November 25th, 2016 – This picture of a blackbird perched on a branch singing over a marsh of cattail reeds in the early morning hours of a new day is one my favorite images of teaching. I invite you to take some time and look closely. What are the signs of good teaching evident in this image? What are the conditions of the environment that allow for the presence of good teaching to present itself for examination? How would you begin to compare this male blackbird and his song to all the other males singing that day? How might we use this image of a singing bird to talk about the ineffable or hidden qualities of good teaching?
First let me make an argument for the ineffable, that which we know exists but frequently can’t see; courage, passion and grit for instance. One way bird lovers make distinctions between birds are their songs, each species has a signature melody. But a song, like many aspects of good teaching can be heard but not seen, except when the right conditions bring the ineffable forward for examination. In this image we can actually see the song of the blackbird in the exhaled breath. Each curl, curve and break makes the unseen elements of the song present for inspection.
An important lesson in this image for anyone interested in the unseen aspects of teaching is the importance of the right conditions for the ineffable to materialize. Externally, there must be a rising sun that back lights the scene, the temperature must be cold enough for the breath to condense into visible droplets, and the wind must be perfectly still or the notes will be distorted. Internally, the bird must exhibit a certain confidence in his song, head back and throat full of commitment. Additionally, without a compelling urge to sing the marsh will be quiet and the song of the blackbird will remain invisible.
What are some of the essential learnings that might help with ways of making the unseen or ineffable elements of teaching more evident and available for examination? The first learning is that the right conditions, externally and internally, must be present. Only a teacher who is encouraged or supported by colleagues or school leaders will take the risk of singing while perched on an exposed branch. Only a teacher with strong internal sense of calling to teach will throw her head back and in a full-throated way announce with authenticity her particular teaching style.
What might be at stake if we stop paying attention to the ineffable qualities of teaching? The graphic novel “Watchman” by DC Comics (2014) warns of the dangers of becoming too analytic in our studies of nature or teaching. The narrator, whose superhero persona is an owl, muses on the danger of narrowing the investigative eye to only technical qualities when describing what makes a bird a bird:
“Looking at a hawk, we see the minute differences in width of the shaft lines on the under-feathers where the Egyptians once saw Horus and the burning eye of holy vengeance incarnate. Until we transform our mere sightings into genuine visions; until our ear is mature enough to order a symphony from the shrill pandemonium of the aviary; until then we may have a hobby, but we shall not have a passion. When I was a boy, my passion was for owls. Somewhere over the years; some-place along the line my passion got lost, unwittingly refined from the original gleaming ore down to a banal and lusterless filing system.”
When it comes to describing good teaching we must look past the external qualities of “best practices” as defined by standards and accountability rubrics. We must learn to un-see the world of teaching as solely a technical process that has the potential of de-evolving into “a banal and lusterless filing system”. We must regain the passion and vision to see the mystery and magic of teaching that is only visible, although always present, on certain cold mornings in the face of a rising sun.