MAKING IT PERSONAL

I’ve been a devotee of Parker Palmer ever since I read The Courage to Teach.[1]  I often think of his statement: “We Teach Who We Are.”[2]   In January, David Brooks, Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times, echoed a similar sentiment.  Brooks’ piece, entitled Students Learn from People They Love,[3] told of how a class he taught at Yale softened around him after he had to cancel office hours a few years ago, having shared with his students that he “was dealing with some personal issues and a friend was coming up to help me sort through them.”  Recognizing something that many of us have long known, Brooks drew the connection between emotional relationships and learning.  Thus his Palmer-like statement: “[W]hat teachers really teach is themselves—their contagious passion for their subjects and students.”[4]

But we teachers are much more than our passion for our subjects and our students. We are human beings who bring into our teaching the accumulation of all the innate and environmental influences and experiences of our entire lives.  While these influences implicitly affect how we teach, each of us strikes a balance of how much of the personal we explicitly bring into our interactions with students, both in the classroom and outside.  My tendency is to share a great deal about myself, to share my personal stories.

I am an advocate of holistic lawyering, of the essentiality of understanding that a client comes into a lawyer’s office with a host of needs, only some of which are legal.  The lawyers I regard as most effective, the ones I most admire, are those who recognize their clients’ multiplicity of extra-legal challenges and, where appropriate, address them, if only by suggesting or referring to other professionals.

In writing this blog entry, I came to realize that I might appropriately call myself a holistic teacher. I’m not only committed to teaching my students the knowledge, skills, and values of the profession they are studying to enter.  I care about how they will bring their entire beings into their careers.  All of their signature strengths as well as their challenges.  If they are struggling in any part of their lives, it will likely bleed into their performance as students and, ultimately, left unaddressed, into their careers as lawyers.

I teach a general civil externship seminar.  I have the luxury of inviting my students to focus on key aspects of successful lawyering generally taught, if at all, only in clinics and externships.  These include, above all, the people skills so essential to effective lawyering:  communication; cultural competence; emotional intelligence; self-care; and finding realistic and healthy balance among work, family, friends, and self.

A joke I tell about myself and often share with students in distress is if a student comes into my office complaining of a hangnail, I recommend talk therapy, because it has been so helpful in my own life.  I have long been open about my history of episodic clinical depression, and have shared it with students and others struggling with their own mental demons.[5]   Sometimes, however, I wonder if I risk crossing the line between teacher and therapist.

Here’s a recent example.  I have been working on a pro bono case with a student now in her last semester.  We’ll call her Susan; not her real name.  Several times Susan had promised to get me a draft of a letter to a Congressperson for my review by a certain date and had not done so.  I had told her that I understood she had a lot else on her plate, and just to send me an email if she wasn’t able to get it to me by the date she had promised.  A week or so ago, she assured me that wouldn’t be necessary; she would absolutely get it to me by the end of the following weekend.  That didn’t happen.  Last week Susan and I were talking after a lunch hour program about her upcoming interview for post-bar exam employment at a firm with which she was currently externing.  It was an encouraging and upbeat conversation.  At the end, I gently mentioned that I had neither received the draft letter or an email explaining she was unable to get to it.   She confessed that she had begun to draft the email, but was just too anxious to finish it.  Apparently, this was not an isolated instance; she has long been plagued by anxiety.  A deeper conversation ensued about the importance of being in communication for the career she was entering.  I mentioned something I often said to students, that they wouldn’t have gotten as far as they had if they didn’t have an awful lot going for them.  But if something wasn’t working and they were unable to fix it on their own, there was no shame in seeking professional help.  Susan shared that she knew this, and also that she had stopped going to therapy several years ago when her therapist had suggested she might benefit from anti-anxiety medication.  Susan was and is adamantly opposed to psychiatric medication.  I stressed the importance of not burying her head in the sand, that the choice of whether to take medication would be her own but that not doing anything to solve a seemingly intractable problem was not a rational choice.  I reminded her of my own mental health history.  She later wrote, thanking me for the advice.

I write all of this with admitted ambivalence.  I even question whether it belongs in the “Best Practices” Blog.  For I struggle with my tendency to so readily recommend therapy to my students.

There are times when crafting my journal prompts, I have to remind myself to relate them to my students’ lives as externs and the lawyers they are becoming.  An example, from our exploration of Emotional Intelligence:

  1. Reflect on how well you think you know yourself, your MO (modus operandi). For example, are you aware of what your immediate response is to an upsetting or difficult situation?  Are there automatic responses you have that you would like to change?  Specifically, do any of these responses tend to create problems for you professionally, to keep you from being the law student or lawyer you most want to be? If so, what steps can you take to change them?

and another based on the chapter I contributed to Learning from Practice,[6] on Work and Well-being:

  1. Considering chapter 25 and our class discussion on Monday, reflect on what, if any, habits or practices you have developed in law school that detract from your sense of well-being. What, if any, habits or practices contribute positively to your sense of well-being?  What if anything might you change to improve your well-being, now and going forward?

Is it good practice to probe so personally into my students’ inner lives?  Is it sufficient that I offer them the option of writing about something less personal?  Although I may have doubts, I find that these prompts often elicit some of the most thoughtful reflections of any my students write.  Self-awareness, like awareness of others’ emotional contexts, is so critically important to being an effective lawyer.  Where in the curriculum can we explore this if not in experiential courses and, specifically, in journals?  Here’s a recent example from one of my student’s journal responding to this prompt:

One habit developed during law school that detracts from my well-being is that I have stopped going to the gym and eating healthy. I was always very into fitness and living a healthy lifestyle….  The time constraints of law school and working fulltime have forced me to essentially eliminate this from my life. . . .  My physical health and body image definitely play an important role in my mental health.  In the future, I think it will be important for me to carve out time to keep this part of my life….

I value the importance of introducing my students to positive psychology[7] and mindfulness practices, both empirically demonstrated to provide a plethora of benefits.[8]  For more than ten years, I have had a regular morning meditation practice which has been hugely beneficial in my own life and work.  For many years I have introduced my students to mindfulness meditation in the first class of the semester.  I usually show a wonderfully accessible twelve-minute video of Anderson Cooper’s introduction to meditation at a weekend silent retreat with Jon Kabat Zinn.  For even longer than that, I have begun each of my classes with two minutes of what I have come to call “settling in,” accompanied by an introduction, and invitation, to mindful breathing.  Some students find it to be an invaluable tool for settling their minds and reducing their anxiety, in and out of class.  Many others are agreeable to practicing it in class, but not inspired to try it elsewhere.  Still others find it to be a hippy-dippy waste of time.  I know it alienates some students, but that’s a cost I deem worth it for the possibly life-long benefits it provides for others.

I consciously model vulnerability, fallibility, and taking responsibility for messing up.  I admit my MO—being a scold.  I am naturally impatient with students who haven’t lived up to their responsibilities, who haven’t exhibited the professionalism becoming a lawyer requires.  I work hard at not acting out of my “default position.”  Too often, I fail.  Even if I say nothing, it shows on my non-poker face.  To put it mildly, this does not improve the climate in the classroom.   Here’s an example from this semester of failing and recovering:

I have the smallest seminar I have ever had: only five students.  We meet on Mondays, late afternoon.  On a Tuesday that was a “legislative” Monday[10] following Presidents’ Day weekend, only three students showed up.  The absent students hadn’t notified me. The following Monday, three students showed up.  One of the absent students had let me know that she had a stomach flu; I heard nothing from the other.

The assignment for that particular class was to prepare for partnered simulations based on the ethical dilemma hypotheticals in chapters 10 and 11 of Learning from Practice.[11]  The instructions I sent with the assignment right after the prior class, in bolded text, instructed the students to do two things:  1) coordinate with their simulation partner in advance and 2) notify me if they weren’t going to be in class so that I could make alternative assignments.  Of the three students who showed up, only one had read all of the assigned pages, and none had communicated with their partners about the simulations.

I did my best not to blow up but I was practically ready to end class then and there.  Instead, I took a deep breath, gave them a few minutes to read the hypotheticals, and left the classroom for a few minutes to cool down.  When I returned, we discussed the scenarios, rather than acting them out.  It was the best I could think to do at the time, and the discussion was sufficient to get us through the remainder of class.  It probably goes without saying that it was not a great class.

My true recovery actually occurred the following day when, having sufficient distance in time and place, I drafted, edited and emailed the class a missive I titled “IMPORTANT.”  After reciting the concerning events of the previous two classes, I added:

I appreciate that you are all juggling multiple responsibilities and substantial workloads.  This is training for careers as lawyers.  You are in the process of developing your professional identities.  I am committed to supporting you in that process.

Your professional training to become lawyers requires you to be accountable and in communication.  If you need to miss a class for which you have been assigned a particular role or task, you should inform your professor and any affected classmates in advance, or, if not possible, as soon as you can.

Law school generally, and the externship and clinical programs in particular, serve as a laboratory for developing the professionalism habits you will need for your future careers.  Towards that end, I … have attached … a Professionalism rubric[12]… .  I ask all of you, as you prepare your mid-semester self-evaluation to rate yourself on this rubric and see where you need and want to improve.  I will ask you to do the same at the end of the semester.  It’s up to you whether you want to share your rubric with me.

We are a very small group.  That has advantages and disadvantages, the latter having been evident for the past two classes.  We all need to work hard to live up to our obligations in order to maximize this learning experience for you.

I am posting the above on the Discussion forum and invite replies.  Or contact me privately and/or anonymously.

I’m committed to your success and know that you are, too.

No one took me up on the offer to post on the Discussion forum, nor to contact me otherwise.  Nonetheless, at the following class, all five students were present, thoroughly prepared for the simulations, and completely engaged.  It was a terrific class thanks to the work they put into it.

* * *

I have never been a trial lawyer or practiced law in a private firm.  I don’t have much in the way of war stories relevant to my externs’ placement experiences.  But I do have stories gleaned from seven decades of lived experience.  I have wisdom gained from pursuing my three major life passions:  One, to write and speak about more healing, relational and non-adversarial methods of achieving justice, resolving conflict, and ordering legal affairs.  Two, to decrease the shame and stigma around mental illness, having suffered six episodes of major clinical depression over the past forty-four years.  And three, to help my students envision and strive for careers that will make them excited and happy to get out of bed every morning.  I have been blessed with a career that has enabled me to pursue all three.

When I look back on my more than 36 years of teaching, I see that I have lived them holistically.  My work has been almost seamlessly integrated into the rest of my life, not separate and apart.  In both I have experienced the full gamut of emotions: joy, sadness, frustration, contentment—but never boredom.

We teach who we are.

 

 

[1] Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (1st ed., 1998).

[2] Id. at 1.

[3] David Brooks, Students Learn from People They Love, New York Times, Op Ed 1/17/19.

[4] Id.

[5] See, e.g., Marjorie A. Silver, Healing Classrooms, in Transforming Justice, Lawyers, and the Practice of Law 264-65 (Marjorie A. Silver, ed., 2017);  Marjorie A. Silver, A Transformational Melancholy: One Law Professor’s Journey Through Depression, https://ssrn.com/abstract=1908992 (2011).

[6] Marjorie A. Silver, Chap. 25: Work and Well-Being 699-724 in Learning from Practice (Wortham, et al. eds., 3rd ed. 2016).

[7] Id.at 700-05.

[8] See, e.g., Shailini Jandial George, The Cure for the Distracted Mind: Why Law Schools Should Teach Mindfulness, 53 Duq. L. Rev. 215 (2015).

[9] omitted.

[10] This is Touro’s term for following a particular day’s schedule on a different day of the week.

[11] Lisa G. Lerman & Lisa V. Martin, Ch.10: Ethical Issues in Externships: An Introduction 261-78; Alexis Anderson, Ch. 11: Ethical Issues in Confidentiality  279-93 in Learning from Practice (Wortham, et al. eds., 3rd ed. 2016).

[12] See https://www.stthomas.edu/media/hollorancenter/pdf/FINALProfessionalismRubricMarch2019.pdf.

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