January 21, 2021—A colleague recently told the story of a hiking trip that offered a compelling insight into the power of story to reveal truths about teaching. He and his son were following a trail as it wound its way along a tree-lined creek. The path was well traveled and the soil around the trees was worn away and many of the roots were polished by passing feet. The son stopped and said, “Dad, what do you see?” My colleague was unprepared for the question and found himself somewhat overwhelmed by the beauty of their surroundings. In the silence, his son replied, “Dad, look at the trail right in front of us and embrace the metaphor. Roots become steps.” After hearing this story, I too was invited into silence and left with some good questions to ponder about the craft of teaching. The most obvious for me is, what are my roots? What is the source of my calling to teach and serve others? How can I better envision my roots as steps to something more? Can I name the ways they hold me stable against to the storms of professional responsibilities that drain me and tax my soul? Roots as both steps toward places that are difficult to attain and an anchoring in times of trouble.
There is another aspect to this story that I find both troubling and insightful. Roots, it seems, assist forward progress only after they have been exposed and polished by the scuffing of boots. A long history of transformation from hidden and embraced by the forest duff to uncovered and longing for an old companion. Exposed roots have the appearance of loneliness and reaching for the past. This is a harsh image and it rings true. I’m invited to consider both the ways my roots have been exposed and polished over the years by the passing of students, and the how they are a reflection on what I’m still longing to accomplish. Exposure through use seems the operative message when it comes to roots. They anchor me to the essence of my work as an educator and become more useful with experience. Marge Piercy captures the tragedy of instructional roots not used, gifts that are set aside and preserved. In her poem “To Be of Use” she writes: “Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums / but you know they were made to be used. / The pitcher cries for water to carry / and a person for work that is real.” As my colleague’s son noted, “roots become steps”. How might your roots, your core commitments to serving others, invite you to step into new terrain? What does it mean to know that effective teaching means the wearing away of protective coverings and the polishing of one’s roots?
As I was reflecting on “roots become steps”, I was reminded of a second story about steps. My son and I were climbing a peak in Colorado this summer. He is in his early 20s and I’m in my early 60s. So naturally, he walks faster than me. As I lagged several minutes behind on a steep slope, I noticed that every place I wanted to step I saw that he had already stepped there. As I worked my way up to where he waited, the pattern continued. Without intention, I was stepping where he stepped. When I finally caught up with him, I said, “I noticed something really interesting. Every place I wanted to step; you had already stepped there. I find that fascinating”. With little hesitation, he replied, “well of course dad. I have been following you around the mountains for almost 20 years. You taught me how to walk and climb. Where to step. What to avoid. No wonder you step where I stepped.”
As we continued to climb, I thought of the obviousness of his observation and the implications for teaching and learning. Who are my mentors, the ones who taught me where to step when designing and implementing effective teaching? Who is following me up the long slope of learning to teach? What am I teaching them by my actions, choices of where to step or not step?
I remember finishing graduate school and accepting my first academic position. What stands out, in part, was answering questions from students related to research design and methodology. The words fell out of my mouth, even though I wasn’t sure where they came from. They sounded right and were well reasoned. But in many ways, they weren’t my words. They were the words of the faculty who taught me where to step as a researcher. Even today, many years later, I occasionally speak with their words, old steps, trusted steps. At times I hear my students expressing ideas or sharing insights that came from me. Steps I had modeled for them. Step here, not there, watch out for that stumbling block. Their imitation is both affirming of my ability to teach and it reminds me of the importance of acting with fidelity to my mentoring role.
An interesting thing about the metaphor of roots and steps is the way I can learn to walk into new places, experience new ways of teaching. As the first story in this essay argues, “roots become steps”. To be true to my roots, I’m compelled to clarify their true essence. To clear away the detritus and false notions of who I am, and with vulnerability reveal the steps for myself and my students as we find our way into the future. The second story reminds me to pay attention to the ways I model teaching and navigating collegial interactions. Where I step is likely to be where my students learn to step. And as I tire and lose steam, I will follow in my student’s footsteps. This is already happening as I co-teach and co-write with current and past graduate students. My students teach me new ways to navigate the challenges of education. I will learn to step in new ways, read new texts, and consider the world of teaching and learning through new perspectives. I invite you to consider that your “roots become steps” and guard your mentoring well as you may one day follow in the steps of those following behind you.