When my supervisor informed me that my very first college level ESL class would be populated with predominately Saudi Arabian students with a sprinkling of Brazilians, I had no idea what I was getting into. I was not concerned with the Brazilian students, having had two former au pairs that were Brazilian and wonderful, I was confident I could easily navigate any cultural Brazilian land-mines (i.e., You can expect Brazilians to show support for any World Cup team EXCEPT Argentina). Embarrassingly, however, up until this past June I had never had a meaningful interaction with anyone of the Muslim faith or from the Middle East more generally.
A native Long Islander, I was comfortable and familiar with the demographic diversity that accompanied growing up just outside of New York City. Moreover, I had spent over four years in graduate school in New York City and believed I had an intercultural literacy worthy of any savvy, seasoned subway rider of the green, yellow, or red lines. But upon closer examination, I realized I was operating under some serious misconceptions. I had no idea what the Saudi Arabian men and women were going to be like in my class. What would their expectations of a teacher include, and could I live up to those expectations? Would my authority in the classroom be challenged or respected? Would I be dismissed because my clothing might be deemed provocative? Would we find a meeting place of interests coming from such different cultural backgrounds? I honestly had no idea what to expect.
However, instead of allowing myself to continue to entertain these unanswerable questions, I decided to recalibrate my thinking. Instead of worrying about things I could not possibly know or control, I began to suspect that what might undermine the learning experience more than anything would be the expectations I brought to the classroom, based as they were in my own cultural ignorance or fear. So I decided to reorient my thinking and go back to what my father had taught me about teaching and reflecting upon one’s philosophy of education.
When I was a very young girl, I would accompany my father to his work. This was a real treat for me. Not only did it get me out of the house for a while with special time with my father, but also as my father was a college professor, I was able to enjoy walks with my father through a bucolic campus and through academic buildings that reverberated with an almost apostolic spirit. I was given the royal treatment as daughter of the chairman of one of the largest departments of the college. But was even more exciting was sitting in on my father’s graduate Education classes, because as much as my father was a scholar and philosopher, he was also a damned good teacher. And it was during one of his classes that his philosophy of Education manifested itself in a provocative and indelible manner. At least for me.
During this one particular class, there was a class discussion about what it meant to teach. Most of the students in the class were already teachers but were returning to school to obtain their Master’s degree. After a lengthy dialogue, one student finally voiced her opinion on the futility of teaching in urban schools. No one listened, no one cared, she maintained. It was a waste of time. At that point, my father looked her square in the eye and said, “Then perhaps we should just round them all up and eliminate them.” The class fell into a shocked silence, and then he continued. “Because if you don’t believe in the power and the possibility of education to transform every life,” he said, “then your efforts here are a waste of time. And life is too short to waste anybody’s time. Including your own.”
My take away from that class discussion then was that education was fundamental to living. My take away from that class discussion today is that not only is education critical, but the cornerstone of education is caring. Without genuine care to improve the minds and the lives of the students entrusted to you, the work done in the classroom can be seen simply as exercises in power and obedience; a meaningless marking of time on the clock.
So with this philosophy of caring rearticulated for myself, this summer I prepared myself first with the objective to learn to care about my students. What did they want to learn? Why were they there? Why had they traveled so far to a foreign country to spend time and money to learn a language that was so darned difficult? And from this epistemological base I constructed my ESL pedagogy.
This past Thursday was my last class of my summer session. I had a number of students ask me for letters of recommendation for either visa purposes or for applications to graduate programs. I also had a number of students just thank me for the experience, including this feedback from one of the quietest Saudi Arabian men in my class: “ I want to thank you for encouraging me and supporting everything I did […] you were always there when I had a question, always willing to help me when I needed you.” If I had to do a self-evaluation on whether I achieved my instructional goals for this class, I would consider this feedback and the other equally positive responses I received as evidence that I did indeed create that culture of caring that I sought to establish in my initial instructional design.
So in my humble opinion, when we talk about education reform or how to promote academic success for all students, I believe we need to start from a place of inquiry on caring as the critical first step. How do we demonstrate caring for all students? How do we create an environment of caring that is not driven by prejudice and ignorant misconceptions about any of our students? Without embracing a philosophy of education that starts from a place of love and compassion, I believe learning has far less long-term traction and runs the risk of being reduced to just a waste of time. And like my father, I believe life is too short to waste any time on anything less than trying to make the world a better place for one another.