January 26th, 2018 — “What is your secret?”  A question the Prince of Lu asks Khing the master carver in the Woodcarver, a poem written by the Taoist philosopher and poet Chuang Tzu.  Just moments before the question, Khing presented the Prince with a bell stand of such beauty and well-crafted form that everyone, including the Prince, thinks the bell stand must be the work of supernatural forces.  Khing, like a master teacher, senses that the Prince is asking the wrong question.  Yet the Prince is still the Prince and it is better to answer the Prince than question his authority. So Khing answers in a straightforward but provocative way by stating that he has no secret and that he is just a simple woodcarver.  But Khing pushes deeper into the Prince’s question beyond its surface characteristics.  He offers the Prince and everyone listening a lesson on where craft-knowledge comes from.  In the subtle moves of skilled educator, Khing inverts the power structure of ruler/servant and educates the Prince on how to act with integrity and fidelity to professional calling.  Khing outlines in detail his preparation before carving the bell stand. His message is that a skilled craftsperson, ruler, or teacher has to do more than just “show up” in response to the command of a person in power.  Instead, Khing argues that to be fully present to the task of carving requires deep and intentional preparation.  The woodcarver drives home his point by stating that his preparation was so complete that he forget about the Prince and his royal court: “After seven days I had forgotten my body with all its limbs. By this time all thought of your Highness and of the court had faded away. All that might distract me from the work had vanished. I was collected in the single thought of the bell stand.

The question now becomes, what might the Woodcarver and the Prince of Lu offer anyone interested in practicing the art of good teaching?  Khing I suspect would answer: nothing and everything.  There is no secret, no overt connection, rather just the wisdom of intentionally attending to ways that one’s calling to teach informs practice.  Khing articulates a curriculum for accessing the deep secrets of teaching.  The first step is humility, a recognition that accepting the vocational call to teach means recognizing that what others see as the work of the spirits is actually a birthright gift made plain in the daily practices of the classroom.  Yes, good teaching involves technique and years of practice but it also has an innate quality that requires humble acceptance, not ego-driven posturing and proclamations of greatness.

The next lesson is the example Khing sets around the importance of preparing for the work of teaching.  The formula seems rather straight forward in its articulation but complex in its implementation; the quality of teaching is directly proportional to the quality of the personal and spiritual preparation that went into the act of teaching.  I wonder sometimes, as Khing invites me to ponder, what shape my teaching would take if in the process of preparation I forgot my lessons (my instructional body) with all its limbs of lesson plans, activities, learning outcomes, texts, and assessments? I don’t have 7 days to prepare to teach because I have too many other responsibilities.  But I can make time to slow down, disconnect, set aside external distractions and reach toward an instructional state of being where I’m collected in the single thought of teaching. Even three deep breaths before leaving my office can help.

The final element of Khing’s method as he states is: “Then I went to the forest to see the trees in their own natural state. When the right tree appeared before my eyes, the bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt. All I had to do was to put forth my hand and begin.”  When I’m prepared to the best of my ability, emotionally and spiritually, then and only then do I go to the classroom to see my students where all I have to do is put forth my hand and begin the act of teaching.  Simple enough in concept, but hard to consistently practice.  More than once I’ve cut corners in my preparation, because I’m just too busy, and I find that my lessons are rough and awkward.  A little forced and lacking the smooth transition more characteristic of a hand extend in welcome between two long-time acquaintances.  It is clear to anyone with a sharp eye for quality that my teaching is not the work of the spirits but rather the flailings of an ill-prepared novice.

What is your secret?  How would you answer the Prince of Lu?  What does it feel like to willfully lose track of all the elements that go into the craft knowledge of teaching? Where do you go to find the students in their own natural state?

Drs. Doug Clements and Julie Sarama are co-directors of the Marsico Institute of Early Learning at the Morgridge College of Education. Clements,  previously a preschool and kindergarten teacher,  has conducted funded research and published over 500 articles and books in the areas of the learning and teaching of early mathematics and computer applications in mathematics education. Sarama has taught secondary mathematics and computer science, gifted math at the middle school level, preschool and kindergarten mathematics enrichment classes, and mathematics methods and content courses for elementary to secondary teachers. The dynamic team sat down with a Media Planet Education and Career news reporter to give advice on how to make sure your child’s trajectory is one moving towards success.

January 5th, 2018—Efficiency might seem like an unusual way to start a conversation about “joy” in teaching but that is where I’m going to start.  Efficiency is a complicated concept when applied to the field of education, and I believe it could benefit from an expansion beyond narrowly defined metrics of teacher standards and effectiveness to include the less well-articulated but equally important pedagogical elements like joy.  To be clear, most teachers strive for greater efficiency in the areas of lesson planning, grading, or distributing learning materials to students.  Less energy dedicated to these tasks means more time connecting with students, facilitating learning, or thinking up new strategies to teach content knowledge. But efficiency can also be problematic because it can become too deterministic of learning trajectories or a means to the end of increased performance on standardized assessments. Yet, teachers know that the best learning takes place in the presence of struggle and false starts; unknown and unanticipated ends.  Sometimes educators need to take risks in their teaching and lead students into uncharted spaces before realizing how to best teach a lesson, a concept, or understanding.  This kind of deep learning is hard to standardize or turn into means/end pedagogical moves.

But perhaps an even bigger concern with efficiency is its potential to limit joy in teaching.  As an educator I often fall into the trap of focusing too narrowly on the efficient completion of tasks.  My choices are often driven by the assumption that if I just take one more minute or hour to complete necessary educational chores I’ll be able to enjoy the good-stuff of teaching; the stuff of my calling to teach. The goal of finding ways to efficiently knock off my to-do-list becomes an end it itself.  It is sustained by the hope that if I slog my way through the tasks I can return to the joy of teaching guilt-free of institutional responsibilities. Unfortunately, I find that despite my best efforts, that the more I do the more there is to do and the more I become mired in negative emotions of resentment, frustration, and disappointment.  Joy at best becomes a precious commodity that is postponed or circumscribed to moments of face-to-face interaction with students.

Joy, it turns out, is more than a secondary emotion; it is an essential element of effective teaching because it connects the day-to-day nature of the work with the more ineffable quality of social-emotional wellness. The clinical psychologist and author Mary Pipher cautions educators like me who become distracted by the lure of efficiency language that: “We all underestimate our need for joy. If we are not careful, we live as if our schedules are our lives. We cross one thing after another off the list. At the end of the day, we have completed our chores, but we haven’t necessarily been present for our own experiences.”  Pipher suggests that experiencing “joy” is just as important to the work of teaching as the completion of tasks.  In fact, she seems to argue that joy is more than just a good idea or virtue to strive for, it is essential to the emotional health of teachers.  And healthy teachers are better teachers in that they are more efficient at facilitating learning because they have more energy, clearer focus, and greater capacity to navigate ambiguity.

The field of positive psychology and emotions posits that humans have a tendency, emerging out of our long evolutionary history, to attend to negative emotions because they often pointed toward life-threatening situations and experiences that we should avoid.  This runs true to my experience of coaching teachers as well as my lived experience of teaching. It is easier to focus on what went wrong (negative emotion) that what went right in a teaching moment. It is easier to focus on the negative emotion of slogging through tasks efficiently than to be mindful of the joy in teaching. In a further insight from positive psychology, professionals who experience high levels of joy in their work are more resilient, creative, playful, willing to risk, and experience a deepened a sense of emotional wellbeing.  Joy, it seems, can enhance efficiency through creativity and flexibility instead of attention to fixed procedures and deterministic outcomes.  But joy takes effort and attention; as an emotion it doesn’t come as naturally to human consciousness as negative emotions.  Joy is a social phenomenon, a collected understanding that expands through human to human interactions and as it spreads socially, joy becomes an antidote to negative emotions and increases social cohesion.

If efficiency is a goal in education, then one way to accomplish it is through greater attention to joy.  And to be attentive to joy means more face-to-face conversations between teachers about what matters most to their teacher heart.  This seems contradictory to the current educational language of efficiency because how can taking time to talk to other teachers about our shared vocational commitments increase productivity?  The simple truth is that joy is counter to efficiency if efficiency in education is defined in terms of technocratic and standardized metrics of performance. Joy is communal not individual, hard to measure, and emerges out of deep callings to teach instead of imposed on teachers my external sources of authority. Instead of putting joy on a high shelf to pulled out only in rare pedagogical moments imagine what conversations on teaching would be like if joy was a regular part of data-driven instruction, standardized performance indicators, assessment rubrics, and teacher accountability?  I think that both the goals of more effective teaching and teacher wellness/retention would be enhanced.


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