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?