Blog Archive

Author Archive: Paul Michalec

March 3rd, 2017 – One of my favorite teaching texts is a short quote from Terry and Renny Russell, two brothers who came of age exploring the canyons and rivers of the desert southwest. In their book On The Loose they write: “One of the best-paying professions is getting ahold of pieces of country in your mind, learning their smell and their moods… It feels good to say ‘I know the Sierra’ or ‘I know Point Reyes.’ But of course you don’t—what you know better is yourself, and Point Reyes and the Sierra have helped”.

My personal interests and educational background is grounded in the natural sciences so the brother’s reference to “pieces of country” resonates with my academic and lived experience. The natural world, ecological processes, and nature-based metaphors are important sense making strategies in my teaching. When I walk into a classroom with the eyes of a naturalist I’m often looking for interconnections, patterns, unique contributions of individuals, and shifting centers of generative energy; for me the components of a vibrant classroom ecology.

In the field of curriculum studies Christy Moroye calls the similarities between the inner dispositions of the teacher and the external curriculum of texts, assignments, and assessment the “complimentary curriculum”. In essence, the heart of the teacher and the pedagogical space are one and the same, which creates an authenticity that students sense and are drawn to. There is little difference, except location, between my curiosities about the natural world and my observations of interconnected learning in a college classroom. I don’t intend to reduce student and teacher behavior in the classroom to the scientific and mechanistic metaphor of ecology; that would not do justice to the complexity of deep learning as faculty and students mutually interrogate a text, and each other, as they form and sharpen their instructional relationship.

To paraphrase the Russell brothers, it feels good to say that I know the classroom or I know my students. This type of pedagogical knowing is contingent on a sort of deep observational intimacy similar to the way the brothers learned to read and respond to the land they were traveling through. In the classroom this close read of learners is essential to effective teaching as faculty adjust, revamp, and retool their curriculum and instructional style to more effectively match their instructional intentions to the varied learning needs of students. But as the opening quote suggests, knowing the classroom is only half of the story. The rest of the narrative is the process by which deep observation and instructional intimacy changes the self-perception of the teacher.

Teachers teach with the hope of changing students intellectually and emotionally but change can and does happen both ways; at the end of a class the teacher is changed commensurate with her level of deep engagement with students. Again paraphrasing Terry and Renny Russell, it feels good to say that I know the classroom or I know my students. But of course I don’t—what I know better is my teaching self and my students have helped.

January 22nd, 2017 – Let me start with a premise; the classroom can be a sacred space. This premise is not equally held by all educators nor is the classroom always sacred. But I do know it strikes a resonating cord with many teachers and students conceptually and in practice. When a classroom is sacred space I mean to suggest that at its best the practice of education, which means “to draw out”, signals that something beyond the ordinary is transpiring. The educator and the student are no longer engaged in activities and experiences associated with the more typical ways of being together in the act of transferring knowledge from teacher and text to student. A different kind of exchange occurs that is akin to the notion of flow when everything just clicks and the teacher recognizes both the fire of understanding in the learner’s eyes as well as the passion for content in the deepness of his/her teaching heart.

Parker Palmer refers to this process as deep speaking to deep; the deep understanding of the teacher meets the deep longing for knowledge of the student. There is an intense state of vulnerability, at least as I experience it, that invites me and my students into a relationship with something greater than my role as professor or their role as learner. We are invited into a state of humility, awe, and appreciation for the mystery of knowing that we have come together to explore and be changed by. Like the creation of any sacred space there are rituals, practices, and traditions in the classroom that foster the sense of the sacred; an invitation to shift from normal time and normal ways of being to something beyond the ordinary. And this sense of the classroom as sacred is transient, rarely lasting the full time, nor are all encounters between teacher and student of the deep kind.

But when the classroom is at its sacred-best the risks are high for both the teacher and the learner; neither leaves at the end of the class period quite the same as when they walked in at the start of class. Let me provide a concrete example. Recently, after a particular class that approached, at times, the level of the sacred I was wandering around the classroom gathering up stray pieces of paper, markers, and other trappings of teaching. I was doing this as the next class, which I wasn’t teaching, began to enter the classroom space. A student, who I know from previous classes, asked how I was doing. I realized as he asked me that question that I was engaging in a ritual I associate with classroom as sacred space. A tradition that I often practice unconsciously when my teaching is at its best. I was doing more than cleaning up the detritus of teaching; I was gathering up pieces of my teacher-self. I knew from previous classroom interactions with this student that given his philosophical orientation he would find an honest response to his question more engaging than the more typical social response. I stopped in front of him and stated: “I’m gathering up pieces of myself that I’ve left behind during teaching.” I told him that I once heard a Lakota elder share the advice that when leaving a place of deep experience it was always a good idea to speak your name out loud three-times so as to call back the pieces of yourself that want to remain connected to that place and experience. With no hesitation on his part, my student stated: “well of course that makes sense if you treat the classroom as a sacred space.” I also know that this student has a playful side when it comes to interactions with authority so I asked, “Do you believe this or are you just saying that because you know that is what I believe?” He paused and in a more reflective tone he answered: “No I think that is true.” Teaching, I believe, can leave an educator fractured when teaching goes sideways as well as when teaching reaches transcendence. The only real questions are why, how, and what will the teacher do about re-gathering the scattered notions of self?

January 8th, 2017 – What do you find most annoying as a teacher? What student behavior makes you the most frustrated? If you could change one thing about student/teacher interactions what would it be?

In my early years teaching in higher education classrooms I was often bothered by one thing; food in the classroom. I took offense when a student brought a sandwich, for instance, to class and started eating during a break. This seemed so rude and inappropriate (even though I recognized that students get hungry and need to eat). To address my displeasure of food in the classroom I began articulating, during the first class session, my feelings on eating in class. This tactic stopped or at least slowed the consumption of food in my classroom, but something still felt incomplete. And when an instructional move feels inadequate to me I take this as an invitation to keep exploring the deeper why behind my discomfort. Over the next several years I tested my gut-sense against a number of tweaks to my no food policy. I considered the power differential between my students and me. I tried talking to individual students before or after class about my annoyance with eating in class. I experimented with varying degrees of permissiveness and acceptance. I wondered if my discomfort was equally distributed across all types of food and drink.

I can no longer remember when the breakthrough happened but I eventually sorted through my annoyance to get the core of my concern and once there I was able to formulate a response that felt right. At the heart of my issue with food in the classroom was a deep and abiding sense of the classroom as sacred space. I had never fully articulated this point before in my teaching; just acted on it without making my belief plain to my students or even myself. And because it remained “hidden” I constantly felt bothered when students brought food to class. As soon as I named my belief in classrooms as sacred space I began to see a way to bring together, in meaningful ways, my need for respecting the integrity of the classroom with the need of students to eat. I realized the obvious, that food is a central element of many spiritual practices and community gatherings. Once in possession of this truth I wondered how I might make food an essential part of honoring the sacred nature of higher education classrooms.

Out of this exploration I initiated a ritual that I enact now during the first class session of every course I teach. In fact, this ritual is so ingrained in my teaching that if I wait too long into the first class session to introduce it a student will often raise and hand and ask: “Are we doing snacks in this class?” There it is, my secret sauce; snack time. I begin the ritual by telling the story of my initial annoyance with students bringing food to class. Then transition to my epiphany that my dislike was rooted in a deep commitment to classrooms as sacred space. Which lead me to the realization that food is compatible with an educational community engaged in a shared exploration of something greater than self, a core quality of any educational setting or community with sacred rituals and practices. At this point I state that we will be taking a 15 minute break during class for a time to gather together, share stories, talk about the text, and enjoy a snack together. The final step is passing around a signup sheet for students to bring a “little-something” to class to share with classmates.

My experience is that “snack time” becomes a central moment of community and learning. A student who brought a culturally unique dish will share the story of how it is made and why it is important. Students gather around the chips and salsa and continue the conversation we had as a class right before break. Other students check in with each other around courses to take next quarter or how their final paper is going. Food is fostering a sacred space by serving to feed both physical and relational hunger. I’m deeply appreciative of the patience of my students as I worked out the core of my frustration with food in the classroom. Without that gift I would likely not have re-conceptualized my instruction to see food as essential to the creation of classrooms as sacred space.

December 20th, 2016 – I frequently start my higher education classes with a poem, typically a poem that has little direct connection to teaching, my primary area of expertise and interest. Why and toward what end? What if anything does poetry contribute to an understanding of history, philosophy, or social context of schooling?

The poet Emily Dickinson in her poem Tell all the truth but tell it slant opens with the line “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” and she ends with the explanation “The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind”. T.S. Eliot, when asked about the value of poetry replied, “The chief use of the “meaning” of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog”. I find that poetry is an effective way to introduce core ideas and concepts about teaching and schooling but in a way that is less direct, thus increasing the chance that students will incorporate or at least strongly consider the main points of the class. Poetry allows for the introduction of controversial or strong ideas but at a “slant” or like the burglar who brings a “bit of nice meat for the house-dog”. The poem opens up the learning heart of my students while temporarily distracting their academic mind. By starting class this way I find that my students are more likely to express their understanding of the text through fresh critical eyes instead of the voice of well-trained students trying to impress the professor.

How do I introduce poetry to my students? I initially tell them that poems are like a Rorschach test where the psychiatrist asks a patient to interpret an ink blot on a piece of folded paper. In my case, the poem invites their inner teacher to see or hear what they most need to understand about the poem as it connects with the text for the day. I make it clear that like a Rorschach test each student will likely hear or see something different in the poem. In a subtle but direct way this conveys the message that intellectual diversity is valued in our community of scholars. I pass out the poem and read it out loud (there is something about hearing a poem read by someone else that goes deeper into the space of meaning than reading a poem in silence). I hold a few minutes of silence for the deep meaning of the poem to sink into the deep learning spaces of my students. I break the silence with an invitation to share a word, image, or phrase that speaks to them about the link between the poem and the essence of the texts we read for the class.

For the next 10-15 minutes at least three things happen. One, I get a real time sense of how my students understood, in a truly personal and intellectual sense, the readings for the class session. Two, students get a chance, in a non-threatening way, to hear the different ways that their classmates connected to or made sense of the readings. Three, all of us (teacher and students) slow down and settle into the class period. In no way does poetry provide an escape from the rigor of engaging critical ideas but as Emily Dickinson argues: “The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind”.

December 14th, 2016 – Just about every time I’m in K-12 schools I witness broken-hearted teaching in one form or another from some the best teachers I know. They regularly engage in a form of teaching where their teacher’s heart is broken open at the interface between ideal conceptions of teaching and the real conditions of 21st century education. For instance, a teacher is valiantly trying to connect her passion for subject matter with curriculum that is flat and uninviting. Another teacher is dealing with the tragic death of a student while teaching as if everything is okay so as to reassure her students. A third teacher brings an extra breakfast every day for a student who is homeless and living out of a car. This is broken-hearted teaching as Parker Palmer, educator and social activists calls it, where the teacher teaches knowing that her heart is breaking in two. Teaching in the midst of needs that can never be fixed, only attend to with compassion and empathy that opens the teacher’s heart to imagination instead of closing it to despair or complacency.

In moments of personal or professional despair I’m often drawn to the poem “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver for meaning making. I’m not looking for sure or quick answers but rather a place of purchase from which my broken-heartedness can become a place of understanding and growth.  In her poem she writes:

“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.”

I’m drawn to the transition between the two sentences, a mere tiny space between a period and capital letter. Yet at the same time a universe of potential that frames a productive space between the real and tangible moments of suffering I experience and the equally real sense that larger more life-giving energies are ever moving forward. And what might this space of imagination be pointing toward in the midst of broken-heartedness? Her poem continues:
“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”

Even in the midst of despair teachers keep on teaching, it is in their DNA. Mary Oliver’s poem doesn’t attempt to diminish or wave away the heart breaking demands of teaching which would be inappropriate and unwarranted. Instead she invites all educators to remember the wild geese of their teaching (passions, students, colleagues, or content) are always heading home and calling all educators back to the heart of what they do best, teach.

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.

November 16, 2016 – The profession of teaching and teacher education seems overly preoccupied with the external qualities and characteristics of effective teaching.  A quick search of an online book seller lists 500 books under the search term “teaching best practices” with several of the titles in 2nd, 3rd and 4th editions.  A similar search for “teacher inner life” yields just over 100 books with only a handful directly related to the daily craft of teaching, instead, themes like meditation, mindfulness, prayer and spiritual awakening dominate the list.  The emphasis on the external and technical domain of teaching makes sense given the increased attention teaching has experienced since A Nation at Risk (1983) arguably spurred the modern day accountability, teaching standards and pay for performance movement. I don’t want to suggest that the technical skills of teaching are unimportant.  They are actually essential to good teaching in the same way that any profession is defined by a discreet set of skills that require regular training, research and professional development to improve and enhance practice.  I wouldn’t go to a surgeon who never learned to handle to scrapple or trust my car to a mechanic who was unaware of the difference between a crescent wrench and a box-end wrench.

To paraphrase the author and educational reformer, Parker Palmer, “technical problems require technical solutions and non-technical problems require non-technical solutions.”  What I hear in Palmer’s analysis is a call to pay attention to the root cause or source of teaching dysfunction or deformation.  Sometimes teachers struggle with external best practices such as lesson planning, culturally responsive pedagogy, seating arrangements or assessing student performance.  But at times the root cause of ineffective performance lies in a different direction, which Palmer variously describes as heart, courage, identity, integrity or calling.  Although speaking from the technical and standards side of the educator effectiveness coin, the Council for the Accreditation of Education Programs (CAEP) also calls for a recognition of and accounting for the “non-academic” aspects of teaching (Standard 3).

What might these non-technical, non-academic, heart-centered elements of teaching look like in practice and how might we recognize them when we see them?  First, let me argue that since teaching as a profession has adopted the language of “best-practices” to define the technical that educators should begin using the term of “deep-practices” to refer to the inner qualities of teaching.  This will perhaps help with placing these attributes on a similar plain of importance while elevating the shared language of practice which differs from the outer to the inner elements of teaching. What might deep-practices look like in teaching?  Based on my reading and synthesis of the literature I would propose the following categories as a way to get the conversation rolling: calling, presence, authenticity, wholeheartedness, and imagination.

October 21, 2016 – I’ve been thinking about the question of what makes for a great teacher because one of my students recently commented: “The greatest teacher is the one who is present at the moment of your greatest need, not the one with the most golden apples”.  Her observation, offered in the midst of a spontaneous class discussion, captures much of the essence of good teaching.  Greatness is not really something that can be planned or trained for using a rigid series of instructional protocols.  It is not even a quality that can be mastered through the acquisition of external accolades, although it is important for good teaching to be rewarded and lifted up. Greatness, emerges amidst the unpredictable alchemy of a teacher who is “listening” deeply to the needs (intellectual, emotional and spiritual) of her students and a learner who is willing to be vulnerable and open to a teacher/student relationship that goes beyond content and technique.  Parker Palmer, who is a noted author on education, calls this the distinction between teachers who fully show up and are “authentic” and teachers who are just “phoning it in” and playing at the role of educator.

What makes for a great teacher?  How do you know one when you see one?  When you think back across your educational experiences who stands out and why?  Is the greatest teacher the one who knew the most content knowledge?  How about the teacher who spent extra time with you because you were struggling with an assignment?  Maybe it was the teacher who created a classroom climate that allowed you to explore some aspect of your personal life that you always wanted to know more about.  And it might have even been the teacher who pushed you hard because you were capable of more, praised you for your hard work and ability to rise to the challenge, and still gave you the only “B” in your educational career.

My greatest teachers come in many forms and represent several competing ways of understanding the craft of teaching.  I only remember two or three teachers across my K-12 experience, which is often surprising to me given my interest in education.  My high school Chemistry teacher was noteworthy for his daily ritual of walking into class, opening a jar of instant coffee, dumping a good amount into a stained mug and heating it up with hot water from the tap.  I learned or at least retained little knowledge of chemistry but he did teach me, through negative example, the importance of passion, interest and authenticity for the work of teaching.  While in college I had a mentor who took me aside one day and talked to me about the importance of communication and following through on commitments.  Without his thoughtful and challenging feedback I would have continued to perform below my potential as an educator.  His greatness as a teacher was his authenticity and ability to call out my gifts and hold me to standard commensurate with my native skills.  I’m deeply indebted to all my great teachers.  Thanks.

September 28, 2016 – Several years ago, I was leading a professional development session for a group of experienced educators. During a conversation—around the tensions in teaching that tend to separate out the inner life of educators from the outer technical domain—one teacher commented: “The joy of teaching has been tested and legislated away. All that is left is sand and dust.” I find this statement devastating in the way it describes the real impact of focusing the purpose of education too narrowly on elements such as testing, accountability and technique. And at the same time, it points the way forward to a time in education when conversations about best-practice are equally matched with questions about deep-practice; the rich, joyful life of educators.

The title of this blog captures the dual-tension that exists in education around conversations about effective instruction. There is an outer-technical aspect of teaching present in the day to day actions or inactions of teachers—the walking around tasks that anyone can witness who is an observer of teaching.  In short, this is the “sight” that teachers exercise to act on and in the world of the classroom. “Sight” can be thought of as best-practices and there are many books, articles and teaching standards that define its essence. Yet, “sight” can also take on a prophet or activist orientation in terms of provoking action toward change. It is this second aspect of “sight” that I’m particularly interested in while acknowledging the existing of the outer-technical.

The “in” of the blog title speaks to another facet of teaching which is often acknowledged but rarely examined with integrity. This is the inner-life of a teacher that corresponds to elements such as calling, passion, affective knowledge, courage, or vulnerability. “In” points to the importance of organizing conversations and discussions of effective teaching around the affective and social-emotional aspects of teaching. Education takes, in part, its root meaning from the Latin word educere, which means to “lead, draw or take out…” I often ask myself, my students, and other educators to consider what is worth drawing out of learners. For me, whether the learner is a student in K-12 schools or higher education, or a teacher, the answer is essentially the same. It is my purpose to create an instructional space where the inner wisdom of the learner is invited to come forth and engage the question at hand.

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