Vulnerability and Compassion in the Classroom
Mandy Frake-Mistak, Teaching Commons
“So long as we seek knowledge in classrooms, we are necessarily dependent
on the teachers and students who are there engaged in a constitutively ethical
enterprise. To intrude on that, to betray the trust that lets us in, to rupture the
possibility of developing a caring community, is to forget that we should be
doing research for teaching” (Noddings, 1988, p. 228).
This topic of being vulnerable as a teacher is one that is rather close to my heart and as I reflect on the kind of teacher I (think) I am and the kind of teacher I want to be, I often think about Nel Nodding’s ‘ethic of care’ (1988). Her most fundamental premise is that we teach and treat our students with the care they deserve. It’s a right in the classroom. Students deserve to be treated with dignity. They deserve to be taught with integrity. Students deserve the very best I have to offer. My best is always from the heart.
Noddings offers an ethical orientation to caring in the classroom through what she refers to as relational ethics which where the carer, or in this case the teacher, responds to the needs and wants of the other (the student) and the one being cared for becomes aware and responds to the care being provided. This reciprocal relationship is highly applicable to teaching. Noddings focuses specifically on relationships as changing the foundation of educational relationships which will also filter through to impact other areas of education and one’s experience of being educated. By allowing ourselves as educators to get to know our students as individuals, their strengths and weaknesses, eventually we can become partners in fostering the student’s growth.
Teaching from the heart does make me vulnerable. I have been taken advantage of for having done so. But (and more importantly) the connections I have built with students (who are people!) over the years have been both meaningful and significant. A powerful lesson that I have learned from my classrooms is that everyone has a story of some kind and though I may not know what it is, it exists and is powerful. Because of this known reality (despite not always knowing the specifics of the actual story) I will always try to err on the side of compassion.
Students have let me into their lives in strange and powerful ways over the years for which I am humbled and grateful. But this too comes at a cost. At times a very great cost when I am driving home, or lying awake at night thinking (and feeling) about the story and reality that I have become a part of in some small or large way. I feel it a great responsibility and an honour to be invited into the lives of students. This being said I still have stories of students that haunt me but I also find great joy in the stories of other students who have shared intimate and happy moments with me.
I am curious what kinds of conversations would take place within a community of vulnerability and compassion. Is there a space to share our collective experiences? Would it serve as a catharsis of sorts to know of other university teachers in similar spaces (emotional, physical, mental spaces….)? Just some thoughts to get this conversation started.
Noddings, N. (1988). An ethic of caring and its implications for instructional
arrangements. American Journal of Education, 96(2), 215-230.
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