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Who Is in the Room?

As part of HGSE's Teaching and Learning Week, Lecturer Eileen McGowan was one of several faculty members who contributed essays about how we teach and learn.

I went to the playground to find Robby MacDonald. “Please come inside,” I said, “We need to talk. You haven’t passed in any homework all week.” He stormed into our classroom, hurling his jacket into the trash, as he turned and screamed,“My life is falling apart, and you are worried about my f------ homework!” True. 

Although 30 years have passed, I still struggle with fundamental tensions this incident surfaced for me. We talk about educating the whole child, but what does that really mean?  In a recent New York Times op-ed, David Brooks writes, “But children don’t leave behind their emotions, their diet, their traumas, their safety fears, their dental problems and so on when they get to school.” I contend that in higher education, neither do we, but we pretend otherwise.

Some students, like Robby, demand to be seen in their wholeness. But many others come through our classrooms leaving significant parts of self behind.  What implications does this hold for improving my pedagogy? If my classes are to be relevant, I must plan to engage the array of histories, orientations and experiences sitting before me and make space for those varied reactions and voices. If I care about the integration of personal and intellectual selves, I must listen really carefully and push for the meaningful "so what." If I believe adult development depends upon sharing vulnerabilities, I must model that, as uncomfortable and awkward as it is.

Parker Palmer asserts, “we teach who we are.” If that is true, and I believe it is, then it is through engagement with our students that we encounter our wholeness. How can we afford them the same privilege? 

Eileen McGowan is a lecturer on education and the faculty director of the Specialized Studies Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education