Educating by Being Aware of Others’ Experiences

Whether we’re a teacher, whether we’re a director, whether we’re an administrative assistant, whatever we are because who we are and what our upbringing has been and what our life experiences have been is intricately a part of our authentic being. Unless we have taken time to look at how our socialization really affected that then we don’t really understand perhaps all the aspects of who we are in a way that helps us to be culturally responsive.

We connect to others, but we may not connect to them in a way that helps them connect back to us. One of the things I learned in working with volunteers is that we have to sometimes help people by asking questions about their motive and their desire. Then we can in a very, very small way begin that practice of asking, how can I enter into this in the most compassionate way?

Fostering Greater Awareness

A lot of the work that I have done in education at the university and as the director of the Human Rights Office I did a lot of community education. In that work, it’s really asking people to look at self and look at self with others and identify their own capacity to be aware, awareness being understanding the context, understanding the space, understanding the relationship with that other person, with that other group. 

Part of it is that in the past, we’ve really not in schools specifically worked with social emotional learning. And culturally in the United States, I believe we’ve been a little bit afraid of it. To ask adults to actually examine how they have been socialized which has been a big part of what I’ve done at the university. To ask people to examine how they have been socialized to say, this is what I believe and I’ve never had to hold it out here and look at it, but now I’m going to do that so that I can examine it. It’s what Kegan calls the object, it becomes the object. If we can do that with some mindful awareness and some compassion then we can start in that idea of working towards compassion that always starts with being compassionate with ourselves first. 

This is what I’ve always believed because I’ve never had to look at it. Now that I’ve looked at it, I still believe it maybe, but I can see that there are other aspects that I’ve never taken into account that I’ve never had to really think about, that it was easy for me not to think about another person’s point of view because I had the privilege of not having to think about that. When we give people the opportunity in a safe, mindful environment they can do that on their own. 

In our schools, teachers are generally white women and that’s not bad, that’s not good, that’s what is. When we think about someone becoming culturally responsive, Geneva Gay has said, one of things that is really important is that coming into the classroom we understand that everybody’s life experience has validity. Our students whether they’re five, 15 or 25 or 45 or whatever age, their life experience is important. Now with adults especially, if we can connect content to life experience then that’s a real win and it makes that learning so much more explicit for them. 

If we have only one idea of how to be in the world and that idea comes from only our own being in the world then we’re less effective at being able to help our learners connect the dots of, oh, here’s my life experience, here’s the content that someone is asking me to take in and here’s how it’s going to work when I take it out of here. As an educator, at least I think, that’s a trajectory that we want. We want people to say, my life experience is valid. This is how it connects or doesn’t connect to the content that you want to give me and oh, this is how it works out in the world. 

Now, another aspect of coming back to that for an education, a culturally responsive education is what’s the content that we’re actually presenting? As an educator, have I taken time to really look at, oh, there’s some other perspectives that I can bring in to this content that is different than what I’ve always had. I’m seeing the content from this perspective. Perhaps my students need something different to get that content. 

Creating a Supportive Environment

One of the things that we’ve built in the teacher education program at Naropa is the idea that there are three practices that our pre-service teachers really need to learn and they practice throughout that four years, mindfulness, awareness and compassion. What are those practices and how do you work with them? When we talk about awareness, we’re talking about the environment so how do we build an environment in a classroom? Whether it’s for university students, for veteran teachers, for pre-service kindergarten teachers, whatever it is that takes that into account. Thinking about awareness, we think about the environment that we’re setting, so that’s going to look different wherever we are, but that’s an important part of it. 

Awareness is also about the space that we give in the room. How do we create a spacious environment? What do I mean by that? A spacious environment is one that gives people time to reflect on an exercise that they’ve done or a spacious environment is one that helps students to feel free enough to ask a question that they may not otherwise ask. Mindfulness as a practice is really about modeling for pre-service teachers, in this case, how to take a breath when things get a little bit heated or a little bit maybe emotional or a little bit something that makes you as the educator need to take a pause, that it’s okay to smile and take a breath, that it’s all right to say, hmm, I don’t know, but I can find out or we can find out together. That’s a compassionate way to answer a question so many times. 

As teachers, I know when I was being taught how to be a teacher, it was almost like you’re never supposed to be wrong or you’re never not supposed to know. That’s really not very human because there are always times when we don’t know. There are always things that stump us. The other part of bringing those three things together that awareness and that mindfulness and that compassion is about working on ourselves enough that we can walk into that environment and be our authentic self. That in itself is a practice of helping others to do that. When we have the opportunity to do that, when we have the ability to do that and the skill that it takes to take a breath and practice to take a breath then one, we model that for others and two, it helps to make the environment safe enough that someone’s going to ask me a question, someone’s going to ask me a question about my background or reveal something about theirs or look differently at the person sitting next to them. 

When they have the opportunity to reflect with another person about a question that I’ve asked so that it’s not just their story because their story is important, but so is the story of the other person. When they have that opportunity for relationship which is really a big part of what teaching is all about then we set the stage if you will for the ability to be pushed. We set the ground and the safety to know that you’re held so that when you’re pushed you might take a step farther than you would otherwise.