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.