Mark Forrester was my mentor during the first semester that I taught in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Maryland in College Park. But he is so much more that a teacher—Mark is a father, a husband, a poet, and a true friend. I hope readers will enjoy his blog on what it means to be a witness to one’s students.
When I think of former students, as often as not my first impulse is to offer an apology.
Danny was a junior in college, a student in my professional writing class. He showed up for class every day, on time, and sat in the front row of the classroom. However, the work that he submitted often seemed careless and reflected an immaturity that also appeared when he spoke up in class. He would offer loud observations that were irrelevant to and threatened to derail our classroom discussions. He embarrassed another student by noting that her name was also that of a videogame character.
Not surprisingly, I quickly grew frustrated with Danny. I was not rude to him, but I’m sure I directed more of my time and attention to those students who seemed more engaged and willing to learn.
On the last day of the course, I overheard Danny discussing the treatment he was receiving for autism. Would I have treated him differently if I had known this from the beginning of the semester? I’m not sure what specifically I might have done differently, but I know that my attitude would have been changed—and in teaching, a change of attitude can mean everything.
Of course, Danny is not the only student I have had in my career who was struggling with difficult circumstances. I have had students who were suicidal, who were in abusive relationships, who were dealing with eating disorders, who were sick and overworked, who were facing criminal charges, who had been sexually abused by a parent, who had a parent who was dying, whose best friend died that semester, whose parents were going through a bitter divorce . . . along with many other challenging and emotionally overwhelming situations. You cannot teach long at any level without encountering enough genuine tragedy to make Dickens seem like Pollyanna in comparison.
Few of us still subscribe (at least consciously) to the old-fashioned notion that our students come to us as empty vessels, eagerly waiting to be filled with knowledge. However, it’s often easy to forget just how un-empty those students really are. For a student like Danny, a teacher may be able to make adjustments in their teaching style. But when a student is struggling with the imminent death of a beloved parent, how can a teacher hope to make the distinction between cumulative and coordinate adjectives seem important?
The answer, of course, is that you can’t. In the moment, such matters are not important to the student, and they should not be important to the teacher. For that matter, the injustices imposed by prison privatization and the dangers posed by global warming will not seem important either. While it is a noble pursuit for a teacher to want to serve as a witness on behalf of their students, it is too easy to assume that you know best what needs to be witnessed.
A good witness must be an active witness. To be an effective witness, you must start by being an attentive listener. You must know where your students stand, what the content of their vessels really is, what they need and what they are ready to learn. Many problems, perhaps including Danny’s autism, carry the additional frustration of making it more difficult for the student to speak up about what they are facing, meaning that the teacher must do more than listen. We must observe carefully, we must empathize fully, and we must assume the best of our students—no matter how many times we have already been burned by that assumption.
We must first allow our students to witness to us.
So, Danny, I am sorry. I did not listen when I should have, but I hope that I am a better listener now.
Bio: Mark Forrester is a high school dropout, former chef, and haiku poet. He has taught literature and composition courses at the University of Maryland for 24 years. Mark is an Assistant Director of Maryland’s Professional Writing Program, and in 2014 was honored with a Philip Merrill Presidential Scholars award for mentorship.