Though I usually use this space to offer answers to teaching advice questions from professors, I wanted to try something different. For my next few installments, I’m writing letters to people who have exemplified what it means to be an effective teacher. The first letter in the series was about what I learned when visiting a colleague’s hybrid class. This column, the second in the series, is to my Mom. She will forever be one of my greatest teachers.
My friend and colleague, Jeff Hittenberger, worked with us to launch a new faculty learning community last year. Together, we explored how to engage in civic life with love and wisdom. We didn’t have to go further than the daily news to hear of school board meetings, classrooms, grocery stores and libraries being impacted by political polarization in our country.
What really struck me throughout the experience was that so many people in the learning community shared how they find it hardest to show up with love and wisdom with their families. My colleagues described how they cannot talk to their parents or other family members about anything even remotely political without sparking tension that felt impossible to defuse. A few stressed that the only way their marriages keep going is to avoid any topics outside the “safe” ones, such as what’s for dinner or the weather.
This was not the way you raised me, though, mom.
I remember my childhood as a time of mutual exploration, where you encouraged us to discuss any manner of potentially controversial topics. You were cautious not to speak in dichotomous ways about more challenging subjects, but you did give me a general overview of the broad strokes of how different people perceived tough issues. You would describe various perspectives people might have on an issue, and only then share your own viewpoint. Regardless of my age, my sense was always that you found me to be a person worthy of having opinions about important matters in this world.
I recently spoke at a conference back home in San Diego, and I ended up driving past the shopping center where you used to take me to ballet classes several times a week. The familiar clock tower architecture on the building’s facade drew me back to those years of practice. You made it possible for my life to be shaped by dance, yet not in a way that put me directly in the center, the way it is for so many children today. Yes, you were sure to have me there on time, but you pursued your own interests. You would drop me off and sit in the car for hours each week, reading voraciously. While I always felt important in your life, you showed me a commitment to your own lifelong learning that demonstrated the importance of self care and growth.
You took me to your sign language classes at the local community college and allowed me to learn by your side. I was not spoken of by you or the others as a bother. Instead, I was a partner in the learning process. The professor gave me a name sign in ASL, as the others in the class came up with their own. She signed the letter B as she moved her hand down the side of her face, to represent my long hair. I did not realize it at the time, but this experience of joining you in class formed a foundation that would serve me years later, as I went to college and never questioned whether I belonged there.
A trip to a bookstore or library as a younger person was always a delight. Each member of the family could pick up as many books as we could carry, allowing us to go on adventures in our ever-expanding imaginations and acquisitions of knowledge. You did not try to control what we read, but you allowed my brother and I to pursue our own interests and characters who would draw us into the stories.
The way you modeled how to avoid binary thinking has stayed with me into my adult years, and I have done my best to incorporate this discipline into my teaching. My goal is to treat each student as someone with a unique perspective about the topics we are exploring together. It is vital to ground students with a shared vocabulary necessary to understand the issues. I also ask plenty of questions along the way, so my students realize that their views matter to me.
Frank Leon Roberts, English professor at Amherst College, remembers one way that books shaped his life and his relationship with a professor in his college days. His former professor gave books away to students who visited during office hours. Roberts continues that tradition for his students at Amherst. As Roberts shared in a 2022 tweet:
”My rule: Any student who comes to my office hours can keep any book on my shelf that they like. All they need to do is ask. I have a prof who used to do this back in college and I’ve always remembered how special it made the student-teacher relationship. Let’s continue this tradition.”
Roberts shared an Amazon wish list with books he would like to give to his students. Supporters can then purchase the books and have them delivered to his office at Amherst. Our family sent Roberts multiple copies of the books on his list, so he would have plenty to give away to his students. This was all done in honor of you and the impact you have made on our lives and learning.
Thank you, mom, for all you have done throughout my life to set me up to continue learning and engaging with people who have different perspectives than me. I’m thankful that you continue to be a person in my life who I can talk with about any issue.