“The thing I love about Ms. Marovich,” says a student named Hazel of her automotive technology instructor, “is that when she looks at you, she sees the finished product.” What a remarkable kind of seeing Hazel describes: an act of perception that envisions growth and that helps make that growth possible.
Over the past several years, I have been interviewing a wide range of people, from students in high school and community college to professionals in their fifties and sixties, about experiences in or out of school that had a transformative effect on their education, that changed the way they thought about school and what school could enable them to do with their lives. A number of the people I talked to used some variation of Hazel’s statement about seeing, some visual metaphor of validation.
A student in a licensed practical nursing program praises an instructor she would go to when she felt overwhelmed. The instructor told her that “she could see it in me that I was meant to do this,” and encouraged her to not only complete the LPN program but to continue toward a registered nurse’s degree, which she did.
“I was a strange kid,” a high school English teacher says reflecting back on his time in twelfth grade, “but not to [his English teacher] Mrs. Howard. She saw me the way I wanted to be seen. It changed my life. Every day I work to see kids the way they want to be seen.”
A middle school teacher starts talking to a boy serving detention and senses a “hunger” that leads her to invite him onto the school’s fledgling debate team. When I ask how she senses that hunger, she says: “By talking to someone and answering their questions. You can see it in their eyes.”
A high school Spanish teacher raises the issue of college to a junior whose energies are more invested in soccer than academics, but who has a way with people and exhibits a certain savvy as he navigates eleventh grade. The teacher follows his instincts and connects the young man to a college bridge program. Looking back on it, our soccer player, now a graduate student, says of that teacher, “He saw potential in me that I didn’t see in myself.”
These teachers seem to operate with an expansive sense of human ability and are particularly alert to signs of that ability, signs that might be faint or blurred by societal biases or by a student’s reticence or distracting behavior — or that the student him or herself might barely comprehend.
Through the way they teach, through mentoring, or through some other intervention, these teachers help develop the abilities they perceive. We don’t hear a lot about this powerfully humane element of teaching, for so much current discussion of teacher education and development is focused elsewhere: from creating measures of effectiveness to mastering district or state curriculum frameworks. These are important issues to be sure, but they have crowded out so much else that makes teaching a richly humanistic intellectual pursuit.
One last thought. To re-purpose a phrase of Walt Whitman’s, education contains multitudes. There are endless treasures of human experience to be found within the classroom, so we could fruitfully continue the present discussion inside the schoolhouse alone.
But given our moment in history, it’s not much of a stretch to think of how the kind of affirming perception I’ve been discussing resonates beyond education with current social movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, movements challenging perceptions that dehumanize rather than affirm. Also relevant is the portrayal of refugees and immigrants promulgated by the Trump administration, converting demonizing perception into heartless public policy.
In times like these, perception attuned to ability along with a commitment to foster that ability becomes not only an educational endeavor but a civic and moral one as well.