I typically begin every course I teach by asking participants to say their name, where they are from and to recite the words, “I am a teacher and a learner in this class.” At first, people are quite reluctant to say these words and even somewhat embarrassed. As we continue around the circle, some students appear to be more comfortable, while others rush through the words as if to put a period at the end of their sentence. Others still sometimes forget to say the words, at which time I remind them to say the words with a smile. As we get to the end of the circle, it is clear some find the exercise to be a bit corny, while others appear to have a lightbulb brighten above the heads as they ponder the implications of these words. Once we have completed the circle, we debrief.
There are several reasons I ask participants to say these words. First, these words are inspired by Paulo Freire, the Brazilian activist and educator involved in the critical pedagogy and popular education movements. It presupposes that all participants offer something very valuable to the class and that we are more than passive learners. It promotes a sense of egalitarianism and mutual respect for one another. It also exemplifies the notion that none of us in the class hold the absolute truth and that through dialogue with one another, new knowledge will be created. I, myself, recite these words as well, signifying that as the authoritative figure in the class, I too am open to learning and committed to democratizing and decolonizing the class.
I recall my first year in teaching, where I was so terrified that students might view me as incompetent and fraudulent as an instructor that I controlled every second in the class. I lectured for 3 hours straight to avoid any questioning of the content and to demonstrate that I was the expert in the room. I justified this by saying to myself that students needed this content to be successful social workers or that at the very least, they should get their moneys worth. In fact, what I was really doing was promoting the hegemonic values of our western educational system. My students did not find the process very helpful and neither did I.
It wasn’t until I released the demons of academia that made me conform to its hierarchy and made me feel like I was not smart enough that I saw transformation within the classroom. Student transformation occurred in the form of questioning, inquiry, and critical consciousness. Rather than de-possessing students of their voice and reinforcing themes of passivity and ignorance through my own domination of the class, the process empowered participants to examine the social and political contradictions in our everyday thoughts, behaviors, and actions.
However, the greatest transformation in the classroom occurred within me. By releasing the demons, I too became not just a teacher, but a learner. This learning is most intense when I am confronted or questioned about the content, the classroom environment, or the structural inequalities that we support within our program. It is not always pleasant and often quite uncomfortable, but my ability to sit through the discomfort, at my learning edge, is when I am most open to new learning and growth. Step outside of your comfort zone and give it a try.
I am a teacher and a learner.