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Reflections on the Four Practices of Engagement

Reflections on the Four Practices of Engagement

By Carol L. Allen - Adjunct Faculty, English

I attended the Saturday presentation and was very impressed with the material shared with us. As my own Master's thesis was titled "Engagement As a Factor in Writing", I was immediately "engaged" myself and interested in current thinking about the subject. Stressed were four practices that can lead to engagement on the part of our students and their instructors: empathy, resiliency, happiness, and mindfulness.

I think one of the main takeaways I have concerned empathy. The comparison made was timely as Kobe Bryant had just been killed in a plane crash. It was stressed that although sympathy was certainly a shared emotion on the death of a young man, his daughter, and the others, empathy also was felt by many. How must he have felt as the passengers knew death was near? Especially, how would Bryant have felt as he held his daughter, realizing this would be their last embrace? As a parent who has lost a child myself, I keenly felt the anguish and sorrow that must have filled his final thoughts.

In my classes I often have students who have lost a parent , a grandparent, or another loved one. Others are dealing with a serious illness themselves or worrying about one of their children who is sick. Of course I express my sympathy and concern, but I try to do more. If I were in their places, how would this affect my course work? Putting myself in students' situations, I find that empathy is important for me to embrace and then respond to their needs accordingly, which is, basically, completely understanding (and feeling) their circumstances and their need for my flexibility in regards to their lessons.

Another practice stressed in the presentation was resiliency. This practice relates to one's adjustability or elasticity. Although it may be a rare occurrence when an instructor encounters an "angry" student, even one who accuses the teacher of being "unfair", these incidences do occur. A natural reaction is probably resentment and anger toward that student - perhaps even to the point of thinking, "How can this student think he knows more about composition than I?". "How dare she accuse me of being 'unfair' ?". This is the time the instructor needs to embrace resilience. Rather than holding a grudge, which can affect future dealings with the accusing student, it's time to talk, to understand, and to move on. The instructor is the one who needs to initiate elasticity, which, hopefully, will motivate the offending student to do likewise. This way, neither is "stuck" in a negative outlook for the remainder of the course. Another way of looking at this is via a current term for positive, forgiving behavior: "adulting".

Happiness is also a part of this whole process toward engagement. If the instructor exudes a sense of well being and of feeling engaged in all that is his or her course, the positives certainly affect the student-teacher relationship. One who enjoys the task of teaching is apt to be more connected with the students and, for instance, can sincerely celebrate with each one when there is growth and success in learning. Happiness on the part of both teacher and student can result in more productive work by both and if and when there is some sort of "crisis" or setback, a happy person can better deal with it. One of the most memorable points made re: happiness was to enjoy the moment, the present. If a person looks only to reach "the light at the end of the tunnel" as the goal, that tunnel simply gets longer and longer. Living in the present, feeling happy at one's own and others' successes can be contagious for all involved inside and outside the classroom.

Just as important as empathy, resiliency, and happiness to engagement is mindfulness. This means paying complete attention with all of one's being and truly experiencing moments, not just living through them. One example that comes to mind is when students share a remarkable adventure or write of someone very important to them. Rather than responding first with one's own example, almost as if in "one-upmanship", the ideal is to be totally mindful of the students' experiences first, commenting on each thoroughly in appreciation of what they have shared. Comparing their stories to something similar in the instructor's life is fine but should be secondary and come after the appreciation for the students' sharing is given. If instructors themselves can pay attention and experience the feeling of total awareness, they become more productive and creative, which, of course, can be transmitted to students. It is said the mindfulness improves emotional intelligence, and I submit that this is exactly what is going on when an instructor listens first - for the sake of listening. This translates into being as mindful as possible of our students and paying attention to their feelings, their needs, and their communications.

It's a tightly knit fabric, engagement. The threads of empathy, resiliency, happiness, and mindfulness - when woven together well- can make a significant and positive difference in both teaching and learning.


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