I have long pondered a phrase I learned from a mentor: “Witness the struggle.” Frances, my mentor, used the phrase when she talked about working with students in emotional pain. She was referring to those students who sometimes lash out in frustration over missed assignments, family dynamics, or other stressful life issues. As a career educator, I have a deep desire to help students and a strong tendency to offer solutions and suggestions. I want to fix their problems and tell them what to do. The wise words of this phrase offer a more powerful and profound answer to the part of me that thinks I need to rescue students. Its simple urging suggests that I be fully engaged and present, that I use silence to clear a space, and that I guard against telling students what to do. More often than not, students simply need to know that their voices count, that they have been heard, and that who they are matters.
How often do we look up during office hours to see a troubled-looking student standing at the door? He needs help, but we are working against the clock to prepare the next lecture or reviewing materials to be discussed in an upcoming committee meeting. As I write, I’m seeing numerous student faces—some looking hurt, others angry, some seeming as though they just might implode. Our students experience strong emotions. These faces remind me that at times I have been abrupt, and at other times, I have been inviting.
Being fully engaged and present suggests that I stop what I am doing and give students my full attention. Glancing up from the computer while I continue to type or looking at the clock does not suggest that I am present. Being fully present means just that. For the next five or 30 minutes, I have nothing more pressing than the time I give to my student. Certainly, I may state that I have 10 minutes before my next appointment, but for those 10 minutes, my student’s voice is the only one sending messages to my brain. I sit with him, and I keep my thoughts on what he is saying. We may schedule another time for a deeper discussion, but the time I spend with him belongs to him alone.
Let’s face it, we are teachers, and we like to talk. That’s how we make our living. We walk into our classes and begin class by opening our mouths. Our students benefit greatly from the knowledge we impart; it helps prepare them for their careers. However, important as our wisdom is, when students come to us with their misunderstandings, problems with assignment deadlines, or difficulties balancing family, work, and school, what they need from us, in addition to our presence, is our silence. I am not referring to the crossed-arms, closed-body postures that convey contempt and disdain. This silence is a quiet indicating that as teacher or advisor, I want to understand and will listen without interruption or assumption. I want my student to be heard without my butting in. The gift of silence is offered, and an invitation is given for the student’s voice to enter into the space created. By being quiet, I also become a thinking partner with my student as she begins to communicate her pressing concerns.
Being fully present and using silence to create space are both challenging; however, perhaps the most difficult behavior for teachers is allowing students to construct and choose their own solutions. We admonish our students to study, to read, to prepare, to work hard, to think critically, to be creative, and more. We are, after all, recognized experts. We know what it takes to learn and to succeed in life. As difficult as it may seem, we must let go of this proclivity to tell our students what they need to do. Most of the time, they probably know what they should do, but they need to be heard, not to hear us. When we engage with our presence and our silence, we can ask questions that invite students to think about the choices they make and the attention they pay to competing demands. By refraining from giving advice, we are suggesting that our students are fully capable of reaching conclusions that will lead them to their desired outcomes. And we know the advice they give themselves is probably more persuasive than the advice we offer.
When we make ourselves fully present and attentive, use silence to create space, and encourage students to construct their own solutions, we are giving a gift that costs nothing but has great value. It is the gift that lets students know how much we care.
This article originally appeared in the April 2012 print issue of The Teaching Professor.