Eyes Wide Open, Heart Wide Open
With intention, I have always been someone who is committed to following my vocation. The meaning of self-actualization is the morsel of life that I often fathom about and strive to live by inside and outside of the classroom. As I reflect on Bell hooks’ engaged pedagogy, I am reminded of its emphasis on the importance of a teacher’s willingness to be on a constant journey of self-actualization along with his/her students, unveiling vulnerabilities to create and make meaning from life’s experiences and its connection to the classroom. This insight led me to a pinnacle moment in my teaching career that taught me about my students and myself: that to me, teaching is truly a conversation between hearts. Whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we believe in it or not, the daily moments of human encounter speaks volumes about who we are, what we stand for and it will inadvertently be announced to students through our actions and words.
I will never forget the slew of events that changed the course of my teaching career and my vocation right before my students’ eyes, and the life lessons that it taught me about my students and myself. It was like any other morning, I was getting ready for my creative writing class with my Grade 8 students when I heard from some staff members that some students were openly and noticeably upset by the events that ensued the day before: they had all found out who were the chosen few to be part of the leadership, prefect team at the school.
Although I had a full lesson planned on essay writing for their current novel study, Hatchet, I instinctively knew Hatchet could wait. Essays could wait. The “curriculum” could wait. There was an experience that I went through that I wanted to share with them after hearing about what they are going through. Trying to ignore the fear that was stirring inside me of being afraid to be judged by my students for my vulnerability; for my willingness and desire to share a personal, sacred part of me, Audre Lorde’s quote came to mind “what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”
With that in mind, I stepped into the room. I felt as though each small step I took towards my classroom that particular day was a step of courage I needed, in order to share my story with them. Heart pounding, knees weak, palms sweaty, voice shaky, my mind kept shifting back and forth on whether or not it was appropriate or fitting, or even helpful for me to share a life story with them. With the clock ticking and the students all settled and ready with their binders open, I knew it was now or never: to turn back and keep going with what I prescribed for myself and for them that day (to teach them essay writing on Hatchet), or to be in the moment and follow what feels right in my heart. I decided on the latter.
I asked them to put all their binders and books away as I said to them that regardless of whether or not they got a prefect position in the leadership team at the school, that doesn’t define who they are; it also doesn’t take away their ability to touch others and change a life.
With this, I began to share with them my story-a story of my teacher, Ms. P, back when I was 18 who inspired and transformed my life. At 18, I was a painfully shy teenager who didn’t have many friends. I recall not wanting to be embarrassed to be sitting alone in the cafeteria so I would eat my lunch in the girl’s bathroom stall. I used drugs to numb myself and to run away from who I am. I rarely went to my classes, however, with Ms. P, it was different. I saw something very real and transparent about her that drew me to make an effort to go to her classes. I remember one particular day when I felt as though I had had enough with this life. I thought to myself, I will go to Ms. P’s class one last time and then I’m going to go home and end my life. As I walked into her classroom, I saw a small model hat and a card on my desk. Surprised and curious, I flipped over the card and here is what it says: “I take my hat off to you, Lovisa. You are not afraid to shine your light into the darkness of the world. You believe in the power of one, so did Mother Teresa, and she changed the world. All the best always, Ms. P”.
That fateful day after having that experience in the classroom, I did not go home and end my life. I shared this story humbly with my students because I wanted them to know that it doesn’t matter if they are chosen to be prefect or not; it’s not about status that can deem you worthy enough to show your love to others. Each and every one of them has every capacity and beauty inside of them to lift up a life. Ms. P wasn’t the president or a famous celebrity, she was a teacher, and yet, she was the catalyst for instilling the process of transformation into my life.
Some may say that the classroom has no room for creating dialogue that resonates with the heart and the essence of what makes meaning in one’s life. Some may even question if opening your heart to your students is a teacher’s role in the classroom, and whether or not it will always yield transformative outcomes for both the students and teachers. Some may also wonder if sharing who you are as a means to connect with students will always conjure inspiration, and if so, does inspiration even have a place in the classroom. All I can attest to is my own experience and how I have decided to interpret and internalize it, in a way that helps me in my own journey to transform my own path.
My journey with these students continued on for several more months, before I decided to make the choice to follow my vocation in academia. This experience has illuminated a lesson for me that will always be etched in my memory. My students’ actions and reactions to my decision to resign gave me a glimpse into how a teacher’s way of life as lived in front of one’s students can indeed have far reaching consequences. They taught me that whether intentionally or not, every aspect of human encounter with our students can potentially impact and influence how they decide to view and to be in the world.
On my last day of school with them at the end of November, the students presented me with a binder full of letters that they wrote to me. I noticed that many of them expressed the same sentiments as this student’s words: “Ms. Fung, although I am sad that you are going, but you are going to pursue your dream, which you taught us was the most important thing someone can do. Like you always say, “Pursue your dreams” and you are modeling that for us.”
Through all this, the most important lesson I learned from it expresses the essence of what I think is the crux of engaged pedagogy: when you encounter your students with eyes and heart wide open, as you share who you are in all its naked beauty, you have the potential to inspire them to celebrate and marvel at their own. Although I walked away from teaching, ironically, I think it is through this very act that I have begun taking the steps into the spirit of teaching: to strive to live wholly and deeply of who you are so as to provide a glimpse for one’s students and oneself on the possibilities and capacities that we all have in living out our own versions of what encompasses a full, enriched and passionate life.
Model hat & card of Mother Teresa I received from Ms. P.
Hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York, New York: Routeledge