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?

December 1st, 2017—“How do you see yourself changing the world?”  My friend Mark and I were enjoying a pint and conversation one evening.  Spending time with Mark is a blessing as he often brings me new insights and perspectives on the world.  He shares stories about managing retirement accounts and I tell him stories of teaching.  We both love riding bikes so we have that in common.  Mark was telling me that five years ago he started asking his clients, “How do you see yourself changing the world?”  This question has obvious practical application as he manages his client’s investments toward an end goal.  But the wisdom of his question goes even deeper.  As his clients untangle their answer to his question Mark learns something about their inner-drivers and motivations.  With this understanding he can both honor his fiduciary obligation to provide responsible investment recommendations and he invites his client to see their investment choices within a larger context.  “How do you see yourself changing the world?

As Mark told his story my teacher heart felt the kind of lifting that tells me that I need to pay attention to the strange alchemy of relationship, storytelling, personal-integrity, and mystery that was unfolding.  I wondered how I would answer the question as a professor and teacher educator; “Paul, how do you see yourself changing the teaching world?”  By disposition and academic training I tend to initially lean into the bigness of the question. I contemplate macro-themes of change like: equity, social-justice, transcendence, and the fullness of what it means to be human.  These are worthy ways to change the world and they should rest deep within the instructional motivations of a teacher.  But there is so much more to the question Mark asks: “How do you see yourself changing the world?”

As his story unfolded Mark described a painting hanging on his office wall.  His dad was the artist.  The image is a pond in the late evening light, someplace in the northeast.  The surface is mirror smooth except for a trout rising and the concentric ripples echoing out toward the distant shoreline. I know this kind of place. I’ve spent many days in and around northeast ponds.  They are magical like so many places in nature.  To catch their wisdom I need to sit quietly and let the ineffable speak.  With his dad’s painting in my mind’s eye and his question rattling around in my psyche, my teacher-heart lurched even deeper into a place of meaning and understanding.  Sure the bigness of teaching matters; we teach in context (race, class, gender, politics, and history).  To discount these elements does grave injustice to student learning and the gifts of teaching.  The pond exists only in relationship to the shoreline, the trees reflected on its surface, the loon calling from a hidden cove, and the ethereal nature of the sky.  Yet in the midst of the bigness a single solitary trout rises as it is called to do by the deep wisdom of its species—a wisdom universal to all trout—a wisdom passed down generation to generation by trout in response to the particularities of this particular pond.

Two elements of this metaphor resonate with my teacher heart.  One, to initiate change I must rise from the deep and safe places of my teaching—the world of water that I know well—and break the surface of the pond.  I must be willing to venture into a less secure and somewhat alien environment; every trout realizes at a minimum, through reflex, that the world beyond the surface of the pond is deadly.  And every trout understands through eons of evolution that food and survival exist just on and slightly above the surface of the divided worlds.  I think this is an insightful description of when I’m at my best as a teacher.  I’m willing to leave the comfort of my tried and true curriculum and instructional strategies and rise toward the surface disturbances that call me toward risk, uncertainty, danger, and the potential for sustaining rewards; toward learning.

The second element of the rising trout that speaks to my understanding of change in teaching are the ripples working their way toward the shoreline.  The little waves disturb the quiet surface of the pond as they migrate outward from the original impulse of the trout to rise; to risk the unknown.  As much as context in teaching matters what may ultimately be of greater importance are the micro-waves of disturbance created by my smaller and more intimate teaching acts. The little things matter: saying hello to students as they enter the classroom, listening to the ways my students struggle with content, breathing deeply before I engage a student in conversation, and trusting my instructional instincts. “How do you see yourself changing the world?”  I see myself changing the world of teaching, or more pointedly the lives of my students, through little acts of instructional integrity.  The ripples that spread out across the surface of my teaching with intentional energy that ultimately changes the shoreline, the macro-conditions of teaching.  Sure this is a long and slow process, outcomes I will likely never see, and I must always work to change the context, but these micro-actions are well within my ability to rise and engage.  “How do you see yourself changing the world?

November 17th, 2017—For a story to be told about teaching there must be a person on the other end listening.  In my last post I wrote about the art of storytelling as articulated by J.D. Vance in “Hillbilly Elegy.” In this post I want to explore the art of listening as described by the southern novelist David Joy in his essay, “Digging in the Trash.” When asked at a book signing what he thought would help the people he knows in Appalachia, Joy responded:

Just listen. The truth is we live in a world where we don’t listen to people anymore. So often we’re just waiting for the next opening to respond. What we need to realize is that sometimes people don’t need advice. Sometimes people just need to be heard. Sometimes the greatest gift we can give someone is just to keep our mouth shut and let them empty themselves into our hands. When they’re finished, we don’t need to do anything with what they’ve given us. We just need to show them that we’re holding it for them till they can catch their breath.

Joy’s suggestion to “just listen” seems like sound advice to me.  What a gift to give a teacher, listening to stories with no purpose other than to hear what is being shared.  No agenda.  No outcome. No advice giving.  No need to pre-think how to fix the situation.  Just listen in a way that creates a space where the teacher can empty out emotions, understandings, questions, wonderment, or frustrations.  The listener embracing the honor of holding those stories with integrity and humility for however long it takes the teacher to “catch their breath”, pick up their craft knowledge, and reengage the complexities of teaching.  Here are some questions to ask a teacher that might invite a round of storytelling and deep listening.

  • What aspect of your day left you breathless and full of wonder?
  • Fill in the blank with a metaphor; teaching is like a _________.  And why?
  • Tell the story of a student who changed your approach to teaching.
  • If you could thank an influential teacher, what would you tell that person about why you became a teacher?

Joy’s advice seems easy to practice when at least two people are present; the teacher and the listener. But does his guidance hold true if the only person present is the teacher?  The form of listening Joy describes is even more important when practiced as self-listening; when the teacher listens with intention to self-stories. When the organ of listening is no longer the ears but instead is the heart, the source of deep wisdom.  Like partner listening, self-listening is best practiced without an agenda, outcome, or advice giving. What matters is a willingness to trust the inner-voice communicating about the call to teach; a desire that is characteristically soft-spoken, gentle, truthful, and persistent.  The gift of self-listening is an invitation to empty out into your own hands; to hold the deep truths about your teacher-self until you catch your breath and are ready again to take on the role of teacher.  This is no easy task as most teachers are skilled at practicing a form of humility that borders on denial; a resistance to praise and the naming of talents and ability.  Here are some questions to ask that might elicit a response from your inner teacher who in my experience is more than willing to engage in conversation. Your job; just listen.

  • When you are struggling with the question of whether or not to keep teaching, why do you come back?
  • In what ways does teaching encourage you to be more fully yourself?
  • What aspects of teaching fill you with an overflowing sense of wonder and awe?

October 27, 2017—What are the stories you tell to yourself about your teacher-self?  What are the stories others tell about your teacher-self? What are the stories you tell about your teacher-self in public?  I’ve been thinking about these questions since reading “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance.  The book was selected by the University of Denver as the summer read for all first-year students and it was featured this fall in the curriculum of first-year seminars as well as several all-campus events.  I was asked to lead a book talk which started me thinking about stories and thus the questions that begin this essay.  “Hillbilly Elegy” is a deeply personal account of struggling family relationships, shifting personal identity, deteriorating community, and a deep love for Appalachian culture and strength that can arise from adversity. Vance is a story teller who vividly portrays the stories that he told himself about his life; the stories that the wider society tells about “his people”; and the stories he told in public about his upbringing and his home in Appalachia. Each story is fraught with truth and self-deception depending on the time and place of the telling. As I read deeper and deeper into Vance’s book I too was invited into self-reflection about the stories I tell about my teacher-self.

What are the stories you tell to yourself about your teacher-self?  This is going to be a hard question because these are often difficult stories to share in public.  I often tell a mixture of ego and calling stories.  When my ego is in charge of the story I talk to myself about my ability to teach with little preparation and still move students into deeper relationship with the text.  These are my “commando teaching” stories as I talk to myself about the thrill of dropping into the classroom instructionally ill-prepared but armed with texts and still able to carry the day.  But of course, like most stories told in private there is a high degree of misrepresentation associated with tale.  It really doesn’t take much for the ego bubble to burst and the inadequacy of my teaching, at least to myself, becomes transparent.  These ego-stories tell the tale of teaching without integrity and fidelity to my call to educate.  This leads naturally to the other stories I tell to my teacher-self; teaching is my vocation that I’m drawn back time and time again to this deep impulse to educate others. These are my “inner-truth” stories because they carry a high degree of faithfulness.  I turn to these stories, often right before class starts, when I’m unsure and feeling like an imposter who was never meant to teach. A few deep breathes, a quiet moment, and I’m leaning past ego to the wholeness of knowing I’m called to do the work of teaching.

What are the stories others tell about your teacher-self?  The narrative about teachers told by society is less than positive; it is widely believed that teachers are failing to adequately educate the students that society has entrusted to their care.  These “outsider” stories have the feel of an imposed identity of inadequacy which serves some wider purpose beyond the stated goal of improving the lives of students.  They are painful stories because they fail to adequately account for the many stories of teachers sacrificing emotionally, physically, and financially for their students.  For me, the more trustworthy stories are told by my students in their end of course evaluations.  I find these stories easier to accept, whether they are complementary or critical of my teaching.  I think this is perhaps because of the combination of intimacy and distance. I have shared the classroom space with my students and therefore I can see the truth of their comments, even when my ego-self desperately wants to tell a different story; a protective story of false invincibility. Because the end of course evaluations arrive in my email long after the course is finished the rawness of the classroom is tempered by time and thus I’m more open to hearing the truth behind student feedback. The harder stories for me to accept that others tell about my teaching come in the form of rewards, accolades, or praise by a colleague.  Perhaps this is because even though these stories of success are the result of teaching inspired by my call to teach I never like to draw attention to these gifts.  It is an odd paradox that the ability to teach well is something I enjoy and am willing to share with my students and colleagues and at the same time I would rather keep the outcome private and less evident.

What are the stories you tell about your teacher-self in public?  I think these are my best stories because they turn the private knowledge I hold about my teaching into a public presentation that can be critiqued and refined.  No teacher really exists in isolation. At a minimum, the teacher performs the act of teaching in the presence of students; no student—no teaching.  And at a minimum students provide feedback about the teacher’s effectiveness at the conclusion of the course.  In the best case, the teacher tells teaching stories in the presence of colleagues who know both the teacher, the context, and the craft knowledge of teaching.  These critical-friends can echo back the stories the teacher tells; a sort of truth-testing for the self.  And perhaps most importantly, given my reluctance to accept praise evident in the stories other tell about my teacher-self, it can be extremely helpful to have others name my teaching gifts.  For instance, recently I was wrestling with dark moments of doubt about my teaching.  In the midst of my angst a colleague named my ability to enter a room of strangers and guide them through a lesson as if we had been best friends since childhood.  With those few words I was back home again in my teacher-self.

So I invite you think through the following questions. What are the stories you tell to yourself about your teacher-self?  What are the stories others tell about your teacher-self? What are the stories you tell about your teacher-self in public?

October 16th, 2017—For many teachers the driving question of their professional identity is, how do I teach in a way that honors my calling, my gifts, and my vocation to educate while resisting the role of teacher?  In this question I hear the twin pulls of teaching as it is practiced today.  In one direction lies the reason why many teachers choose the profession of teaching; they can simply not imagine any other profession but teaching and the tremendous responsibility for changing lives.  To pursue any other career would represent a betrayal of core-identity.  So compelling is the call to teach that even a teacher pursuing a non-teaching profession often hears the still small voice of the inner-teacher whispering away until the teacher returns to the call to teach.  In the other direction are the external professional responsibilities of teaching, the necessary institutional and bureaucratic tasks that make up the role of teacher.  Most teachers recognize the importance of these tasks while also knowing that the external elements of instruction can never define the true essence of teaching.  There is an inherent tension between these two orientations (internal and external) both are necessary and neither can exist without the other. But in the highly structured and regulated climate of teaching today, the internal drivers, the calling to teach, are often silenced or quieted by the external imperatives to master the benchmarks, achieve proficiency, or measure up to the curriculum standards and district assessments. So as many teachers ask: how do I teach in a way that honors my calling, my gifts, and my vocation to educate while resisting the role of teacher?

The poet Judy Brown in her poem “Wooden Boats” points in the direction of an answer by asking a question of her own.  She employs the metaphor of ship making to capture the process of professional formation: “could we return to more of craft / within our lives, / and feel the way the grain of wood runs true…”  To my ear as an educator I hear her asking what would it take for teachers to return to a teaching posture that honors the call to teach in such a way that the internal drive to educate is visible and felt within the daily practice of educating students. In the language of an educational shipwright, in what ways can educators set their teaching keel deep in the water of curriculum and instruction so that the boat of practice runs true to its making?  Brown continues her analysis of true-teaching by asking yet another question: “could we recall what we have known / but have forgotten, / the gifts within ourselves, / each other too, / and thus transform a world / … (by) shaping steaming oak boards / upon the hulls of wooden boats?”  In the wonderful ways that poets use language to obscure surface interpretations while also revealing deeper truths, Judy Brown provides a prescription for teaching that “runs true to its making” so as resist the forces of deformation.  Her suggestions operate in much the same way that a boat built with integrity and fidelity finds its way through the home waters no matter the condition of the waves.  The first ingredient is to approach teaching as if it were a craft, mastering both the technical as well as ineffable elements; to learn how to feel the way the grain of teaching runs true, unique to the gifts of each teacher.  The second key is to linger and enjoy, developing the skill of listening to the voice of teaching in the heart of the educator; a voice present but often quieted by the noise of institutional necessity.  The next essential element is community. Brown argues, that the best way to recapture inner knowing is with the help of other educators who are also searching for the fullness of their teaching.  It is only after the deep inner wisdom of teaching emerges that the boards of standards and curriculum can be steamed and bent to the hull of pedagogy in such a way that the world of the student becomes transformed.  Now the boat of one’s calling can run true to its making while responding with intention to the external requirements of teaching.


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