Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Evaluation as blessing (a chaplaincy education summer comes to its end)

My first job after finishing rabbinical school was teaching Talmud and Rabbinics at a Jewish high school. There were so many things that I loved about that job, but having to evaluate students -- and assign them grades -- was not one of them. In one faculty meeting, I raised the question of why we gave grades at all. I remember the head of school being somewhat impatient with my question. In retrospect, I came to understand that we assigned grades at that school because that is what our customers -- students, parents and the colleges the students would be applying to -- expected us to do.

Of course, that's not what people like to say grades are about. They like to say it's about motivation -- "why will the students do the work if we don't grade them?"

That kind of thinking strikes me as being about a fundamental misunderstanding of what learning is really about and of what a person really needs to prepare his or her self for true success in the world. What the student needs most of all is to develop a love of learning and a basic curiosity about the world. In a world where the demands of jobs are changing and an ever-increasing rate, to be prepared students need to have learned how to learn. And, most importantly, they need to develop the values, independence and self-confidence needed to evaluate for themselves what is best for themselves and what success really means to them.

Grades serve none of these goals. Grades foster dependence. They stunt students' personal growth by encouraging them to look to others to tell them what is right for them and what success looks like. They are just
very poor preparation for what students will face in the real world. In the work force, very few people are assigned grades. To be successful, we need to develop skills in evaluating our own work for ourselves in ways that will allow us to identify goals that will help us to continuously improve and grow. And we need to develop skill at identifying our accomplishments and articulating them to ourselves and to others.

All this is true for high schoolers, but it becomes more true for people seeking professional graduate education. And it is even more true than that for clergy and others in ministry. Most of the work for people like us is done without peers or supervisors present. Feedback from congregants tends to consist of only of the extremes of "great job, rabbi" or "I just don't like your sermons; maybe we should replace you with someone younger and cheaper."

So, a few weeks back, as we came to the end of our intense 11-week program of chaplaincy education for our four Christian seminary students and our one ordained Catholic Priest, I was left to wonder why am I writing these people evaluations?

In those final weeks, I started to realize how much anxiety some of my students were having about this. At first, I thought this was silly, but then I realized that they really did have something to worry about -- my evaluation would be read back at their seminary and could affect their progress towards ordination. This made me feel very cautious. Back in the high school, I could be fairly sure about how colleges would interpret the "A's" and "B's" I assigned. But, in the fairly arcane world of denominational ordination processes, I had no way of knowing how my words would be interpreted.

I also in those final weeks started to feel the pull from my students for affirmation. One student kept asking me, "are you going to miss us?"

It is natural to want to respond to such a request for affirmation. Who wouldn't you want to tell everybody else that they are wonderful and get back the gratitude for saying that?

But I didn't want to succumb to that temptation. I wanted to give my students something more than just affirmation. I wanted to give them a blessing.

What is a blessing? One model we have from scripture is the Priestly Blessing in the 6th chapter Book of Numbers where Aaron and other priests ask for God's blessing for the people. That is, the priests are there seeking to summon the Holy for the people before them and to connect the Holy with the people's well-being and success.

כד יְבָרֶכְךָ ה', וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ. כה יָאֵר ה' פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ. כו יִשָּׂא ה' פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם. כז וְשָׂמוּ אֶת-שְׁמִי, עַל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַאֲנִי, אֲבָרְכֵם.
May HaShem bless you, and may He keep you.
May HaShem shine His face upon you, and extend grace unto you.
May HaShem lift His face upon you, and may He give you peace.
[In this way, they will put My name upon the people Israel, and I will bless them.]

This is a core part of what I think the blessing -- especially the blessing of the student at the end of a program in the form of the evaluation the supervisor writes -- should be for the supervisor in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE): We are summoning of the holy for the person and wishing for their success in partnership with the holy.

The important thing to realize about this is that this kind of summoning of the holy has to be something that is much more than the "feel-good" kind of "instant gratification" that would be giving the student the simple affirmation they may crave.

What I'm starting to understand is that what blessing really should be about is honoring the very place that has the most potential to access holiness in relationships -- that precious space "in-between" that is can be created by the interaction. There are many names for this space in-between. Levinas, for example, calls it the trace, "
a memory of being-in-general, of the infinite".

So, the blessing that comes in an evaluation should be about honoring the interaction -- honoring what happened in the conversation between the supervisor and student about the student's work on the hospital floors. This interaction -- when it functions at its best -- is one where the two together tried to better discern the student's true path towards serving God by together examining the student's effort to serve people in pain (and bring something of the holy to them).

Honoring it means recording it. Recording it with love and care. . . . . Here I feel a need to make a digression and just say how affirming this summer was for me about the process of CPE, especially the potential for CPE to bring to light for a person the most important spiritual and personal growth issues that are before them. That may sound like the task of psychotherapist -- and it certainly is. But it seems to me that the psychotherapist is almost crippled next to the CPE supervisor. They psychotherapist only gets to see the client in the "closed container" that is the therapist's office. But a CPE supervisor like myself gets to interact with the student both in the "closed container" of weekly individual supervision and in the open container of the work setting -- a work setting (the setting of caring for people amid suffering and death) that naturally brings to the fore the issues of ultimate importance to a student. What an incredible opportunity to get to know something that is the essence of another human being. Holy work indeed!

So, what is honored and recorded as part of this process of evaluating/blessing the student is what has hopefully indeed turned out to be a holy interaction where something of the true essence of the student came to light. Where the supervisor was able to hold up that essence (I see an image of a ball of fire burning amid two upraised hands) and, for a moment, look at it together with the student. Where the two together can name what is true about it. Where the two together can wish and hope for the place where it can burn best.

What a gift to be truly seen, to feel truly seen. That is the blessing that I hope I gave my students in their evaluation. Only they can say whether they indeed received such a blessing. But that is the the number one way that I hope my written evaulations were a blessing for them -- in that they felt truly seen, seen in a loving way.

I also hope that I have given them a record of what they accomplished in those 11 weeks -- and each one of them accomplished quite a great deal. I hope what I wrote is something they will be able to look back on in the weeks, months and years to come and see something they can be proud of -- to know that they did something really important (even though they got no grade for it).


One danger of this approach -- as some have warned me -- is that I will set expectations for myself and my students that are too high (and thus set us up for failure). What happens, for example, if I have a student who I really don't like or -- worse -- who I think is dangerous to the people he or she ministers to? How can I bless that student? I haven't faced that kind of serious challenge, yet, in my work. . . . Although I don't always feel that I have to like my students. But what is absolutely necessary is that I can find compassion for them . . . And through that compassion find a way to truly care about their learning and growth.


There are also some practical matters about how I do evaluations -- rules that have been passed down to me by my own supervisor -- that help serve the goal of the student being able to experience his or her evaluation as a blessing. The number one rule is that there should be no suprises -- there should be nothing in the written evaluation that was not previously discussed with the student.

When this works, the student will finish reading the evaluation and then look at the supervisor -- as one of my students did -- and say "that's pretty much what happened." That is -- when the relationship between supervisor and student has worked as it should -- there is a congruence between how the supervisor and student understand what happened. The evaluation should reflect that congruence.


One thing that I think would have suprised the "before-CPE" me is how much I use explicit God talk in these evaluations. I often talk -- especially in the final sentences -- about the student's relationship with God and how they do, or do not, understand themselves as loved by God. . . . I think this is a very important thing for most spiritual caregivers. The ministry that we bring to our patients and othes very often is just that -- to urge the person to feel God's love despite their suffering. This is not something that we can do if we do not ourselves feel God's love. . . That may be the greatest long-term challenge for the person seeking to make a life in spiritual caregiving. . . . And it is why spiritual self-care -- as I have written so often on this blog -- is so important.

Blessing others is something that seems to have a much stronger tradition in Christianity than Judaism and many Christians expect their clergy to bless them. In Judaism the traditions and models for giving another a blessing are less clear. In terms of the Torah, we have the Priestly Blessing I mentioned above. We also have the example of Issac and Jacob giving blessing to their sons. In terms of modern practice, the strongest tradition is the weekly blessing of the children (which makes use of Jacob's blessing). There is also a strong tradition of Hasidic rebbes giving blessing to their adherents, but that tradition is rather foreign to me and my practice. This practice is something Jewish Renewal movement leader
Zalman Schachter-Shalomi wrote about in his main academic work, Spiritual Intimacy: A Study of Counseling in Hasidism .


Gannet Girl said...

Fabulous post. All of it.

abayye said...


Rabbi Goldie Milgram said...

What a gift, this posting was forwarded to me by a student at the perfect moment. Thank you!

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