August 22, 2019—I’m captivated and intrigued by human behavior; mine especially, but others as well.  It is one of the reasons I became a teacher, nearly unfettered opportunities to watch and learn from the ways that students and educators navigate classroom choices.  I’ve learned so much about myself: likes/dislikes, fears/joys, and power/autonomy from observing and responding to my instructional moves. The first scholarly article I wrote was a reflection on a teaching conundrum I experienced, the sources of inner-wisdom I drew from in making sense of the moment, and the ways I acted on my core beliefs that day in the classroom. Internal observations of self as teacher has become a principle way I come into greater contact with my true-self; the inner wisdom that lends consistency and groundedness to my teaching.

But the classroom is only one place I access this wisdom and come into contact with the deep questions of human flourishing.  For instance, my latest musings on the human condition and its implications for teaching started with the very mundane activity of going to the hardware store. I was in search of lightbulbs for a lamp and numbers for the new mailbox I installed.  As I walked toward the cashier to pay for my items I overheard one of the clerks say to a customer: “All religions are totally corrupt.”  My body kept moving, as this wasn’t my conversation, but my mind and soul took a double take at the abruptness and pointedness of the statement.

In my head I was thinking: “yes and no.” To be human, I’ve learned from experience and my theological studies, is to be prone to both ego-driven self-interest and transcendent empathy in service to the other.  And since religion is mostly a human construct, even though focused on the ineffable, it can devolve toward “corruption”.  Most human endeavors by their nature, if not infused with Love, are prone to duplicity and drift from their original intent.  And at the same time people seem to have a universal capacity to make choices that benefit others.  Not all religions or religious activities are bankrupt in just the same way that not every school or teacher is acting with ill intent even though their actions may bring harm to a student.

As I was driving home with my lightbulbs and mailbox numbers my musings led to the topic of choice and the questions of inner authority.  When do I chose a path and when is the path chosen for me (directly or indirectly)?  What is the role of the individual and what is the role of social/institutional forces in choice?  Is it truly possible to claim individual authority in choice?  These questions were informed, in part, by an episode of the Amazon series, Man in the High Castle by Frank Spotnitz.  The show is set in an alternative version of history where Germany and Japan defeat the Allies in WWII.  They are now an occupying force in what was once America. In an episode I watched, two actors were engaged in a discussion about resistance, power, authority, and personal choice.  The conversation ends when one of the characters points to his head and states: “…as long as you have an inner fascist telling you what you can and can’t do they don’t need an external authority to rule over you.  You will police yourself.”

I can relate to this description of an inner authority; the voices I carry around that inform my actions and reactions in the world.  It can be confusing in my head, at times, with all the voices offering advice and guidance, especially when I’m struggling as a teacher. But in the simplest of terms my inner authority has two primary manifestations.  On one end of the continuum are my inner-teachers who use the power of conformity to encourage choices that serve my ego or wider institutional systems of oppression.  I know this aspect of my inner authority is influencing my activities when I’m acting out of fear, anger, righteousness, or ego inflation. May Sarton in her poem Angels and Furies describes this ever present human attribute as “black rage in the blood” that leaves everyone, initiator and receiver, feeling “wounded” and “battered”.  Yet Sarton knows that the furies are only one end of the continuum. Only one half of our humanness. We are also capable of responding to the call of our inner angels who “shower blessings” with “sudden motions or intimations of goodness”.  My inner authority resonates with the voice of an angel when I speak out against institutional norms on behalf of students; when I look beyond my narrow instructional disappointment with a student to see the wider context of their life and the miracle of their humanness; and when I make classroom choices that lean toward community building over individualism. When my angels are prominent I take a more gracious, empathetic, and wholehearted stance toward my teaching and the learning of students.

The real wisdom in Sarton’s poem is that choice is not about one inner authority over the other.  Rather it involves the dance of both my furies and my angels.  As an educator I can only approach “the light of understanding” regarding the best instructional choices by attending to both aspects of myself. It can be just as misleading to say that all acts of teaching are corrupt as it is to say that all acts of teaching are blessed.  For me the gift of teaching is the creation of a space where I can explore the fullness of my emotions and choices in service of learners.  Sometimes I hit the mark and students flourish and other times I cause harm.  But as long as I can keep the dance of my angels and furies moving to the music of Love and Relationships I’m pretty sure I’m doing the best I can as an educator.

August 8, 2019—Earlier this summer I attended a conference at Goshen College titled; The Heart of Higher Education: Living Between What Is and What Could Be.  The gathering was hosted by a team of Courage to Teach facilitators committed to advancing the work of Parker Palmer in higher education communities. The 80 participants were invited by the organizers to consider: “how their inner lives and outer work are connected; how to bring their gifts and skills to what they do; and how to fully engage in the purposes of higher education while pondering the gap between what is and what could be.”  These are worthy principles for a conference and even more compelling questions for educators to consider.  I find the last question particularly worthwhile in my work.  It invites me to pay attention to both my role as a professor (the institutional expectations and protocols) and my calling to teach (the ways my heart takes a non-linear approach to classroom practices).  Imagine, what teaching and learning might look like if these three questions were just as important, when considering a teacher’s promotion and tenure, as the traditional measures of success: quantitative assessments of publications, teaching evaluations, and amount of service? I think about these questions on a regular basis, it is how my teacher heart is wired.  I find elements of my inner-life of teaching just as valid and reliable as my outer metrics of effective instruction.  I’m at my best when my inner and outer lives are held in productive tension; neither holds complete sway over the other.

I found it affirming that I’m not the only higher education faculty experiencing similar feelings.  The 80 conference participants suggest that I’m part of a wider community willing to explore that space between “what is and what could be” in support of human-flourishing in classrooms.  As I reflected on the conference I was struck by how closely the professional life and challenges of educators on college campuses mirrors the work of physicians.  For the last four years I’ve lead monthly wellness conversations with doctors and learned a lot about how they would, fully engage in the purposes of health care while pondering the gap between what is and what could be.  I think it is important to raise the following comparisons to bring attention to the fact that teachers are not alone in the challenges they experience when attempting to integrate both the head and heart.

  • Both small campuses and hospitals are closing or merging into bigger competitors;
  • Both professions are constricted by external standards, accountability, efficiency metrics, and pay for performance;
  • Both educators and physicians feel that there is not enough time in the day to breathe and engage in self-care because of the intensity and pace of the work; and
  • Both professions are experiencing high rates of attrition, burn out, and loss of faith in the core calling of the profession to enhance learner or patient health.

Many of the educators and doctors I know feel that the heart of their work is often denied or curtailed access to the classroom or examination room.  In some cases, to the point of atrophy and potential arrest.  In hospitals a “code blue” immediately rallies a team of skilled doctors and nurses to rush to the aid of a patient experiencing life-threatening cardiac arrest.  Maybe it is time to institute a similar code and system-wide response when a member of the helping professions (educators, physicians, faith leaders, social workers, counselors/therapists, etc.) experiences the equivalent of a professional faltering of their professional heart and calling.

It is common knowledge that prevention is the first line of response in medicine.  And I think prevention is also the first line of response when addressing the stress that can result when the heart and head of the educator are in competition with each other.  Why wait for burnout and cynicism to set in before attending to and reducing the symptoms?

The season of summer is upon us.  A perfect antidote to stress.  As you move deeper into the months of June-August I encourage you to lean into the gifts of summer, whenever and wherever possible.  This can be easier to say than do.  Another comparison between educators and doctors is that when a patient or student requires immediate attention and a healing touch, most teachers and physicians will interrupt time off to help out.

To fully receive the benefits of rest and renewal is a discipline.  It takes practice and attentiveness to one’s self-care, ultimately to better serve the needs of others under your professional care. The best vacations are attentive to your unique needs and interests; a time away just for you.  Slow down.  Spend time with family and friends.  Go swimming.  Soak in the warmth.  Just be present to yourself and your needs.  This doesn’t have to be month long vacation, a little here and a little there adds up.  Take a walk, with intention, around the block or neighborhood.  A well planned day or two-hours that is grounded in your “wholeness” can be just as renewing as a longer period of time where the needs of others are also present.  I like to pick up a pair of binoculars and scan my backyard for birds.  A few minutes and I’m no longer thinking of work.

Another strategy is naming and seeking out the delights of summer. Those experiences that bring joy to your heart and a smile to your face.  For me, peaches fall squarely into the category of delights, especially Palisade, Colorado peaches.  Here are a couple of stanzas from a favorite poem about peaches that brings me closer to that summer delight.  A simple act with deep potential to renew the heart.  The poem is From Blossomsby Li-Young Lee.  He writes:

O, to take what we love inside,

    to carry within us an orchard, to eat

    not only the skin, but the shade,

    not only the sugar, but the days, to hold

    the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into   

    the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live

    as if death were nowhere

    in the background; from joy

    to joy to joy, from wing to wing,

    from blossom to blossom to

    impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Find your summer bliss and delight and plunge fully into it. Your heart will appreciate the gift.

From dreaming up a competitive gaming event to reimagining how to expand the historic Lincoln Hills resort, more than 50 Colorado high schoolers got the chance to put their creativity to the test by developing business plans at the Inaugural Teen Entrepreneurship Challenge. The University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education hosted the NEXUS Summer Program, which aims to set up college-bound teens with resources to thrive on campuses across the country. Read the full story.

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