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.