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If you, like me, are a liberal arts professor, you probably have attended lectures and workshops on best teaching practices and have read books and articles on teaching strategies -- such as learning by doing, small group discussion and flipping the classroom. All these have given me valuable insights and ideas and have motivated me to try new things during class time.

Yet some of those strategies have failed to point out a key component of learning: building relationships of trust with students. In order to teach my students better, I need to know them and understand where they are coming from. And if I want my students to trust me as their teacher, they also need to know me as a person.

Making such a connection with my students is what I call “turning the classroom into retreat space.” This is a moment when, as teachers, we can step outside the regular habits of the classroom, where the professor-to-student relationship can be turned into other kinds of relationships -- such as person to person or mentor to mentee -- with no syllabus, lesson plan or graded assignment to interfere with the conversation.

This semester, for example, I am teaching a section of Introduction to Literature in Spanish, a course that is part of my college’s core curriculum requirements. As director of a program on purpose and vocation for sophomores, I teach my literature students to listen to their inner voices to help them find their purpose in life. One way of doing this is through class discussion.

On the second day of classes this semester, I asked students to spend the first five minutes of class writing about what they remembered from the previous class, an idea that I first learned from James Lang, a professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at my college. In particular, I wanted them to remember our earlier conversation about a photograph by Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, titled “The Passage,” of a man building a boardwalk on water, heading into the horizon. Students were also invited to write about how they could apply the meaning of this photograph to their own lives.

After the five minutes were over, students shared their ideas with each other in pairs. Once they were finished, I asked for volunteers to describe their thoughts to the rest of the class. Not surprisingly, only three students volunteered to talk. They commented on how the photograph was about building confidence, motivation and hope in the face of uncertainty. Those are all valuable emotional skills to help students feel safe when sharing their ideas in front of others. Ironically, my students were failing to apply those same skills in class.

Feeling a bit frustrated by their lack of participation, I decided to put my lesson plan on pause. Continuing to speak in Spanish, I asked students to list the reasons why they wouldn’t talk. Their main reasons for not speaking included their fear of saying something wrong, vergüenza (shame) and sounding stupid, and the dread of disagreeing with others -- especially the professor. That developed into an open and honest conversation where I shared with them my own fear of speaking in class when I was their age, due to my lack of English oral fluency. Most of my students are still developing their fluency in Spanish, just as I did in English years ago. But I also reminded them of their own interpretation of the photograph and how they could apply confidence, motivation and hope when facing their fear of speaking in class.

My personal story and my students’ insights on “The Passage” helped us to build common ground in the classroom. From this common space, together we realized that we needed to let go of the false notion that in order to speak we first must possess enough knowledge and self-confidence. I then explained how we sometimes can’t help but to start from failure, and how we should not be afraid when this happens. Recognizing failure can be a form of liberation for students so that they can begin to speak honestly and respectfully without worry or shame.

After the retreat time, we turned our attention to Augusto Monterroso’s short story “El paraíso imperfecto” (“The Imperfect Paradise”). In this microstory that’s only three lines long, the narrator describes how the only bad thing about getting to heaven is that once there, heaven can’t be seen. The irony of this story brought us back to our discussion of students’ fear of failure. As one student put it so eloquently, perhaps it is not that we need to start from failure in order to free ourselves from our fear of it, but that we are often unable to see our own success when we face it. She was absolutely right. After class was over, I extended our retreat space by sending my students a recent article that my wife had mentioned to me a couple of days before. Comedian and writer Mike Birbiglia has written of the importance of losing our fear of failure: “Don’t worry about failing,” he urges. “Failure is essential. There’s no substitute for it. It’s not just encouraged but required.”

Students’ fear of failing is obviously not limited to language and literature courses. It happens across the curriculum. And is not only fear or shame that limits our students from participating in class. Other things, such as inadequate preparation, low self-esteem, unwillingness to step out of their comfort zones or mistrust of their peers and faculty members, contribute to the lack of student participation.

Cathleen Stutz, a professor of education at my college, once observed a high school teacher supervisor help her students overcome their fear of math by enacting a burial in class. Knowing that her students faced self-doubt and self-defeating feelings when it came to doing algebra, she had them write in journals their feelings toward math and how they solved or thought about different problems and equations. At the end of the first week, she asked them to write down on slips of paper their biggest hesitations and fears about math, including what they’d already identified in their journals. She then collected all the paper slips in a cardboard shoe box decorated like a coffin and told the students they were going to bury their fears, hesitations and self-doubts about studying mathematics. After this shared experience, the teacher and her students approached the rest of the course positively because they had rid themselves of all the negative thoughts and fears that prevented them from fully enjoying it.

The learning and production of knowledge that happened in my Spanish class and the high school math class would not have happened if we as teachers had not let go of our syllabi and traditional lesson plans. The lessons learned came about through patience and courage, by creativity and collaboration -- in short, by turning the classroom into a retreat space.

Here are five ideas of how you can turn your own classroom into such a space.

  • Connect with students on a personal level. Treat your students as who they are, full human beings. Remember that they are more than students, so try to learn their names as soon as possible.
  • Share from your own life experiences. The point is not to have students be like you but to show them that you were once like them. Don’t be afraid if students see how imperfect you are.
  • Carry things beyond the classroom. Find a short article, image or video to help students continue to reflect on a conversation that started in retreat space. These can be about your academic discipline, but they don’t need to be. They should mostly be to encourage students to continue to think about what was discussed during class.
  • Reflect. Encourage students to write before, during and after class. They should write down their ideas and reflect on the conversations held in retreat space. Have them keep those paragraphs handy in good and bad times -- not only whenever they might experience joy but also when they feel frustrated or discouraged.
  • Adjust your lesson plan. Be open to pausing and adjusting your lesson plan to give way to retreat space. Besides learning new skills and concepts in your discipline, your students will remember that you took time to know them better.

Transforming our classrooms into retreat spaces can make a difference in how students see themselves and approach their own learning. When students and faculty members find ways to relate to and trust each other, they can begin to build relationships that help students discover things about themselves, connect their studies with their lives and even find a new career path or purpose in life.

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