I just completed a semester during which I taught two classes, Theology of Pastoral Ministry and Practicing Faithful Justice: Faith Behind Bars. Each one tapped a different aspect of my expertise, learning and practical experience. I have a great deal of passion for both courses, the political, sociological and theological issues that surround them and the underpinnings of faith and values that enrich the conversations about them. While I certainly hope that they were intellectually engaging, I believe that they were more than an academic exercise. Students and I built community in these classes through honest conversations, in-depth dialogue about the readings and course input, and through Peacemaking Circles. All of us in the class were able to take the learning and digest it, if you will, so that it had a holistic impact on what we know, both in our minds and in our whole selves.
I have come to recognize that students learn best when they are connected; when they are in relationship with others with whom they are learning, when they feel valued on multiple levels. This relationship building includes their peers and instructor(s). Learning names is a very important starting point, and sometimes I am shocked when students tell me that there are teachers who don’t attempt to call them by name in class. Names are only the beginning; we need to acknowledge that each person is on a unique journey. This helps instructors to aid students in making the content of the course and its resources connect to their lives at important levels. If what they read and hear has no relevance, personal or professional, then students may produce what’s required and learn for the test, but the learning won’t take root in who they are and how they live or work a year or five years from now. “I accept relationship as my primary teacher about myself, other people, and the mysteries of the universe.” (Gay Hendricks) And in the words of Virginia Woolf, “One of the signs of passing youth is the birth of a sense of fellowship with other human beings as we take our place among them.”
Key to the success of building community in these courses was unquestionably the use of Circles as a way for students to integrate learning and to connect course content to lived experience. Circles are encased in ritual (prayer or reflection). Values are established which make the Circle a safe space (e.g. honesty, respect, confidentiality). Each participant is equal to every other person in the Circle and a talking piece is used to ensure that listening can happen. In Faith Behind Bars, for instance, we broke open challenging topics like victimization, forgiveness, and human dignity in Circle. These themes are, perhaps obviously, at the core of understanding the issues of prisoners and the U.S. prison system, but they also help us to unlock assumptions and patterns within ourselves that may not serve us or lead us to truth or growth. To tap into these rather weighty subjects in a safe learning community allows for learning of a much deeper nature. When we consider our own need for forgiveness, we are better able to find compassion for those who have chosen badly in their lives, even if we still conclude that the consequences for their actions must be incarceration.
The beauty of building community with students is a rich gift to the teacher as well. I found relationship, enrichment and learning with my students. I didn’t do everything perfectly, that is for sure, but I can allow for my own fallibility and humanity when I recognize my journey as caught up with theirs, when I recognize that we all have room to grow.