April 2, 2021 – I’m blessed with the guidance and wisdom of many teachers and mentors. I have my colleagues, friends and institutional leaders who offer advice. The shelves in my office are crammed with books, each holding a different key to the puzzle of effective teaching. My students are always a good source of wisdom and counsel on how to teach more effectively and with greater integrity. All I need do is listen and not discount their feedback or inflate my ego with their complements. But my most faithful and oldest teacher is nature. When I go for a walk the bigness of the natural world helps unravel my questions and problems. I often find wisdom in the ways that nature responds to challenge and creates opportunities for growth. For instance, life is both fragile and tenacious. This is a good reminder to me that the learning relationships I seek with students are fragile (easily broken) and tenacious (can weather through tough times and challenges).
Nature’s wisdom and its application to teaching has been on my mind lately, or more accurately it has been on my heart. The last few days the wind has been blowing with a persistent fierceness. I can hear it moving across the landscape, gathering speed, before it whips through the trees outside my window. It sounds like the shingles on the roof will be torn free at any moment. Nature teaches me that sometimes the best way to handle the wind of change is to get out in it and feel the fullness of its power. So that is what I did. I walked the high hills near my house. A treeless landscape where the wind is free to flow over and through the ravines, ridges and particularities of the land. It fills all of existence. It fills my very being with its energy and passion.
Strange thing about wind. It is both a physical and spiritual phenomenon. Many, Eastern, Indigenous and Western wisdom traditions speak of wind as the creative force of the gods, divine beings and eternal ones. In these stories, wind can be as gentle as the breath of life and as violent as storms stirring the waters of the earth in preparation for that which is yet to be born. The winds of my teaching life are also like this. They can be creative and destructive, containing both physical and spiritual dimensions.
As I walked, I reflected on the relationship between wind and teaching; both as an element of creation and a force for change. I was reminded of Cornel West’s description of “prophetic pragmatism” as a unique American philosophy for both acting as an agent of change while living into the perpetual and destructive nature of racism. Prophet in the sense of being a voice of radial social critique of inequalities and dehumanizing structures. Teachers can be prophetic winds speaking truth to power, creating spaces where marginalized learners experience humanizing forms of pedagogy. Teachers can enact a form of tough love directed toward the betterment of schooling as an institution. The poet Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer in her poem “Home” describes this form of love in this way; it “…comes crashing in / like western wind, breaking branches / and rearranging the yard, as if to say / it is here to change everything”. Yet prophetic-love is also pragmatic. It is a form of wisdom that realizes the struggle for freedom is elongated and complicated requiring a long-view and the capacity to adjust. It is a learning tradition that relishes in personal struggle, always leaning forward in gentle and persistent provocation to challenge systems of power and privilege.
As I walked, I noticed that at times the wind was to my back. I was a participant in the process of change. Dust and rocks dislodged by my feet scoured the trailside, changing the ground with each step. Such is often the case when I take an activist role to help sustain change in schools or in my classroom. But when I turned a corner in the trail, the wind and I were now face to face. If I wasn’t careful, I was pushed off balance and found myself stumbling along on unsure feet. For teachers as prophets they are sometimes part of the winds of change. And at times they must face into the winds of institutional normalcy that are often set against their will toward freedom and liberty. West’s invitation toward “prophetic pragmatism” is particularly relevant in these moments. Sailors know that by setting their sails at 22 degrees to a squall they can tack into the wind and move toward, not away, from their destination. Pragmatism is a form of strategic tacking in response to the winds that push toward the status quo and maintenance of power and privilege in schools and classrooms.
My last reflection on walking into and with the wind is that it is hard work. I arrived home feeling refreshed, blown clean, but also slightly disoriented. My body still remembered all the ways it had swayed, stumbled and sought out firm footing. Even standing still I was still in motion. The question I now held was how to remain strong and resilient while practicing “prophetic pragmatism” in my teaching? Success in teaching, as practiced in Western-industrial societies, is often measured and calibrated according to external standards. Many teachers “measure up” to these metrics but the cost can be high in terms of their heart’s longing and burnout. The teacher as prophet is walking a path that never ends and thus the future is not theirs. I find an element of comfort in this truth. My success as an agent of change cannot be measured and catalogued as some fixed goal to achieve, but it can be witnessed in the day to day actions I take to create life-giving instructional spaces. Additionally, knowing that the trail of freedom and justice is long and winding reminds me of the importance of resting and participating in self-care. Being a prophet of a future that is not my own means that I can rest without guilt, renewing my heart and spirit for those times when the wind is in my face. But rest is not retreat or complacency. I must always remember that even in a restful state my body, my heart, my soul knows its true purpose is to keep dancing with the winds of change.