Yes, we teachers are, or we have that potential. In a recent department meeting, I described the three stars of my guiding constellation as imagination, empathy and expression. A brief word here about the middle term.
Trust and fairness drive lasting relationships between students and teachers. Incidentally, face to face contact fosters fairness and trust more readily than online communication. This I believe.
To build trust and fairness, I try to write student assignments, or pieces of them, as often as I can. Not only does this practice help me anticipate and reflect on their experience, but it also presents an empathetic model to them. In other words, they see me walk in their shoes. I can describe my own struggles and successes with the assignment. Additionally, as in the sample below, I can use my work to show them tricks for theirs.
Yesterday, before they started writing on the topic of true character, I showed them my brief piece on a related passage from Hamlet, the story we are studying. They were asked how Hamlet’s “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy helps determine the level of his genuineness in telling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he has lost all of his mirth. I projected, and posted online, my short analysis of the structure of this lost-mirth speech (2.2.278 ff.). The sample also show students various ways to punctuate the inclusion of quotations. Enjoy this draft–a draft, mind you. To present empathetic models, we occasionally need to show drafts. This reminds some students that we do not have to be perfect always.
Heaven and Earth: the structure of Hamlet’s lost-mirth speech
When Hamlet explains to R & G the likely reasons for their being sent by Claudius to test him, he structures his speech in an hourglass shape. At the top of his speech, he begins with this broad (general) statement: “I have of late . . . lost all my mirth” (2.2.280). From there he moves into a specific demonstration of this lost joy, in order to show how deep is his despair. “This goodly frame, the earth” seems to him “a sterile promontory” (2.2.282-3). In this section of the speech, he expounds on the beautiful majesty of the heavens. This paean to the skies leads to the majesty of mankind. Here lies the hinge. As the lower part of the hourglass descends, Hamlet exclaims, “What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason” (2.2.286-7). As above, he finds several ways to express the glories of human beings. Alas, at the bottom of the glass, he returns to another broad statement: “Man delights not me” (2.2.290). Even this magnificent creature mankind brings him no joy; he can find no light in his dark world. Everything has fallen to the bottom, where it lies still and sterile.
In another class, students are examining specific ways in which Julia Alvarez humanizes the Mirabal sisters, legendary heroines in her Dominican novel, In the Time of the Butterflies. More than one student has argued that showing a character in her moments of unguarded emotion brings her to life, down from her legendary pedestal. Alvarez shows the sisters struggling to make decisions, reacting to making mistakes and needing to care for other people. I believe that we humanize our teaching, and therefore the learning process, when we show students this side of us. Projecting our version of an assignment can move us this direction. To borrow from the Hamlet exercise above, such movement shows our true character, which, in turn, encourages students to do the same. This seems like a fair exchange to me.