“I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self-indulgence. Caring for myself is an act of survival.” Audre Lorde

Committed educators are aware that teaching in America’s public schools is a demanding and frequently unappreciated profession. Yet, it is a profession that when it is focused on fulfilling the needs of all students, it is life transforming for the student and the educator, which can in turn can create social justice. Further, students’ lives demonstrate the most productive results when teachers actively and intentionally address their mindset regarding personal privilege or socioeconomic class differences, work to create equitable classrooms and schools, and implement culturally responsive-culturally sustaining practices (Delpit, 2012; Hammonds, 2015; Irvine, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 2014; Ware, 2006).

The demands on educators are exacerbated by a public consciousness that perceives the demanding and highly impactful work of educators as having low status and deserving of low wages. The field of education often demonstrates that work driven by a moral commitment to the success of children and adults is not valued and those who perform the work are therefore, not valuable.

Working to ignore the noise of a society that does not appreciate the worth of hard and heart driven work and to remain committed to the needs of all students is stressful. Further, stress is increased by the requests, demands, and requirements occurring within schools that are driven by well-intended programs and policies that do not deliver the intended impact of insuring students’ academic and social emotional needs are met. Yet, teachers operate within and in-opposition to these daily struggles and demands to find solace in the smile of a child, the joyful demonstration of learning, and the successful completion of a lesson, course, grade level, or graduation.

To be sure, attaining the pivotal goal of education by demonstrating academic achievement with minoritized students when addressing privilege, equity, and implementing culturally responsive practices within systems of oppression is not an easily attainable success that naturally contains challenges and stress. The multiple demands of the noble duty of teaching can lead to benign or intentional self-neglect which in turn leads to un-managed stress.

As an educator who has experienced these challenges and supported educators who faced these challenges, I have experienced intentional and benign neglect of my wellbeing which lead to my creation of a body of work on self-care.

Self-care is a part of the popular lexicon that has encouraged many people to be aware of their needs and improve their stress management and wellbeing through a variety of means. Self-care experiences can be free and/or expensive and create life-long changes or temporary relief of the challenges of being an educator. To be sure, self-care is a significant strategy for all people who experience the stressors of daily life. However, it was through my experiences and research that I realized many self-care strategies are often temporary fixes for unaddressed stress and create temporary bursts of oxytocin which do not prevent occurrences of neglect that I have identified as radical self-care.

Radical self-care (Ware, 2016) occurs when inconsistent self-care, and the long-term neglect of health, fitness, or stress management lead to a health, physical, or emotional, crisis. This crisis can be demonstrated as an inability to fulfill personal or professional responsibilities or to simply function. The crash, no matter how it manifests, requires the person to implement radical self-care to overcome exhaustion. Think of the image of a depleted phone battery, the battery with the red line indicates the phone is not available for use because it is exhausted. When we reach that point of exhaustion, our personal reconnection to a power source or stress release is required. Like a phone, a brief recharge will make us functional (radical self-care intervention), but for extended use, we need to be completely recharged (active self-care).

To avoid the need for radical self-care (Ware, 2016), I propose that educators use temporary self-care strategies such as massages only as complementary strategies to a life of consistent active self-care. The specific types of active self-care strategy are personal and specific to the needs of each educator. Using reflective practice suggested in the culturally responsive education literature, (Cadray cited in Irvine, 2002) each educator must consider their individual needs to enhance their wellbeing, such as nutrition, hydration, caring relationships, exercise, sleep, relaxation, or extended periods of being unplugged from their electronic devices. Each one of those strategies offer well documented improvements to an educator’s health, wellbeing, and productivity (Amen, D. & Amen, T. 2015). Further, an educator engaged in active self-care increases their productivity and enhanced decision-making processes.

I propose that one of the challenges in creating equitable schools and culturally responsive education is a void of school communities that promote and engage in active self-care. Demands on the time of educators contribute to the neglect of self-care. Too many educators work to the point of exhaustion and make critical decisions while in crisis mode fueled by the release of cortisol and a hijacked amygdala (Glasser, 2014; Hammonds, 2015). This stress naturally prevents a critical analysis of systemic oppression for minoritized communities of students and the implementation of equitable learning conditions. Additionally, these stress-based decisions may destroy the critical element of trust in educator and student relationships (Glasser, 2014; Hammonds, 2015; Ware, 2006).

For educators to meet students’ needs and be the change agents that the current conditions of education demand, educators should start with examining their active self-care practices and determine the strategies they need to implement with consistently to be healthy and productive through out the school year. Many educators return from a summer break relaxed with many health strategies in place. Unfortunately, many educators do not maintain these practices and by midyear need a radical self-care intervention (Ware, 2016).

Educators are overwhelmed with the demands on their time, energy, and money. The premise of radical self-care (Ware, 2016) is not to make one more impossible demand on educators. Instead, it is the acknowledgement that the health and wellbeing of teachers is a priority in creating equitable and culturally responsive-culturally sustaining schools. A focus on active self-care of teachers can contribute to the creation of academically successful, culturally competent, and socio-politically conscious students (Ladson-Billings, 2014).

 

REFERENCES

Amen, D. & Amen, T. (2016). The Brain Warrior’s Way. New York: New American Library

Cadray, J. cited in Irvine, J., Armento, B. (2002). Culturally Responsive Teaching: Lesson Planning for Elementary and Middle Schools. McGraw Hill. New York, NY

Depit, L. (2012). Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children. NY: The New Press

Glasser, J. (2014). Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results. NY: Bibiomotion, Inc

Hammonds, Z. (2015). Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin.

Irvine, J. 2002. Culturally Responsive Teaching: Lesson Planning for Elementary and Middle Schools. NY: McGraw Hill

Ladson-Billings, G. (2014). Culturally Relevant Pedagogy 2.0: a.k.a. the Remix. Harvard Educational Review. 84(1) 74-83

Ware, F. (2016, October 25). Radical Self-Care, Elements of a culturally responsive practice. Live performance in Scholars Unlimited Training, Denver.

Ware, F. (2006). Warm Demander Pedagogy: Culturally Responsive Teaching That Supports a Culture of Achievement for African American Students. Urban Education 41(4) 427-456

About Our Guest Blogger

Franita Ware, Ph.D. is the author of the classic article, Warm Demander Pedagogy: Culturally Responsive Teaching That Supports a Culture of Achievement for African American Teachers. She is a Program Manager with the Culture Equity and Leadership Team of Denver Public Schools and a former Adjunct Professor with the Morgridge College of Education. She is currently writing a manuscript on effective warm demander and culturally sustaining teachers in contemporary public schools.

The Office of the Daniel L. Ritchie Endowed Chair in Gifted Education at the Morgridge College of Education is pleased to announce Dr. Frank C. Worrell as recipient of the 2019 Palmarium Award, an annual award given to an individual who most exemplifies the vision of the Office of the Daniel L. Ritchie Endowed Chair in Gifted Education. The office seeks a future in which giftedness will be understood, embraced, and systemically nurtured. Recipients of the Palmarium Award demonstrate the vision through understanding of giftedness in the areas of:

  • Practice by impacting graduate education, pre-service, and P-12 community
  • Outreach through advocacy at a variety of levels (local, national, international)
  • Publications informing teachers, children, parents, policy makers, and academia
  • Research influencing theory, practice, and policy

“Through the generosity of the Considine Family Foundation, the Palmarium Award provides professional acknowledgment and tangible support to eminent leaders in the field of Gifted Education,” said Norma Hafenstein, the Daniel L. Ritchie Endowed Chair in Gifted Education. “We are pleased to recognize Frank for his visionary work in recognizing potential in gifted and talented youth and in advocating for populations frequently underserved.”

Worrell is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, where he serves as Director of the School Psychology Program, Faculty Director of the Academic Talent Development Program, and Faculty Director of the California College Preparatory Academy. He also holds an affiliate appointment in the Social and Personality Area in the Psychology Department, and was a Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland (2014–2017). His areas of expertise include at-risk youth, cultural identities, gifted education/academic talent development, scale development and validation, teacher effectiveness, time perspective, and the translation of psychological research findings into school-based practice. Worrell served as Co-Editor and Editor of Review of Educational Research from 2012 to 2016 and as a Member at Large (2016 – 2018) on the Board of Directors of the American Psychological Association (APA). He is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, the American Educational Research Association, and five divisions of APA, and an elected member of the Society for the Study of School Psychology and the National Academy of Education. Worrell is a recipient of UC Berkeley’s Chancellor’s Award for Advancing Institutional Excellence (2011), the Distinguished Scholar Award from the National Association for Gifted Children (2013), the Distinguished Contributions to Research Award from Division 45 (Society for the Psychological Study of Culture, Ethnicity, and Race) of APA (2015), and the Outstanding International Psychologist Award from Division 52 (International Psychology) of APA (2018). He has ongoing international collaborations in China Ethiopia, Germany, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Nigeria, Peru, Slovenia, Sweden, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

Worrell will receive his award and present the lunchtime address at the 9th Annual Gifted Education Symposium and Conference, “Theory & Practice: Conceptual Foundations and Classroom Strategies in Gifted Education” at the University of Denver on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2019. Please visit the conference link for registration and other conference details. For more information about this award, visit the conference webpage.

November 2nd, 2018—I have learned much about teaching by seeking out information and ideas from outside the field of education.  The teaching literature is certainly rich with new ways to approach teaching.  It is pushing forward, as it should, important themes of inclusiveness, equity, social emotional learning, empowering the voices of teachers/students, and best practices associated with learning that serves all students.  This internal dialogue, what is working and what is not is important and necessary work.  But any community that listens only to its own practitioners and researchers is a community that risks the danger of talking only to itself.  The mirror of education speak can become too sharply focused on the educators, researchers, policy makers, and parents who are looking intently into the polished glass of educational reform.

To be clear, self-reflection around theory and practice is an important skill for the profession of education and its educators.  Without the ability to gaze self-critically into the heart of educational practice the risk of self-delusion is high.  And if educators are careless, unexamined practices can precipitate unintended forms of teaching that can disempower and disenfranchise students in already under resourced and under-served schools.  For instance, teachers who teach in ways consistent with the ways they were taught should wonder if they are fully and genuinely responsive to the learning needs of their students.  Are they truly being effective for all learners if they don’t stop and periodically test their teaching assumptions with a few key questions?  For example, is my lived-experience really the same as the lived-experience of my students and therefore is it fair and reasonable to expect my students to think and behave like I do?  When I measure success in ways that matches the ways I was successful as a student, which of my learners is likely to struggle with my assessments?  When the social and cultural mismatch between teachers and students is amplified by the lack of self-critical analysis the damage to student learning can be amplified.  We know this in the field of education because the critical lens was turned inward to catch missteps that ran counter to the goal of educating all learners.  Internal reflection around best practices is a good thing.

Yet as I noted at the start of this essay there is much I have learned about teaching by straying from the field of education.  I’m currently pursuing a MA degree in Theological Studies from the Iliff School of Theology because I want to develop new ideas, new theories, and new language to speak about my philosophy of education which contains elements of transcendence and calling.  These themes are more fully developed in the field of theology than the discipline of education.  My anthropology of humanness needed more expansive language then typically found in education, which feels inadequate to my goal of creating classroom spaces that reach toward becoming fully awake to the wholeness of what it means to be human.  By entering the field of theology my descriptive vocabulary has increased.  I can now talk about education with words and concepts like mystagogue, sacred space, mysticism, inner eyes and ears, indwelling, spiritual awakening, and ritual.

Another field I turn to when broadening my understanding of effective forms of teaching is ecology/biology.  The natural world has always been a robust touch point for me when I search for new ways to see teaching with fresh eyes. The poet John Moffitt writes: “To look at any thing,/ If you would know that thing,/ You must look at it long:/ To look at this green and say,/ “I have seen spring in these/ Woods,” will not do – you must/ Be the thing you see:” The message for me is plain.  To really know my students, which is the gateway to effective teaching, I must take the time to get to know my students.  I must learn their moods, their vocabulary of learning, their hidden pain which they guard, and their passion to learn.  I find that this type of decentered-teaching works best when I step away from my ego, my institutional role, and move outside my narrow pedagogical interests to adopt new ways of seeing and talking about learning.

Ornithology, the study of birds, is also a non-teaching favorite of mine.  I find it is rich with metaphors and images of good practice as long as I can look beyond the language and technical descriptions to the deeper meaning.  I was recently watching a PBS show Autumnwatch New England.  One of the guests was David Allen Sibley, arguably one of the premier birders and illustrators in the world.  He made this remarkable statement when describing the process of writing and painting a field guide on birds: “A drawing is a picture of our understanding. If you don’t understand something you can’t draw it.”  And in a YouTube video on his drawing process, David states: “Every sketch that I do I discover something new.  I get to know the bird better.  It forces me to look at all the different aspects, the proportions, the shapes, the curves, the tones, and really understand all that.  There is no better way to get to know a bird than to draw it”.  Sibley’s insight on sketching and illustrating birds is a form of wisdom I can apply immediately to my teaching.  He reminds me that it is important, if not essential, to combine the precision of science with the illumination of art. There is a science or structure to my teaching anchored in proven teaching techniques.  But of equal importance is the art of teaching, which comes, as Sibley suggests from the process of intentionally watching and sketching the intricacies of my students, their ineffable qualities.  The more I turn outward and away from the taken for granted language of education and my own views of education, the more I’m likely to discover new ways to pursue my goal of student-transcendence of self and content.

If a drawing is a form of understanding as Sibley argues, how well can you sketch your students?  Without seeing them in front of you how precise is your drawing? Do you truly understand in the depth of your teacher heart and psyche what their form is?  What are the qualities and characteristics that separate and unify your students, one from the other?  Maybe it is time to sharpen your pencils and head out into the field, sketch book in hand, to do some close observation.  I know I haven’t done enough of that kind of teaching, the act of deep-observation, lately. It is time, I feel, to do some field work.  To get out and do some sketching.


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