CARITAS IN THE CLASSROOM
THE OPENING OF THE AMERICAN STUDENT'S HEART
by John D. Lawry
 
John D. Lawry is a professor of psychology at Maryrnount College in Tarrytown, New York. This article is based on a presentation at the annual meeting of The Freshman Year Experience, University of South Carolina, Columbia, S.C., February, 1989.
 
Editors' Note. Due to the unusual ideas and point of view expressed in this article, College Teaching has asked Dr. Lawry to respond to some questions that were raised by the reviewers of the manuscript. These responses are at the end of the article.
 
 
If Allan Bloom (1987) is right, that there has been a gradual closing of the American mind, then I believe it is due to the closing of the American heart. Indeed, the more I listen to college students, the more I come to realize that American higher education has focused on the eye of the mind to the virtual neglect of the eye of the heart. This has resulted in a kind of moral astigmatism and spiritual blindness. To quote Bernadette Roberts (1985, 153): "After two years at the university, I suddenly realized I had not learned a thing. Despite the influx of information, nothing really happened. I was the sarne person with the same mind&emdash;I had not grown at all. If learning could not bring about change, if it was not a way of growth, then the university was a waste of time. "
 
More and more I have come to realize that the quality of the relationship between student and teacher is critical in opening the heart as well as the mind. Though there is little empirical evidence, I believe the highest form of learning occurs when the teacher loves and accepts the students so fully that they feel safe enough to go within to see themselves and to emerge with new answers about themselves and their lives. As Parker Palmer (1983, 69) asserts: "To teach is to create a space in which obedience to truth is practiced." Similarly, Goethe said in the last century that it was not the most brilliant teachers who had the greatest influence on him, but those,who loved him the most.
 
The Research
 
There are few authorities in my field of educational psychology who have written about the place of love in the classroom, with the exception of Leo Buscaglia and the recently deceased Carl Rogers. In a little-known study published more than a decade ago, Aspy and Roebuck (1974) found that what Carl Rogers calls empathy, congruence (psychological integrity), and positive regard, as measurable characteristics in grade-school teachers, contribute significantly to classroom learning. In other words, teachers who measure high in empathy, congruence, and positive regard produce students who score higher on standard tests than do t~achers who measure low. Moreover, the students of the teachers with empathy had better student attendance rates and fewer students with school phobia. Aspy and Roebuck (1977) published their updated research with the telling title, Kids Don't Learn From People They Don't Like, and, they might have added were it not a tautology, kids don't learn from people who don't like them.
 
More recently, three educators at the University of Utah's medical school, Whitman, Spendlove, and Clark, (1986) have published an ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, Increasing Student Learning, arguing that professors should become "professionally intimate" with undergraduates to minimize student stress. The authors observed that "When students feel that the professor cares [emphasis mine] not only about their progress in class but also about their academic progress in general and [about] them as people, they are more likely to feel a collegial relationship with the teacher and adopt the teacher as a role model" (p. 15). Furthermore, "Teachers should consider sharing their thoughts and values in a manner that encourages students to disclose theirs" and commit themselves to "personal growth for all students" (p. 34-45).
 
Anthropologists tell us that this tradition of ignoring the emotional connection between student and teacher is peculiar to the West. In his brilliant analysis of the human life cycle as experienced in different cultures, Colin Turnbull (1983) contrasts British attitudes and educational practices with those of small, "primitive~' societies like the Mbuti and the Ituri Forest people of central Africa. Every teacher of adolescents should read it.
 
|t took me twenty years of college teaching to allow myself to see the fear on the faces of my students.
 
The chapter on adolescence, "The Art of Transformation," emphasizes how little our education has to do with the spiritual and how that neglect fragments our understanding of the world and our place in it. In contrast, all of Mbuti education involves the spirit and the heart. There is one particularly telling account in which Turnbull informs the Ituri Forest people elders that it is the students, not the teachers, who control the rites of passage ordeals in Western society. "Did you have no teachers?" they asked. Then when I told them that our teachers were not kinsmen or friends, or even known to our families, and that they only taught our minds and trained our bodies in sports and games and didn't teach our hearts or spirit, they understood, I think, why we seem as cold to them as we do." (p. 105).
 
In Western education the exception, of course, is the enviable relationship between student and coach. Who can forget Greg Louganis' tearfilled victory embrace of his coach, Ron O'Brien, in the 1988 Olympics? How infrequently we teachers hug our students who are beyond the 4th grade!
 
But objectivism, this schizophrenic split between mind and heart, does not have to be the case in the college classroom. As Palmer (1983) reminds us in the last chapter, "The Spiritual Formation of Teachers," of his little-known book: "The transformation of teaching must begin in the transformed heart of the teacher" (p. 107). My own personal journey has been to explore the implications of creating a classroom where love, caring, and cooperation are the predominant themes in place of fear and competition and to develop some ways for doing so. Though I have tinkered with strategies and syllabi, I keep coming back to myself and the words of the Roman Catholic theologian, Romano Guardini: "It is not so much what we say nor even what we do that speaks loudest to our students; it is who we are."
 
Religion and Psychology and Trust
 
On the first day of my Religion and Psychology class (a new course for me) in the fall of 1988, I asked the class to "check in" with "where they were" at the beginning of the term. The drama of human joy and brokenness began to tumble from their lips. One student shared her triumph over drug addiction. Another revealed a broken heart and questioned the purpose of her young life. A freshman spoke of her dreams and excitement at finally making it to her first college class.
 
And then it was my turn. Because my students had bared their souls, I was challenged to do likewise. I told them about my recent engagement to be married to a woman with whom I had been li- ing for ten years. Two and-a-half weeks before the wedding, she informed me that she could not go through with it. I talked about my shock and disappointment, my heartbreak and slow recovery. There was a reverent silence in the room. Apparently, no teacher had ever shared like that before. I remembered the words of St. Paul (1 Cor. 13:12): "The knowledge that I have now is imperfect; but then I shall know as fully as I am known."
 
The ice was broken, and we were not afraid of each other. (It took me twenty years of college teaching to allow myself to see the fear on the faces of my students.) There was an atmosphere of trust and compassion in the classroom. There was also cooperation. Students gratuitously shared books, which was necessary because of an unexpected shortage. Indeed, the students learned about religion and psychology and the relationship between them. I could see it and hear it. And most of all, they learned about themselves.
It is no coincidence that articles on collaborative learning&emdash;cooperation as opposed to competition&emdash;have begun to proliferate. As Kohn (1987, 53) reported, "Students who learn cooperatively not only learn better, but feel better about themselves and get along better with each other."
 
Students' Responses
 
How did the students react to this course? One of the requirements was a self-evaluation submitted at the end of the semester. I would like to quote from two of the students in an attempt to answer the question. The evaluations I have chosen are typical of the class's reactions except that the chosen two were among the more articulate.
 
Dear Dr. Lawry,
Or rather, if I may, "Dear Friend." Although this course required me to do a lot of one of the two things that I dislike doing most, I believe that I have done nothing but benefit from the readings. This course allowed me to return to my true self. It has allowed me to shed all my masks and let people see the naked me. Fortunately, I have found that I do have emotions and that I am somewhat of a warm person.
 
At first, when I wrote to 'Dear Friend' in my journal, I knew thal I was referring to myself. But I was referring to myself in a negative way. I referred to myself because I was new here. I did not really know anyone. At that point, everyone was just an acquaintance. Also, I was determined to remain an island. The repercussions of being part of a friendship are too painful. 'Friend' was just another word for me.
Later on, I came to realize that 'Dear Friend' meant much more than it did in the beginning. It dawned on me, after many a forced reading, that I am my best friend. This is where I must begin. I must understand that before I can even begin to be someone's friend, I must accept that I am my best friend.
 
Finally, I accepted that not only was I writing to my best friend, but I was accepting that the stranger who was going to read my journal had mystically become my friend. He was just my teacher at first, but he became much more.
 
You magically turned a room full of virtual strangers into a family of friends. We all knew that we had the potential of being friends. But you helped to take it one step further. Although we may not know everyone's name, we know that forever how short a time, we were a family. We cried together. We laughed together. We trusted each other. And, most importantly, we loved each other.
 
This time will have been a precious one for me. I have learned a lot about myself and hope to continue to do so. Most importantly, I have learned that I am truly my best friend.

Thank you,......

Josephine......

P.S. The other thing that I hate doing most is writing.
 
Dear Dr. Lawry,
 
I want to start my evaluation by thanking you for this course. I feel I have been "healed" and have grown from the knowledge I have gained in this class.
 
The atmosphere of trust in the class had a really profound effect on me. I felt as though there were a bond linking all those present. It was~as if we were all sharing some sort of positive awakening, and we were all able to feel the growth taking place within us as individuals and amongst us as a group.
 
I felt comfortable enough to speak openly and emotionally. I remember the way I used to speak to my psychotherapist. I would intellectualize my feelings and thus distance myself from them. I would merely describe how I felt; I would never actually speak what I felt inside- I never spoke "from the heart." I did not have to do that in this class. I was able to reveal my true feelings without having to put up barriers. I was able to reveal all the emotions I experienced during the semester.
I have been honest with myself for the first time in my life. This has undoubtedly had a therapeutic effect on me. I could feel my self-esteem growing as we progressed through the course. I was able to purge my brain of so many negative thoughts. Rather than analyzing my belief system to get at the root of my problems I learned to release the negative energy of my problems and allow myself to forgive....
 
One of the most enriching aspects of this course was, for me, the emphasis on spirituality. I have, for the most of my life, felt as though there was a void within me. I have tried to fill the space with food, alcohol, and love (what I used to think was love). But I was never able to rid myself of my emptiness. I think I was spiritually starved. I have learned that the void can only be filled from within, with the love of God that we all possess within us.
 
Guidance is a very new concept for me. I used to think that things happened in a person's lifetime with little if any help from God. I think I was wrong to view things so secularly. I am positive now that God is leading me on a certain path and that He is providing me with "grace" or gifts to aid my spiritual growth. I think it was God's grace that led me to this school. It is as though He intended for me to come to this place sol could attend this class. I hope that doesn't sound corny. But the things I've learned in this course have helped me or will help me grow spiritually. I've never had a class like this. I don't really even consider this a class, I feel as though I embarked on a spiritual retreat this semester.
 

Thank you,.......

Erica........

 
I never had a class like this either. I don't know if I ever will again. I do know that I have become a different teacher and that it is time to challenge Bloom's (1987, 21) contention that 'book learning is most of what a teacher can give."
 
Interview with John Lawry:
 
CT: When you described what happened when you asked your class to "check in" with their feelings and experiences at the beginning of the term - how did you get them to feel this open on the first day in a class of strangers?
 
JL: First of all, the class was not entirely a group of "strangers." Marymount College, Tarrytown, is a relatively small, residential women's college of around 800 students. Most of the students know each other by face if not by name, with the exception of freshmen. Classes are rarely larger than twenty-five, and somewhere around sixteen to seventeen is the average class size. This particular class had approximately fifteen students enrolled on the first day though it jumped to the limit of twenty-five by the end of the dropadd period. Also, because it is a women's college, there is more friendliness in the classroom or at least less guardedness than I see in typical coed classrooms. It tends to be a very caring environment unlike the usual competitiveness that is more typical.
 
Secondly, I begin my classes in a rather unusual way. We chant "OM." Then I greet the students with the Sanskrit, "Jai Bhagwan," which translates into something like, "I honor the divine within you," and the students are requested to return the greeting. At the beginning they humor me in this, but, after awhile, they get into it. In fact, if I should forget, they will remind me that we forgot to chant "OM." It may sound weird, but something begins to happen as a result that is very special.
 
Thirdly, you must realize that like any other professor at a small college I have a certain reputation, and so the class is self-selected on the basis of the teacher and the course, "Religion and Psychology," which is an elective. It's hard to know what your reputation is, but I think mine contributes to a certain trust in the classroom. As a result of my own spiritual journey, I am much more comfortable with myself, including my shadow self, and therefore I think I communicate a certain permission, non-verbally, to the students to be who they really are. In spite of this, I must confess that I was shocked and surprised at their utter candor and the extent of their pain. I have never had a class quite like that before. The only explanation I can give is what I call "grace.'! That class was graced!
 
CT: But isn't there some slight risk of too much "confession" tumbling out and the other students not knowing how to handle it or some students being too vulnerable to handle it?
 
JL: I suppose that's always possible, but, in that particular class, all I can tell you is that it worked in just the opposite fashion. The more transparent we all became with each other, the better and more powerful the learning. Remember that this was a course in religion and psychology, and I had made a very fortunate choice of texts in Peck's The Road Less Traveled. To keep it abstract and theoretical would have been a grave mistake in my judgment. Once you invite students to be themselves, you have to accept what comes. I do not think that these students were atypical. I see a lot of woundedness in our young people today. I was moved by that quote from Bernadette Roberts and have taken it as a challenge that, hopefully, none of my students can say that they have not been changed by my courses. The fact is that my students have reported that they have been changed profoundly as exemplified by Erica and Josephine.
 
I know some people may feel I am getting close to therapy, but I prefer to think of it as teaching the whole person. Peter Drucker put it well in Time magazine (January 22, 1990, 6) recently: "We should know that the old approach to education is theoretical and unsound. We still believe that teaching and learning are two sides of the same coin, but we ought to realize that they are not: one learns a subject, and one teaches a per$on (emphasis mine)." There is an important difference between thinking of myself as a teacher of students rather than as a teacher of psychology.
 
CT: Early on, you mention "developing some ways" for "creating a classroom where love, caring, and cooperation are the predominant themes in place of fear and competition." Can you elaborate on these ways?
 
JL: The answer is really another article that I am working on, but, briefly, I try to do what Belenky, et al. have called, "connected teaching" in their book, Women's Ways of Knowing. "The connected class provides a culture for growth, as Peter Elbow says in Writing Without Teachers; it's a "'yoghurt' class, as opposed to a 'movie' class (in which students are spectators)." I have discussion classes rather than lecture. The students take turns leading the discussions and, therefore, take more responsibility for their own learning and have more opportunity for finding their own "voice." I also require the students to keep journals, which I read at the end of the term, comment on, and return. Basically, I try to be more of a coach and less of a referee or judge, though I know I must be both.
 
That's part of the answer. But the real secret, I think, is contained in Guardini's remark that I quoted: "It is not so much what we say nor even what we do that speaks loudest to our students; it is who we are." That was the real message for me in the movie, Stand and Deliver. Jaime Escalante was not only a genius at teaching high school math, but he also loved those kids and they knew it. Apparently, my persona is such that the students do not have to be afraid, and, therefore, the natural love and caring that we all want and have deep down are allowed to surface. My favorite comrnent from a student in the course evaluations at the end of that class was: "Dr. Lawry is about as old as us teenagers. He relates really well." I'm 52, and I bless the student who wrote that!
 
REFERENCES AND ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY
 
Asby, D., and F. Roebuck. 1974. "From humane ideas to human technology and back again many times." Education 95(2): 163-71.
Aspy, D., and F. Roebuck. 1977. Kids don't learn from people they don't like. Amherst, Mass.: Human Resources Development Press.
 
This book is a goldmine of empirical research testing the validity of Carl Rogers' educational theories. The authors document rather conclusively the critical importance of the student-teacher relationship in the learning process, although it is restricted to the pre-college level.
 
Belenky, M. F., B. M. Clinchy, N. R. Goldberger, J. M. Tarule. 1986. Women's ways of knowing. N.Y.: Basic Books.
Bloom, A. 1987. The closing of the American mind. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Elbow, Peter. 1973. Writing without teachers. N.Y.: Oxford University Press.
Greenleaf, R. 1979. Teacher as servant. New York: Paulist Press.
 
A fictional parable about a student residence at a large university that is dedicated to the teaching of "servant leadership," written by a very successful Quaker. "Professor Billings," housemaster and professor of physics, is a model of the caring teacher and servant leader extraordinaire. This book has been very important in the development of my own educational philosophy.
 
Kohn, A. 1987. "It's hard to get left out of a pair." Psychology Today 21(10):53-57.
 
Profiling Roger and David Johnson, pioneering researchers on cooperative education, Kohn reports that eighty original studies have led the Johnsons to the following conclusion: "Children who learn cooperatively&emdash;compared with those who learn competitively or independently&emdash;learn better, feel better about themselves and get along better with each other" (p. 53).
 
Palmer, P. 1983. To Know as We are Known: A Spirituality of Education. New York: Harper & Row.
 
If you only have time for one book on this list, this is the one you should read. More than any other, it has shaped my current educational philosophy and has given me the courage to become more transparent with my st~dents. It also is the first book I know of that discusses the importance of "the spiritual formation of teachers."
 
Palmer, P. 1987. "Community, conflict, and ways of knowing." Change, 19(1):2~25.
 
In extractions from the speech that he delivered at the AAHE annual meeting in 1987 (and for which he received a standing ovation), Palmer bewails the lack of true community in most institutions of higher learning. Concluding that love is what makes community possible, he describes in essence "two ancient and honorable kinds of love. The first is love of learning itself.... And the second kind of love on which this community depends is love of learners, of those we see every day, who stumble and crumble, who wax hot and cold, who sometimes want truth and sometimes evade it at all costs, but who are in our care, and who&emdash;for their sake, ours, and the world's&emdash;deserve all the love that the community of teaching and learning has to offer" (p. 25).
 
Roberts, B. 1985. The path to no-self. Boston: Shambhala.
Turnbull, C. 1983. The human cycle. New York: Simon & Schuster.
 
Turnbull, an anthropologist, contrasts British attitudes and rearing practices with those of a small, "primitive," society, the Mbuti. The chapter on adolescence emphasizes how little our education has to do with the spiritual and how that fragments our understanding of the world and our place in it. In contrast, all of Mbuti education involves the spirit.
 
Whitman, N., D. Spendlove, and C. Clark. 1986. Increasing students' learning: A faculty guide to reducing stress among students. Washington, DC: ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4.
 
"The purpose of this report [was] to help college faculty increase students' learning by reducing stress among students" (p. iii). After surveying the literature, the authors concluded that "the frequency and quality of teachers' contact with students, inside and outside the classroom, affect students' involvement in their own learning. Positive teacherstudent relations have been linked to students' satisfaction with college, their educational aspirations, and their academic achievement" (p. iv).
 
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