December 28, 2018—This time of year lots of emotional energy, thought, and treasure goes into thinking about, acquiring, wrapping, and presenting gifts to others.  At its worst gift-giving for me feels like a commodification of a deeply personal act of caring for others.  At its best gift-giving is a genuine and heartfelt expression of caring for others.  I can be a bit Grinchy this time of year because more often than not it feels like the worst aspects of gift-giving dominate over the more generative personal connections that gift giving can embody.  Buying and snagging the best deal seems to rule over the more holistic message of community, love, peace, and joy.  I have a pair of Grinch socks and a matching T-shirt to express my underlying distrust of programmed and planned gift-giving.  They are gifts from my family.  I think they were trying to be funny, but I’m not sure.  Below the humor there is a grain of truth.  I can be a bit Grinchy this time of year.

Luckily there are deeper meanings to gift-giving that I can latch onto beyond the commercial definition that I dislike.  No need for Grinch thinking or paraphernalia with these approaches to gift-giving. I am quite happy and joyously elfish when I think about and act on these more expansive meanings of gift-giving.  All seems right in my world when I give or receive gifts as heartfelt expressions of care and concern for someone else.  For these gifts, no purchase is necessary, just an open and genuine heart and sense of caring.

It is simply a precious and lovely gift to be in the presence of someone who is fully present to you.  A person who has taken the time to slow down and reflect on what makes you uniquely you and why those characteristics inspire love and appreciation for the other.  This level of attentive presence creates a sense of caring wrapped in the company of an open-hearted person who is taking the time to fully listen to you in a way that invites you into the abundance of your being.  And what a gift it is when that invitation to consider the fullness of your humanity yields a quality of selfhood that was overlooked or perhaps temporarily forgotten.  This is exactly what, I believe, the best teachers do. They gift their students with an active sense of presence that manifests itself as stillness and is enacted through the skill of deep listening.  Students can give a similar gift to teachers when they treat teachers less as an external authority figure and more like a fellow human being.  A person working hard every day, just like students, to be a better learner, educator, and person.  This is a form of gift giving that can be exchanged daily.  No special season or occasion is required for the gift exchange of attentive-presence.

I think Denise Levertov in her poem A Gift captures the ways that students gift teachers through the questions they ask.  She writes: “You are given the questions of others/as if they were answers/to all you ask. Yes, perhaps/this gift is your answer”.  The questions of students are much like the proverbial apple they leave on the corner of the teacher’s desk.  A lovingly selected gift, nestled between papers to grade, soup cans full of pencils, and handouts for the next lesson.  A well framed student-question, like an apple, stands out and invites the attention of the teacher.  Ideally, the teacher will recognize the gift and treat it with the respect and attentiveness it calls for.  Levertov employs the metaphor of a butterfly to capture the relationship between a teacher receiving the student’s question and the teacher’s response: “butterflies opening and closing themselves/in your cupped palms, trusting you not to injure/their scintillant fur, their dust”.  What a lovely image.  A student’s question as a part of the student, given with perhaps a tinge of vulnerability, trusting and hoping that the teacher will not injure the student through a careless act of inattentiveness or blatant bias.  A gift so precious that it needs to be treated like dust that can be easily blown away and lost in the dark corners of the classroom.  Gift giving of the self between teachers and students is risky business and it seems that more attention should be paid to the exchange.

There is another understanding of gift that I’d like to explore and consider.  Teaching is a calling, a deep sense of purpose that finds its genesis outside the teacher.  You cannot manufacture a calling.  You can’t stroll into a store and purchase a calling with a credit card, no matter the credit limit.  Students know the authentic teachers from the educators who are inauthentic in their pursuit of the identity of teacher.  A calling is a gift from somewhere outside the teacher; a divine spark of self-knowing.  It is a gift not a purchase.  The expression that it is better to give than to receive applies in a paradoxical way to this understanding of gift-giving.  A calling is a gift, something received, but its real worth is in the giving away of that gift to students.  In fact, it is my experience that the more I give away my gift the stronger it gets.  Without students I wouldn’t be able to refine my sense of calling and move closer to perfection.  An authentic gift is never completely depleted in the act of teaching, unless some aspect of the teaching context limits the teacher’s capacity to integrate their gift into the classroom or lesson.

On the social calendar this is the time of year to consider gift-giving.  It is well and good to slow down and think about the people in your life who have contributed to your growth.  This is especially true, I think, for the educators who are both called to teach and who gift that calling to their students.  For learners the question becomes, what kinds of gifts to give a teacher?  Among the presents and apples I’m hoping that some really good questions will be asked by students.  Inquiries to be held gently by the teacher because they have the capacity to invite the teacher more fully into their own identity.  What a gift a student gives a teacher.  And what a gift a teacher gives by listening with attentive presence to the student and their question.

 

I recently published an article entitled “Teaching in Good Faith: Towards a Framework for Defining the Deep Supports that Grow and Retain First-Year Teachers.” The article drew from my dissertation research and examined the ways in which first year teachers taught and lived in harmony with their reasons for becoming educators. Little did I know how soon after publishing that article that I’d be called upon to live out its central message.

Great writers and speakers urge you to follow your heart regardless of the cost. In Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer (2000) describes his journey to founding the Center for Courage and Renewal. On that path he followed byways and detours that led him, circuitously, to realizing his purpose.

Cheryl Strayed (2011) conjures the “fathomless bird of truth” who sings to you, and flutters violently if you step off your path. She says, “it is our work, our job, the most important gig of all: to make a place that belongs to us, a structure composed of our own moral code. Not the code that only echoes imposed cultural values, but the one that tells us on a visceral level what to do.”

I can think of countless others who encourage us to “follow our heart” and “fulfill our purpose.” I think I even saw these words on a tea bag recently.

However, these great, wise, compassionate poets (and well-meaning tea bags) seem to have one thing in common: they’re telling us to follow our hearts from the safe bank on the other side of a teeming river. They describe, in retrospect, the fear and courage it takes to “make a structure composed of our own moral code, “ and to live a life in harmony with their purpose and deepest desires. But the message is muffled somehow, wreathed in the certainty of a happy ending. We know it worked out for them. We can relax in the message, understanding that it took them somewhere alive and transcendent and fully their own.

I am writing to you from the first few steps into the river, the other bank all but invisible, and I can tell you it is a raw place of fear and courage. I think this, a message from the midst of transition, is an important perspective and one we rarely bring forth. This is the defatalized success story, poised in that moment of uncertainty where I’ve left the safe space of the known and look ahead to a yawning unknown, trusting fully to myself to find the right path.

What happened (is happening) is this: a change in leadership at my work caused my role to shift into something that looks, feels, and tastes anathema to my reasons for stepping into education. While listening to the new leadership outlining their vision and the part they need me to play in that vision, and I felt a tug at my insides. I dismissed it at first but it grew more insistent. My bird of truth was awake, agitated, and letting me know it.

My first thought was, “maybe I can just grind this out for another year while I find something else.” My next thought was, “maybe I can find something else sooner so I’ll have an excuse to leave.” This seemed reasonable, so I looked around at other institutions, other “safe” jobs that I could jump to, that I thought of as a, “just for now” option, a stepping stone to solid ground.

But I’m done with stepping stones, I realized. I don’t want another “sort of” fit. I am unwilling to compromise on this, the way I choose to be in the world. I would read job descriptions and think, “I could maybe do that. It’s got to be better than the role they have for me here.” But the whole time I knew that “better than what I have now” is a far, far cry from the joy, expansion, meaningful challenges, and aliveness that accompanies following my heart. I also knew that I knew that, and in knowing I couldn’t pretend otherwise. According to Jean-Paul Sartre (1966), someone acting in bad faith is either denying her true nature or deceiving herself about her true nature. If I stayed put or traded out for some tepid version of my intentions, I’d be doing both of those things he warns against.

So I leapt. In a wildly irresponsible or courageous (depending on your stance) move, I, with no backup plan, told the leadership that the impact I want to have on education is divergent from the role they’ve outlined for me. I would be resigning.

And so I write to you now from that first, headlong splash into the river. I’d like to tell you that I stand steadfast and resolute, striding with purpose and fearlessness in the direction of my dreams, but the truth is I spend some days caroming from crippling anxiety to heady exhilaration, from calm, serene stillness to feverish busyness. I didn’t jump in knowing I had the strength to get to the other side; I jumped in hoping I’d develop the strength as I went.

The move, however (perhaps because of its invitation to court fear), has been extremely generative. I want to share some of the textures and realizations that have surfaced so far for me:

 

An Act of Creation

I’ve found that, far from being an act of willfulness or destruction, the decision to leave my job has played out as an act of creation.

In defining that which is not right for me, I came hard up against the question, “what is right for me?” Where, in the words of Frederick Buechner (1973), is the place where my deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet? In answering that question I have begun to build a vision for my life that responds, honestly, gently, and without judgment, to both my strengths and my limitations.  In so doing I’ve learned more about who I am at my core, which has been invaluable at guiding me in all other aspects of my life. Answering the question “what is right for me” is a lifelong process that cannot and should not be rushed. I know that whatever is next may be another step in the evolution of my identity, but with equal certainty I know there will be no final arrival.

This understanding has helped me cultivate more comfort with ambiguity and a delight in the process of becoming. I realize also, in a flash of paradox so confusing it can only be truth, that who I am now is as fully whole and unbroken as the me who will exist in ten years, and the me who existed ten years ago. I am not some unfinished product on my way toward completion, but a whole person in the process of deepening my own self-awareness and acceptance.

 

Barriers are Straw Men

I recently engaged in a meditation practice that, for two weeks, asked me to become aware of self-defeating thought patterns. These would sound like, “I could never do that because…” or, “I’ll never be ____ enough for…” I was shocked at the number of times per day that thoughts like this would pop up in my head. I was even more shocked to realize how these thoughts drove my daily existence until I was living by dictums of fear, constraint, and a perception of safety.

These defeating thoughts will work differently on every person, but for me, when weighed against a life of empowerment, fulfillment, and joy, they began falling like so many straw men. I worried about practical things- money, health insurance, retirement, if I was doing right by my cat. I even fretted about losing my phone plan (this last fuselage was, perhaps, the most desperate effort of my subconscious to gain back control of my brain). But, while recognizing the importance of these needs (phone plan notwithstanding) I trusted that if I stepped toward my purpose the logistics would be easier to work out than my ingrained thought patterns wanted me to believe. So far, they have been. Shockingly so.

 

Staying Still

I have not been idle, but I have also been fighting the urge to immerse myself in logistics, details, job applications, and following every possibility that makes itself known to me. I know that, in my fear, I am in danger of scrabbling around in “worst case scenario” logistics to the point where I lose sight of why I got myself into this glorious mess in the first place. I didn’t launch myself here to end up right back where I was, and I am coming to understand the importance of setting aside swaths of time to reflect, read, write, contemplate, process, and simply be.

In these quiet moments I’m discovering that the world will powerfully reflect my path if I let it. The threads I’ve followed that would have been disastrous petered out and never gained traction in my life. Instead of railing against this, I’ve counseled myself to relinquish attachment to any one thing and listen for what is surfacing. These are sometimes subtle, sometimes unrecognizable, and if I wasn’t sitting in stillness and openness I would miss their signs. I believe this practice of stillness will be important, not just for this transition but for the rest of my life. If I believe that I am always in the process of becoming, then these invitations will be continual and lifelong.

 

Making Art of Your Life

When working with teachers I ask, “are you creating a space that is fully unique? Are you doing that which only you could do?” This, I believe, is what elevates teaching to art.

Recently I’ve been asking myself these same questions. Each time I make a decision from the deepest part of me I can see myself reflected in the world. In learning to recognize my own unique voice I suddenly become more visible to myself beyond the world of right and wrong and the flimsy, constructed identities I’ve lived by.  In taking this leap toward fulfillment and purpose, I am allowing myself to emerge and slowly, through patience, love, stillness, and time, I am resolving into myself.

REFERENCES

Buechner, F. (1973). Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Palmer, P. (2000). Let your life speak: Listening for the voice of vocation. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Sartre, J. P. (1966). Being and nothingness (H. E. Barnes, Trans.). New York, NY: Washington Square Press.

Strayed, C. (2011). We are Here to Build the House. The Rumpus. Retrieved from https://therumpus.net/2011/01/dear-sugar-the-rumpus-advice-column-62/

About Our Guest Blogger

Dr. Kate Newburgh is a writer and consultant with over a decade of experience in education. She began her career as a New York City Teaching Fellow in the Bronx, NY. Since then she’s held diverse roles in the field including Educational Researcher, Academic Affairs Director for a national non-profit, and Curriculum Specialist and Instructional Coach for Eagle County Schools, CO. She received her Ph.D in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Denver and works with schools and businesses to develop transformative practices and human-centered organizational cultures that foster renewal and growth. Learn more at www.deeppractices.com.

December 7th 2018—For many years I have experienced what I increasingly see as a moral dilemma.  It leads me to ask the question should I keep teaching and preparing new teachers or should I leave the profession.  This question has recently engaged my heart with increased vigor. Perhaps I’m on the edge of “moral-injury” as I’ve defined in previous posts.  I wonder if the tension between my ideal notions of preparing teachers and what I experience during the actual practice of teaching new teachers is leading me to make decisions that bend and distort my moral compass.  This may be the case, but as I reflect on my situation I don’t think my dilemma rises to that level of concern.  I continue to find ways to act with integrity and fidelity to my call to teach.  It doesn’t feel like my moral compass is non-functional and unreliable.  I still have a strong sense of my personal and pedagogical True North.  This assertion and confidence in my inner-teacher may perhaps seem odd given that I started this essay with the statement that I wonder if I should continue to teach or not.

I believe that what has been and is currently going on in my heart is a conflict between my love of teaching and the reality of what new teachers face as they enter the profession.  In particular I wonder if it is morally justifiable to feed my passion to teach—my inner calling—while at the same time knowing the high rate of early career burnout.  I know all too well the harsh meaning behind the statistic that 50% of new teachers leave in 5 years. In under-resourced and underserved schools the attrition rate rises to 50% in 3 years.  In real terms this means that half of my students will leave the profession and their calling to influence the life trajectory of their students.  Hovering above this shocking statistic are the real faces and caring hearts that I know all too well; the students in my classes.

It is equally clear to me that not all preservice teachers should become teachers.  I consider it a good and virtuous responsibility to determine if the profession of teaching is a good fit for every student I teach.  Low ratings on observations and poor academic performance suggest a lack of fit. It is good for the profession and good for the K-12 students experiencing a lack of teaching passion or ineffective pedagogy when I encourage my low performing students to seek other professions more consistent with their gifts. Yet the lack of fit as a rational for leaving the profession is not the reason for the early departure of many of my students.  They leave the profession for other reasons which are often more traumatic.  The origin of their challenge is remaining true to their calling within a system and social context that is more concerned with performance indicators than the love of teaching.  The social-emotional stress associated with testing, accountability, teacher-proof curriculum, and standards-based assessment can sometimes reach such an extreme that the only reasonable choice is to leave.  Teachers in this circumstance are broken-hearted and disillusioned.  How can a profession they love and care for treat them so poorly?

At the core of my moral dilemma is the question should I really continue to prepare young teachers for a profession that I know is often antithetical to all they hold dear?  Should I continue to encourage teachers to enter the profession when I know that for many of them they will experience an instructional and relational environment that crushes their spirit and leaves them broken hearted?  How long can I remain complicit with a system that tends to chew up new educators, even ones that show promise and are effective at igniting young minds?  As I’ve leaned into these questions I find myself encountering a number of sticking points. The first is rather practical and straightforward; how will I earn a living and pay my bills?  Although an important consideration, the transactional factors of my work are not compelling reasons to remain in the profession.  There are many other ways to earn a living.  A more deeply rooted reason for remaining in the role of teacher is that education is my professional calling.  It is the best way to interact with my gifts with integrity and fidelity.  Edna St. Vincent Millay captures the deeply spiritual feeling I encounter while teaching when she writes: “World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!” When I’m at my best as a teacher I get close enough to the richness of the learning moment and the sweet enticing engagement of my students, a moment of instructional bliss.  If I quit as a way to resolve the dilemma, I risk dishonoring my calling and cutting myself off from opportunities to become enlivened by the great mystery of education.  To be placed in relationship to something greater than self, as a fulcrum for personal and professional growth, is a gift of great value.

Perhaps my next observation is informed too much by ego and an inflated sense of my self-worth as a teacher.  If I quit who will teach my students the lessons and learnings they need to know about and experience while on the path toward effective instruction and professional self-worth?  My argument is that my ability to wrestle with moral questions and to express an openness to the broken-hearted world of what is compared to what should be provides me with unique insights.  It is within the wisdom of how to navigate the in-between spaces, what Parker Palmer calls the “tragic gap”, that students can find ways to thrive in their early years of teaching.  Instead of trying to collapse the poles of what is and what should be, Palmer argues for finding a place of productive tension between the two elements in a way that honors both perspectives.  By its definition good teaching exists at the dynamic interface between what is and what ought to be.  Who is better placed to teach about ways to respond to broken-heartedness and disillusionment in life-giving ways than someone who regularly experiences these emotions, integrates the two poles, and continues to love teaching?

There are two things I know, (1) I’m far from resolving my dilemma and (2) the tension around quitting or continuing to teach is increasing with intensity in apparent correlation with the lack of professional respect my students face as they enter the field of teaching.  So far I continue to see personal value and receive affirmation from my students in my role as coach and mentor to a greater extent than the less positive view I hold of myself as someone unconcerned about the fate of my students and who is willing to continue receiving a paycheck instead of resigning in protest.  In some sense I’m glad this moral dilemma is a regular meditation for me.  It helps, I believe, to keep me fairly honest about my motivations and intentions as an educator. My True North actually becomes stronger and more trustworthy the more I question its calibration.  It is this sense of personal honesty that contributes to my authenticity as an educator, a sense of inner trustworthiness that manifests itself in my outer forms of teaching.

Morgridge College of Education’s Counseling Psychology Clinic is excited to roll out Lyssn, a new partnership that brings counseling and assessment to the digital age. Developed through years of scientific research and repetitive studies, Lyssn is a technology company focused on improving the quality of mental health and addiction therapy. When Morgridge Professor of Counseling Psychology, Dr. Jesse Owen, published on a different project with one of the owners of Lyssn, he heard about the product and knew he needed to integrate it into the Morgridge Clinic.

“Lyssn is the only group, [that I know of], that is integrating natural language processing into actual theoretical and empirically supported principles to support learning,” Owen said.

Lyssn’s HIPPA-compliant, double encrypted system allows counselors to record, store, and review therapy sessions; provides session transcripts via automatic speech recognition, designed and tuned for psychotherapy; and the artificial intelligence takes the spoken language of therapy and evaluates it relative to specific fidelity benchmarks. Put simply, Lyssn’s technology allows the therapist more time to focus on the client and revisit sessions to better serve their needs.

The Lyssn prediction models automatically estimate the therapist’s empathy, collaboration, reflections, and questions, to provide detailed performance-based feedback on Motivational Interviewing (MI) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT, in development). Lyssn will allow our students to receive feedback on their sessions like never before.

Owen worked with the Morgridge technology team to adapt the product to the existing clinic and then turned the reins over to Drs. Andi Pusavat and Jessica Reinhardt to implement in their day to day clinic activities.

According to Pusavat, Lyssn’s ability to read empathy is a major factor in allowing her team to better assess their sessions and better teach their students. The technology allows them to record and assess sessions with extreme accuracy and speed. Reinhardt is equally excited to use the technology and sees a future where remote counseling sessions can be made available to individuals and groups in rural areas, where access to mental health professionals is difficult.

”This can be the future,” Reinhardt added.


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