even five minutes I spent talking to one student meant another chunk of time I couldn’t give to the other thirty or to myself. I felt myself getting overwhelmed, but I had support, momentum, and I could feel myself making a difference. I was open with my students about my own struggles, and they trusted me and respected my honesty. They confided in me about their addictions, pregnancies, financial hardships, sexual assaults, self-harm, and gender identity issues. Some talks required mandatory reporting, and others only required me to listen and let them know they were heard. Those moments are what I think of after more than a year away from the classroom. Those are the things I worry I may have given up too soon.

But those moments were often shattered by thrown chairs and slammed doors. The sound a fist makes when it hits a wall. Or a window. Or someone’s face. The noise a human head makes when it hits the ground. Noises I never knew growing up. Those are the things I remember when I question why I left—why I can tell the difference between happy-loud and angry-loud from a mile away. Why multiple loud voices at once now trigger panic attacks. Why I look around a room sometimes and identify all the things that could be used as a weapon. This violence, anger, and chaos I witnessed for the first time at 24 was nothing new to my fellow staff members. When I, still shaking, told my co-workers about the fight I got caught in the middle of on my first day, they listened but were not impressed or appalled. They told me about students wielding weapons, ripping each other’s hair out and the full-scale riot that broke out the year before I started. I was horrified by how casual this all seemed to them, but this is not unique to our school. 11.5 percent of Minnesota teachers were threatened with physical violence by a student and over 6 percent were physically attacked (Zhang, Anlan, et al.). One year in my district, a student choked a teacher unconscious, resulting in permanent brain damage. I knew teaching was going to be stressful, but these were more than occupational hazards. These incidents would be reasonable grounds for leaving any “normal” job, but instead, they were elements of a normal Tuesday. After only my first week at school, I had already faced a reality that felt harsher than I could handle, but once again, my inner turmoil was deprioritized by constant crisis.

One day, during a PTSD-induced altercation, one of my students, “Mark,” threatened his girlfriend and two staff members who tried to intervene. As a result, he was not allowed back in the building without a restorative justice meeting. Mark was an otherwise quiet and respectful student who rarely participated in class despite performing well on most assignments. At 9:45 the next morning, I got a call Mark’s mother. He drove forty-five minutes with no heat in his car to pick up some work and have his meeting, but he was not being allowed in the building on his own. Sitting in his car in single-digit temperatures, he called his mom to let her know that he was done. He was at his limit. He was threatening suicide. His mother told me this was my fault. I was his advisor, and I was responsible. I was reviewing a chapter in a book with a student who could only make it to school one day a week, but I had to put my phone down, run outside without my coat and try to calm this student down. Our social worker was meeting with another student with others waiting outside to speak to her. In this moment, I’d never been more aware of the fact that I chose teaching over psychology. All I could do was throw promises at his brick wall and hope something got through. I begged and pleaded with school security and our intervention staff to let him in. This was, after all, life or death. After he was allowed back in the building, I returned to that student patiently waiting at my desk. I wiped my tears on the way up the stairs, and we all tried to pretend we didn’t know what just happened. Mark was admitted to the hospital on an involuntary psychiatric hold later that day. Only two hours later, a student I was very close to joined him in the same psychiatric ward after confiding in another staff member about her suicidal ideations. She’d tried to come see me earlier that day, but I was too busy. There was only one of me, after all. Despite all this, I still had five class periods full of students waiting for me. I felt, perhaps for the first time, what my students felt every day: overwhelming emotional stress coupled with the pressure to perform perfectly in front of a room full of people. I don’t remember the lessons I taught that day, but I will never forget the look of despair on Mark’s face or the pain in his mother’s voice telling me it was all my fault.

Before I started teaching, I thought PTSD only happened to war veterans and refugees. Though we covered it in my college classes, it was only one on a long list of disorders whose percentages seemed too low to worry about in mainstream schools. Yet a fifth to a half of all children will experience a significant trauma during childhood. Three to fifteen percent of girls and one to six percent of boys who experience trauma develop PTSD as a result (“PTSD in Children and Teens”). The rate where I worked was significantly higher than that, and studies have shown incidence of PTSD in as high as half of students exposed to interpersonal violence (Kletter, Hilit, et al.). Those students who had a PTSD diagnosis were very open about it because it clearly explained their issues with anger, impulse control, trust, and low tolerance for chaotic environments. At their most violent and disruptive, many students were in the throes of a PTSD-induced blackout. However, my quieter students also struggled with PTSD every day. During class, students would often get up and leave the room without explanation. In a more typical school environment, this would be frowned upon, but, as a school filled with students fighting any number of mental battles, we understood the need for self-regulation. Most students would eventually rejoin the class, and when I asked them afterwards why they left, they would tell me that they just needed a minute away from the distractions, the topic of discussion, or the other students. These students were punished at previous schools for exercising a coping skill that some adults never master. After living for years without any professional mental health help, these students learned how to navigate a world that fundamentally misunderstands and reprimands them for the very things they can’t control. I found myself frantically googling “PTSD in teens” on my lunch break and crying. By creating lesson plans including loud noises, close quarters between students, and even topics directly related to past trauma, I was unwittingly re-traumatizing my students. At the very least, by not having all of the information about this serious mental health issue, I could not create curriculum specifically to combat it.

I tried over and over to see how we, with our limited resources, could have prevented this crisis and others like it, but everyone was doing above and beyond what they could. We, like many schools across the country, just didn’t have the bodies to attend to everyone’s needs at once. In a school of hundreds of students, many with at least one significant mental illness, it felt impossible to approach every situation without doing harm to someone. No matter how much training I’d received, I often had nowhere to turn with new questions as my understanding of these and other anxiety disorders evolved. That said, I was privileged to work at a school so hyper-focused on students who struggle with mental illness. Though we only had one social worker and one rotating psychologist for 400 students, they did all they could. A large number of our staff worked exclusively on conflict resolution, security, student retention, job placement, and skills training. I’m fortunate to never have experienced the threats or the actual violence that others in my position did, but that didn’t stop the fear. I still feared for my safety on the off chance that one of my students turned on me. In desperation, I turned to our social worker for advice, adding another body to the already heavy weight on her shoulders. I felt guilty but was desperate for professional advice. My direct supervisor, a fellow teacher familiar with mental illness, emphasized the importance of self-care. We were given ample paid time off because our administrators knew the burdens we shouldered could not and should not be compensated for with sick or vacation time. When I needed to leave after a particularly rough day, as long as my work was done and my obligations covered, I didn’t have to explain myself. I still lied and told my colleagues I had migraines to avoid telling them that I was just overwhelmed. For overworked and overstretched staff, there is still pressure to handle it all with quiet grace. I told myself that our students were the ones with real problems, and I didn’t want to become another liability.

Unfortunately, the people most likely to help others are the most harmed by doing so. Many of my students with their own mental illnesses spent hours and hours supporting other friends in crisis because they knew what it felt like to be helpless. Like us teachers, they diverted attention away from learning to stand with their peers in corner of hallways, talking them down or talking them up. Taking on this emotional weight without any outside support can be overwhelming and compound existing mental health issues. When it comes to mental illness, the desire to help is constantly met with the reality that the impact you can make is limited by the amount of energy you can contribute. There is always more to do and only so much time in the day to do it. I found myself talking to students on my school-sanctioned Facebook page late at night, just like my students did for their friends. No matter the day I had, there was always someone who needed me more than I needed myself. This constant giving of self is seen as dedicated, compassionate and admirable, but the true impact of overextension is not talked about enough. Students in crisis and teachers aren’t the only one being hurt by this. Because of limited time and resources, the students who weren’t “needy” didn’t get any attention. Students who were excelling were left to fend for themselves on independent projects with little supervision. I didn’t have the time or energy left to make sure that they were getting extra resources because I was too busy playing therapist instead of using my position in the classroom to support my students in other ways.

Eventually, the reality set in that I was not a professional. I was not qualified to give advice. Without proper mental health training, warning signs go unnoticed. We are expected to be mandatory reporters, but we are unable to provide real, in-the-moment advice or guidance. Though teacher-student relationships are valuable, they are not a replacement for qualified mental health professionals. This is why providing mental health support at school is so critical. We have the opportunity to embody the community ideals so many schools are based on. By providing in-school therapy, opportunities for restorative justice, and avenues for safe self-expression, we can lift up our students in ways they may never experience outside our walls. We need to encourage students and teachers to speak up about their experiences, or let them whisper them to someone safe until they are ready to speak aloud. And when they do, when our students speak up and make the brave choice to let their mental illness see the light of day, we need to embrace them. Give them English credit for reflection on their experiences. Let them write about the history and treatment of the mentally ill in this country. Teach them what neurotransmitters are and how they affect mood and behavior. Because those struggling with anxiety disorders are often ashamed, they are unlikely to bring up the topic themselves. It is our responsibility as educators to shine light on the darker parts of our students’ lives and do what we can to help. Our students want strategies to deal with anxiety and depression. We constantly restrict and criticize cell phone use, but what is the first thing most people do when we get uncomfortable in a social situation? People lose interest or feign apathy when they do not understand something or feel up to the challenge in front of them. These aren’t “deviant” behaviors that need to be punished out of our students. These are clear indicators that the current climate is not working for them, and they are looking for a way to cope.

Though it is far from a comprehensive solution, I had great success implementing a teaching unit specifically focusing on mental health. It was by far my best-attended and most-engaged-with unit during my two years in the classroom. Students made posters about specific mental illnesses, highlighting statistics and little-known facts about these common but unspoken ailments affecting them and their peers. Many of them chose to research a mental illness that personally affected them. Each poster included information about the illness and a call to action. “Talk to someone!” “It’s okay to be sad!” and “See your advisor for more information” peppered the walls and prompted productive discussions. I don’t believe that making students make posters will change the face of mental illness in our schools, but I know it raised awareness. Students opened up to me, other teachers, and their advisors about struggles they faced or saw people they loved facing. Teachers came to talk to me because they knew I understood how significant mental health issues are today. Even though we, as a staff, saw countless powerpoints on the high prevalence of PTSD, emotional behavior disorder, anxiety, depression, antisocial personality disorder and more, our students didn’t. I don’t think they knew just how many of their peers shared their hidden burdens.

Often, mental health issues are only addressed after they boil over. Students receive counseling, diagnoses and support only after they’ve disrupted a class or come to blows with another student. It is possible, however, to stop these mental health issues from becoming crises. Mental health education should be a mandatory part of the curriculum for students and the subject of continued staff development for teachers. When something is stigmatized, it only stays that way because people feel more comfortable leaving it unsaid. Only after I named my anxiety and depression was I able to start fighting back. Only after we acknowledge the existence of mental illness in our schools can we join hands with our students silently fighting alone. But acknowledgment isn’t enough. In the battle against mental illness in schools, numbers matter. We need to know which of our students are struggling, and we need mental health professionals proportionate to that number. Without awareness, mental illness will remain a silent killer. Without continued support from professionals, staffs with good intentions will still fall short of students’ needs. By removing boundaries to mental health access, making necessary accommodations for students, and destigmatizing mental illness, we stand a much better chance of keeping struggling but passionate students and teachers in our schools where they belong.

Works Cited

“Children and Teens.” Learn From Us, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/children.

Kletter, Hilit, et al. “Helping Children Exposed to War and Violence: Perspectives from an International Work Group on Interventions for Youth and Families.” Child Youth Care Forum, med.stanford.edu/content/dam/sm/elspap/documents/A48.pdf.

“PTSD in Children and Teens.” PTSD: National Center for PTSD, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 1 Jan. 2007, www.ptsd.va.gov/public/family/ptsd-children-adolescents.asp.

Schrobsdorff, Susanna. “Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright.” Time, Time, 27 Oct. 2016, time.com/magazine/us/4547305/november-7th-2016-vol-188-no-19-u-s/.

Zhang, Anlan, et al. Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2015. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, 2016. Web. 31 Dec. 2017.