The Morgridge College of Education (MCE) hosted DU alumnus Professor Njabulo Ndebele as part of the MCE Changemaker Series. Ndbele is Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg and serves as the chairman of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. As a key figure in South African higher education, Ndbele has served as Chair of the South African Universities Vice-Chancellors Association, the Executive Board of the Association of African Universities, and chair of a government commission on the development and use of African languages as media of instruction in South African higher education.

While at MCE, Ndbele participated in a fireside chat moderated by Dean Karen Riley, in which he discussed the critical role that education plays in the rebuilding of South Africa. He also participated in a Dinner and Dialogue event with doctoral students from the Organization and Governance of Higher Education class. Ndbele provided his international perspective as a postsecondary leader, and interacted with students around a number of higher ed topics.

The University of Denver (DU) Morgridge College of Education (MCE) Center for Rural School Health & Education (CRSHE) will be expanding its work in rural communities with the addition of a new grant-funded initiative through the Colorado Department of Education’s (CDE) Plan into Action Grants. CRSHE’s goal with this initiative is to create a robust rural school mental health workforce in order to meet the mental health needs of rural students and provide classroom teachers with the support they need by increasing the number of mental health professionals placed in rural schools. MCE will work with state and community partners in southeast Colorado to build and sustain a rural school mental health workforce that can alleviate some of the pressures classroom teachers face in trying to meet those students’ emotional needs. The University anticipates that teacher retention rates will increase as a result of teachers feeling more supported in the classroom.

CRSHE director, Dr. Elaine Belansky, has been working in rural schools in Colorado for 19 years. While new to DU, Belansky is not new to challenges faced by rural communities.

“I have been working with rural school districts since 1999 and what’s striking to me is that in the past few years, every rural school district our team works with has named student mental health as a top concern,” Belansky said. “We don’t have enough school mental health professionals to meet the needs of rural students and classroom teachers are under a lot of pressure to teach content and meet the mental health needs of their kids. This grant gives us an opportunity to address these challenges.”

The $123,950 grant will allow Belansky and her team to partner with the Colorado Rural Education Collaborative and two Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) to create strategies aimed at increasing the school mental health workforce across underserved areas of the state. The grant consists of three components:

  • Conduct an immersion in Southeast Colorado for school mental health graduate students
  • Develop a statewide Professional Learning Community for school mental health professionals via ECHO DU
  • Create a hiring forecast that includes cost-effective, innovative strategies to meet rural school mental health workforce demands

The long-term goals and impact of the grant are to see an increase in the rural school mental health workforce, increased teacher retention rates, and increased mental health of rural students. The 12 month grant period begins fall 2018.

October 19th, 2018—Frederick Buechner famously described a professional calling as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”.  Most teachers when asked why they teach will provide an answer similar to Buechner’s definition of calling.  They feel most alive and in synch with their “deep gladness” when they help learners fulfill their “deep hunger” to understand the world.  Teachers who are called to the profession find it difficult to quit and if they do they often find themselves either back in the classroom or working in an allied profession.  It is common in teacher education programs to hear students talk about leaving successful careers in non-teaching professions because they were bored or knew deep within their heart that they were not following their passion.  They resisted the call to teach for many years until they just couldn’t resist anymore.  It was time to start over, embrace the call, take up their “deep gladness” and follow the passion to teach.  In short, a teacher with a calling to serve the learning needs of students is responding to some deep inner gift or spiritual pull to teach.  Linda Alston in her book Why We Teach explains her experience with trying to resist the call to be a teacher: “we must return because the call resonates in a place within us, and we must answer, Yes!

Because calling is rooted in a deep inner feeling that is more spiritual than practical it often contains an element of idealism.  A longing to serve that is hard to quantify and validate through objective measures more commonly found in teacher accountability rubrics.  Educators teach with the hope of bringing a better world into existence through the kind of teaching that connects their “deep gladness with the world’s deep hunger”.  But these connections can be fleeting and unpredictable. As Alston notes, “the day that we don’t go back might well be the day that we miss the miracle of a child making a connection, saying something funny or profound, creating a work of art, and giving our lives meaning and purpose”. Joy in the miraculous and humorous is a significant component to the identity and idealism that is associated with teaching. Teachers know a lot about the joy of directing their teaching gifts toward learning, the drawing out of knowledge from a student. And in times of stress or uncertainty, joy can provide the needed energy to thrive during the challenges of teacher preparation and the high stakes environment of early career teaching.

As much as idealism and joy are powerful forces for educators they also have their down side.  What happens when the passion of idealism meets the cold hard facts of industrial models of schooling? What happens when the flames of idealism flicker out and instead a teacher succumbs to the reality of bench mark assessments, data sets, instructional rubrics, disinterested learners, and standardized assessments?  What happens when disenchantment overshadows joy?  Is the miraculous transformation of a learner still worth noticing and celebrating if the teacher is cynical, embittered, or burnt-in? In times like this the centering and reassuring power of calling can seem far away and elusive.  Joy and role-certainty is replaced with a sense of vocational amnesia.  “I’m a teacher” is replaced with “who am I?” and “why am I here?”  These are dangerous questions for a teacher to ask.  The Mayo Clinic defines medical amnesia as “the loss of memories, such as facts, information and experiences” that can follow severe illness, head trauma, or psychological distress.  Teaching amnesia is a loss of identity and classroom presence, a realization that you no longer know who you are and why you are teaching.  You find it a challenge to answer “Yes” to the call to teach and without that sense of “deep gladness” you are less effective at meeting the “deep hunger” of your students.

Like medical amnesia, teaching amnesia is the result of instructional/institutional trauma or distress.  For instance, the long and protracted sense that no one in your school cares about whether or not you show up in the morning.  Your colleagues or school leadership cannot accurately describe your educational gifts.  Or perhaps the sudden realization that what matters most to society is not your passion for content knowledge but rather your ability to produce high test scores and move “bubble students” to the next level of proficiency.  Vocational amnesia is a consequence of the industrialization and commodification of the craft of teaching, art and ambiguity is replaced with the siren’s call of certainty through a technocratic model of efficiency.

How can teachers heal from vocational amnesia and return to a life-giving state of instructional wellness?  As Alston notes the call never goes away but what does change is the teacher’s ability to hear the call and answer “yes!’. If at its core amnesia is characterized by a state of forgetfulness and memory loss it can be helpful to remember the reasons for entering the profession of teaching in the first place.  A good and trusted colleague or instructional team can provide the necessary reminders about a teacher’s calling.  They can remind a teacher with vocational amnesia of students they helped, differences they made in school culture, or name the teaching gifts that confirm their respected status as a team member.  Mindfulness practices that calm the inner dialogue about inadequacy and encourage a more open stance to the teaching landscape can also help.  Three deep breaths or a gratitude journal can widen the technocratic instructional blinders to encourage a more wholehearted orientation to teaching.  Poetry and wisdom stories of loss can remind a teacher’s languishing heart that remaining in a constant state of instructional joy is a myth and that out of suffering and battered idealism can emerge a renewed spirit.  Taking time to remember the feelings and emotions of that initial call to teach is another remedy for vocational amnesia. The next time you are feeling disconnected from the call, answer this question and share it with a colleague; what three words immediately come to mind when you think back to when you first considered the profession of teaching?

The Goal: To learn how to replicate DU’s successful university-school district partnership.

The Morgridge College of Education (MCE) and Denver Public School (DPS) District played host to university educators from across the nation who were on campus to learn about the unique 16-year partnership developed by MCE’s Educational Leadership & Policy Studies (ELPS) department.

The study visit was sponsored by the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA) and featured a three-day experience that included panel discussions with DPS leaders, ELPS faculty, alumni, and current students. The program is identified as one of the most successful university-school district partnerships in the nation. According to Dr. Susan Korach, ELPS dept. chair, there are several things that sets the ELPS program apart from other principal and leadership development programs.

“From the beginning of the program, we’ve been committed to leading differently. That means we’re not a program that focuses on static readings and classroom assignments. We believe in the power of experiential learning. That puts our students into very challenging, courageous spaces where they can bring about real, disruptive change.”

A hallmark of the ELPS program is the DU Ritchie Program for School Leaders. This cohort was originally created to address the need for highly competent and socially responsible school leaders; namely principals and superintendents. Today, graduates of the program refer to themselves simply as “Ritchies,” but their mission is anything but simple.

“Being a Ritchie was transformational to me. We are a cohort of souls that are serious about changing kid’s lives,” says Anthony Smith, graduate of the 4th Ritchie cohort and DPS Instructional Superintendent. “What Ritchie has helped us do is, first off, identify who you are authentically and how you lead from that. . . . How are you leading for change and what is the status quo for these kids you say your care so much about?”

Susana Cordova, DPS Deputy Superintendent, explains how the ELPS value-based leadership model impacts her daily work.

“I’m not going budge in this school or in any other school because I know what is important to me now and I know how to lead for what’s important to me. I know how to, in tough times, go back to what motivates me to take a stand. To say, ‘It’s not OK to lower standards’ . . . or whatever it is, because I know my values as a leader say the most important thing that I can be doing is to level the playing field for kids who only get that at school.”

Phrases like “leveling the playing field,” “challenging the status quo,” and “leading for change” are not just words for ELPS graduates, but rather commitments they are taught to embody while still students. So it’s not surprising that one of the highlights of the study visit included a trip to the Denver Green School (DGS), a DPS innovation school that started as a class project in ELPS.

Mimi Diaz and Craig Harrer, original founders of the school, were challenged to create their dream school as part of their ELPS course work. What exists today is a K-8th grade, high-achieving school in southeast Denver with a student population from 33 countries, speaking more than 25 different languages. A core value of the Denver Green School is sustainability – evident, not only in the on-campus community garden, but also through its shared leadership model.

Now nine years old, the Green School, has been identified as a “high performance,” “high growth” school, and a National Green Ribbon School award winner for the last seven years.

For graduates of the ELPS/Ritchie program, the results of such innovative leadership is not the exception, but rather the expectation of those who “lead differently” – and one of the key reasons the program was selected as a study site for the UCEA visiting professor team.

If feedback from the study participants is any indication, the ELPS leadership model will continue to drive educational change on a national level.

“What I learned at DU will inform how we prepare school leaders at the University of Texas at Austin,” said Dr. Terrence Green, assistant professor from the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy at UT.

Dr. Jada Phelps-Moultrie from Michigan State agreed, “I absolutely learned so much and was intrigued by this esteemed partnership . . . I too am excited how we can make so much of what was shared applicable to our own institution.”

Dr. Susan Korach, ELPS Dept. Chair, explains what makes the educational leadership program so unique.
Craig Harrer, ELPS PhD student, (R) leads visiting professors on a tour of the Denver Green School he helped create.
Culture Fest at the Denver Green School celebrates some of the 33 different countries represented in the study body.

October 5th, 2018—In my previous post I drew comparisons between the moral injury that physicians and teachers experience because of the choices they face when treating patients or educating learners.  Both professions, it seems, experience moral injury as a result of limited professional freedom in response to institutional imperatives that generate goals focused on efficiency, numerics, prescribed treatment/teaching protocols, and economic bottom lines.  The repeated exposure to decision making that threatens moral or professional values can, as Diane Silver (2011) writes, leave “a deep soul wound that pierces a person’s identity, sense of morality and relationship to society.”  Moral injury was first used to describe soldiers returning from war where life and death decisions are made that often cut across a soldier’s morals, values, or beliefs.  Although the experiences of teachers are not analogous to that of soldiers on the battlefield there are still many comparable elements that resonate with the descriptions and costs of moral injury.

The counseling literature addresses the question of how to begin repairing moral injury through a process called “moral repair” or “soul repair.”  Soul repair is an apt descriptor for the healing that many teachers are seeking in response to the professional pain they experience.  Soul repair fits because teaching is a profession anchored in “calling”; a tight relationship between the inner commitments of a teacher and external conventions of the profession. Most teachers dedicate time, talent, and treasure to the education of learners because of a sense of moral drive or longing to serve others.  And it is broken heartedness—a separation from calling—that underscores the moral injury when in order to retain their job they are asked to reduce students to data on a spreadsheet.  Although this shift in seeing students as objects is momentary and can reveal negative-instructional trends that should be addressed, the repeated diminishment of students over an extended period of time can result in a moral rupture.  A teacher can, as Parker Palmer notes, find themselves in a state of “divided-self” where the inner calling to teach becomes separate from the external role.  This is remarkably similar to the consequences of moral injury described in the newsletter Good Therapy: “A moral injury can also be described as a sort of disconnect between one’s self and second self, where the second self is the part of the person that develops in the face of combat or a situation requiring a difficult decision.  Moral injury confuses the two selves…” (2016).

Depending on the depth or nature of a teacher’s moral injury the elements of soul repair can include individually-focused practices like mindfulness, meditation, or the modulation of emotions through training in social-emotional learning (SEL).  These are everyday approaches to stress reduction that any teacher can initiate during breaks in the day, practice as part of a curriculum aimed at teaching students mindfulness, or during an instructional breather when students are engaged in self-directed learning.  Taking three deep breaths is a simple way to restore some healing to a bruised or wounded heart.  Another easy practice is the keeping of a gratitude journal.  The goal is to write two or three things that made you laugh, smile, or feel connected to someone else during the day.  By their very nature these strategies are designed to bring teachers back into relationship with their inner-wisdom; the deep center of quietness out of which their moral integrity emerges.

Sometimes the moral violation cuts deeply into the soul of the teacher and the healing process—the return to moral integrity—entails more extensive work and repair.  Let me provide an example that will suggest a process by which a community of educators can work toward a shared sense of wellbeing.  Throughout this description I will draw on strategies pioneered and practiced in the therapeutic care of soldiers recovering from moral injury.

I regularly host conversations with educators with the explicit purpose of helping them reconnect their inner call to teach with the external imperatives of their institutional life.  These teachers, in varying ways and times, are experiencing some aspect of moral injury.  They are thirsting for reconnection and the integration of their two-selves. In soul repair the first step toward wholeness is responding to the internal cry of the heart as it reaches out for support and reintegration.  These teachers, knowingly or not, are following the guidance of The Moral Injury Project at Syracuse University to never approach the process of soul repair alone but rather to seek out “community for a shared process of healing.”  In the field of education the ubiquitous Professional Learning Community (PLC) could be a readymade community for healing the heart of educators.  Of course, not all PLCs have the requisite level of relational trust, listening skills, and communication to successfully follow the conventions of soul repair.  If this is the case then alternative sites for gathering in community should be explored.

In keeping with the soul repair literature we always begin our time together with ritual.  This typically means welcoming participants and establishing norms which create a container where participants are: invited—not required—to share their story; encouraged to avoid fixing or saving each other; expected to show up completely with all their challenges and gifts; focused on deep-listening to the teaching heart of their colleagues; and bounded by a commitment to confidentiality (what is shared in the meeting stays in the meeting).  Prior to our gathering I email a poem and reflection questions to participants.  The purpose is to invite the soul to “engage” the material in a way consistent with the slow and deliberate approach the heart uses to construct knowledge. I recently sent Galway Kinnell’s Saint Francis and Sow to a group because the images in his poem invite me to remember that effective teaching stems as much from “self-blessing” as it does from technique.  The power of poetry, as Emily Dickinson, notes comes from its ability to “tell the truth but tell it slant.”  The Moral Injury Project advocates the use of “artistic and literary formats for public engagement” because they invite “listening and witnessing” to the divided heart.  Healing language for the teacher heart is metaphor, imagery, and analogy.  In high school I learned to take poems apart, to analyze for meaning and the poet’s word choice.  In soul repair the goal is to let the poem speak to your wholeness, to let the poem interpret you.

My goal with a community of brokenhearted educators is not to achieve the measurable metrics of industrial teaching.  Instead I’m offering a brief respite from the divided life.  The longer term goal of soul repair is self-forgiveness, spiritual healing, restoring notions of self-worth, and the restoration of wholeness.  Kinnell seeks a similar outcome when he writes: “for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;/ though sometimes it is necessary/ to reteach a thing its loveliness…” Imagine if you will an educational setting where the measure of success is the depth to which the “reteaching of loveliness” is achieved.


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