Teaching – and the Wonder of Life in a Blade of Grass

Carol A. Hand

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, Sister Lorita, my undergraduate advisor from St. Xavier College for Women in Chicago, taught me more than botany. Through example, she taught me what it means to teach. Students made fun of her because of her weight and because of her enthusiasm for her subject, a subject they found boring. One day when we were meeting, Sister Lorita looked at me and said, “I know students laugh at me, but I don’t care if people make fun of me. It’s worth it to me if they learn to see the wonder of life in a blade of grass.”

“The wonder of life.” Isn’t that the most important thing we can learn? Although I was a chemistry and biology major at the time, my life took a different path. Instead of science, I teach students how to work with people, although there are many times when I would rather be an ecologist.

When I first started teaching, I did not remember Sister Lorita’s lesson. I taught the same meaningless theories and content in the same boring ways as most of my previous teachers, yet I noticed there were differences. Unlike colleagues who told me they never admitted they didn’t have an answer to a student question, I was honest. While other faculty told me they made up an answer, I admitted it was a good question that I needed to research before giving an answer. I was encouraged by a friend, a linguist and Jewish scholar, who supported this approach. She told me that the Hebrew word for the verb “to teach” is an intensive form of the verb “to learn.” It is this chance to keep learning that makes my work so rewarding. The other difference I noted was my tendency to highlight student strengths and accomplishments, rather than merely point out errors in their work.

It took me years to recognize that these differences were truly significant. Like Sister Lorita, I became far less concerned about what others thought of me and more concerned with how what students learned in my class would affect their views of the people they were responsible for helping during their careers. Could they learn to see the wonder of possibilities in all people, regardless of their past and present circumstances? So I began experimenting with ways to consciously “walk the talk.”

I am consistently exploring ways to operationalize a liberatory praxis framework in my research and teaching. Liberatory praxis is based on a dialogic approach for raising awareness about the ways in which dominance is established and maintained. Praxis, the synthesis of theory and action, results in recognizing that both those who dominate and those who are dominated share in the perpetuation of oppressive institutions and paradigms (Freire, 2000).

As an Ojibwe scholar, a linear descendant of hereditary chiefs, I have been socialized to accept responsibility for providing leadership and for challenging and working to transform oppressive ideologies, institutions, and practice paradigms. (Ojibwe leadership was not a position of status. Instead, leadership carried obligations for community service and responsibility for community survival and well-being. No one was obligated to follow leaders – this was an earned status based on a leader’s ability to preserve the community through wisdom and generosity.) I have learned through example that this means that I must reflect critically about the roles of power, political ideologies, and practice paradigms in the reproduction of hegemony over oppressed groups and individuals. Both the content and methods that I use for practice, teaching, and research are consciously selected to reflect a recognition of individual and group strengths and the importance of structural and environmental forces.

As an educator, researcher, and practitioner, I believe I have a responsibility to model respectful partnerships that explore and create “the best we can imagine” for our clients, colleagues, communities and world. This means I am always learning, not infrequently from approaches that prove short-sighted or ineffective. If there is anything I learned from my doctoral work and subsequent research, it is how much more there is yet to learn. This realization is a powerful foundation for working in partnership with others, especially those who have internalized the belief that they have little power or knowledge. It also gives me the freedom to experiment with new approaches and connections, to synthesize and create, and to take risks.

Years ago, I was watching an educational show on methods for teaching diversity. Although I have long forgotten the name of the show, the slogan the presenters used has remained with me and has particular salience for social work education: “to learn, to care, to act.” As a social work educator, it is my belief that I have a responsibility to teach students the knowledge and skills they will need to work respectfully and effectively with clients, organizations, and communities. Liberatory Praxis, the blending of theory and action, is a crucial teaching foundation that requires going beyond merely requiring students to memorize facts and theories (Freire, 2000; Wallerstein & Duran, 2003). It moves beyond the “banking model” of education that views students as empty vessels to be filled by the teacher’s knowledge. Liberatory praxis recognizes that teachers are also learners and are responsible for creating environments based on principles of awareness and respect for differing perspectives, mutual responsibility for learning, and consciousness-raising of both learners and educators through dialogue.

It is also crucial to encourage students to develop and apply critical thinking skills, and to help them develop an understanding of, and empathy toward, people who come from very different backgrounds. Given that social work professional ethics require challenging social injustices and inequality, students need to be able to critically evaluate the practices and policies we teach. Often, as social workers, we are all required to work toward client and community empowerment and liberation within the context of limiting, deficit-focused paradigms and policies.

In order to operationalize a liberatory praxis philosophy, I interweave a number of different approaches into the courses I teach: (1) a breadth of professional perspectives in required readings; (2) readings that expose students to the emic (or insider) views of oppression rather than merely relying on etic (outsider) observations and assumptions; (3) in-class exercises and modeling that encourage teamwork, the development of empathy, and the application of critical thinking skills; and (4) assignments that require experiential involvement with the focal topic, critical thinking, and self-reflection.

During the past several years, I have had an opportunity to read more broadly and reflect on the cultural fit of this egalitarian, dialogic, and consciously modeled approach for working with others who have less power in a given socially constructed community or institution. It is my belief that social work educators have an ethical responsibility to teach students the knowledge and skills they will need to work respectfully and effectively with diverse clients. Unlike other disciplines, social work educators have an additional responsibility to model strength-based, empowering practice in their pedagogical approaches with students. We know that students do as we do, rather than what we tell them to do.

Experimenting with different approaches for modeling empowerment with students has been the primary focus of my work as an educator during the past twelve years. As a result, I believe that I am better able to articulate to students the specific approaches I am using with what hoped-for outcomes. I am also better able to create classroom and online environments that enable students to learn through exposure to rich and diverse perspectives, self-reflection, critical dialectical assignments, and evaluation of their own applied work and that of their peers. In that sense my work has remained both liberatory and applied.

Most importantly, I ask students to become mindful of the lenses they look through to understand the world and other people. We are all socialized to see the world in certain ways by our culture, socioeconomic class, and religion, etc. In order to unpack what we have learned to accept as “normal” and “good,” there are a number of questions each person needs to explore and answer for themselves. There are no right or wrong answers, although they may differ from the answers others have.

Cosmological questions:
Are people basically “good” or “bad?” Some cultures believe that children are born in a state of original sanctity, as gifts from the creator to be protected and allowed the freedom to express who they already are. Other cultures believe that children are born in a state of original sin. They need to be taught right from wrong, using coercion and punishment if need be to help them learn to behave in morally acceptable ways. How cultures answer this question can be discerned by looking at the institutions and policies they develop to socialize, educate, and protect children and families.
Is the world a place of scarcity or abundance? Competition for scarce resources results in inequality and war. Yet abundance is the result when people believe that there can be enough for everyone to share if people work together, using only what they need, and acting as stewards for the resources in their environments.

Ontological questions:
Is there one truth or are there many (Creswell, 1994)? Are both possibilities? The answer to these questions differs across people and cultures and indicates our willingness to respect the trustworthiness and value of beliefs other than our own.

Epistemological questions:
What is the relationship of the observer to that which is being observed (Creswell, 1994)? That is, does my very presence as an observer affect the behaviors of others and therefore, change what I observe? Or am I in a protective bubble, as it were, capable of being present with no effects on others I am observing? Am I capable of remaining invisible to those whom I am observing, and separate and detached from what I am observing, allowing me to be completely objective?

Axiological questions:
Is our understanding of others value-free, or do values color how we make sense of the world and other people’s behavior?

Understanding one’s self and the ways in which one has been socialized to see the world are indispensable for understanding others in respectful, inclusive ways. Learning to see the wonder of life in a blade of grass is perhaps one of the most important things we can learn. If we can’t see the beauty and wonder of life in nature, how can we see it in each other?

I am truly grateful for the opportunity I had to learn from Sister Lorita’s example and her words of wisdom so many years ago. May her spirit rest in peace knowing that at least one student did listen, even if it took decades for that student to remember. Perhaps many others listened as well.

blade of grass
Photo Credit:
3quarksdaily: Tuesday Poem

Authors Cited:

Creswell, J. W. (1994). Research design: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th Anniversary ed.). New York: Continuum.

Wallerstein, N. & Duran, B. (2003). The conceptual, historical, and practice roots of community based participatory research and related participatory traditions. In M. Minkler & N. Wallerstein (Eds.), Community-based participatory research for health (pp. 27-52). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.



19 thoughts on “Teaching – and the Wonder of Life in a Blade of Grass

  1. This is just what I needed to read today, Carol! I had a teacher like you, and she brought the work to life for us, but not only this. She added a depth and richness to our lives and increased my comfort in the world. Your students are so lucky.


    1. Thank you, Nicci. I do what I can to be respectful of students and create a space where learning is both relevant and fun for all of us, although in the end, I believe that I am really the lucky one. I have a chance to get to know new people, do something I have learned to love, and keep exploring new knowledge and perspectives.


      1. I agree with you, other people are the real miracle. They take you way beyond your own limits and they keep you flexible. Knowledge is a constantly evolving process, an endless conversation. I think we, the humanities students/ graduates get the greatest gift because our training transforms us too. I remain ever grateful for the teachers.


  2. I can see Friere’s influence in your writing. I read him in my 20’s – and don’t remember who introduced me to him – it wasn’t in a class – but, I was a total rebel in my 20’s – and a college drop-out. (Didn’t call myself that for years – I got married and my first husband thought making money was more important than me getting an education. And then I got it into my head, education should be free. Took almost 20 years, but my undergraduate degree actually made me money, as I earned many scholarships.) But, unfortunately, higher education was a disillusioning process for me – and later, nursing school was similar (I dropped out from my BSN program and just completed my ASN). I wish I had had teachers like you, you are an inspiration and your students were very fortunate to be guided by your wisdom, insight, and compassion.


  3. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Skywalker Storyteller. Academia is often oppressive and unaccepting of those who have the most creative hearts and critical minds. Yet it’s also true that I don’t feel like a very special teacher. Today, as I get ready for my first class of the semester tomorrow, I am once again wondering what I could possibly have to teach others. American Social Welfare Policy is a class social work students typically dread, and it’s one that requires me to stay up on current events that I would rather not know about. Yet it is also crucial for students to have the knowledge and skills, and a foundation of critical thinking, to do more than counsel future clients to merely adapt to and accept oppressive conditions. I also need to reawaken a sense of hope that there are things we can all do in our every day lives as ordinary people to create a better future. So please wish me luck tomorrow!


  4. Reblogged this on Voices from the Margins and commented:

    As I look back on my time teaching, I am once again grateful for the lessons from an advisor I never had time to thank while she was alive. I hope some of the students I had the honor of working with carry this lesson forward in their own future work.


  5. Reblogged this on Dolphin and commented:
    This is such a stirring post–a good teacher is not measurable by any standards, despite what NCLB and Race to the Bottom say…
    Carol addresses the Native American belief of taking only what you need so that we may all share the resources. This ties into my post the other day on food scarcity and population growth–if we all only took what we needed, and didn’t waste food, there would be more to go around. And if we chose carefully on the size of our families, that, too, would address the problem. But when we have “reality” shows that glorify a family of nineteen kids…well, that sends the wrong message. It’s irresponsibility in my view. And it’s an ego trip for the parents who can’t possibly give each child the needed attention their individual psyches need to develop into their own unique selves bringing their own unique gift unto the world….


  6. Fantastic I think this lesson can be implemented into so many situations. As a occupational therapist (in training) I can relate to this and this the philosophy will transfer into this field too, many thanks!


  7. Hi Carole,

    Whereto should a pedagoy of liberation lead? From what, exactly, am I and the oppressed of this world to be liberated? What in our world as it exists most oppresses most everyone? We look around us, and everywhere there is exploitation and want, even in the midst of plenty. What is the cause of this? In our society, who wants the most and why? Why do our governments take us to war? Is it that we live in a world of scarcity, wherein real technical productive capacity tends to idle at less than half of what real output could be, that drives our governments to obliterate countries like Iraq or Libya or Yugoslavia? Or is it something else?

    To my mind, an education that aims to raise awareness should have an understanding of what it is that is at the root of economic and political exclusion, of what it is that makes for widespread economic stagnation and recurrent crises, of what explains ‘unemployment,’ of that fact that people are always being squeezed by their employers, to always work harder for longer for less. Knowing the reasons for this logically leads to an understanding of what needs to change to stop the bleeding.

    Friere is an important read, but he cannot really be understood outside the context of Marxist scholarship. His point, in so far as I am able to make him out, is this: capitalism must be euthanized; but it cannot be subdued unless the working class, which is oppressed and expropriated and exploited by means of wage labour, arises to an awareness of this ‘fact’ and then itself undertakes the task of overthrowing its capitalist oppressors. Friere is a bottom up revolutionary. He wants a revolution. But he wants it to be a revolution undertaken by ordinary people who no longer unconscious about the roots of their economic, social, and political subjugation. And how he wants teachers and educators to bring the working class to the insight that he believes is the necessary prerequisite to move ourselves beyond the barbarism and insult of capital is to teach people, even as they learn to read and write, to ask and to try to explain to themselves why life deals them the hand that it does. Why, for example, does the landowner own so much land? Why does he live in opulence while the migrant workers and local share croppers, who do all the work, go begging? Is it because the landowner is smarter and better educated? Or might it be something else? And why what might that be? Why can’t the peasants, who know all about raising and harvesting crops, not have land and fend for themselves rather than, as it is now, being denied access to land?

    It is this kind of thing that Friere has in mind when under a climate of political repression in Brazil he is elaborating for the sake of Brazilian educators in the admittedly obscure and oblique language of phenomenology, to encrypt his message, so to speak, against his class enemies, his ideas of what the aims of a pedagogy intent upon the liberation of man should be. It isn’t just about an attitudinal equality in the classroom between teacher and student, though it is about that, too, so as to encourage among the working class a self-possessed attitude of defiance before authority figures, but about getting ordinary people to wake up to the fact that their fate is not the result of their personal failings or congenital ineptitude, but that they are actively being ‘oppressed’ by an ‘oppressor’ that they can barely perceive on account of themselves constantly being ‘brainwashed’ into subservience. Broadly speaking, this is what I take Friere to be about: capitalism rules; it oppresses the many; the many feel the sting of their oppression, but are confused about the cause of their burden because they have been indoctrinated into the dominant capitalist ideology, both in the classroom and at the level of street; that indoctrination must be broken if the oppressed are to get off their knees and stand up for themselves; it is the ethical duty of ‘teachers’ to be on the side of the oppressed, whose indoctrination they must help to break by means of pedagogical strategies aiming precisely at this.

    To my mind, then, teachers who are committed to a pedagogy of liberation in the manner of Friere are committed to having their students come around to an understanding of the systemic causes of social dislocation under capitalism.

    Or have I completely misunderstood Paulo? And if I haven’t, then what has American academia made of his pedagogy?

    Kindest regards,


    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t studied Marx , so I really can’t speak to his worldview. But on another level, it seems you and I have a challenge in terms of bridging different cultural worldviews.

      Understanding the nature of life to me is much more than understanding oppression as solely the organization of modes of ownership or production, as important as these might be. For me, it’s how we experience the deeper realities of connection with everything around us that matters.

      Do our views of others and the world liberate or oppress? Would we impose our views on others or, through dialogue, encourage others to come to their own conclusions and be willing to change our views as we also learn through the process?

      Your comments remind me of an epiphany many years ago. I realized that in essence, I am a hopeful, joyful being who has a choice. I can see the world as a one-dimensional empirical reality, or as complex, mysterious, and miraculous. I have a choice. I can accept the dark world of oppression as one of material struggle or one that is is simultaneously full of needless suffering and potentially joyful, filled with mysteries I may never fully understand or be able to explain. I chose the latter.

      I learn new information from your deep, scholarly Marxist analyses. They provoke thought, but I interpret them from a unique cultural worldview and come to my own tentative conclusions.

      Too many people believe that there is only one truth – theirs. You and I need not agree on that or other issues to remain friends. And I thank you for sharing your thoughts honestly.

      I send my best wishes 🙂


      1. Hi Carole,

        Friendship is the first rule of dialogue, and I think that we both understand that when two different minds with different cultural and experiential baggage engage in an honest attempt to explain themselves to one another, sometimes language will get in the way, and sometimes it’s the presuppositions that each brings to conversation that get in the way. Sometimes, of course, it’s all of that and more.

        So indeed, we are some distance apart on some issues, but I think that is to be expected from people who like to think for themselves and on what they presume an other to have said. Please understand that dialogue for me is always about the ‘subject’ under consideration and not about the person who is prompting to me think or has respectfully engaged me on the matter. And neither is it for me a matter of trying to impose my view on anyone. Rather it is a matter of speaking the truth as I see it even as I know that I may be mistaken in what I take to be the truth. That is the risk that we are all constrained to take whenever we try to come any reasoned conclusion.

        I read your last comment, however, and I have to note that in my opinion we are really not that far apart in our view of reality. Now I don’t know if you are imputing to me the view that I see the world as a one-dimensional empirical reality or not, but I actually see it, to borrow your phrase, as being “complex, mysterious, and miraculous.” Some people speak of the ‘material’ nature of the world as if they know what ‘matter’ is, that it is something to be distinguished from the spiritual or conscious aspect of human experience. That is not the sense in which I use the term. Rather, to my mind, matter is whatever ‘resists’ me in my intentions or desires, which includes both what people normally refer to as the physical aspects of reality and the more intangible realm of the social and cultural and cognitive. I don’t know what the ‘stuff’ is that manifests itself to my senses, nor do I think anybody else does, though we can for our purposes certainly catalog many of its apprehend-able characteristics, at least as it exists in our part of the world, whatever it may be elsewhere or in other respects. So to me, the world isn’t just a giant and complicated clock that in principle could be mapped out and explained in so called scientific terms. That it exists at all and has always done so, that there is no boundary to the vastness of universe, that creatures exist in such incredible profusion on this planet, all of this is absolutely astounding to me and opens the ends of my nerves.

        Now I am certain that that amazement that I experience time and again, and which touches me in a way and at a depth that nothing else I ever experience does, some who have had it call it a religious experience, an encounter with God.

        Call it what you will.

        For me, it is an encounter with the utter mystery of ‘Being’ and of ‘Existence.’ And so in a way, though I disclaim mysticism as such, I am a mystic at my very core, though I disclaim all magic. And I might add, that this sort of encounter is the reason for my many solitary excursions into the wilderness, on the pretext that I am fishing or hunting or just camping. In reality, in my own way, it’s religious.

        Liked by 1 person

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