The Heart Connected to the Ear

Armando Gutierrez is the author of  “You Don’t Know Me,” a piece which I re-blogged about the great difficulties overcome, the supreme effort that some GED students put forth in order to come to class. A couple of months ago he posted a comment where I had re-blogged his original story, that started me thinking. He asked two questions: Could you deal with some of the issues your GED students are facing each day? And if you were, would you not want a caring ear to listen to you? The simple answers are no, and yes.

Could you deal with some of the issues your GED students are facing each day?

A more complicated answer to the first question is that I don’t know how I would do it. Poverty, racism, sexism and post-traumatic stress are facts of life for many ABE, GED, adult literacy and ESOL students. Then it is time to get to homophobia, physical disabilities, learning disabilities…the list goes on.

One of the first shocks I had when I began to teach adult literacy and basic education was to come up against the real lives of my students, on a personal level. They were no longer the amorphous “economically disadvantaged” class that I had read about. They had faces and names, and stories.

After shock came respect and admiration. I saw how hard they worked to overcome immense obstacles to get to school, and was amazed that they had the will to return to school, which was, for nearly all of them, a place of previous failure. In my own life, where I have failed, I have usually fled.

Would you not want a caring ear to listen to you?

The answer is simple. Yes. Yes. Yes.

The Caring Ear

What does the caring ear do? First, it opens the lines to a caring heart. It hears the pain in the story and acknowledges it. It recognizes the difficulty of the circumstances, the unfairness, the lack of fault, and most of all it hears between the words the effort and strength it has taken to survive.

Does every student in my class deserve such an ear?  Absolutely.

Can I be that ear for everyone? Absolutely not.

When I read between the lines of Dr. Gutierrez’s comment, I see an expectation that I, a teacher who has so much, should be a caring ear to every student. Moreover, I was raised in North America in the 50’s, so I have a strong echo of that expectation still reverberating in my soul, in spite of decades of feminist action: women should be nurturing, and do emotional work for others.

An ABE/GED teacher has ongoing relationships with 15 to 70 students in any term, and the stated purpose of the relationship is teaching and learning the material in a particular course, not the therapeutic kind of listening the caring ear does. As well, the teacher has other relationships at work, and relationships with friends and families, any of which require a caring ear from time to time.

I have two ears, but only one heart. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by the need I see in front of me every day. Even when I am doing what I can as a citizen–voting and writing letters and going on demonstrations–the stories overwhelm me. I know that I do not do good work when I am overwhelmed. I am tempted to turn away, not to listen, or to listen badly.

When I’m overwhelmed, I feel guilty. Guilty because I have so much when others have so little. Guilty because I cannot do enough. Guilty because I have been lucky enough to escape the evil in the world.

And when I feel guilty, I cannot listen any more. I cannot be the caring ear. My generosity of spirit dries up. My creativity goes south for the winter. I am less of a teacher, more perfunctory, less lively, less involved.

So, because being a good teacher is important to me, I try not to get overwhelmed by all the people around me who deserve a caring ear.

I hear some teachers say, “I’m not a counsellor, I can’t do anything.” That doesn’t work for me (overwhelm, guilt, shame, generosity gone south, etc.). Instead, I say, “I’m not a counsellor. What can I do?”

Tomorrow I’ll outline my answer to that question: Becoming a Side Support.

14 thoughts on “The Heart Connected to the Ear

    Please allow me to Add some fodder to this discussion. First, I must say I am so delighted to hear you say, “I’m not a counselor. What can I do?”
    Years ago teachers were given a syllabus and told where and how far they were to take their students by the end of the term. Somewhere along the way amongst the barrage of standardized testing, pacing guides, state mandated test, the ART of teaching was lost. No longer were teachers the “professionals” they once were admired for. Students became widgets and teachers became a tool for delivering information.
    Some might argue that we brought it upon ourselves, becoming complacent and accepting the notion that “we” were not capable of delivering high quality instruction based upon our knowledge of the subject and training. The Ivory tower knew more about my student needs than I did, sitting 5 feet away from the student.
    There is no getting around it. Testing is here to stay. I am not saying that testing is good or bad-the reality is that it is a forgone conclusion and a certainty we must deal with.
    But we must remember that in any classroom, we are going to have a percentage of students who have not had a proper family structure that supports learning, whose parents cannot provide the support and stability that nurtures our work in the classroom. Not all of our students have the same academic skills, the assuredness to persist- fail- get back up and try it again tomorrow.
    That’s where “we” come in. The person who says, “What can I do” the person who knows despite all of the shortcomings of our widgets, we Will Prevail. We will not give up when others have let them down. We believe that we have the ability to provide a greater treasure than any perceived lost because we are the caring teachers that they so deservingly want.

    • Thanks for your comments. In the part of Canada I live in, we have not yet got to the kind of testing in adult literacy/ABE/GED that you are talking about. But no matter what the testing, we have live students and live teachers, working it out together, or not working it out at all.

  2. Pingback: Tutoring Within the Limits - Literacy News | John Corcoran Foundation

  3. Pingback: I’m not a counsellor. What can I do? | Working in Adult Literacy

  4. I had a student who seemed distracted and worn and I hadn’t seen her always this way. So a couple of times – in more private situations I asked if she was alright and she said fine with a tentative smile. One morning when I arrived at work she was waiting at my office door. Asked if she could talk. When we got settled she told me she was trying to decide about having an abortion – what that meant in her culture, how she felt about the ‘baby”, etc. She talked for maybe 10 minutes then said “Thank you. I knew you would listen.” That’s certainly all I did as she told her story very crisply and in an orderly manner – I hadn’t even needed to ask for clarification. I said come back anytime and see you in class.

    She never talked to me about it again – I gather she had an abortion because she attended class for the next 4 months without major changes or interruptions. And after the term, she moved away and I never saw her again.
    I am so grateful that that morning I happened to have a room for a few minutes with a door.

    • Thanks for this story, Evelyn. I’m glad you were there for her. One of the functions of the caring ear–to listen while the student works things out for herself.
      Interesting that she said, “I knew you would listen.” Students know who to go to–and who not to go to. But when is this emotional work that some teachers do taken into account when workloads are being discussed? (I know I’m sounding very curmudgeonly these past couple of days.)

  5. Thank you. Glad you said it instead of me having to. You are much better at it. “Instead, I say, “I’m not a counsellor. What can I do?” This resonated with me so much at the jail because we, as teachers, were so limited. I did my time there and love my students dearly, but now, it’s time for me to act in a different capacity through which I can continue to help them, perhaps on a more global level. I just hope they get the help they need and that the materials I left for them actually get to them. And I hope they know I love them all–even the ones who were not my students. People deserve love. The seemingly unlovable ones are the ones who need it the most.

  6. It is great to read your thoughts again, Kate. You put it so well, and this rumination strikes close to my own field, mental health worker in a residence for 10 mentally ill women forced to live communally and supervised. I am sometimes overwhelmed by how much I would hate to BE in their spot. I marvel at their goodwill towards each other, their appreciation of staff’s efforts and know I would not feel that way. I have had co-workers who think “they” should be grateful. Very little room is left for the heartbreaking sense of loss or anger or fear that “they” might be feeling. And even less appreciation for the tough hands these folks have been dealt and the survivor skills they’ve needed to rise above at all. I can get a little too stuck in the “there but for fortune go I” of it, and as you say it doesn’t make me do my job well. I want to hide and avoid interacting, which seems so meager, when I have such a lavishment of riches.
    I so admire your handle on the power-play of it all, you are so much wiser than to ever even want gratitude.
    And I really liked “I am not a counselor, how can I help.” I am adopting it as my refrain, a watchword to avoid getting overwhelmed myself.

love to hear your ideas or experiences!

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