Several years ago, a friend related an educational experience that altered his view of studying drama completely, and one that stays with me as a striking example of how the active relationship between a teacher and student may have so profound an effect. The student, John, was disinclined to attend to the course on Shakespeare he was obligated to attend, feeling that the language was too alien to draw him into the subject matter. In this particular high school class, Hamlet was the play being studied, and the teacher encouraged open discussion of each scene after the readings. Not unexpectedly, John was typically silent at these times. The teacher, however, appears to have viewed John’s silence as a challenge, and he set about modifying the framework of the discussion itself. Rather than lead an exchange of interpretations, the teacher asked the students to recall incidents in their own lives that might be applicable to Hamlet’s emotional dilemma. The degree was unimportant; essentially, the teacher asked that they reflect on any moment in their lives when they perceived a an emotional conflict, and one related to their parents.
As John expressed it to me, he then automatically did as the teacher requested, and suddenly recalled a childhood incident when he felt his father had made a grossly unreasonable demand on him. Specifically, John remembered his father having inappropriately asking him to take his own side in a dispute with John’s mother. John then presented this memory to the teacher, and he expressed to me that, even in this process, he was enabled to perceive meaning in Hamlet, as related to the character’s ambiguity of feeling between the ghost’s accusations of murder and infidelity, and his own deep feelings for Gertrude. The teacher then amplified on this, assisting John in drawing parallels between the experiences. From this, John developed a connection to the play that opened up drama to him in a personal way.
In my estimation, this was a wholly transformational learning experience, and one that seems to blatantly represent the value of Carl Rogers’s emphasis on teacher empathy, or the ability of the teacher to enter into the experience of the student. Rogers holds that there is a personal relationship intrinsic to the teacher/student relationship, and one that furthers education as the mutual understanding between the two evolves (Jones-Smith, 2011, p. 244). In this instance, the teacher enabled a type of expansive thinking, and was uninterested in any strict presentation of a viewpoint. This in turn allowed John to search his own experience, which then enabled the teacher to “seize the moment” and employ John’s memory as an instrument in his better comprehending the layers of the play’s meaning. It validates empathy as a reciprocal tool; for the teacher, the usage of it provides all the experience and commitment within the student because they are unrestricted in how they approach the material, and for the student there is the inherent confidence in trusting that whatever approach they attempt will be understood as a real effort to connect.
As important as I feel this lesson to be, I acknowledge that such transformational learning is very much a matter of opportunity meeting ability, and facilitated by empathic encouragement. None of this, however, is difficult or challenging in itself. More exactly, the teacher does not surrender authority or limit instruction through empathy. Rather, they simply expand the potentials in how their students may access the learning in a meaningful way. I see this, in fact, as an expression of teacher confidence, which also must translate to the student as an element promoting trust and openness.
Jones-Smith, E. (2011). Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy: An Integrative Approach. Thousand Oaks: Sage.