Softening the Heart
Flickr photo by BK.
I have hereditary hearing loss – my Dad is almost completely deaf and my great grandmother carried around a little blackboard so people could write messages to her. In spite of my hearing aids, I have a harder and harder time making out what people are saying, especially in large rooms full of people (classrooms, restaurants, parties) or when I can’t see their mouths (I lip read) so when someone says, “Relax, close your eyes, and just listen,” I either have to keep my eyes open or their voice simply sounds like mumbling in the distance.
I don’t like it one bit.
But, as much as I hate it, I’m grateful for this handicap because it helps me understand many of my students better – the ones who don’t always “get” things right away, the ones who need a second, third and fourth explanation before they have that ‘aha’ moment. When I don’t understand something (because I can’t hear what’s being said) people look at me as though I’m “slow” – and now I know how many of my students feel. It’s painful.
Teaching is extremely stressful – we have so much to teach and so little time to teach it. When we’re stressed and a student tries our patience, it’s easy to bark at them in frustration. We’ve all heard teachers say, “I’ve told you three times, if you were paying attention you would know this.” or “I’m not repeating that again. Those of you who weren’t listening are on your own.” Imagine how those words feel to the students who were paying attention, but just don’t understand. How hopeless, how disheartened they must feel, how they must come to believe that they’re incompetent and dimwitted. And once we’ve given students this false impression of themselves, it’s incredibly difficult to turn around. Students, who have lost faith in their own abilities, can take years to regain confidence.
Although I’ve always tried to be patient with students who learn differently, I know I’ve made these kinds of mistakes. As my handicap increases, as I walk more often in their shoes, I’ve become more tolerant and understanding. I shudder to think of the hurtful things I’ve said in the past when I didn’t truly understand that a student with learning difficulties was making a supreme effort and was struggling to do his or her best.
In teaching, it’s extremely important that we soften our hearts, especially in moments when we feel overwhelmed. It’s important that we think of our own struggles in learning (we’ve all had areas of difficulty, whether it’s trouble hitting a ball in tennis, understanding geometry or an inability to knit or program a computer) and that we remember how frustrated and inadequate we felt; that we reach out to those students and say, “hmmm, let me try to explain that a different way”; that our eyes and bodies soften, with love and caring, not impatience and frustration. In showing patience and compassion we help students believe in themselves and their ability to learn. And once they think they can, they can.
In stressful moments remember that we’re all different. Take a deep breath, soften your heart, be gentle, be patient, be caring.
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