Refraining, Refining, and Letting Go: A Teacher’s Lesson in Leadership
When people talk, listen completely.
On the third to last day of class, my English 217: “Creative Non-Fiction” students and I reflected on the semester.
Of course, creative non-fiction can many times be autobiographical. And like many classes, our group was filled with people of all different backgrounds. So, we heard lots of stories when we shared our writing. We heard about one student's experience growing up in Ethiopia and her challenges as a Muslim woman in the United States. We heard about another student’s pain and disappointment over a career-ending injury in baseball.
One mother, almost 50, wrote about the impact motherhood had on her. Another student recounted his experiences working in the watermelon fields in Mexico. I remember he talked about the sun. About endurance. And he quoted the lyrics to a Spanish song. I recall a paper from a Christian student who was frustrated with angry campus preachers. And some students who had never written creatively (or very personally) who stretched themselves in terms of topics and style.
I remember being moved by these stories, having to breathe a lot during that class. I remember the ways that my students spoke from the heart, how they spoke of each other. I remember how they each recounted the ways they had grown, as writers, as thinkers, as people. And most of all, I remember how 18 students from such different backgrounds listened. They were interested in the ways each person had grown.
One comment remains imprinted in my mind. About halfway through the reflection, one student remarked, “The respect in here is palpable.”
On a day early in the semester, on the heels of a writing workshop, a student told the class she had created an online space where students could share their work if they wanted. I’ll be honest: at first I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. Then I thought that maybe I should have perhaps suggested it myself? But I began to see the beauty of this created community. I was not the leader there; the students owned this idea and the space for sharing. I just sat back and watched, not intervening or asking too many questions, but being grateful for what they shared with me.
Another day later in the semester, a student who hadn’t spoken much in class stepped forward to share a spoken-word piece. It was an open-ended extra credit assignment, and I had no idea what to expect. When we got to this young woman, after about three words, the room fell extra silent. She spoke mainly about violence inflicted on her family when she was a toddler in Ethiopia, and while I can’t remember every detail, I remember her breath—the power of the short, staccato style in her speech and writing as she described the scene—and the utter respect that her classmates showed her.
One student stood up and clapped. Another said something like, “I didn’t know you had that in you.” I commented on her breath and how it made the delivery powerful, to which she smiled and said that it was probably because she was nervous. “It worked,” someone said. There were so many other things I wanted to say, but I refrained. I didn’t even ask any teacherly questions like, “So what did you guys think?” Students naturally chimed in, and I let their words fill the space.
There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.
I have often thought of the concept of “letting go,” in my life and in my teaching. When do we “let go” as teachers? And then when do we provide structure, directed support, wisdom, boundaries, or parameters?
At the end of that final reflective day near the end of the semester, my students started asking a lot of questions. “You know so much about us, we want to know about you.” (Here’s where the breathing really came in handy). Someone asked me if I was to write a book what it would be about. I paused, and I remember catching a glimpse of my right hand resting on the table. My fingernails were painted yellow. My hand was shaking.
“I would write about my journey with my faith,” I responded.
“Wait, like you have faith or you don’t have faith?” another student quickly asked.
“I have faith,” I smiled. And students started chiming in, sharing their worldviews, sharing their personal experiences. And we all sat together, no one needing to be right, everyone respecting each other’s worldviews. I also shared with them how they had inspired me to start writing again.
As my students shared, as they took the lead, not only was my teaching refined—but I was convinced of the need to face some things in my own life. My students had explored their identities in the course of that semester, and I was exploring mine. I began to realize that this teaching thing, this leadership thing, this life thing, are constantly getting refined, whether we like it or not.
Photographs by Bruce Racine for the Department of English.