Feb 26, 2019—I was recently thinking about embodied teaching.  The source of my reflection is the theology course I’m taking.  The class readings describe the diverse ways that Spirit, ritual practices, and professional calling are best understood as embodied, not rational, experiences and orientations to truth.  As I thought about the application of embodiness to teaching it became clear to me that an element of good teaching is an embodied, not rational, practice.  In support of this claim I generated the following list of expressions and concepts that resonate with a bodily form of knowing in teaching: wholehearted, embracing change, feel for the work, heart-felt, wounded, heartbroken, gut feeling, and presence.  This short list, I’m sure, only scratches the surface.  I suspect you will have additional terms for teaching that are equally embodied.

Embodiedness as a distinguishing characteristic of teaching provides unique answers to the philosophical questions about knowing (epistemology) and being (ontology) in education.  Embodied teaching, in contrast to Western ways of knowing and being, involves feeling, emotions, and intuition.  The embodied educator trusts the full range of their inner sense making tools while also recognizing the limitations and pitfalls of blindly following subjective perceptions and understandings.  Embodied educators have no choice but to teach through the wisdom of their bodies.  They have no choice because that is who they are at the level of their instructional core; embodiedness is their being.  To act otherwise is to teach out of a sense of falsehood and inauthenticity that students will sense and respond to in kind.  Students will learn from their teacher how to hide their true self.  To understand teaching as a calling is to acknowledge gifts and talents embodied in unique ways for each teacher.

Laura Rendon in her book Sentipensante summarizes the contrast between embodiness and rationalism in this way.  Instead of embracing the Cartesian world view of “I think therefore I am” she argues for a more holistic framing of teaching as “I belong therefore I am”.  Belonging in both the sense of being part of a group of others (external embodiment) and attentiveness to one’s inner life (internal embodiment).  To truly belong to a group is to be recognized as a distinct person inhabiting a particular body. To belong internally is to know your moods, emotions, gifts, shadows, and the places in your body where you hold pain or experience joy.  I can tell, for instance, when I’m more or less in my body as a teacher.  The more I feel grounded and centered, rooted into the classroom space, the more I am energized and connected to the content and to my students.  I’m alive and flourishing in the instructional space.

bell hooks, another educator concerned about embodied teaching, speaks of educators who are weary.  They carry around a sense of disconnection from themselves, their students, and their content knowledge.  Her antidote to this deep sense of professional weariness is attentiveness to spiritual energy and wellness.  It is from these deep sources of passion that good teaching flows through the hands of the teacher and into the hearts of students.  For both Rendon and hooks the move toward teaching as an embodied practice means dropping the metaphor of student as object and embracing the understanding of student as subject; a body of unique qualities and characteristics.  Additionally, teacher as subject can meet student as subject in an embodied emancipatory-relationship of mutual respect, appreciation, and empathy.

In concrete terms, embodied teaching can take a variety of forms and styles. Here are a few examples that come to mind.  I once observed an apprentice teacher who was a master at greeting students at the door of the classroom.  The ritual practice of greeting was more than a handshake, fist bump, or loving pat on the back.  The bodily presence of the teacher met the bodily presence, in all its forms, of the students entering the classroom.  The chemistry of teacher true-self welcoming student true-self set the stage for engaged learning.  One of my consistent embodied practices is having students complete name cards during the first class session.  At the end of class I collect the cards and pass them out at the start of the next class period.  This practice provides me an opportunity to walk around the class and greet each student.  I often follow up on an email or check to see how a project is going.  My embodied presence invites the embodied presence of my students to show up.  In another example, materials in some classrooms are passed out by the teacher with care and concern.  Thus the students see the importance of respect for the learning process.  In other classrooms materials are passed out haphazardly or even worse tossed onto the desks of students.  In the second example the embodied practice of disrespect for curriculum conveys an implicit message of disrespect to students about the value of knowing and becoming educated.

Rapport with students is a common indicator in most teacher observation tools.  In many cases this is measured and met through the frequency and quality of greetings, expressions of interest in students and their home life, or demonstrating belief in a student’s capacity to learn. These are important and necessary steps but only the early stages of rapport.  An embodied teacher understands rapport as an opportunity to meet each student as a fully complete human being, with all the strengths and struggles that being human entails.  The challenge lies in measuring this quality of teaching since it is often individual to each teacher.  But that should not stop educators from developing language, metaphors, and descriptors for embodied teaching.  How do you know—feel—when you are more or less in your body while teaching.  What does it feel like when you shift from your rational teaching mind to a sense of intuition?

 

February 7, 2019—Is empathy fatigue just another word for burnout or is there something particular about empathy fatigue that is worth leaning into?  In the past week I led a professional development session on empathy fatigue and I had two separate and unrelated conversations with professionals around this theme.  I have learned over the years that when something appears frequently in my life it is worth paying attention to.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, empathy or compassion fatigue is defined as the “indifference to charitable appeals on behalf of those who are suffering, experienced as a result of the frequency or number of such appeals.” In other words, empathy fatigue is a response by caregivers to repeated requests for help by someone else in need.  Empathy fatigue is more typically experienced by physicians, nurses, and other health care providers as their capacity to express empathy for patients is eroded by stress, external performance indicators, and the press to increase efficiency.  It is also sometimes called empathy fatigue. However, I think empathy fatigue, or some variant, is experienced by teachers when their calling to serve learners collides with the frequent appeals by learners (expressed and unexpressed) for social, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual support.

Empathy fatigue for educators, much like for health care workers, is more of a systems problem than the work of individual teachers or students. Most teachers I know care deeply about their students.  They want to help; that is why they are educators.  Teachers don’t set out to experience it and equally so I don’t think most students intend to inflict their teachers with it.  Yet empathy fatigue is part of the teaching landscape and is a contributing factor to teacher attrition rates.  One underlying social factor that contributes to empathy fatigue is chronic stress.  The American Psychological Association reports that a third of workers experience regular and sustained stress.  Suicide and rates of depression are rising, in part from stress, according to the Center for Disease Control and surveys from Blue Cross Blue Shield.  Within the field of education half of the teaching force has contemplated leaving because of personal and professional stress.  Two-thirds of educators in a survey of 5,000 teachers stated that they found their work environment stressful.  These statistics may help explain why empathy fatigue can materialize despite the deep sense of calling a teacher holds for her craft.  It can happen to the best of teachers who deeply care about the learning and emotional state of their students.  In fact, the more a teacher cares the more likely they are to experience empathy fatigue as they dig deep into their empathy tank in response to frequent appeals for assistance from students.

There are several actions a teacher can take to either reduce the likelihood of empathy fatigue or to work their way toward better health and wellness.  On an individual basis, mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing and contemplative activities can help.  Another workable response to empathy fatigue is keeping a gratitude journal or log.  A simple list of things to be grateful for in the teaching day.  Maybe it was an instructional breakthrough that opened up a new way to teach a concept.  Maybe it was a joke a student told during class.  Maybe it is the feeling of gratitude for a colleague who took the time to check in.  A variant on the gratitude log is keeping the hand written notes, drawings, and emails from students, parents, or colleagues complimenting some aspect of your teaching.  When the days are rough, and those days do occur, looking through the file can be a reminder of your ability to do great things to enhance learning.  And most importantly, there is always self-empathy, recognizing that empathy fatigue is a part of what it means to be a teacher, because you care enough to invest your heart in service of another person.  You can’t be perfect all the time; imperfection and imperfect care are human qualities.

Beyond individual actions in combating empathy fatigue it is helpful to have a good social network of like-minded colleagues, especially colleagues who know you well enough to recognize if you are not quite yourself as you interact with students.  Fellow educators who ask how you are doing, invite you out for a cup of coffee/tea to talk, or shine a light in your darkness reminding you about your calling.  A trusted colleague, friend, or partner can recognize the symptoms of empathy fatigue and make you rest and renew your empathy gas tank.  As anyone who travels by plane knows you have to put your oxygen mask on first before you can help others in need.

Students can help as well.  They are highly tuned to the moods of their teachers and therefore make good empathy fatigue detectors.  One of the signs of empathy fatigue is a loss of focus or interest in the other.  Students spend large parts of their day in direct contact with teachers, watching their emotional states and anticipating their teaching moves.  As such, if they have a strong relationship with their teacher, they can call the teacher out when they are inattentive and wandering, seeming to lose focus and interest in the educational needs of the student.  If the teacher is resilient they will recognize the truth of the critique, and if true, admit they were not fully present to the student and take steps to refocus.  It is also the case that empathy fatigue for teachers can be the result of trying too hard to reach into the learning heart of the student.  Teachers are typically hardwired to help students learn and this is generally an admirable quality.  But the shadow side of this gift is that a teacher’s identity and sense of accomplishment can become affixed to the learning performance of students.  Yet if for any number of reasons a student resists taking ownership of their learning by constantly asking the teacher for help, the end result can be empathy fatigue.  The teacher’s sense of self becomes depleted by the cycle of emotionally and intellectually extending oneself to meet the student’s need combined with minimal or slow student learning outcomes.

Students can also be a source of energy, giving back to the teacher, restocking their empathy tank.  Care dynamics are reversed and the student is now helping the teacher. An observant teacher knows which students in their classes are likely to give caring-energy.  With that knowledge a empathy fatigued teacher can look ahead into the daily class schedule with a sense of anticipation, not to burden the student with unreasonable and unprofessional expectations, but simply to be present to the mutual joy of teaching and learning.  This is a form of positive, rather than negative, projection into the instructional day. Who are the students just as ready to greet you as you are to greet them?  After all isn’t this one way to describe good teaching: a shared sense of care for the other?  Empathy fatigue is real for teachers but it doesn’t have to blunt the teacher’s call to serve others.

January 22, 2019—The winter solstice is a month past.  The earth is no longer at its maximum tilt away from the sun in the northern hemisphere.  As my backyard incrementally tilts toward the sun it slowly absorbs more heat as the season of winter leans toward spring and then on to the summer solstice.  Two periods of equal light and dark (equinox) and two periods of unequal light and dark (solstice) are key markers as the earth orbits the sun.  The natural world crosses four thresholds and passes through four doorways during the year in the process of integrating varying amounts of light and dark.  Parker Palmer encourages educators to look to the natural world for clues and metaphors for understanding the tilted-axis of the teacher’s identity as we journey around the gravitational pull, periods of light/dark, and the warming presence of our students.  The seasonal metaphor of thresholds and doorways offer, I think, an interesting way to understand the ebb and flow of teaching.

What are the doorways of my teaching?  What are the thresholds of your teaching?  Where are they inviting you and me to enter and experience the newness of our craft?  The first doorway that speaks to me is the threshold of my classroom.  I teach in different buildings and different rooms with different doors but the threshold experience is the same for my teacher heart.  It marks the boundary between the ordinary spaces of the university and sacred space of the classroom.  In the classroom we have, as a collected community of teacher and students, the opportunity to structure time and space in ways that preserve aspects of power and hierarchy or we can disrupt those elements.  Doors and thresholds are magical and powerful.  They are at their best symbols reminding everyone to enter the classroom with openness, vulnerability, and attentiveness to the other.  The more explicit I am with naming this threshold the easier it is to enter ready to consider new approaches to learning and to embrace opportunities to change perceptions of self and others.  Rituals are important when passing through doorways and crossing thresholds intended to facilitate transformation.  I mark this transition by reading a poem at the start of class.  A good poem allows time for everyone to settle into our shared space and to begin the task of education, change, and challenge.

A second teaching doorway is my office door.  Although not directly associated with traditional images of a classroom my office is an important feature of teaching and learning.  Sometimes the office-lessons are planned: mentoring sessions around doctoral research or office appointments with a student requesting modifications to a course assignment.  Other times my door stands wide open and the teaching moment is more organic and spontaneous.  Only when the conversation is sensitive is my door closed.  I try to pay attention to the fact that my office door is more than an institutional barrier between faculty professional life and student interests, wants, and needs. My office door is just a different kind of threshold that once crossed is an invitation to change and learn in the same way as the threshold into my classroom.  My plants, my books, and a small round table are meant to signal this transition for students, colleagues, and myself.  At the end of every week I take a moment, a regular ritual of practice, to honor this threshold as I close my door.

The real quality of doors and their metaphorical equivalent can make a difference in the crossing of thresholds along the journey of knowing.  Some doors are glass and others steel; some teaching is transparent and some is not.  What would it mean to teach as if you were separated from the rest of the world by a screen door?  Some classroom doors are unlocked and easy to pass through.  Others are locked and require a key or access code to enter as if only people with the official code are privy to the learning within.  Some educators find themselves teaching from behind the locked doors of fear, anxiety, and a sense of instructional inadequacy.  In these classrooms students may find it harder to step over the threshold of deep learning and into a space of intellectual transcendence.  What type of door are you when you are at your best as a teacher?  How about when nothing seems to be working and you feel ill-suited for the work of teaching?  When I’m at my least effective my door is bolted shut with only a small sliding panel for communication across the threshold.

Anne Hillman in her poem “We Look With Uncertainty” reminds me to remain humble in the face of successful moments of learning as my students cross the threshold into knowledge and knowing.  She writes: “We look with uncertainty… to a softer, more permeable aliveness which is every moment at the brink of death”.  The possibility for pedagogical uncertainty is always just over the threshold of my classroom instruction.  But as Hillman notes the possibility of a failed lesson is an invitation to aliveness and the movement through new and unexpected doorways; places where transformation exists on the other side.  Her response to this uncertainty contains good advice for me and other teachers: “We stand at a new doorway, awaiting that which comes…”  What are the new doorways in your teaching inviting you to cross the threshold to change?  Who or what is preventing or encouraging you to open a door and move into a new instructional room?

In preparing to write this edition of Notes from the Field, I was given the opportunity to reflect on my life and my career as I considered the joys and challenges I face. At first, I thought of my professional life where, like many other university faculty, I often find I don’t have enough time in a day to do all that I need to do. Better yet, I often find myself walking a certain tension between the things I have to do and the things I want to do, which are not always in alignment. Like most jobs, mine is not without elements that I would prefer not to do such as writing accreditation reports, responding to countless emails, or going to meetings that I’m not particularly interested in attending. I generally find myself thinking, “I wish I was working on what I’m passionate about,” but the reality is that I have to attend to those less desirable tasks to do my job well and be a constructive member of the university community. Unfortunately, I found myself doing more of the less desirable tasks than the ones I wanted to do such as working with students, researching, writing, and advocating for an improved K-12 educational system.

 

Then I found myself looking into my core, thinking about why I decided to pursue a PhD in Curriculum & Instruction. I had been a relatively successful teacher with a tenured job in a school where I loved the diverse population of students I worked with – and I mean diverse in every way (racially, ethnically, linguistically, socioeconomically, etc.). While I love what I am doing now as a teacher educator and scholar, I thought about why I decided to leave that all behind. For answers, I unexpectedly turned to the admissions essay I wrote when applying to the University of Denver C&I program almost 13 years ago. In it I wrote:

 

In obtaining a PhD from the University of Denver I fully intend to affect change. It is my deepest desire to improve student success and help advance all, but specifically urban environments, by working with individual schools, districts, and with state and national level policymakers. I intend to utilize qualitative and quantitative research to further the accomplishments of all schools across the United States. Concurrently, I seek to empower teachers by providing them with a voice in this endeavor, encouraging them to become a part of the conversation instead of being given solutions. It is also my ambition to affect change through teacher candidates by teaching at a university. In engaging myself in a myriad of pursuits, I wish for nothing less than changing the landscape of education in the United States.

 

I was struck by the ambition in my younger self and even further struck by the fact that I still feel that way 13 years later. In fact, making schools better for our kids, our teachers, our communities, and our country still gets me out of bed in the morning. We all need a sense of purpose in our lives. So many of us find it in our careers, which I believe is a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in the sense that it drives me, gives me reason to work harder, and makes me feel as though what I do matters. I have found that the majority of educators are there because they want to do something that has impact, that will make the world a better place, even if in, at times, seemingly small ways.

 

However, there is a cost that can come with being so single-mindedly driven professionally. We can lose a sense of balance with other aspects of our lives. It can cause us to forget to call a good friend or to spend more time with our families, and maybe most concerningly, to take care of ourselves. To achieve a sense of inner peace and happiness, we must have a sense of balance in our lives that cannot be attained by working 15 hours per day, answering emails on our phones until we go to bed, or ceaselessly thinking about what we need to do at work tomorrow.

 

This new reality has had some startling effects. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), one third of workers in the US have chronic work-related stress (2013). More specific to education, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and advocacy group Badass Teachers (BAT) surveyed of over 5,000 teachers finding that two-thirds of educators find their jobs stressful (2017). A 2014 National Education Association (NEA) poll found that nearly half of the teaching force was considering leaving the profession due to stressors outside of their immediate control. Further, we are currently facing the worst mental health crisis America has ever seen. The Centers for Disease Control report that suicide rates are at an all-time high while a recent report commissioned by Blue Cross Blue Shield found that depression rates are rising dramatically. What this data suggests is that we have to get serious about balance in our lives, but what does that look like?

 

A Student of Happiness

Without getting overly personal, about a year ago I came to the realization that I was incredibly stressed and deeply unhappy with how my life was going. Despite pursuing my professional purpose and experiencing some level of success, I just wasn’t happy. I was tired, anxious, and felt like I always had something hanging over my head that I had to do. Worse yet, I felt like I wasn’t really present with my wife and two kids, I had lost touch with several good friends, and I treated family obligations like a chore. I saw my life as a big “To Do” list and finally came to the conclusion that this was just not tenable or acceptable. After one particular moment of overwhelming anxiety and unhappiness, I decided to make finding balance a priority.

 

I dove into everything I could find on happiness, inner peace, mindfulness, and balance. I listened to audiobooks on the way to work, podcasts while I worked out, read articles at night, began following blogs on the subject, and even joined some social media communities related to these ideas. Currently, I’m even taking an online course on the science of happiness. I’ve become an avid meditator and can say after all of this, I feel completely different. I have become a student of happiness, seeking how to maintain my drive and passion for what I do professionally with a healthy, happy personal life. While I most certainly do not have it all figured out, I would like to share some of what I have learned here.

 

Finding Balance

An APA report (2016) highlights research-based strategies for finding better balance in life which I have learned and applied in my own life:

 

  1. Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness is about being aware of our thoughts and in the present moment. This includes finding time to meditate at least 10 minutes every day. You could use a guided meditation app on your phone, borrow a guided meditation CD from the library, or play one on YouTube. Taking this time to pay attention to our thoughts and to just be has proven one of the few ways we can train our brains to be present, in the moment, where life really happens. By spending our time worrying about tomorrow, we squander today and, in the process, stress ourselves out.
  2. Make happiness a priority: It is so easy to get caught up on our day-to-day responsibilities or our endless “To Do” lists and to forget that we want to be happy. It’s important to note that being happy doesn’t mean that we are constantly laughing and smiling like some drunken hyena, it means that we feel peace, contentment, alive, and in the moment. Happiness is also not the fleeting moments of joy we feel when something outside of ourselves happens, a feeling that invariably passes. Happiness doesn’t just happen, it isn’t something we are born with, it’s something we work for. Making that a priority is critical to achieving it and being freed from the whims of good and bad things that happen to us, outside of our own control, that often determine our moods.
  3. Move: There is increasing empirical proof that the health of our mind and our body are connected. If you can exercise to the point of being out of breath three times per week for 30 minutes per session, you are doing what is optimal for your physical and mental health. If that’s too much, take a walk. Just moving has shown to reduce anxiety, improve depressive symptoms, and improve cognition.
  4. Remind Yourself of Your Professional Purpose: No one is advocating for placing no meaning in one’s work. After all, we want balance. Doing work that we find meaningful has shown to greatly improve our moods and gives us a sense of accomplishment and purpose. Journaling or simply writing down periodically why we do what we do is a great way to remind us of our bigger purpose beyond the loaded, unanswered inbox of emails we are dreading.
  5. Connect with People: Seeking support from and fostering relationships with others (professionally and personally) has been found to be critical to well-being. Those relationships can also serve to give us a sense of purpose while helping us reduce stress and experience enjoyment.
  6. Use Positive Psychology: Positive psychology might well have at its philosophical core the notion that as one thinks, so shall s/he be. Using mindfulness, we become aware of our thoughts and rather than trying to fool ourselves into thinking we’re happy about something when we are not, we seek out aspects that are positive. This approach, while certainly not easy to implement at first, has been found to boost resilience and a greater sense of well-being. In short, if we think about what makes us angry, we are going to be angry. If we think about things that make us happy, we are likely to be happy.
  7. Get Outside: Fellow DU C&I alum Christy McConnell might fall out of her chair when she reads this because I once said we should pour cement over grass, but being outdoors has proven to improve mood, cognition, attention, and a sense of well-being. I have personally felt the effects of this as I have embraced being in nature. I might not be a backwoods camper, but I love to take a walk in the park or sit by a beautiful pond; it does for me what the research says it will. I’m happier, more attentive to others, and healthier.
  8. Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself: Negative self-talk is a part of how our brains are wired so it’s important to be cognizant of that fact and to challenge negative self-talk. It’s important to take stock of all that you do that is good, recognizing that just being, is enough. Writing positives down periodically in a gratitude journal can be a great way to remind yourself that you are important, valued, and loved. This practice has shown to greatly improve mood, reduce stress, and foster a deeper sense of contentment.

 

Now Go Do it

Whether you are a graduate student, a DU alum, a faculty member, or you just happened to stumble across this article, you have a choice to make. You can put this article down and say, “Oh, that’s nice” or you can act. The ideas I’ve shared are not mine and to be honest, none of them were all that novel to me. I’ve heard it for years: “Happiness is a choice,” or “You’re as happy as you decide to be,” or some other such well-meaning witticism. However, if you really want to achieve your professional purpose, if you really want to feel a deep sense of contentment in your life (and why wouldn’t you?), you have to decide to act. Pick one strategy from that list and start there. Do it for a day, then maybe a couple days, then a week. Before you know it, it will become part of your daily life. You are retraining your brain to select a happier lifestyle where you can enjoy the day-to-day moments of your life and be far less stressed about the 122 emails you have to respond to. None of this is rocket science, but it’s up to you to act. Now go do it!

 

References

American Federation of Teachers and Badass Teachers (2017). 2017 educator quality of work life survey. Washington, DC.

 

American Psychological Association (2016). Research-based strategies for better balance. Monitor on Psychology, 47(7), 45.

 

American Psychological Association. (2013b). 2013 Work and Well-Being Survey. Retrieved from http://www.apaexcellence.org/assets/general/2013-work-and-wellbeing-survey-results.pdf

 

Blue Cross Blue Shield (2018). Major depression: The impact on overall health. Washington, DC.

About Our Guest Blogger

Bradley Conrad is an associate professor in the Education Department at Capital University. Dr. Conrad has published several articles in the areas of teacher dispositions, curriculum, the arts in education, and culturally responsive pedagogy. At Capital he teaches a variety of teacher education and graduate courses while mentoring students in their teaching and research. He received his Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Denver in 2011. 

 

 


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