So they can grab the hands of a thousand more…

Image result for the ascent howard rainer

Grab hold,
And take this hand that
Reaches out to you.

Look up
Into my eyes;
My spirit
Cries out to you:
Friendship is my thought.

Let us climb
The jagged cliffs of life
And fight the ascent of
Opposition together.

If I can lift you today,
You will look back
And grab the hands of a thousand more.

That is the way
The Great Spirit would have it!

-Howard Rainer, Native American Poet

This is my authentic teaching voice. Since the moment my father showed me this poem when I was in high school, I knew that this poem embodied everything I am. It is the embodiment of ga-du-gi. Ga-Du-Gi is a Cherokee phrase/concept that loosely means working together for the good of everyone. It is woven into my DNA – into the fabric of who I am. That need for community is something I innately crave and without it I am not whole. It’s also something I’ve struggled with finding here at Virginia Tech but that’s a different post. But more importantly for this topic, it’s who I am, so it’s how I teach. It’s actually the whole reason why I love teaching. The problem is – this is not the norm in my field of stereotypical engineers who put up this wall between them and their students.

As I began to find my voice and place in my department here, I actually struggled with being different from those I was seeing in teaching leadership positions. Another phd student I looked up talked about not going to certain events because the students she TA’d might be there. In our TA workshop for the year, the professor leading it told us that we could be friendly but we shouldn’t be friends with our students. I understood their reasoning behind their comments but I started thinking…

“That’s not me. Is there something wrong with me?”

But then I discovered Palmer’s book “The Courage to Teach” and I started this journey on finding (no – recognizing) my authentic teaching self. Palmer calls it teaching from your authentic self which was honestly a major “ah-ha” moment for me. If I am not authentic to who I am as a person with my students, then I am doing them a disservice.

“Student see posing and posturing very quickly; do not be someone you are not in
your classroom” – Dr. Fowler

It will be felt – not only in the room – but in my soul. It’s like denying a piece of who you are and expecting to still be happy with life. For some, that space between them and the students is authentic to them. But it’s not for me. I need my classroom to be a community space where we can truly work together for the good of everyone in the room. I’m sure I’ll get some push back for this seeming utopian or altruistic but that’s my culture and if we can sustain thousands of years of systemic genocide doing things this way, I think I can make it, being true to myself and my voice, in my classroom.

“One of Palmer’s major theses is the idea that the more you bring yourself to your teaching, the better teacher you will be.”

This does not mean that there are no boundaries or order in my classroom. On the contrary, my classroom is based on mutual respect. One of the big takeaways I’ve gotten so far this year, is really to be upfront with your students in the beginning about why you’re doing the things you’re doing. You show them respect in sharing this information and journey of learning with them and when they that my purpose for these silly things I do is really just about helping them succeed, I have more of their respect as well.

This concept of ga-du-gi is also a really empowering one in the classroom. It means everyone is actively involved in their own learning as well as the learning of those around them. We learned a little bit about empowerment in one of the previous videos. When workers were allowed to work on whatever they wanted for a day every month I believe, the company saw more innovation then ever before.

“When we empower our students, amazing things can happen!”

So I’m still in the process of figuring out what this physically looks like in the classroom everyday, but I know that it’ll be real. It’ll be authentic. And it’ll be me. I can already feel my pedagogical statement forming and it’ll all be summed up into one word – “ga-du-gi”. So yeah, maybe it’s ideological or utopian to think, but I have to believe that one person can change the world and that that starts in our own classrooms.

Because if I can help, connect, or simply pull up even just one student in that room, they will reach back and grab the hands of a thousand more and that’s all I really hope for…

9 Responses so far.

  1. Homero says:

    Thanks for sharing!

    Yes, yes, and yes. You wonder how will that physically look like? I think I know the answer, it will look awesome.

    I wish we had more faculty members like you in engineering because that is exactly what we need. By being not only authentic but recognizing that our students are human beings, that are made of and live by social interactions with others so many things will be better.

    Let me tell you a story about our engineering education. I was able to teach in the first year engineering program at VT, what a wonderful experience. One thing I always asked my students was: why did you decide to go into engineering? the answers were so inspiring: “I want to change the world” “I want to create the greenest technologies” ” I want to do cheap prosthesis for people that can’t afford them” “I want to bring water to X country”

    I had also the opportunity to teach a senior engineering course. I asked the same question, the responses were heartbreaking “I want to work for X company” “Engineering is a very lucrative career” “Engineers are recognized by society”

    What did we do? Did we break them? Of course we did. We created all these barriers, we depersonalized education, we put them into a manufacturing educational system.

    Again, we need more people like you that are willing to be authentic and that understand how important it is to see your students as an important crucial part of the learning environment.



    • qualla says:

      Thank you so much! I hope so! I love these questions! I’m going to be teaching sophomores in their intro to our department’s class so I’m actually curious to ask them these questions too and see what their answers are just one year after this. I had already been thinking about starting the semester with questions similar but these will be great to add too! Thanks for the idea!

  2. Mary Norris says:

    Wow, Qualla! I don’t think that your vision is utopian. I think that is inspiring and wise. You are brave enough to open your heart and soul to your students and trust that they will treat them with care or that the risk is one that you must take to preserve yourself. I hope that you find some like-minded colleagues, but that you also work with many more traditional educators. In the same way that your students will reach their hands out to pull up others, you will reach your hands out to your engineering colleagues and help them have the courage to open themselves as well.

    • qualla says:

      Awww… Thank you! This means so much! I don’t feel brave a lot of the time. I hope so to on both counts for colleagues. This class definitely helps with that. 🙂

  3. tapputu says:

    I agree with Mary, this doesn’t sound like a utopia (i.e., a place that doesn’t exist lol) at all! If anything it sounds like you’re already trying to model the problem posing model Freire talks about (I think we read Pedagogy of the Oppressed next week). I really appreciate that you’re creating a collaborative space in which students can be both invested in their education and in the education of others.

    It sounds fabulous!

    p.s., when I was reading your blog I kept expecting “habodah” to pop up. It reads like a lot of the educational liberation scholarship I’m familiar with!

  4. Xin Ning says:

    I think that being authentic is an very important responsibility for teachers. It shows the sincere respect to the audience in a way that attracts the audience to get involved in the learning environment. We as teachers should always embrace an open mind to share our knowledges and skills to the students and hear from their opinions or voices correspondingly. We might, to some extent, emphasize the pecuniary return of learning in certain fields (such as engineer) so that they are more attracted by the money incentive instead of the true interest in learning it. However, the problem is always to keep inspiring their true interest in learning it and let them know that they can make a difference to the community with their mastery in the field.

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