October 19th, 2018—Frederick Buechner famously described a professional calling as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”.  Most teachers when asked why they teach will provide an answer similar to Buechner’s definition of calling.  They feel most alive and in synch with their “deep gladness” when they help learners fulfill their “deep hunger” to understand the world.  Teachers who are called to the profession find it difficult to quit and if they do they often find themselves either back in the classroom or working in an allied profession.  It is common in teacher education programs to hear students talk about leaving successful careers in non-teaching professions because they were bored or knew deep within their heart that they were not following their passion.  They resisted the call to teach for many years until they just couldn’t resist anymore.  It was time to start over, embrace the call, take up their “deep gladness” and follow the passion to teach.  In short, a teacher with a calling to serve the learning needs of students is responding to some deep inner gift or spiritual pull to teach.  Linda Alston in her book Why We Teach explains her experience with trying to resist the call to be a teacher: “we must return because the call resonates in a place within us, and we must answer, Yes!

Because calling is rooted in a deep inner feeling that is more spiritual than practical it often contains an element of idealism.  A longing to serve that is hard to quantify and validate through objective measures more commonly found in teacher accountability rubrics.  Educators teach with the hope of bringing a better world into existence through the kind of teaching that connects their “deep gladness with the world’s deep hunger”.  But these connections can be fleeting and unpredictable. As Alston notes, “the day that we don’t go back might well be the day that we miss the miracle of a child making a connection, saying something funny or profound, creating a work of art, and giving our lives meaning and purpose”. Joy in the miraculous and humorous is a significant component to the identity and idealism that is associated with teaching. Teachers know a lot about the joy of directing their teaching gifts toward learning, the drawing out of knowledge from a student. And in times of stress or uncertainty, joy can provide the needed energy to thrive during the challenges of teacher preparation and the high stakes environment of early career teaching.

As much as idealism and joy are powerful forces for educators they also have their down side.  What happens when the passion of idealism meets the cold hard facts of industrial models of schooling? What happens when the flames of idealism flicker out and instead a teacher succumbs to the reality of bench mark assessments, data sets, instructional rubrics, disinterested learners, and standardized assessments?  What happens when disenchantment overshadows joy?  Is the miraculous transformation of a learner still worth noticing and celebrating if the teacher is cynical, embittered, or burnt-in? In times like this the centering and reassuring power of calling can seem far away and elusive.  Joy and role-certainty is replaced with a sense of vocational amnesia.  “I’m a teacher” is replaced with “who am I?” and “why am I here?”  These are dangerous questions for a teacher to ask.  The Mayo Clinic defines medical amnesia as “the loss of memories, such as facts, information and experiences” that can follow severe illness, head trauma, or psychological distress.  Teaching amnesia is a loss of identity and classroom presence, a realization that you no longer know who you are and why you are teaching.  You find it a challenge to answer “Yes” to the call to teach and without that sense of “deep gladness” you are less effective at meeting the “deep hunger” of your students.

Like medical amnesia, teaching amnesia is the result of instructional/institutional trauma or distress.  For instance, the long and protracted sense that no one in your school cares about whether or not you show up in the morning.  Your colleagues or school leadership cannot accurately describe your educational gifts.  Or perhaps the sudden realization that what matters most to society is not your passion for content knowledge but rather your ability to produce high test scores and move “bubble students” to the next level of proficiency.  Vocational amnesia is a consequence of the industrialization and commodification of the craft of teaching, art and ambiguity is replaced with the siren’s call of certainty through a technocratic model of efficiency.

How can teachers heal from vocational amnesia and return to a life-giving state of instructional wellness?  As Alston notes the call never goes away but what does change is the teacher’s ability to hear the call and answer “yes!’. If at its core amnesia is characterized by a state of forgetfulness and memory loss it can be helpful to remember the reasons for entering the profession of teaching in the first place.  A good and trusted colleague or instructional team can provide the necessary reminders about a teacher’s calling.  They can remind a teacher with vocational amnesia of students they helped, differences they made in school culture, or name the teaching gifts that confirm their respected status as a team member.  Mindfulness practices that calm the inner dialogue about inadequacy and encourage a more open stance to the teaching landscape can also help.  Three deep breaths or a gratitude journal can widen the technocratic instructional blinders to encourage a more wholehearted orientation to teaching.  Poetry and wisdom stories of loss can remind a teacher’s languishing heart that remaining in a constant state of instructional joy is a myth and that out of suffering and battered idealism can emerge a renewed spirit.  Taking time to remember the feelings and emotions of that initial call to teach is another remedy for vocational amnesia. The next time you are feeling disconnected from the call, answer this question and share it with a colleague; what three words immediately come to mind when you think back to when you first considered the profession of teaching?

October 5th, 2018—In my previous post I drew comparisons between the moral injury that physicians and teachers experience because of the choices they face when treating patients or educating learners.  Both professions, it seems, experience moral injury as a result of limited professional freedom in response to institutional imperatives that generate goals focused on efficiency, numerics, prescribed treatment/teaching protocols, and economic bottom lines.  The repeated exposure to decision making that threatens moral or professional values can, as Diane Silver (2011) writes, leave “a deep soul wound that pierces a person’s identity, sense of morality and relationship to society.”  Moral injury was first used to describe soldiers returning from war where life and death decisions are made that often cut across a soldier’s morals, values, or beliefs.  Although the experiences of teachers are not analogous to that of soldiers on the battlefield there are still many comparable elements that resonate with the descriptions and costs of moral injury.

The counseling literature addresses the question of how to begin repairing moral injury through a process called “moral repair” or “soul repair.”  Soul repair is an apt descriptor for the healing that many teachers are seeking in response to the professional pain they experience.  Soul repair fits because teaching is a profession anchored in “calling”; a tight relationship between the inner commitments of a teacher and external conventions of the profession. Most teachers dedicate time, talent, and treasure to the education of learners because of a sense of moral drive or longing to serve others.  And it is broken heartedness—a separation from calling—that underscores the moral injury when in order to retain their job they are asked to reduce students to data on a spreadsheet.  Although this shift in seeing students as objects is momentary and can reveal negative-instructional trends that should be addressed, the repeated diminishment of students over an extended period of time can result in a moral rupture.  A teacher can, as Parker Palmer notes, find themselves in a state of “divided-self” where the inner calling to teach becomes separate from the external role.  This is remarkably similar to the consequences of moral injury described in the newsletter Good Therapy: “A moral injury can also be described as a sort of disconnect between one’s self and second self, where the second self is the part of the person that develops in the face of combat or a situation requiring a difficult decision.  Moral injury confuses the two selves…” (2016).

Depending on the depth or nature of a teacher’s moral injury the elements of soul repair can include individually-focused practices like mindfulness, meditation, or the modulation of emotions through training in social-emotional learning (SEL).  These are everyday approaches to stress reduction that any teacher can initiate during breaks in the day, practice as part of a curriculum aimed at teaching students mindfulness, or during an instructional breather when students are engaged in self-directed learning.  Taking three deep breaths is a simple way to restore some healing to a bruised or wounded heart.  Another easy practice is the keeping of a gratitude journal.  The goal is to write two or three things that made you laugh, smile, or feel connected to someone else during the day.  By their very nature these strategies are designed to bring teachers back into relationship with their inner-wisdom; the deep center of quietness out of which their moral integrity emerges.

Sometimes the moral violation cuts deeply into the soul of the teacher and the healing process—the return to moral integrity—entails more extensive work and repair.  Let me provide an example that will suggest a process by which a community of educators can work toward a shared sense of wellbeing.  Throughout this description I will draw on strategies pioneered and practiced in the therapeutic care of soldiers recovering from moral injury.

I regularly host conversations with educators with the explicit purpose of helping them reconnect their inner call to teach with the external imperatives of their institutional life.  These teachers, in varying ways and times, are experiencing some aspect of moral injury.  They are thirsting for reconnection and the integration of their two-selves. In soul repair the first step toward wholeness is responding to the internal cry of the heart as it reaches out for support and reintegration.  These teachers, knowingly or not, are following the guidance of The Moral Injury Project at Syracuse University to never approach the process of soul repair alone but rather to seek out “community for a shared process of healing.”  In the field of education the ubiquitous Professional Learning Community (PLC) could be a readymade community for healing the heart of educators.  Of course, not all PLCs have the requisite level of relational trust, listening skills, and communication to successfully follow the conventions of soul repair.  If this is the case then alternative sites for gathering in community should be explored.

In keeping with the soul repair literature we always begin our time together with ritual.  This typically means welcoming participants and establishing norms which create a container where participants are: invited—not required—to share their story; encouraged to avoid fixing or saving each other; expected to show up completely with all their challenges and gifts; focused on deep-listening to the teaching heart of their colleagues; and bounded by a commitment to confidentiality (what is shared in the meeting stays in the meeting).  Prior to our gathering I email a poem and reflection questions to participants.  The purpose is to invite the soul to “engage” the material in a way consistent with the slow and deliberate approach the heart uses to construct knowledge. I recently sent Galway Kinnell’s Saint Francis and Sow to a group because the images in his poem invite me to remember that effective teaching stems as much from “self-blessing” as it does from technique.  The power of poetry, as Emily Dickinson, notes comes from its ability to “tell the truth but tell it slant.”  The Moral Injury Project advocates the use of “artistic and literary formats for public engagement” because they invite “listening and witnessing” to the divided heart.  Healing language for the teacher heart is metaphor, imagery, and analogy.  In high school I learned to take poems apart, to analyze for meaning and the poet’s word choice.  In soul repair the goal is to let the poem speak to your wholeness, to let the poem interpret you.

My goal with a community of brokenhearted educators is not to achieve the measurable metrics of industrial teaching.  Instead I’m offering a brief respite from the divided life.  The longer term goal of soul repair is self-forgiveness, spiritual healing, restoring notions of self-worth, and the restoration of wholeness.  Kinnell seeks a similar outcome when he writes: “for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;/ though sometimes it is necessary/ to reteach a thing its loveliness…” Imagine if you will an educational setting where the measure of success is the depth to which the “reteaching of loveliness” is achieved.

September 14th, 2018—It is a well-known fact that teachers are leaving the profession at increasingly higher rates.  50% of teachers leave the profession in 5 years and in urban or rural schools the rate can be as high as 50% in three years.  Burnout is the current explanation for this phenomena.  There are, it seems, a lot of good reasons to accept this account.  It is challenging to keep the tender flame of calling burning when the fierce storms of testing, accountability, and low-social status are blowing hard.  Most teachers value data, assessments, and information that guides their instruction.  The best teachers are not anti-testing and accountability.  They know that data can provide a true-sense of how well their teaching is impacting learning.  But the daily grind of doing your best with little or no recognition or acknowledgement of improving student learning can wear the spirit of the teacher down; wellbeing becomes a concern.  Burnout happens when the idealism of serving the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual needs of students drifts to the background in the face of institutional imperatives that are narrowly focused on standards and performance indicators.

Burnout is an occupational hazard of teaching, but there may be a more complex undercurrent to burnout that is worth considering.  The struggle to retain deep meaning and purpose is a phenomena wider than teachers. Other members of the “helping professions” also experience it.  Physicians, for instance, find that the institutional demands, structures, and narrowly defined performance indicators they experience daily tend to divide their professional identity in two.  Their inner calling to heal begins to separate from the outer requirements of the profession. Doctors, like teachers, are increasingly practicing medicine in professional settings that are less concerned with their wellbeing (humanity) and more attentive to efficiency metrics, bottom lines driven by prescribed daily contact hours, pay for performance, and pre-determined treatment protocols.  A recent article in STAT on physician burnout by Simon Talbot, M.D. and Wendy Dean, M.D. (2018) makes the argument that doctors are suffering less from burnout and more from “moral injury” because of the health care system.  Most doctors, like teachers, support accountability and value the link between performance, effectiveness, and patient satisfaction.  What they resist, like their teacher counterparts, is the commodification of their identity and numeric narrowing of the profession.

I think the argument Talbot and Dean make for shifting the language away from burnout, which can seem rather deterministic, to moral injury is worth considering as a more accurate descriptor for teachers as well.  The first concern they raise is that burnout, for physicians, “suggests a failure of resourcefulness and resilience”.  How can this be, they ask, given the strain and stress associated with the long-years of medical training?  Resourcefulness and resilience, it seems, are baked into the professional education of doctors.  When it comes to teachers the financial, emotional, and relational demands of learning to teach may not be as severe or demanding as medical school.  Yet, the year of student teaching followed by the first three-years of teaching, by all account, is pretty intense and challenging.  Resilience, self-determination, and resourcefulness are important skills that all successful early-career teachers have mastered.

From a critique of resourcefulness and resilience they move to a more troubling description of the work of physicians: “Physicians on the front lines of health care today are sometimes described as going to battle. The moral injury of health care is not the offense of killing another human in the context of war. It is being unable to provide high-quality care and healing in the context of health care. Continually being caught between the Hippocratic Oath, a decade of training, and the realities of making a profit from people at their sickest and most vulnerable is an untenable and unreasonable demand.” Moral injury was first used when describing the emotional and psychological costs of a soldiers’ actions in war which often violated their deeply held beliefs and values about life.  In the world of medicine, moral injury describes the impact of the gap between who physicians want to be because of training or calling to heal and what is required by the current system.  It is defined by journalist Diane Silver as “a deep soul wound that pierces a person’s identity, sense of morality, and relationship to society.” The strain of constantly struggling to serve the needs of patients can have profound impact on the psyche of physicians.  As Talbot and Dean note: “Navigating an ethical path among such intensely competing drivers is emotionally and morally exhausting.”

The metaphor of going to battle is not as farfetched for teachers as it might seem. The cover of the September 9th, 2018 issue of The New York Times Magazine boldly claims: “Teachers just want to teach but the classroom has become a battleground”.  The influential book on the history of teaching in America by Dana Goldstein (2015) is titled, “Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession”. Alfred North Whitehead in Aims of Education described the outcomes of an education that stunts the enjoyment of the learner as “soul murder”.  And now policy makers and pundits are pushing to arm teachers in their classrooms. Teachers regularly face choices that cut against their training and moral instincts to care for students and facilitate learning.  For instance, when a teacher makes a pedagogical choice that doesn’t really address a particular student’s learning needs but it does fit the assessment rubric they are being evaluated by.  The battlefield metaphor of teaching, it seems, has a certain resonance with the profession.  Like physicians, the concern for teachers is less the need to navigate these choices, that is what professionals do, it is part of the work.  The concern is that the cumulative effect of the persistent feeling of moral exhaustion, like the repeated moral exhaustion of a soldier in war, leads to a condition where physicians and teachers can “stay—wounded, disengaged, and increasingly hopeless.”

Maybe it is time in education to shift from the soft language of burnout to the starker but perhaps more accurate description of moral injury to describe the experiences and choices teachers face in schools.  What if a teacher or school were rated equally on the ability of the system to help teachers sustain their moral integrity—consistent with their calling and training—with the same vigor that well-crafted external metrics of success are held?

August 31st, 2018—Summer is coming to a close and students from Kindergarten through graduate school are heading back to classrooms to continue their educational journey.  How they experience the classroom will directly impact the depth and complexity of their learning.  In learning spaces where rules, protocols, and prescribed curriculum is the norm, students are likely to approach learning as a transaction.  They adapt their intellectual and personal behavior to align with teacher notions of “right actions and right thinking” in exchange for a good grade. In such classrooms the emphasis is on behavior rather than learning.  When the course is finished—the grade is given—and there is little need to retain the knowledge.  In contrast are the classrooms that strive for “moreness” where students and teachers “…go beyond what we were and are and become something different, somehow new” (Dwayne Huebner). In this classroom, knowledge as commodity is abandoned in favor of holistic understandings of wisdom as transcendent, mysterious, and transformational.  The language and experiences of spirituality replace the technocratic, product, and procedural definitions of learning.  Learning as “moreness” favors a trajectory toward newness for teacher, student, and text.  The classroom is alive with the possibility of change and growth for all.

How might a teacher go about creating such a classroom? What are the markers of the classroom as sacred space where teacher and students participate in shared activity that transforms the content and personal understandings into “moreness” that invites educator and learners together to “become something different, somehow new?” The idea of sacred spaces—a place where the extraordinary occurs—has been a part of the human experience for ages.  Long before the advent of written language and the spiritual codices that followed, the understandings and learnings associated with sacred spaces found expression through art on cave walls.  Sacred spaces are most commonly associated with places of and experiences with a connection to a power greater than human knowing.  The language and practices of sacred spaces as learning spaces is rich with possibility when applied to classrooms striving for an experience of “moreness.”

One of the early stages of sacred space formation is shifting power dynamics away from the dichotomy of me and you (teacher/student) and towards an overt recognition of being in relationship to something greater than either of us.  The separation of individual selves becomes unified—not homogenized—around a shared experience of awe, exploration, and reverence.  It is an easy leap to envision curriculum as something greater than both the student and teacher, therefore worthy of a kind of relationship characterized by reverence, awe, and mysticism.  Parker Palmer invites educators to ask, what is this “great thing” in the curriculum toward which we are willing to dedicate our life-energy in the service of understanding; even while knowing that our knowledge will always be tentative and transient?  When the choices of curriculum (texts and experiences) are influenced by transcendence (moreness) rather than goals (transaction), educators move toward classrooms as sacred spaces.  Curriculum is no longer static knowledge to be mastered.  Instead it becomes a doorway to newness—a passage that has always been present—but now students and teacher alike have the refined ability to see the doorway.  What was once illusive and perceived as separate from the learning space is now transparent and available to all.

The second aspect of classrooms that lean toward sacred space are the forms of pedagogy that invite learners into a transformational relationship with self, others, and the curriculum.  In the field of education it is known that certain forms of teaching confine and constrain learners.  For instance, an overemphasis on lecture elevates teacher knowledge over learner agency.  In contrast, there are ways to teach that empower learners to own their intellectual and personal growth.  For example, assessments that encourage students to choose the best form of expression to demonstrate mastery of the content as well as reflections on ways that the content has “changed” the learner.  Consistent with sacred spaces a good pedagogical question for educators to ponder is, what are the rituals, practices, and traditions in my classroom?  Do they open up or close off student agency toward learning, sense of self as transcendent, or shift the lens of power away from individuals to something greater than self? How does the history of our shared time together as learner and teacher infuse the classroom with the sense that we are experiencing sacred space—a different form of education—where we take off our metaphorical shoes?  The rituals, practices, and traditions of classrooms as sacred space can be as simple as beginning every class session with a minute of stillness to allow everyone to transition into the learning space.  Or as intricate as assessments that invite learners into deep reflection on changed behavior toward others, expanded intellectual understandings, or a more nuanced sense of self in the world.

My tepid orientation toward structure and instructional authority are not meant as a call for elimination; structure, authority, and instructional intentions are a necessary element of any well run classroom.  But I do think it matters toward what end formality serves; transaction or transcendence?  And when teachers work toward sacred space in their classroom a third quality, beyond curriculum and pedagogy, mystery is a helpful guide to instructional choices.  Do the rituals, practices, and traditions create more or less opportunity to experience and learn from ambiguity, spontaneity, and the unexpected when the candle of knowledge burns brightly for a student?  Learning as transcendence is mysterious.  It can be a permanent feature of the classroom when students expect a moment of stillness as they settle in.  And at the same time transcendence is illusive, temporary, and can feel mysteriously absent from the learning space. This means that during any particular instructional moment one student can experience transcendence while another sees only content to master.  Structure helps with transcendence but the spirit of learning is too illusive, mystical, and mercurial to yield to a programed appearance.

Curriculum, pedagogy, and mystery are the hallmarks of classrooms as sacred space.  How might you change one of these elements to achieve a greater sense of transcendence in your classroom?

Image courtesy Planeta Incognito

July 23rd, 2018—Abundance can take many forms for teachers but from my experience teachers, including myself, spend far more time trapped by feelings of scarcity than living into the possibilities of teaching from a stance of abundance. How might summer’s abundance translate into teaching? In the natural world the long warm days of summer foster a sense of easy living which stands in stark laughing-contrast to winter’s dormancy and the challenge of finding enough food, shelter, warmth, water, and the necessary ingredients for life to continue. When you think of summer what comes to mind?  My experience of summer evokes memories of slowing down, resting, and hanging out with friends and family, community and all of its blessings; watermelon seeds in my hair. From my childhood I hear Cicadas singing their slow dreamy songs of summer love—hot and languid—the best that can be mustered with fidelity in the face of rising humidity and mercury. As an adult I venerate the summer thunderheads building over the eastern plains of Colorado, tall and inspiring columns of living moisture and curving cloud masses. If I’m lucky, these giants of the plains will anoint me with cooling breezes, heavy with the dusty scent of water.  Summer storms like summer itself have a certain fullness, a sensual abundance lacking in the clouds of more sedate and sensible seasons. This is what the summer’s abundance of my teaching looks like when viewed through the teachings of the natural world.

One of my favorite summer poems is From Blossoms by Li-Young Lee. The poet captures the feel of summer with his descriptions of peaches from roadside stands that are “devoured dusty skin and all”. His poem and the metaphor of peaches suggest new ways of appreciating the abundance of my teaching. Summer is a good time to reflect on teaching, to pull into my teaching soul the goodness of what was accomplished during the year. To live fully into my teaching gifts—without concern—unencumbered by images of scarcity. My favorite stanza From Blossoms reads: “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.”

As an educator I’m drawn to the word “impossible.” I understand impossible not as a negative quality as in difficult or challenging but rather as a positive characteristic such as miraculous, unexpected, or fully-whole. This understanding of impossible encourages me to reflect on all the times during the past academic year where the impossible became manifest in my classroom. The times when my students as “impossible blossoms”, miraculously and unexpectedly became fully-whole; giants rising up through the educational stratosphere showering us with robust drops of wisdom and understanding. Thinking about the similarities between my classroom and a summer orchard of peaches, rich with the process of transformation from flower to glory incarnate is life giving and affirming for me. For sure, classroom as orchard also evokes work, pruning unproductive habits, and accepting the possibility of a lost crop due to early frosts, disease, or lack of water. But not now—this is the time of summer, an invitation to live “as if death were nowhere in the background; from joy to joy…” Where do you find deep and abiding joy in your teaching? The kind of joy that dampens your chin like the juices of a summer peach freshly picked from the tree of your teaching? Where and how are you likely to experience the “the round jubilance” of your teaching fullness?

As an educator I feel compelled to rewrite the ending of Li-Young Lee’s poem to read: “from student to student to impossible student, to sweet impossible student.” The source of my teaching abundance are the students I’m privileged to share the classroom with. Does From Blossoms speak to your teacher heart? If so, how might you rewrite the stanza to reflect your personal sense of summer’s abundance in your teaching? I encourage you to enjoy the tastes, textures, and flavor of your teaching; its abundance is real and abiding just like peaches waiting for you at your local fruit stand or grocery store.

June 8th, 2018—Marge Piercy concludes her poem “Seven of Pentacles” with an acknowledgement to endings and the rewards for work done well: “Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen: reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.  This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always, for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.”  As another year of teaching and learning draws to a close, from pre-school to higher education, it seems appropriate to take a moment and lean into the educational wisdom of Marge Piercy.  What might she mean for a teacher to live as if they liked themselves?  How does it make sense to both live a life you haven’t achieved while also continuing to grow and connect?  And finally, what is the harvest of your teaching?

I find her line, “live as if you liked yourself…” one of the most challenging aspects of teaching.  To teach as if I like myself is not an approach to education that I typically turn to in celebration at the end of the year.  Instead I’m quick to disregard my instructional successes during the year as products of luck or students who are overly kind.  In contrast I’m quick to accept criticism, even minor forms of critical feedback, as accurate and an indication of my instructional inadequacies; the real harvest of my year of teaching. To teach as if I liked myself is a real challenge.  It is far easier to dislike myself when I struggle pedagogically. Yet Piercy invites me to see the world of the classroom differently and live into the challenges of teaching “as if” all is well.  Not denying the pain that exists but also including in my thoughts what I’m capable of achieving.  The mission is to see teaching through an asset instead of a deficit lens.  For instance, I recently coached a novice teacher, who was completing a year of teaching, about the challenges of turning the call to teach into an affirmation of true-ability.  To help with this transformation I encouraged this teacher to extend to themselves a healthy dose of self-grace in recognition that learning to teach is a truly difficult endeavor.  To reflect back over the year and fully own all they accomplished.

Teaching as if you like yourself, especially in moments of struggle, is an act of self-grace that acknowledges it is easier to dislike your teaching than it is to embrace pedagogical success.  I know for myself that too much self-grace has two downsides (1) it can lead to an overly grandiose sense of instructional success (a form of instructional amnesia to what really happened in the classroom), and (2) it turns the gift of reflection inward to the exclusion of the interests and external perspective of students, colleagues, or other professionals.  Marge Piercy reminds me that a good way to integrate the shadow of self-grace—live as if you liked yourself—is to combine instructional egoism with the counter force of being present to others: “reach out, keeping reaching out, keep bringing in”. It is not enough to stand in the glow of self-congratulation for teaching well done this year.  There is also the necessity of connecting with others and becoming part of a larger community.  When I’m engaged in deep and honest pedagogical-relationships with students and colleagues I create the possibility that they will check my overly extravagant use of self-grace. They help me, at the end of the year, to honestly listen to the criticism and advice in ways that can truly improve my teaching.

The combined potency of self-grace, which calms the wounds of instructional struggle, and external accountability to community will effectively frame the rewards of teaching well done.  As Piercy observes: “after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.” For teachers the harvest time is now at the end of the instructional year.  After a long season of teaching, conflict management, community building, curriculum development, caring for others, advocating for students, and grading papers it is time to take stock of the instructional harvest.  To own the professional accomplishments and areas of academic and emotional growth that were carefully facilitated for students.  These are real accomplishments, more than the product of happenstance and good luck.  For teachers the harvest comes at the start of summer not the fall as it does for farmers and backyard gardeners.  What is the harvest of your season of teaching?  Who has changed emotionally or intellectually because of your care and attentiveness?  Who is the student you never gave up on?  How has your teacher-heart been renewed through the connections you made, even in the midst of self-doubt?  Where are you endings this year leading you instructionally and personally?

May 18, 2018—There is strong agreement among many scientists and poets that all things are connected; the human and natural world are not separate but rather constitute an integrated whole.  The naturalist John Muir observed that “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”  And the author and story teller Annie Dillard argues that the best way to attend to the fears and uncertainties of life is not to dismiss them but rather to walk with them deep into the mystery: But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, … the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned.”  If Muir and Dillard are correct that all of life—physical and emotional—is interconnected and bound together in a unified whole, why is it that education, which teaches about life, is often informed by metaphors of disconnection?  What drives the fragmentation of self and knowing into content knowledge, outcomes, and facts rather than curricular integration, completeness, and unity?  And how might being schooled in a context that favors separation over fullness, parts over wholeness, and mind over emotions impact the instructional life of teachers and students?

Western ways of knowing, curriculum, and pedagogy have a history of breaking things into smaller and smaller parts which fuels the impulse in education toward disintegration; taking the whole of life and fracturing it into pieces.  For instance, curriculum writers—professionals who map out the day to day instructional activities of teachers and students—have at times “written” teachers out of the craft of teaching.  What has been dubbed “teacher-proof” curriculum is built on the promise that following a prescribed script will efficiently transfer abstracted forms of knowledge—subject matter—through the teacher, into the minds of learners.  The teacher, under such a model, becomes one more piece in a linear system of knowing to be moved around for the purpose of accomplishing strategic outcomes and performance goals.  In 21st century schools, many critics of testing, accountability, and standards chafe against the ways that assessments, if improperly applied, tend to reduce the wholeness of the learner into numeric indicators to be tracked and managed.

Data and the patterns that can be discerned over time are an important tool for educators hoping to make the most efficacious instructional choices for their students.  Numbers can answer the question, “what does this student need right now to enhance their learning?” Yet when employed too regularly, or without taking time to reconnect with the wholeness of life and the learning task, it becomes easy to lose track on the unified whole of the world, which puts the teacher and student in opposition to each other.  According to the quantum physicist Richard Feynman the danger of focusing on the narrow and particular story, one goal of data, is to lose the essence of the larger story: “The internal machinery of life, the chemistry of the parts, is something beautiful. And it turns out that all life is interconnected with all other life.”  The fullness of learning occurs when teacher, student, and text are in dialogue with each other, each with a distinct voice to contribute to the conversation and living into the process of being connected, of being fully human.

What would teaching and learning spaces look like if measures of wholeness, integration, and interconnectedness were the indicators of success in schools?  Imagine if pay for performance was anchored around the degree to which a teacher puts the world back together for students, re-connecting learners with the immensity and interconnected nature of reality.  What if teaching was an act of integration rather than disaggregation?

May 2nd, 2018—When you struggle as a teacher, and all teachers struggle at some point in their career, who do you turn to for wisdom and guidance?  Do you rely on your instructional teammate?  A relative who has taught for over 30 years and knows the ropes?  Maybe a university professor who was always there with just the right advice or question that broke open a deeper understanding of the problem?  Or perhaps a beloved K-12 teacher, because of all the people you know they had the gift of seeing you fully for who you are, even when you didn’t trust yourself?  For the past 20 years I’ve turned to Parker Palmer’s landmark book on the inner life of teachers; Courage to Teach for guidance when I’m troubled as an educator.

On the University of Denver campus we recently hosted a two day celebration of the 20th anniversary of his groundbreaking text with sessions designed to invite faculty, staff, and students into deeper contact with the call to serve and care for others.  The highlight of the event was a live video chat with Parker Palmer.  Each of the six panelists was invited to engage Parker around the following questions, 1) when did you first encounter Courage to Teach, 2) in what ways has the book changed your practice, and 3) what aspect of living the Courage to Teach still engages you.

One of the panelist spoke of the challenges and internal conflicts she faces initiating and sustaining change in her educational setting.  She described the constant struggle as “swimming upstream” against the strong current of institutional norms and resistance to innovation. For her the effort was exhausting and dispiriting and she wondered if Parker had any guidance or insights on how to remain true to her passion. In the way of a wise educator he paused in response to this heart-felt question, for a moment of reflection and empathy, before engaging the question.  He began his answer with a description of floating the Colorado River in a raft and ended with the observation that every good boatperson knows that if you overshoot your destination you can move to the side of the river and use the back-eddies to navigate against the current to your intended destination.

I find in Parker’s analogy a series of helpful steps for anyone working for change in a system they care deeply about, especially educational contexts with their strong tendency to preserve existing norms and protocols.  The first step is to literally get out of the current and stop battling the forces of tradition that seek to sweep you toward the intended goal and outcomes as quickly as possible.  Sometimes it is best to consciously search out the margins of the river where the current flows with a different sense of purpose. The second step is to realize that every rock, log, and obstruction in the river creates a back-eddy that can be used by the observant boater to move sideways to the current or even impossibly upstream.  In this way a change agent can artfully work the institutional barriers and roadblocks to quietly move past the obstructions toward a healthier more life-giving place to teach and learn.  The third step is to recognize that it takes practice to find the right eddies with the right physics of change capable of accomplishing your goal.  And a willingness to make mistakes; to end up where you didn’t intend or back where you started, swimming against the current.  The final step is to bring along an experienced guide who “knows the river” in all of its moods and rates of flow.  A person who can point out the sweet spots in the current.  A wise guide, when exhaustion threatens to overcome the boater, who points out the best eddies for resting, regrouping, and refocusing on the task of accomplishing change that is sustaining.  Someone who knows from experience when even the best boater risks disaster, given the strength of the current, and advises staying out of the river until the spring thaw diminishes and the river returns to more manageable flows.

With the analogy of institutional river of back-eddies in mind: who are your fellow paddlers?  Do you have a more experienced guide with you?  Have you studied the current, marked the obstacles, and tracked the location of the best eddies?  If you feel exhausted from the struggle where will you eddy out and rest?  If so, you are ready to push off into the current and work the margins toward meaningful and sustaining change.  Oh, and if you make a mistake and get “flushed out”, no worries; be patient, and work the eddy lines back against the current.

April 10th, 2018—Every year I search out the first signs of spring.  I begin watching long before the snow melts or the constellation Orion slides below the winter horizon.  I seem compelled into this state of being by two sources.  The first is an abiding fascination for the subtle ways that spring asserts the gift of renewal on the landscape.  The second is a sense of impatience; enough is enough.  I’ve had enough of winter’s cold and dormancy.  I’m ready to dance in the mud, anticipating spring’s jubilant colors.

And so it is with my teaching.  If I’m paying close attention I can see the winter of my teaching, when I feel most disconnected from my gifts, giving way to the explosive possibilities of spring.  This is the promise of spring.  As much as I welcome the thawing ground of my teaching despair I recognize that there is also a cautionary side to spring.  In the natural world; the sun warms the earth, the ground thaws, and my flowerbeds and gardens burst forth with growth. At first this is refreshing and energizing, but then the work comes; weeding, pruning, tending, deciding what to keep and what to till back into the soil.  This is the peril of spring gardening; and so it is with my teaching.  When I find myself consumed by all the teaching projects that need attention I turn to the wisdom/warning of Thomas Merton.  He writes:

“There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by non-violent methods most easily succumbs: activism and over-work.  The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.  The frenzy of the activist neutralizes [his/her] work for peace.  It destroys the fruitfulness of [his/her] own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom, which makes work fruitful.”

On my office wall I have a watercolor I painted in response to this quote.  When I find my inner activist-teacher vigorously responding to or worse, forcing, the early budding of spring in my teaching I look at my painting and try to remember to move deliberately.  Because as Merton suggests: “The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his/her work for peace.  It destroys the fruitfulness of his/her own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom, which makes work fruitful.”   For me, “frenzy” carries a distinct spring-like feel, a sort of inner disquiet centered on the urge to get really busy really fast, to work frantically for the promise of change in the world of education.

But if I’m not careful, my passion for setting things right, for cleaning up the messes of the thawing world, can actually contribute to disintegration, the peril, rather than bringing education into harmony with its bigger purposes.  Merton calls this “a pervasive form of modern violence…”  I see his point, although it is hard to fully accept that he is talking about me and my destructive forms of teaching.  The more I turn my frenzied energy, like the undisciplined nature of spring’s release, to making everything right the more I sabotage my best intentions. If I’m not careful I can become the violence in the world that I’m working to redirect into peace and justice.  I could become the sudden return of winter smothering budding daffodils in a blanket of snow; my winter teaching suppressing the emerging shoots of student knowing.

I believe that spring is a frenzy of promise and peril.  I look forward each spring to the decisions I make about how to invest my energy so as to advance the greater good in my classroom.  And like a good gardener I know I need to make conscious choices.  Which plants (ideas) grow best in the soil (classroom climate) I’ve cultivated?  But I also need to practice patience and awareness that learning and change happens on its pace not on my insistence.

March 23rd, 2018—Perhaps you have heard someone say with a tone of admiration and respect that a teacher “put their heart and soul into a lesson.”  But what does putting one’s heart and soul into a lesson mean?  Is there a difference between a teacher’s heart and a teacher’s soul?  What might an instructional coach look for when guiding an educator toward greater effectiveness around connecting instructional passion (heart and soul) with educational outcomes and the learning interests of students?  I find this question about identifying ways of seeing the ineffable elements of teaching, such as a teacher’s heart and soul, compelling.  I’m constantly looking for ways to see the unseen in teaching because for me that is where the alchemy lies; where magic as craft knowledge of teaching develops. To put one’s heart and soul into a lesson doesn’t guarantee the success of the lesson or student learning but it does indicate a degree of commitment from the teacher making it more likely that students will take the lesson seriously.  The pledge of a teacher’s heart and soul, the open vulnerability of deep caring for content, can signal to students that the topic of the day is important.

I find that sometimes the best place to witness signature moments of teaching is to look outside the field of education.  This is because an unfamiliar venue may reveal elements of teaching, in this case the pedagogical unseen, that are often obscured by teaching contexts that are too familiar. I recently experienced a moment of seeing teaching anew during a concert by the Spirituals Project at the University of Denver.  At intermission I was asked what I thought of the concert.  Because the music was moving and spiritually stirring I was a bit at a loss for words. I couldn’t articulate what I had witnessed—experienced—because so much of it was indescribable and awe inspiring; just like great teaching.  But in my attempt to name the un-nameable I uttered: “Out of his hands came their voices”.  The ineffable and intangible nature of the human voice was brought as close as possible to the visible light of this world by the skilled conducting of M. Roger Holland, director of the Spirituals Project.

I was captivated by the transcendent link between the conductor, the written music, and the choir as individual singers and as a chorus.  Mr. Holland skillfully combined his individual passion for music with the shared passion of the choir to sing.  The alchemy occurred at the interface between his inner-calling to conduct and the inner-calling of others to sing.  In between the two (conductor and singer) was the music as text and notes, content in educational terms. It might be said that both the conductor and the choir put their heart and soul into the creative act of making music, of lifting notes off a piece of paper to float free around the concert hall. But this does not just happen accidently.  Transcendence for both conductor and choir requires trust, vulnerability, skill, and a willingness to release individual agendas to something greater than self; the universal impulse of Creation to sing.  Additionally, the alchemy of conductor and musical text increases the likelihood that the music will lift off the hands of the conductor and the voices of the choir to enter the hearts of listeners.  In education this speaks to the importance of going beyond pure technique and the importance of allowing the teacher to exercise some power over the selection of the curriculum.  This allows the knowledge of the teacher about the unique gifts/needs of their students to push toward the best fit between learner, content, and teacher.

There was a time, I believe, when educators were honored for their ability to bring learners into deeper relationship with the mystery of self, text, and things greater than self.  It could be said that “Out of their hands came the wisdom of students”.  These early educators were true to the root definition of education which is to draw-out knowing beyond simply imparting facts. To be an educator in antiquity was to be simultaneously a teacher, philosopher, and theologian.  Educators in the second through the fourth century who had the ability to elevate learning beyond day to day human experience, to encompass a higher plain of spiritual understanding or mystery, were called mystagogues. Like the conducting of Mr. Holland they had the gift of transforming learning into something that went beyond best practices.  They intentionally mystified the known in a way that moved learner, fact, and instructional technique into the realm of the unseen seen.  I wonder what greatness could be achieved for both teachers and learners if the goal of learning to teach included both technique and the dispositions of the mystagogue.  In such an education system when someone said a teacher put their heart and soul into a lesson we would know what that meant and what the implications would be for definitions of good teaching.

March 9th, 2018—How is it decided which teaching practices fall into the category of accepted (orthodoxy) and which instructional moves are considered beyond the norm of approved beliefs (heresy)?  How does it come to pass that certain approaches to teaching are considered orthodoxy and receive the wax-imprint of official approval while other strategies are labeled heresy and can result in excommunication from a teaching community?  How might educators decode which aspects of instructional authenticity and integrity—hallmarks of the inner life—may conflict with external standards, protocols, and measures of teaching success?  What does it mean for a teacher to walk the line between instructional orthodoxy and heresy in a way that is attentive to both professional standards and personal identity and integrity?

Let’s begin with a definition of terms.  Orthodoxy means right beliefs and heresy in its broadest form is anything counter to orthodoxy and often translated as other teaching.  What is interesting about this distinction is that heresy does not mean wrong or incorrect beliefs but rather different from the accepted canons or in the case of education different from the sanctioned beliefs about teaching.  Of course many acts of teaching are wrong, for instance mean-spirited discipline or teaching that disregards the impact of culture or language on learning.  These pedagogical moves are wrong because they harm, deny, or diminish the humanity of the learner.  But I think the educational establishment does a disservice to teaching when it confuses wrong or harmful actions with orthodoxy in the sense that orthodoxy is a set of beliefs or values established by an external body or authority.  We need to be careful, as professionals, to separate different teaching (heresy) from harmful.

Perhaps the terms orthodoxy and heresy seem out of place when applied to teaching since they are historically associated with communities of faith.  But in antiquity, philosophy and theology were nearly indistinguishable and teaching was the primary profession for conveying truth and knowledge to students, converts, and community members.  I find the language of orthodoxy and heresy helpful in that it offers a new way to think about the conflicts that sometimes arise between the inner-call to serve learners and the external requirements of governing and accrediting authorities by decentering the typical language of teaching (competencies and indicators).  It also seems that orthodoxy captures the ways that particular teaching beliefs and practices become entrenched-normalized as well as describing the emotional and physical consequences for educators who are considered instructional heretics when they resist or call into question the established orthodoxy.

The power of orthodoxy is directly proportional to the power of the external authority promoting correct beliefs.  Power rightly applied can be a productive force for change but power wrongly applied can stifle innovation and change.  The language of orthodoxy and heresy speaks to the influence of institutional power on a teacher’s sense of self-worth and instructional effectiveness.  For instance, the high rate of teacher attrition can, in part, be tied to school cultures and leadership that directly and indirectly conform teachers to a narrow set of instructional moves and beliefs.  Teachers who feel discredited or undervalued are more likely to leave than teachers who are valued for the instructional gifts they bring to the classroom.

As a profession we would do well, it seems, to encourage more instructional heretics in the sense of encouraging teachers who have well-reasoned positions counter to the orthodoxy to speak their truth. Educators know that effective teachers understand that students approach learning in a variety of approaches and that viewing the classroom as an instructional monoculture is problematic and less effective.  If diversity and cultural responsiveness is good for learners, it makes sense that the same logic should be applied to teaching; the greater the diversity of teaching perspectives the more prepared a community of educators will be able to respond to unique educational challenges.  And one way to encourage diversity is to create spaces and opportunities for the inner-life of the teacher to flourish; that aspect of the teaching self that is unique and particular to each teacher.

The physicist Neils Bohr who had a significant influence on the development of quantum physics once observed: “The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.”  Bohr is pointing to a self-evident truth about the known world.  Paradox or the simultaneous existence of two opposing forces or perspectives is more common than typically understood.  In education several examples come to mind: student/teacher, freedom/structure, or subject/object.  I would like to propose that orthodoxy and heresy are more like Bohr’s understanding of two opposing profound truths than his description of fact and falsehood where one is right and the other is wrong.  Good teaching is not about uncritically following the established beliefs of the profession but rather good teaching is a combination of the outer-norms of the profession (best practices) and the inner-life of the teacher (deep practices) premised on the wisdom of the call to teach.

February 23rd, 2018—The inner-life of the teacher is a lot like an iceberg, which is to argue that the bulk of an iceberg rests below the water line, unseen, but essential to the life of the berg.  The ice bobbing above the water line, the outer domain of teaching, is the most recognizable, the most easily described, and most likely to capture the attention of an observer.  Parker Palmer in “Courage to Teach” synthesizes teaching into four questions: what is being taught (content); how is it being taught (pedagogy); why is it being taught (philosophy); and who is the self that teaches (calling).  Palmer argues that the first two (what and how) are frequently considered within the realm of education.  The second two (why and who) are rarely examined in detail, especially the last question; who is the self that teaches.

An iceberg exists both above and below the water line.  So too does teaching in its entirety consist of both the technical outer tasks as well as the inner more ineffable and intangible elements of teaching.  By technical I mean consisting of concrete instructional moves and curriculum design that can be described as “best-practices”.  The teaching literature is rampant with articles and books collecting, sorting, and categorizing the most effective instructional moves.  These are valuable resources for how to teach.  I think of best practices as technical, rational, and residing in the “head” of the teacher.  By inner and ineffable, I mean consisting of the intangible, vocational, and requiring discernment rather than quick action; hence they are best described as “deep-practices”.  Because of their less tangible nature and close affiliation with the call to teach I tend to think of the why and who as more closely associated with the “heart” of the teacher. The head and the heart, best and deep practices, are best conceptualized and treated as a unified whole. Best-practices become dispassionate instructional moves without the deep-practices that provide a sense of buoyancy, passion and energy to the practices of teaching; deep-practices can easily become explosively-chaotic instinctual moves without the guiding structure of best-practices.

Most teacher evaluation or coaching frameworks target the what and how in the iceberg metaphor, those components above the water line that are more easily seen, described, and measured. The lower two elements of why and who receive, it seems, less attention in part because they are less tangible, making them harder to measure with data-driven metrics and thus more difficult to fold into coaching conversations. The teaching as iceberg metaphor is helpful in another way.  A wise captain gives an iceberg a wide berth not so much for what is seen but for the mass of the berg hidden deep under the water that can easily slice open the hull of the ship.  The deeper elements of the berg deserve as much if not more attention than the gleaming pinnacles rising above the waves.  When teachers lose track of the deeper callings behind their teaching they can easily slide into practices that are devoid of heart and spirit.  Their best instructional intentions and practices can become shipwrecked on the deeper social-emotional shoals of teaching.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately, even more than usual, about the question; who is the self that teaches?  How should we go about describing the heart of the teaching self?  Are there ways to more accurately describe the teaching heart for coaching and professional development purposes?  My recent reflections on these questions are informed by my course work in the field of Theology which describes the soul, in a spiritual sense, as three elements: base impulses, emotions, and spirit. Soul, in a more secular sense the heart, is one way of describing the inner-life of teachers out of which deep-practices emerge to inform the day to day best-practices of teaching. As such, the concepts of base impulses, emotions, and spirit seem to provide a road map for describing the teacher’s heart with greater accuracy and care.

The base impulses of the teacher-heart consist of rather blunt and undifferentiated instructional instincts.  They are, at their best, the driving energy behind deep-practices.  Marge Piercy in her poem “To Be of Use” speaks to the more positive aspects of the base impulses in teaching when she writes: “I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart, who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience, who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward, who do what has to be done, again and again.” The image of a patient and persistent ox or water buffalo is an apt image for the base impulses of teacher-heart which silently and with great fidelity pulls the educator deeper into the mystery of teaching.

Emotions, on the other hand, are less patient and often explosive in their appearance and instructional impact.  They can emerge spontaneously as joy, anger, frustration, excitement, or laughter; raw markers pointing toward what the teacher-heart cares deeply about.  Emotions are useful short-term tools guiding the educator toward a point of integration between extremes such as joy/frustration, excitement/disappointment, or clarity/confusion.  In the poem “The Angels and Furies” May Sarton uses the metaphor of dancing to describe the role of emotions in professional behavior: “Have you not wounded yourself and battered those you love by sudden motions of evil.  Have you not surprised yourself sometimes by sudden motions or intimations of goodness.  The angels, the furies are never far away while we dance, we dance, trying to keep a balance to be perfectly human.” The ballerina, the image of calm perfection and explosive energy in Sarton’s poem speaks to the emotional elements at the heart of good teaching.

Spirit rounds out the teacher-heart trinity of teaching and is the root of authenticity, fidelity, and presence.  Students are drawn to teachers who are spirit-filled and are one with the classroom, the content, and their students.  Teachers with refined understandings of their spirit are called to the profession; they are joyfully in relationship to something greater than self.  John O’Donohue in his poem “For a Mother” speaks of the ways that a teacher’s spirit brings life to the classroom in forms of learning possibility, that like a child, explore out into the far corners of the classroom: “Like some primeval moon, your soul brightens the tides of essence that flow to your child.”

What does it mean to be full and whole as a teacher? It means recognizing the aspects of teaching, the teacher-heart, that rest below the waterline; the demarcation between the seen and unseen.  It means attending to the teacher’s heart as base impulses, emotions, and spirit.

January 26th, 2018 — “What is your secret?”  A question the Prince of Lu asks Khing the master carver in the Woodcarver, a poem written by the Taoist philosopher and poet Chuang Tzu.  Just moments before the question, Khing presented the Prince with a bell stand of such beauty and well-crafted form that everyone, including the Prince, thinks the bell stand must be the work of supernatural forces.  Khing, like a master teacher, senses that the Prince is asking the wrong question.  Yet the Prince is still the Prince and it is better to answer the Prince than question his authority. So Khing answers in a straightforward but provocative way by stating that he has no secret and that he is just a simple woodcarver.  But Khing pushes deeper into the Prince’s question beyond its surface characteristics.  He offers the Prince and everyone listening a lesson on where craft-knowledge comes from.  In the subtle moves of skilled educator, Khing inverts the power structure of ruler/servant and educates the Prince on how to act with integrity and fidelity to professional calling.  Khing outlines in detail his preparation before carving the bell stand. His message is that a skilled craftsperson, ruler, or teacher has to do more than just “show up” in response to the command of a person in power.  Instead, Khing argues that to be fully present to the task of carving requires deep and intentional preparation.  The woodcarver drives home his point by stating that his preparation was so complete that he forget about the Prince and his royal court: “After seven days I had forgotten my body with all its limbs. By this time all thought of your Highness and of the court had faded away. All that might distract me from the work had vanished. I was collected in the single thought of the bell stand.

The question now becomes, what might the Woodcarver and the Prince of Lu offer anyone interested in practicing the art of good teaching?  Khing I suspect would answer: nothing and everything.  There is no secret, no overt connection, rather just the wisdom of intentionally attending to ways that one’s calling to teach informs practice.  Khing articulates a curriculum for accessing the deep secrets of teaching.  The first step is humility, a recognition that accepting the vocational call to teach means recognizing that what others see as the work of the spirits is actually a birthright gift made plain in the daily practices of the classroom.  Yes, good teaching involves technique and years of practice but it also has an innate quality that requires humble acceptance, not ego-driven posturing and proclamations of greatness.

The next lesson is the example Khing sets around the importance of preparing for the work of teaching.  The formula seems rather straight forward in its articulation but complex in its implementation; the quality of teaching is directly proportional to the quality of the personal and spiritual preparation that went into the act of teaching.  I wonder sometimes, as Khing invites me to ponder, what shape my teaching would take if in the process of preparation I forgot my lessons (my instructional body) with all its limbs of lesson plans, activities, learning outcomes, texts, and assessments? I don’t have 7 days to prepare to teach because I have too many other responsibilities.  But I can make time to slow down, disconnect, set aside external distractions and reach toward an instructional state of being where I’m collected in the single thought of teaching. Even three deep breaths before leaving my office can help.

The final element of Khing’s method as he states is: “Then I went to the forest to see the trees in their own natural state. When the right tree appeared before my eyes, the bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt. All I had to do was to put forth my hand and begin.”  When I’m prepared to the best of my ability, emotionally and spiritually, then and only then do I go to the classroom to see my students where all I have to do is put forth my hand and begin the act of teaching.  Simple enough in concept, but hard to consistently practice.  More than once I’ve cut corners in my preparation, because I’m just too busy, and I find that my lessons are rough and awkward.  A little forced and lacking the smooth transition more characteristic of a hand extend in welcome between two long-time acquaintances.  It is clear to anyone with a sharp eye for quality that my teaching is not the work of the spirits but rather the flailings of an ill-prepared novice.

What is your secret?  How would you answer the Prince of Lu?  What does it feel like to willfully lose track of all the elements that go into the craft knowledge of teaching? Where do you go to find the students in their own natural state?

January 5th, 2018—Efficiency might seem like an unusual way to start a conversation about “joy” in teaching but that is where I’m going to start.  Efficiency is a complicated concept when applied to the field of education, and I believe it could benefit from an expansion beyond narrowly defined metrics of teacher standards and effectiveness to include the less well-articulated but equally important pedagogical elements like joy.  To be clear, most teachers strive for greater efficiency in the areas of lesson planning, grading, or distributing learning materials to students.  Less energy dedicated to these tasks means more time connecting with students, facilitating learning, or thinking up new strategies to teach content knowledge. But efficiency can also be problematic because it can become too deterministic of learning trajectories or a means to the end of increased performance on standardized assessments. Yet, teachers know that the best learning takes place in the presence of struggle and false starts; unknown and unanticipated ends.  Sometimes educators need to take risks in their teaching and lead students into uncharted spaces before realizing how to best teach a lesson, a concept, or understanding.  This kind of deep learning is hard to standardize or turn into means/end pedagogical moves.

But perhaps an even bigger concern with efficiency is its potential to limit joy in teaching.  As an educator I often fall into the trap of focusing too narrowly on the efficient completion of tasks.  My choices are often driven by the assumption that if I just take one more minute or hour to complete necessary educational chores I’ll be able to enjoy the good-stuff of teaching; the stuff of my calling to teach. The goal of finding ways to efficiently knock off my to-do-list becomes an end it itself.  It is sustained by the hope that if I slog my way through the tasks I can return to the joy of teaching guilt-free of institutional responsibilities. Unfortunately, I find that despite my best efforts, that the more I do the more there is to do and the more I become mired in negative emotions of resentment, frustration, and disappointment.  Joy at best becomes a precious commodity that is postponed or circumscribed to moments of face-to-face interaction with students.

Joy, it turns out, is more than a secondary emotion; it is an essential element of effective teaching because it connects the day-to-day nature of the work with the more ineffable quality of social-emotional wellness. The clinical psychologist and author Mary Pipher cautions educators like me who become distracted by the lure of efficiency language that: “We all underestimate our need for joy. If we are not careful, we live as if our schedules are our lives. We cross one thing after another off the list. At the end of the day, we have completed our chores, but we haven’t necessarily been present for our own experiences.”  Pipher suggests that experiencing “joy” is just as important to the work of teaching as the completion of tasks.  In fact, she seems to argue that joy is more than just a good idea or virtue to strive for, it is essential to the emotional health of teachers.  And healthy teachers are better teachers in that they are more efficient at facilitating learning because they have more energy, clearer focus, and greater capacity to navigate ambiguity.

The field of positive psychology and emotions posits that humans have a tendency, emerging out of our long evolutionary history, to attend to negative emotions because they often pointed toward life-threatening situations and experiences that we should avoid.  This runs true to my experience of coaching teachers as well as my lived experience of teaching. It is easier to focus on what went wrong (negative emotion) that what went right in a teaching moment. It is easier to focus on the negative emotion of slogging through tasks efficiently than to be mindful of the joy in teaching. In a further insight from positive psychology, professionals who experience high levels of joy in their work are more resilient, creative, playful, willing to risk, and experience a deepened a sense of emotional wellbeing.  Joy, it seems, can enhance efficiency through creativity and flexibility instead of attention to fixed procedures and deterministic outcomes.  But joy takes effort and attention; as an emotion it doesn’t come as naturally to human consciousness as negative emotions.  Joy is a social phenomenon, a collected understanding that expands through human to human interactions and as it spreads socially, joy becomes an antidote to negative emotions and increases social cohesion.

If efficiency is a goal in education, then one way to accomplish it is through greater attention to joy.  And to be attentive to joy means more face-to-face conversations between teachers about what matters most to their teacher heart.  This seems contradictory to the current educational language of efficiency because how can taking time to talk to other teachers about our shared vocational commitments increase productivity?  The simple truth is that joy is counter to efficiency if efficiency in education is defined in terms of technocratic and standardized metrics of performance. Joy is communal not individual, hard to measure, and emerges out of deep callings to teach instead of imposed on teachers my external sources of authority. Instead of putting joy on a high shelf to pulled out only in rare pedagogical moments imagine what conversations on teaching would be like if joy was a regular part of data-driven instruction, standardized performance indicators, assessment rubrics, and teacher accountability?  I think that both the goals of more effective teaching and teacher wellness/retention would be enhanced.

December 11th, 2017—Why should the activity of giving thanks be confined to one day?  What about a season of Thanksgiving?  Why confine gratitude for others, your calling, the Earth, to one day during the year? Thanksgiving is many things to many people– it is known as a time to gather with family and friends to express thanks for the gift of deep relationships.  To gather with colleagues and honor a shared sense of professional calling.  Even to sit silently and express to the universe an appreciation for the experience of being alive.  In the field of education there are many aspects of teaching that are thankless and are so onerous that being grateful is beyond the realm of possibility.  The must do activities that have little intrinsic reward constitute the work of teaching.  But every teacher knows that teaching at its best is more than a to do list of life-draining tasks. Most of the time, good teaching is filled with many life-renewing experiences that deserve special treatment, to be named and to be thanked. Giving gratitude for the work of teaching can be a daily practice.

There is good reason to practice gratitude, to think of it as something more than just Thanksgiving Day.  For instance, the research is clear that the act of gratitude for physicians can reduce the symptoms of burnout by bringing joy into their work. The Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) offers this rationale for incorporating gratitude into the practice of medicine:

“Gratitude can add joy and meaning to their work. It can strengthen doctors’ social ties and commitment to generous helping and compassion, and help to meet their psychological needs for autonomy, competence and connectedness.

To add to the CMAJ report, Dr. Dike Drummond makes an argument for the physical, psychological, and social benefits of gratitude including: stronger immune systems, less bothered by aches and pains, better sleep, positive emotions, more optimism and happiness, more compassionate, more forgiving, and less lonely.

But what about teachers? What is the role of gratitude in their professional life?  With so many instructional and curricular constraints and the nearly constant criticism of teachers, what is there to be grateful for?  My short list includes: students who help me refine the elements of my teaching center—my calling, colleagues who help me see when I’m right and who are willing to challenge me when I’m wrong, a teaching context that allows for a degree of curricular and pedagogical freedom, and unexpected moments when the classroom dissolves away to reveal the mystery of learning.

Many of the best educators I know have rituals, practices, and traditions that anchor their teaching. Do you have any gratitude rituals?  Are there any regular activities that you engage in around giving thanks when teaching?  I know teachers who keep a gratitude journal, use a gratitude app on their phone, write notes to students thanking them for showing up every day, or welcome students to class with expressions of gratitude.  My favorite example of a gratitude practice occurs at the end of the day when a teacher, just before falling asleep, names three things that happened during the day that are worthy of thanks.  This simple practice can bring joy, contentment, increased feelings of connectedness, and better sleep to a teacher.

I’ve been paying attention to my gratitude practices lately, some I knew about (thanking students for asking deep questions) and other rituals that I was less aware of.  For instance, I now realize that at the end of the week, after I’ve straightened up my office, after I’ve checked to make sure I’m taking the right work home to be prepared for Monday, after I’ve watered by plants, I do one last thing.  I pause for just a moment before closing my door and I thank my office for all the big and small acts of teaching it facilitated during the week.  I picture the ways my office, as sacred instructional space, enabled me to bring forward the fullness of my calling to teach.  I think the poet Mary Oliver has it right when she states: “Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed.”  How are you blessed where you stand today as a teacher?  What act of teaching today deserves your gratitude?


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