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My crash course in understanding the soul of teaching – and in the process, my own soul – happened at an outpatient facility for adults with severe mental and emotional illnesses.
A community college had hired me to teach three different groups meant to help this population enter the job market. With no stipulations for what should occur in these groups, I had to figure it out.
The site director told me not to expect improvements in “this population.” Adults with emotional illnesses, she said, are essentially “stuck,” with only their medication keeping them functional. Given this opinion, I wondered why the site provided classes. I’d soon find out.
In everything I do, though, I’m led by the Baha’i teachings, and this one from Baha’u’llah immediately came to mind: “Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.” I knew that, despite their illnesses, that all of the members of the class possessed their own gems, if I could only draw them out.
The room for the Clerical Skills group had several electric typewriters, an old computer and a cabinet housing some alphabetizing exercises for practice filing and lists of nouns for sorting. Although alphabetizing was too simple – having a mental illness doesn’t mean ignorant – sorting was another issue, because one symptom of schizophrenia is an inability to categorize.
The group members comprised mostly intelligent, experienced, and even worldly adults who didn’t want to waste time doing busy work. Some revealed they hadn’t looked up word meanings since middle-school, so they often used words without knowing their definitions. It startled me to find that looking up a word could dissipate someone’s paranoia, as in when one individual thought the denotation of a particular word was “satanist.” (It wasn’t.) Another student loved finding errors in the vocabulary workbooks, so I encouraged him to compose a letter to the publisher to point out their mistakes.
My goal: I really wanted everyone to know that they could contribute to society.
Each day I brought in a newspaper for the group to divide up, read, and discuss. Many complained they couldn’t read because the years of symptoms, medication, and institutionalization had deadened their faculties, and they felt unable to concentrate enough to comprehend and recall what they were reading. However, with encouragement, everyone who showed up, read and summarized short articles – Harlan reported on obituaries, Bradley chose comic strips, Al read the shortest possible articles only if I could get him to finish his standup routines. Their work evolved into writing summaries to read and share. Sharon always chose the lead story, usually about world affairs. Larry reported on book reviews but, because he’d damaged his vocal cords by screaming for three straight days, we struggled to understand him until we could. Eventually two group members developed a newsletter, and someone else later put together a poetry compilation, both of which were copied and collated by Mark who enjoyed the low stress of such work. I invited the most prolific typist to write real letters to procure donated computers for the group.
All of this reminded me of the primary importance the Baha’i teachings put on education. Abdu’l-Baha wrote “… education is the indispensable foundation of all human excellence and alloweth man to work his way to the heights of abiding glory.”
In the Communication Skills group I found that people had trouble articulating their feelings. I wondered if they didn’t have adequate language to describe their experiences, so we spent time trying to pinpoint what emotions people were trying to describe. Those who also attended the Clerical group offered suggestions from their vocabulary learning. Overall, I tried to give space for members to exchange ideas and take each other seriously. My groups turned into a time to learn, and to laugh.
The social workers on staff, a dedicated and sensitive bunch, were amused that I took the members seriously, since many of the diagnoses included delusional thinking and bizarre behavior. They didn’t quite understand what happened in my groups, but knew that when I was absent, they were rejected as my substitutes. I think that’s because an underlying truth about these groups was that the material had become a springboard for interpersonal relationships – we had become a community of friends thoughtfully interacting. As Abdu’l-Baha pointed out in Some Answered Questions, the class had transcended mere instruction by emphasizing “acquiring divine perfections:”
… education is of three kinds: material, human, and spiritual. Material education aims at the growth and development of the body, and consists in securing its sustenance and obtaining the means of its ease and comfort. This education is common to both man and animal.
Human education, however, consists in civilization and progress, that is, sound governance, social order, human welfare, commerce and industry, arts and sciences, momentous discoveries, and great undertakings, which are the central features distinguishing man from the animal.
As to divine education, it is the education of the Kingdom and consists in acquiring divine perfections. This is indeed true education, for by its virtue man becomes the focal centre of divine blessings and the embodiment of the verse “Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness.” This is the ultimate goal of the world of humanity.
I had come to understand teaching less as an avenue for imparting information and more as one where the subject matter as well as treating everyone humanely can help us understand spiritual reality.
Similarly, people interested in the Baha’i Faith often begin by wanting to know about concrete things like its major principles, laws, and historical events. While such information can provide a good platform, I find it necessary to delve deeper. Why did Baha’u’llah succumb to exile, torture and pain if he had the power to avoid it? What are the more profound underlying meanings of Baha’i principles and laws? Most importantly, what is the spirit that holds the Baha’i Faith together? The more we dig beneath the obvious meanings, the more we learn not just Baha’u’llah’s vision for future society but also about the reality of our inner selves.
Teaching, I learned, deals with transformation, where teachers and learners share in a process that changes them all. It may be that the greatest transformation in any learner is to elevate their focus from looking at the world before them to envisioning a world that could be.