Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

That innocent, hopeful look…

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I recently started noticing an interesting “look” in the eyes of undergrad (particularly freshman) students. Has anyone else noticed it? Noooo not the glassy-eyed look of someone on a drug-induced high, but the clear-eyed hopeful look?

Been wanting to write this post for a while, ever since I started teaching freshman students last semester. Was inspired to actually write it based on something I read on Michael Weller’s blog (a comment in reply to my comment: about differences between adults & high school students). It also reminded me of lots of faculty I know who prefer teaching undergrad to grad students.

Last semester was my first time teaching freshman students as a PhD-holder & mom, who is more than 10 years older than them. Previously, I had (sort of) taught freshmen, but had been a relatively-fresh-grad TA’ing for a freshman course, so was only a few years older than the students. Big difference in perspective, apparently.

Because I normally teach adult students (in-service teachers) and am a faculty developer (so consult with univ professors) I rarely used to deal in depth with undergrad students except during classroom assessments.

Coming back from a two-year maternity leave (which, you know, also changes your perspective, given the crash-course in motherhood/parenting and also the staying home part) and having just finished my PhD (again, life-changing experience, I think, in how your perspective shifts)

Last semester was transformative for me in the strangest way. I fell in love with the “look” in my students’ eyes. It was… I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it was… Something that represented hope? It reminded me of the look in my toddler’s eyes, this look of innocent wonder, excitement to be seeing something new, or in a new way, feeling empowered by one’s ability to try something new, like for a toddler, being able to suddenly take off her own clothes, or speak a full sentence that people understood, or make another person laugh, or climb a new object.

What was most interesting for me is that this hopeful look in the freshman students’ eyes wasn’t there constantly. The first class (not in my module, but the previous one) where I introduced myself briefly, the students had horribly blank looks on their faces, like they were shell-shocked (whatever that means, it sounded appropriate here). Not a single one responded to my question of whether they like playing games or video games. Seriously! Not one!

I didn’t see them again until like 6 weeks later, start of the second module (not mine), slightly less blank but still strange looks on their faces when they saw the new teacher for the second module. I vowed then and there that my first class with them would not consist of blank looks. And so I thought for weeks about how to create community quickly (the idea being that they already knew each other by then, they just needed to let me into it, and feel we were all a community not just a group of ppl taking a class together. Because of some weird vacation and scheduling mishaps, I only had 2 weeks with them instead of 4, so had to make up some class time on extra days n hours, but bottom line is, I needed to create community on day one, and I blogged about how I did this during week 1 of clmooc.

But I digress. My point is that during the two weeks I was with those students, whenever one of them came to speak to me individually, I would feel something. I loved that look in their eyes. When I read their reflections at the end of my course, I saw in them this sense of “I can do anything, I believe in myself”. They attribute that to the course (not necessarily my module, though some attributed it to that). But I have a feeling that it is easier to help someone who is a freshman feel that way, than it is to help a more established adult feel that way.

It’s kind of, I think, because at that stage in their lives, they’re leaving school, feeling that they are embarking on a new, more independent experience of college. It could turn into drugs and parties and rubbish, of course, as their approach to independence. Or it can turn into sparkly eyes as they realize the potential for learning.

I don’t know that college really provides the promise to meet those hopeful looks (it largely doesn’t, in my experience), just like childhood does not usually meet the promise of what a toddler probably thinks is possible, and marriage does not meet the promise of what a new couple think it might. Life is so much more complex and disappointing.

But you know what? That moment of hope? That’s priceless, and I am addicted to it now. For me to keep having hope, I want to keep seeing toddlers and freshmen. And I want to keep trying to keep that look in their eyes, that attitude inside of them, as long as possible before life turns it upside down and they become jaded, until the next life event that gives them renewed hope, like graduation šŸ™‚

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8 Comments

  1. I wonder how much of the experience you describe has to do with the teacher’s attitude. What I mean is: when I have been successful as a teacher, it’s been in situations where I was able to position myself as a co-learner or a coach, and/or communicate to students that I value them as people. High school students are so used to being treated as the inferior in the power relation, to being told (implicitly or explicitly) that their opinions and interests are less important than those of the adults in the organization – so a teacher who shares power can often turn cynicism or jadedness into an eagerness to learn, or at the very least an increasing willingness not to resist success.

    • Hey Michael, I totally had NOT thought of that! That those looks might be reserved for me, because of something I did šŸ™‚
      I really like your point about how youth are not used to sharing power, and so it’s more of a big deal to them than it is for adults who, to some degree or other, exert power in some part of their lives. But there is sometimes a resistance in adults to sharing power, as well, right? Depending on context.
      Hmm this also makes me think of how it’s different when the adults are colleagues vs students, the power dynamic is totally different, although i always consider my adult students as colleagues (some of them reciprocate, call me their friend, stay in touch) while others continue to keep a distance (totally normal, I guess)

      • I think maybe it’s like Michelangelo & the stone – just as he revealed the shape that lay waiting in the stone, the skillful teacher assists in uncovering the motivation that might have been dormant in the learner.

        You’re right that the dynamic is different with colleagues, but I wonder if similar principles can apply to motivating colleagues: e.g., approaching them with humility, celebrating successes & honoring their expertise, maintaining a relentlessly positive attitude…

        • hey Michael, this comment incorrectly ended up in spam (something’s wrong with my spam filter these days) – I see your point about applying some principles of this with colleagues. Just the power dynamics mean their reaction might also be different, and how they understand that behavior… will write soon about this as it pertains to academic peer review vs. grading & giving feedback to students šŸ˜‰

  2. Hi Maha (as you might have noticed in other scribblings) this year I had the luxury of being part of the Team that designed and taught a 30-week first year Becoming an Educationalist module. We determined that we wanted those looks in the eyes – so we tried to design the most active, creative and joyful course that we could – and to work *with* those students such that we all became a rhizome of practice šŸ˜‰
    We did build in opportunities for us all to get to know each other as human beings – we tried to break down the walls that typical educational praxis builds between us all … That teaching was the highlight of my week – and those students often made me cry in their experiences – and as demonstrated in their writing.
    Be assured -that look in your studetns eyes *is* something you did – and is what and who you are – and how you harness the wonderful richness of the human values that make you you – in your praxis!!
    All the very best, Sandra

    • Hey Sandra, yes, I looooove what you’ve been doing with your course. Thanks for your beautiful comment, and I love that you describe your intention to make the course a “joyful” experience. Why should learning ever not be intentionally joyful? Yes, sometimes learning is painful, but why don’t we always plan for it to be joyful?

  3. Hi Maha, I agree with Michael’s assessment of entry level students being relieved to find themselves welcome. My first year in college became my last over the obvious need from instructors to place me as an inferior. Hard to understand why they seemed so insecure in their role.
    With apprentices on job sites where risky conditions require everyone to watch out for each other, simple hospitality always worked for me. If we got along, my job was easier and safer. Some journeymen were very rough but even the tough guys couldn’t hide from showing they needed the apprentices’ help. I imagine you are pretty good at building a relationship that welcomes your students into an exchange of respect:-)

  4. Lovely post. Wish life was less crazy to respond more substantively. But couldn’t help saying thanks for sharing the inspiring thoughts.

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