May 3, 2021 – Why do you read? Do you read for content, pleasure, or obligation? Maybe reading isn’t your thing. I read a lot. It is part of my job. I read articles and books for general knowledge or as possible texts for the classes I teach. I read academic papers and dissertations. In many ways I read for a living. Regardless of what I’m reading I’m frequently on the lookout for words or phrases that speak to my inner-teacher. I’ve noticed over the years that more times than not, the best and most enduring wisdom comes from non-teaching sources. I’m particularly enthralled by the ways that poetry, that never mentions teaching, learning, books or assessments, offers insights that often escaped me in all the articles, books and dissertations I’ve read. There is a time and place for academic reading and writing. It is an important way of describing the world and seeing into the complexity of teaching and learning. But I increasingly find the teaching world is much bigger than all the pages on education I read.

The singer and songwriter, David Byrne, when asked about the meaning of music responded, “I wouldn’t be surprised if poetry—poetry in the broadest sense, in the sense of a world filled with metaphor, rhyme, and recurring patterns, shapes, and designs—is how the world works. The world isn’t logical, it’s a song.” Such wisdom, I think, for effective teaching. I sense that a similar truth lies deep within the memory of teaching and learning when released from the industrial, rational and systematized form it currently inhabits. To paraphrase Byrne, education isn’t logical, it is melody, rhythm; the melody of individual voices, uniquely engaged in the common pursuit of living more fully in the world. Education is a song, both literally and metaphorically. I love listening to the ways a class comes together over time; the song unfolds along with their learning, exploring and expanding notions of truth. Experiencing learning and teaching as music, poetry and rhyme invites for a wider range of dialects (language, thinking and seeing). This, I believe, creates more space for marginalized students and voices to emerge.

Another example of teaching wisdom from non-education sources occurred recently when I was reading, Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Her writing is an inviting blend of her Indigenous knowing, scientific training, natural history and story of lived experience. A melody and rhythm that often sounds like poetry to me because it is expansive and imaginative. Her book is her song of right living, always in the making. As I read, I find myself continuously invited to consider the ways I might teach anew. Kimmerer is a Professor of Environmental Biology, plants are her deep interest and passion. She argues that the green world is a gift to the human world, but a gift that is rarely fully appreciated by the Western-scientific mind: “Plant blindness and its relative, species loneliness, impedes the recognition of the green world as a garden of gifts. The cycle flows from attention, to gift, to gratitude, to reciprocity. It starts with seeing” (p. xii).

I often speak about teaching as a gift; a gift I offer my students as well as a gift I encourage my students to give away. The word gift flows out of mind and heart as water flows from a spring. But my understanding, as I reflect on Kimmerer’s words, is shallow and more instrumental than I would like to admit. In short, I sometimes teach from a place of “instructional blindness and its relative, student loneliness”. I haven’t fully grasped and internalized what it means to teach from a gift orientation instead of treating education as a commodity. Kimmerer’s description of gift as a “cycle [that] flows from attention, to gift, to gratitude, to reciprocity” is stunning and instructive for me. She is speaking of plants, but I hear words of wisdom for my teaching. At its best, education is a cycle with particular elements that blend and flow like a multi-vocal song. The word that grabs my attention is “reciprocity”. It raises all kinds of personal and instructional questions, questions that don’t require answers but rather questions to live into. To me, in the context of the cycle of gifting, answers feel like a dam that hinders or prevents the free flow of the gift. It creates a sort of blindness and transactional quality that limits the possibility for imagination and the unexpected.

Reciprocity is contingent on relationships. Certainly, the most obvious relationship is between teacher and learner. But the question is why? Why is that relationship the first place I go when there are other relationships to consider? For instance, external relationships with colleagues, text, or the social context of the world; and internal relationships with my calling, heart and soul. I suspect that the teacher/learner relationship rises to my attention because that is the relationship must evident in the literature; and it is most evident in the literature because it is most amenable to the questions of science. The outer dimensions of teaching are more susceptible to measurement than the internal relationships of self and the inner-life. The outer and technical are important but so too is the ineffable. Those mysterious elements of teaching that are always just on the edge of knowing, but not fully knowable. Kimmerer’s quote ends with the reminder/charge that the cycle, “starts with seeing”. Starting, not for the purpose of working toward the end of the cycle but seeing as continuous starting.

Which word in the gift cycle speaks to you? Where are your blind spots that foster a sense of loneliness for self and others in your teaching? Who or what can help you see into and beyond that loneliness, to invite you into instructional relationships that are life giving? What might it mean to envision the classroom as a “garden of gifts” waiting to offer wisdom of healing for you, your students and the world? Do you really see your students? Do they really see you? Where might you find wisdom on teaching in non-education sources?

April 2, 2021 – I’m blessed with the guidance and wisdom of many teachers and mentors. I have my colleagues, friends and institutional leaders who offer advice. The shelves in my office are crammed with books, each holding a different key to the puzzle of effective teaching. My students are always a good source of wisdom and counsel on how to teach more effectively and with greater integrity. All I need do is listen and not discount their feedback or inflate my ego with their complementsBut my most faithful and oldest teacher is nature. When I go for a walk the bigness of the natural world helps unravel my questions and problems. I often find wisdom in the ways that nature responds to challenge and creates opportunities for growth. For instance, life is both fragile and tenacious. This is a good reminder to me that the learning relationships I seek with students are fragile (easily broken) and tenacious (can weather through tough times and challenges). 

Nature’s wisdom and its application to teaching has been on my mind lately, or more accurately it has been on my heart. The last few days the wind has been blowing with a persistent fierceness. I can hear it moving across the landscape, gathering speed, before it whips through the trees outside my window. It sounds like the shingles on the roof will be torn free at any moment. Nature teaches me that sometimes the best way to handle the wind of change is to get out in it and feel the fullness of its power. So that is what I did. I walked the high hills near my house. A treeless landscape where the wind is free to flow over and through the ravines, ridges and particularities of the land. It fills all of existence. It fills my very being with its energy and passion 

Strange thing about wind. It is both a physical and spiritual phenomenon. Many, Eastern, Indigenous and Western wisdom traditions speak of wind as the creative force of the gods, divine beings and eternal ones. In these stories, wind can be as gentle as the breath of life and as violent as storms stirring the waters of the earth in preparation for that which is yet to be born. The winds of my teaching life are also like this. They can be creative and destructive, containing both physical and spiritual dimensions. 

As I walked, I reflected on the relationship between wind and teaching; both as an element of creation and a force for change. I was reminded of Cornel West’s description of “prophetic pragmatism” as a unique American philosophy for both acting as an agent of change while living into the perpetual and destructive nature of racism. Prophet in the sense of being a voice of radial social critique of inequalities and dehumanizing structures. Teachers can be prophetic winds speaking truth to power, creating spaces where marginalized learners experience humanizing forms of pedagogyTeachers can enact a form of tough love directed toward the betterment of schooling as an institution. The poet Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer in her poem “Home” describes this form of love in this way; icomes crashing in / like western wind, breaking branches / and rearranging the yard, as if to say / it is here to change everything”. Yet prophetic-love is also pragmatic. It is a form of wisdom that realizes the struggle for freedom is elongated and complicated requiring a long-view and the capacity to adjust. It is a learning tradition that relishes in personal struggle, always leaning forward in gentle and persistent provocation to challenge systems of power and privilege.  

As I walked, I noticed that at times the wind was to my back. I was a participant in the process of change. Dust and rocks dislodged by my feet scoured the trailside, changing the ground with each step. Such is often the case when I take an activist role to help sustain change in schools or in my classroom. But when I turned a corner in the trail, the wind and I were now face to face. If I wasn’t careful, I was pushed off balance and found myself stumbling along on unsure feet. For teachers as prophets they are sometimes part of the winds of change. And at times they must face into the winds of institutional normalcy that are often set against their will toward freedom and liberty. West’s invitation toward “prophetic pragmatism is particularly relevant in these moments. Sailors know that by setting their sails at 22 degrees to a squall they can tack into the wind and move toward, not away, from their destination. Pragmatism is a form of strategic tacking in response to the winds that push toward the status quo and maintenance of power and privilege in schools and classrooms.  

My last reflection on walking into and with the wind is that it is hard work. I arrived home feeling refreshed, blown clean, but also slightly disoriented. My body still remembered all the ways it had swayed, stumbled and sought out firm footing. Even standing still I was still in motion. The question I now held was how to remain strong and resilient while practicing “prophetic pragmatism” in my teaching? Success in teaching, as practiced in Western-industrial societies, is often measured and calibrated according to external standards. Many teachers “measure up” to these metrics but the cost can be high in terms of their heart’s longing and burnout. The teacher as prophet is walking a path that never ends and thus the future is not theirs. I find an element of comfort in this truth. My success as an agent of change cannot be measured and catalogued as some fixed goal to achieve, but it can be witnessed in the day to day actions I take to create life-giving instructional spaces. Additionally, knowing that the trail of freedom and justice is long and winding reminds me of the importance of resting and participating in self-care. Being a prophet of a future that is not my own means that I can rest without guilt, renewing my heart and spirit for those times when the wind is in my face. But rest is not retreat or complacency. I must always remember that even in a restful state my body, my heart, my soul knows its true purpose is to keep dancing with the winds of change.   

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.

January 10, 2021—This past summer I was visiting a place well known for its natural beauty. An area frequently visited by tourists enjoying the sights and wonders. The town’s economy is closely tied to the flow of outsiders, like me, and our purchases at restaurants, hotels, boutiques, and outfitters. I was there to enjoy the scenery, watch wildlife, and witness the profusion of wildflowers. Experiences widely distributed in promotional materials. Over the few days I was in town, I did enjoy the scenery, spent hours watching wildlife, and took lots of pictures of red, yellow, blue, and purple flowers. The trip was fantastic in that sense.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the stark contrast between the publicized and actual experience of hospitality. I was not ready for the profusion of “no trespassing” and “private property” signs. There was simply no way to experience the fullness of the area outside of the “authorized” tourist zones. There are plenty of good and defensible reasons to “post” one’s property. For instance, if there is some dangerous activity or landform that it is better for the inexperienced to avoid. My contrasting experience with the publicized message of welcome and the practical message of private spaces of exclusion started me thinking about education through a similar messaging. For many students, especially brown, Black, and Indigenous learners, schools try to welcome all, but in practice the “no trespassing” signs are everywhere. They tell students how to talk, how to walk, how to think, how to be fully human. Unlike the signs that where visibly tacked to fence posts, trees, and metal poles, the “private property” signs in education constitute the hidden curriculum; the unstated norms of behavior, thinking, and being.

As I reflected on these real signs of exclusion and segregation, I remembered another set of signs that dot the landscape; “open space”. These signs announce that all are welcome and invited into the presence of a communal resource, to share and appreciate. Even in open space there are rules and limitations, dos and don’ts, but they are typically designed to limit the kind of damage that is destructive to community. Imagine what schools or classrooms would look like or the experiences of students if the message was framed in “open-space” signage. The private signs of schools communicate a deficit model of humanness, an assumption that students need control and structure. They can’t be trusted with choice and exploration. In contrast, open space is asset based. It presumes good intentions and the capacity of students to make worthwhile decisions for themselves. It doesn’t assume that students will always act with right intentions; making mistakes is part of what being human means and it is a source of learning.

One experience with the “no trespassing” signs was particularly revealing and inviting for me, an educator dedicated to the creation of transformative learning spaces. Since the purpose of my vacation was nature study, I was constantly on the lookout for places where I could park my truck, sit, and watch. One day as I approached a bridge over a river, I noticed a baby tree swallow sticking its head out of a hole in a dead cottonwood tree. It just so happened that the tree was located in an ever so small gap between the fenced-off property and the riverbank. A minute piece of open space, free from prohibitions. I could sit and watch without violating the “no trespassing” signs.

Through my binoculars I saw that three or four swallows occupied the nest. And in no time the parents returned, flight after flight, with food for their growing brood. As I sat, watched, and listened, other signs of life’s profusion were brought to my attention. Higher up in the old cottonwood, four baby king birds were busy vying for the attention of their parents, who were flying back and forth between their hunting grounds and the gaping mouths of their children. Just a short distance away the cry of young kestrel was letting its parents know where it was, and that food was required. And finally, across the river, a pair of American dippers were belly deep in the shallows searching for aquatic insects. When necessary, they plunged into the current to capture prey. At the end of every dive they shook off the water and flew to a nest hidden in the overhanging bank. Over the next few days I made regular trips to this oasis of life. It was magical. It was unexpected. It was delightful.

I tell this story because I’m left with such an indelible memory of nature’s passion for life beyond human imposed constraints. But I also tell this story because it offers me much to think about when it comes to education and the ways I structure learning. I’m invited to consider how often I limit learning by fencing off the content, emotions, and hard conversations; posting private property signs keeping my students away. Even when my intentions are right and justified, the “no trespassing” signs in my syllabus, content, or pedagogy convey a message of limitation to my students. I’m encouraged to consider the value of posting “open-space” signs that redefined the student/teacher relationship as collaborative, not restrictive.

The vibrancy of life I witnessed near that bridge was short-lived. In a few days the baby birds fledged and were gone. I’m reminded that learning is not something that can be controlled. When the conditions are right, it happens at a frantic pace and is short-lived. I need to be vigilant and ready for those times in the classroom when I’m called upon to desperately search for and offer my students the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual nourishment they long for. I need to dive deep into the content, shake off what is unnecessary, and bring to all of us the best of myself, the content, and the mystery of learning.

My best moments of teaching and learning are not bound by the structure and pacing of my syllabus or lesson plans. They exist in the gaps. The spaces between the spaces defined by my “no trespassing” and “private property” signs. I’m wondering now, how often do I leave the narrowest gap for students to fully explore their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual world? I invite you too to consider where “no trespassing” signs exist in your teaching and to ask if they are required and important for keeping students safe? And when should you remove those sings and replace them with the invitation to “open space”? Look for the gaps in your teaching. The unexpected places where students shine and thrive. That is the place to begin the work of sitting, watching, listening, and being present to the very real learning going on around you.

Why when God’s world is so big, did you fall asleep in a prison of all places? – Rumi

Dec, 28 2020 — I’ve been thinking about mystery recently. It has caught me by surprise and I’m not 100% sure why. Not that mystery is unimportant. Rather it is essential to many aspects of my life. So, it startles me to be thinking so much about mystery lately. I look to nature as my first teacher about mystery. As a child I remember watching birds flying on delicate feathers, tadpoles maturing into frogs, and dragonfly nymphs splitting open to allow fully formed adults to emerge. My heart, more than my head, asked, how could this be happening? What mystery was going on that I couldn’t see, yet was so evident and powerful in the formation of life? More recently, the close visual-proximity of Saturn and Jupiter has invited me to contemplate the mysterious movement of the planets, stars, and constellations. The science of astronomy has tools, theories, and mathematical formulas to describe the push and pull of cosmic forces. It knows how the immense spaces and elemental energies of the universe act in relationship to each other. Yet for all its power and knowledge, it is not science that draws me to the birds and the stars, it is wonder and awe. What is it that seems to bind the feather and the rings of Saturn into the same frame of knowing and being? Why do the vast physical differences and distances between the two contribute to their closeness? What is the knowing in mystery that rests at the edge of my mind and reason?

I have not been as close to nature as I was in past years. Other demands and commitments have warranted my attention. They act like gravitational forces diverting my intentions into new orbital patterns. The birds in my feeder and the cosmic dance of Saturn and Jupiter has reminded me to slow down and pay attention. To ponder Rumi’s question, why is it that I have fallen asleep in the prison of necessity even though the world is so big and so much more diverse and mysterious? Nature is my first teacher, but it is not my only teacher. As an educator, I’m reminded that the classroom is also central to my experience of mystery. And like my relationship to nature, I feel that recently I have not paid enough attention to it in my teaching. I know what this about. The transition from face to face to online instruction was too quick, a matter of days. My attention was focused on getting comfortable with the functional elements of Zoom and mastering a Learning Management System (LMS), while minimally advancing my goals of reflection, transformation, and transcendence.

The mystery of the classroom invites me to break free of the prison I fell asleep in, the cell made from the iron bars of instructional necessity. Mystery creates space for me to think about the possibilities, not the limitations of online education. In The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, Dorthee Soelle’s goal is, “to erase the distinction between a mystical interior and a political exterior” (p. 3). As a theologian, she naturally views the “history of mysticism as a history of the love for God” (p. 2). Throughout her text she shows how a relationship with the divine—that which is greater than self and self-knowing—leads to political action that is liberating for self and others. By love she means mystery and never fully knowing the other, being open constantly to surprise, and unfulfilled longing. Love as mystery fuels curiosity, excitement, and vulnerability in teaching; all the more so in online instruction. I’m particularly intrigued by the ways my inner commitments to transformation can energize my instruction in ways visible to students. As Soelle would say, the synthesis of my interior and exterior in service of the mystery of online teaching and learning.

The social justice educator, Jay Gillen (2014), like Soelle, argues that love is key to forming student/teacher relationships that hold the possibility of liberation and freedom. In Educating for Insurgency: The Roles of Young People in Schools of Poverty he notes that transformative relationships grounded in love require work and patience. It is often the case that in their early stage, relationships can feel like they are going nowhere. He invites educators to think about student resistance to deep relationships of learning as a form of love he calls “courtship”. Gillen sees mystery in the courtship ritual of hesitancy and pushback as students try out the strength of the teacher/student relationship. He argues that relationships premised on change—learning—are formed through the “symbolic creation of an obstacle [which] acknowledges the mystery of communication between different kinds” (p. 148). In the mystical way that love operates in the classroom, rebuff and hesitancy are the first moves. Gillen invites me to see my struggles in online instruction as a normal part of true learning relationships with content, learning platforms, students, and myself.

As I approach my next series of online courses. I realize that Rumi’s question, with slight modification, speaks powerfully to me; “why when the [classroom] is so big / did [I] fall asleep in a prison / of all places?” Why have I fallen asleep to the potential of online classrooms to transform me as well as my students? Why do I so dearly and intentionally strive for mystery in face to face teaching but somehow barred it from entry into my online instruction? The key to my liberation, as Soelle and Gillen point out, is embracing the mystery of instructional love. I am now asking, how might the metaphor of courtship, the pushing away and pulling toward “communication of different kinds” inform my online teaching? In what ways do students court relationships with content and with me that I’m not seeing? How am I blind to mystery in the classroom and therefore missing the signals that indicate student love for the content we are all in relationship with?

Oct. 2, 2020 — Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer in her poem “Holding What Must Be Held” writes: “Down by the river we sit and talk. / When I think I can’t ache any more, / the world serves more heartache.” I can think of few better words to describe my sense of broken-heartedness in this era of COVID-19, the Black Lives Matters marches for racial and social justice, and the climate crisis. I know in my life there are daily talks about the trials we face individually and collectively. Network TV and radio brings to light all that is lost when another person dies from the coronavirus. I have my stories of pain and loss. I hear similar stories from colleagues and friends. We “sit and talk”. We willingly carry the burden of each other’s sorrow, providing a brief moment of respite. That is what it means to be in community. When we rise from the riverbank, we find that all around us the world is hurting. Its people are suffering. The rate of animal and plant extinction is rising. Social institutions are struggling to hold the fraying fabric of society in one piece. Schools and teachers who are historically a place of social cohesion are saddled with the difficult task of serving the learning and social emotional interests of students while also facing a deadly viral pandemic. The call to care for students seems to run headlong into the requirements of social distancing in a virtual classroom. In Zoom, teacher and students are reduced to small boxes, walled off and separate. Most teachers I know are tired, frustrated and just want to share a classroom space with their students. The language of burnout no longer seems adequate to describe this moment. And still the “world serves more heartache”. We just want to be together; to see each other.

It seems that the question is not when will the heartache end, but rather are there ways to both hold our collective pain while also turning toward new opportunities? The pain is real. The loss of so many lives is real. The longing of teachers to teach in the living-presence of their students is real. To say that change is in the air seems like an understatement. Sacred cows that once were nearly unassailable are now falling to the wayside. Take for example online education. Not that long ago the resistance to teaching in virtual classrooms was high. And now it is more common than face to face learning. Think of all the opportunities that are now open that were once closed to teachers and students. There are yet to be explored avenues for advancing equity, justice and diversity in schools. For me there is a newness and freshness that only a pandemic, a situation no one wanted and that no one can escape, brings to education. It feels like in the midst of broken-heartedness is a kernel of abundance waiting to grow and flourish. We are all in this together, some a little better off and some a lot worse off, but still we are all bound together in ways we have not felt before.

What I fear and seek to resist is the temptation to move quickly from this moment of collective disruption, a pandemic of uncertainty, to a return to the social and educational status quo. I’ve developed a strong response to two words that I hear in the halls of education lately: pivot and normal. Change it seems can run two ways. One path brings us back to the way things once were. A pivot toward the normalness of power and privilege, the maintenance of the status quo. Given the level of uncertainty and the sense of loss experienced by so many, this seems like a reasonable turn to make. If things just get back to normal, if we can just open schools, then we can get back to the job of teaching and learning. But this path also seems dangerous in that in the comfort of normal comes the familiar experiences of injustice, inequity and disempowerment for many. The other path of change leads away from tradition. It favors innovation, imagination, ambiguity and the unknown possibilities of the teacher’s heart. The environmental and social pandemics of our time have created a rift in normal, an opening to newer ways of being together in educational spaces. Heartache is sure to find us no matter which direction we choose. But I choose the kind that leads toward community and empowerment, not individualism and loss of agency. I would like to offer five questions that I think can help educators in making decisions that advance the mission of equity and excellence while resisting the pull back to normal: 1. Who is empowered and flourishing?, 2. Who’s voice is honored?, 3. How is everyone humanized?, 4. Are we listening?, and 5. What are we will to give up?

July, 17 2020 — I would like to state that we are living in sacred time. I acknowledge that this claim may feel out of synch with the compelling and urgent needs of the climate crisis, coronavirus, economic decline, and calls for social justice. Any one of these challenges of modern life on earth will require significant amounts of time, talent, and treasure. Taken as a constellation of tests they can fell overwhelming and paralyzing. I know because it is easier for me, these days, to slide into darker emotions and a sense of oppression then to act. I wonder how one person can embody enough agency to change the world in these times. Yet, we are living in a sacred time. A time of unusual opportunity to release the fullness of human flourishing. Sacred time provides a way of integrating the competing impulses of paralysis and action.

Sacred has religious connotations but according to Mariam-Webster it can mean anything or anyone “entitled to reverence and respect.” I think that our collected human experience is worthy of reverence and respect. The challenges are serious. They deserve intentionality and attentiveness not irreverence and disrespect. And the opportunities for meaningful, just, and inclusive changes in healthcare, education, economics, and policy as equally compelling. The possibilities are too rich to pass over, no matter how hard or frightening they may be. To be in sacred relationship, for me, means to act in new ways that build rather than break down connections with self and others. Social distancing does not require isolation from the needs of the earth, people, and institutions in this moment. They require reverence and respect.

I love teaching because it is my students who often show me ways of turning challenge into sacred action; darkness into light. Their words and deeds invite me to see the world with new eyes. To see agency when none seemed present before. For instance, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic I was talking to students about taking care of each other and how the university was approaching instructional changes. It was abundantly clear that something unusual was happening in our collected lives. Fear and anxiety were rising. One of my students made the observation: “All it takes is switching one letter to go from scared to sacred”. I was brought up short in my thinking and emotional response. Her comment offered a way to reframe my lived-experience. To be “scared” but also open to elements of the “sacred” as well. To give reverence and respect to the paradox of scared and sacred inhabiting the same space in my mind and heart.

I can follow my student’s advice and move from a state of scared isolation by looking for and engaging in experiences worthy of reverence and respect. Treating the lives of Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples as sacred. Empowering students to fully engage their heart, mind, and hands in the sacred process of learning. Calling for justice when the sacred qualities of humanness are threatened by systems of power and oppression.

The psychiatrist, Dr. Sue Varma, who studies the impact of trauma and loneliness on mental health offers a practical framework for finding the sacred, the things that bring me alive, in the midst of being scared. She calls her structured response to isolation and suffering the four-M’s.  They include: mindfulness, mastery (not perfection) of anything creative, movement of any degree, and meaningful connection—particularly helping others. In this time of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter I can practice the four-M’s while following the guidelines of sheltering in place. Which M has the greatest appeal for you right now? Which M can help move your feelings of being scared to the possibility of seeing the sacred—worthy of reverence and respect—in your day? I’m particularly drawn to creative activities and movement. I’m sketching more images of nature and riding my bicycle to build resilience to the traumatic impacts of coronavirus. I’m questioning the ways my points of power and privilege are unconsciously supporting whiteness and the oppression of others, limiting their sacred potential.

What are the activities in your life that bring you alive right now? Maybe it is spending time with a child, watching them grow and change by the minute. Maybe it is the soft breathing of a pet resting by your chair or on your lap as you write. Maybe it is the opportunity to just rest, to slow down, to live into the fecund dormancy of social inaction. Maybe it is marching and calling for social justice. Perhaps what is worthy of your reverence and respect is the dismantling of power and privilege that favors the few over the diminishment of many. The poet David Whyte advises that: “sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.”  As an extrovert who relies heavily on action and social connection, I need “the sweet confinement of my aloneness” to know what is sacred, what is truly worthy of my reverence and respect. I trust that by living this moment, even in its darkness, as sacred time I will emerge into the light with a clearer sense of how education and the ways I structure learning can become sacred time to all my students.

June 17, 2020 — “Normal” is a word I hear often these days. It carries with it the allure, of well, normal. I sense that it is often used with good intention. A longing for stability and certainty about the world and our place in it. And as a leader and teacher I think there is a good reason to express a certain degree of skepticism about its meaning. Especially in the current context of a global pandemic, world-wide economic decline, and the calls for justice by Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples. A return to “normal” feels to me inadequate for the deep work that I need to do and that the institutions that I’m part of and love also need to do. In my head I hear the lyrics to a Bruce Cockburn song: “the trouble with normal is it always gets worse.” And by worse he means the divide between the haves and have nots, the rich and poor, and the empowered and disempowered. His song from 1983 is a prophetic warning to question normal as an operating principle, then and now.

This moment, now, compels me as educator and leader to address the realities of structural racism in every institution, especially schools, that support and perpetuate the pandemic of whiteness as normal. I don’t know how you are doing with this moment. Perhaps you carry sadness with you or fear. Rapid change and loss may well have brought weariness, bone weariness and a sense that you don’t know how to keep moving forward. Or even what forward looks like right now. You may be welcoming the change that is sweeping the world and the possibility found in chaos. You might sense that disruption is clearing away old habits and offering new ways to grow and heal. Regardless, I invite you to be fully present to your emotions. To feel them in your body. To know that they are real and contain the energy of transformation for self, others, and the field of education.

The questions I’m holding today are many and varied. Where should I look for wisdom, sense making, or something tangible to anchor to in hard times? What can I do when it feels like everything around me is in turmoil? Faculty, staff, students, and administrators are preparing for the fall quarter. I wonder how anyone can really plan amidst all the changes we are going through individually and collectively? I wonder how can we pick up the shattered pieces of social structures that empower some and disempower others—without recreating systems of oppression? I feel simultaneously charged and disoriented. I don’t really know what the best course of action is. I find myself searching for the generative space between deconstruction of power and privilege; and the construction of newness grounded in liberation and freedom for all. What can I do, is a daily question for me?

Two sources of wisdom have helped center me lately while keeping me open to personal and social change. The first dates to 1948 and the eve of the atomic revolution and potential world destruction. Four elders were appointed by the Hopi Nation to share ancient wisdom and prophecy. One story tells that now, a world in crisis, is like a mighty river. The eleventh-hour is here and so is the time to act.

There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above water.  And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate.

I hear in the prophecy of the Hopi elder that fear plays an important role in the way I and others choose to respond to this moment. The pain and loss associated with climate change, COVID-19, economic collapse, and the death of so many Black, Brown, and indigenous people feels like a mighty river. It is sweeping normal away and flushing out the no longer useful ways of being.

What can I do? I can let go and join the river as it flows to its destination, not my hoped for normal, but the river’s natural end point. What is of most use to me is the truth that once I let go and stop hanging on to my white-male-heterosexual privilege, for instance, I will find myself in the company of many others. In community we can celebrate and rejoice together as power is reconfigured in service of everyone, and every learner. Now is the time for me to give up privilege in order to give it back to all.

The second wisdom story comes from a June 5, 2020 National Public Radio StoryCorp conversation between a Black father (Albert Sykes) and his 9 year old son (Aiden).

Aiden: So, Dad, what are your dreams for me?

Mr. Sykes: My dream is for you to live out your dreams. There’s an old proverb that talks about when children are born, children come out with their fists closed because that’s where they keep all their gifts. And as you grow, your hands learn to unfold because you’re learning to release your gifts to the world. And so for the rest of your life, I want to see you live with your hands unfolding.

I like thinking in metaphors. They help me get beyond my rational mind to the living heart of truth. Albert Sykes offers me an understanding of change that combines the destructive and constructive image of a fist. What can I do? Now is a time, as many social justice educators argue, to raise a fist and break apart the power structures that oppress and kill (emotionally, socially, spiritually, and physically) so many. At some point, the closed fist will open, in its own time, to reveal gifts. New ways of knowing and being that the wounded world and broken schools need for healing.

Neither wisdom story offers a systematic and structured plan for change. They can’t be condensed into an email of next steps and phases or written as a five-year strategic plan. I find the wisdom that speaks to my heart takes its own time to settle in and create the conditions for growth and change. I need to sit with this wisdom and let it work me, rather than me applying my expectations and timeline to it.

Now is the eleventh-hour, a time to act. For some that means jumping into the river and swimming with fellow radical educators and protestors. For some that means sewing masks, painting slogans of empowerment, or pursuing other ways to disrupt and deconstruct the system. For others it means writing scholarly articles or leading professional development grounded in social justice practices and principles.

What can I do? I can look for companions with closed fists waiting for them to open and reveal gifts of insight, change, and the way forward to a more humane, compassionate, and just world. What can you do? What is in your fist today? What gifts do you carry? What is your unique wisdom to share with all of us?

May 29, 2020 — “Shelter in Place.” “Social distancing.” How do these words make you feel? I experience varying amounts of uncertainty, loss of autonomy, the urge to protect, and curiosity about what is coming. Three words I’ve heard before in the context of threatened violence or severe weather over the plains of Colorado. But in this era of coronavirus they carry a heavy load. Three words with a brooding sense of warning; take cover, watch out, something destructive is coming. The safest place, until the danger passes, is where you are right now. Stay put. Don’t move.

The poet Mary Oliver in her poem “Today” offers this advice for navigating troubled times: “the world goes on as it must.” Yikes that sounds like harsh advice from a poet known for her caring tone. She seems to be saying, what did you expect? Life is challenging. Get over your difficulties. Move on. It is also possible to read her tone as a frank assessment that the world is value neutral when it comes to human concerns like-shelter in place. “The world goes on as it must”. It has no choice. It can’t slowdown or stop to attend to my wants and needs. Or perhaps her tone is soothing reassurance that despite the trials and tribulations, the natural pace and purpose of life persists. I just have to trust in the wisdom of the world. What then might be the wisdom in “shelter in place” and “social distancing”?

A student who knows my love of poetry and stories sent me a Facebook post by Cheyanne Thomas that offers a way for me to trust the bigger forces that keep the world alive.

“I have been feeling very caged in with isolation and social distancing, and my partner Joseph gave me a bear teaching: When a bear goes into hibernation, they do it for the health of their community and themselves. In the winter, food is scarce, hibernating allows other animals to have access to the limited resources. It slows the spread of disease and viruses among other animals during a season when immune systems are lowered, and energy is limited.”

It is also a time of conserving health for the bear, a time for reflection… it is a time that allows you to renew, to undergo change, to honor your place in life and food cycles.

It is not a time for anxiety or fear. When it is time for hibernation, a bear can finally relax. All of the stress of finding food, territory, and a mate disappears. The bear believes that they have done enough and trust in themselves. They know this process is necessary and they will come out the other side renewed.

Be the bear. Stay home. Rest. Know you are doing this for something much bigger than yourself.”

In the opening stanza of “Today”, Mary Oliver writes: “Today I’m flying low and I’m / not saying a word / I’m letting the voodoos of ambition sleep.” There are many things about this opening line that resonate with Thomas’s bear story. She invites me, and I hope you as well, to realize that at times it is important to “fly-low” to rest, renew, and retool. I know many faculty, staff, and administrators who have a hard time saying “no”. It is easy, and I know this all too well myself, to say “yes” to the work. To always “fly-high” and take on more and more responsibilities and projects. I find myself, even though I’m working from home, doing more work than when I drove to campus every day. I ask, how can that be? I guess it is because my “voodoos of ambition” are still wide awake and unwilling to hibernate. I’m a helper by nature and there is lots that can be done to heal, help, and care for others these days. But if I fly too high with my sense of indispensableness I can lose track of the ground where the real work is done. Mary Oliver reminds me to fly low at times. To slow down enough to get up close and personal to the world. To be present to the people and needs right around me. I only need to give myself the gift of stillness.

I tend to rush opportunity. I’m a doer. I lean toward action in service of others. Cheyanne and the bear remind me to be patient, resist the urge to emerge too soon and push forward, back into old habits. I don’t have to feel like my work is essential to the smooth running of the world. And in this case, I’m thinking of the world as my teaching, service, and scholarship. My ego would like me to think that when I retire or if I suddenly quit, that some important aspect of the university will note my absence. That may be partially true but not fully true. The work of academia was here long before me and it will remain long after me. Yes, I have much to contribute and I know my work and presence makes a difference. But Mary Oliver and the bear remind me that ultimately what matters is not me individually but rather the way the collected whole, the world, moves along. We are all in this COVID-19 mess together. This is a good thing because the challenges are too great for any one person to resolve or even begin to approach with clarity. We are the world and we must go on.

Are there any ambitions you can set down for the moment in order to see your work as it should be, not as you are driven to achieve? What does it take to give yourself approval to fly low? To be the bear? What is the emotion you feel when you hear that the “the world goes on as it must”?

May 19, 2020 — When you are stressed, anxious, and struggling to make sense of your teaching or leadership, where do you turn for grounding? Centering? Anchoring? I have a tendency to do one of two things in my efforts at refocusing. One strategy is to go for a walk, mostly in nature where I often find a new way to see old problems. Perhaps it is seeing a plant pushing through the hard surface of blacktop pavement. Perhaps I find a rock that is rounded with age and the turbulent forces of nature. Now I have affirmation that with time and patience my troubles will push through to the light. Or perhaps they will be refined by life into a gentler and more accessible form. My other go to, when I’m looking for a connection to deep meaning is music. I don’t have a particular artist in mind. I just keep my heart open to lyrics that bring me to a new place of meaning and understanding. In this age of the coronavirus I find myself relying heavily on both meaning making strategies. Do you have strategies for navigating stress into clarity? Are these tactics still working in the era of COVID-19?

The weeks of sheltering in place have been tough for just about everyone. But they seem particularly tough on teachers and other members of the helping professions. They must shelter in place while attempting to construct learning experiences for their students who are also sheltering in place. This requires, it seems, an ability to set aside personal wants, worries, and needs in favor of serving the wants, worries, and needs of another person. Teachers are creative when it comes to imaginative responses to difficult instructional settings. I have heard stories of teachers recording messages, creating YouTube videos, organizing drive by instruction, and generally doing what is needed to engage students in learning. But it often feels like teachers are in a holding pattern, waiting for a return to “normal”. How much longer can everyone hold out? What is the goal toward which everyone is working?

We keep hearing that the measure of success in combating COVID-19 is flattening the curve. All our sacrifices and losses will be worth it when the number of infections drops, and we no longer need to be so careful and intentional about social distancing. This makes perfect sense when considering fact. The science of controlling a pandemic that spreads through physical proximity is clear. But that is not how I feel. My emotions and embodied response to the coronavirus doesn’t feel like it tracks along a predictable line. It can’t be plotted on a graph across time. I wonder how teachers are feeling these days as they attend to the needs of students while finding time for their own selfcare. How about you? How are you feeling right now? Does the logic of flattening the curve bring you solace and fuel your commitment to remain isolated from students, friends, family, colleagues? I’m finding it harder and harder to believe in the calculation of a flattened curve. I have no doubt that it will work, but right now my feelings and emotions are what I need to convince, not my mind.

I need a new metaphor that offers meaning to my feelings. One that is dynamic enough to honor my emotions, which are anything but flat. One day I’m up. One day I’m down. I’m looking for understandings that place fact and feeling in productive relationship, not opposites to each other. The image of waves moving across the surface of the water is an inviting metaphor for me. Sometimes the waves, like my feelings, can be nearly still and other times they can crest at incredible heights of unease or joy depending on the context. The poet Judy Brown offers a helpful fact about waves. They are as much their trough (low spot) as they are their crest (high spot):

“There is a trough in waves, / A low spot / Where horizon disappears / And only sky / And water / Are our company.”

I know this loneliness of the trough. My emotional bottom. I’m tired, frustrated, and just want to go to the store and buy peanut butter, cereal, or onions without having to cover my face in a mask or work to stand six feet from another human being. My mind knows why this is important, but right now it is not my mind but my emotions that need convincing.

I’ve noticed a curious thing about my emotions and feelings. They don’t typically respond to logic. They operate on a different circuit. You might say they have a mind of their own, a different kind of logic that is wired for a different kind of understanding. Judy Brown seems to sense this as well. She knows that negative emotions, like troughs, also rise and lift. The key is time and perspective:

“But if we rest there / In the trough, / Are silent, / Noticing the shape of things, / Then time alone / Will bring us to another / Place / Where we can see / Horizon.”

I don’t need to change my feelings. I only need to be present to them, to notice how they shape my response to COVID-19. And with patience I know that the curve of my feelings won’t flatten but rather rise, caring me to a new place and new emotions. Eventually the wave will lift, and I will see new possibilities. New ways of being. It is true that sometime the emotional wave of the corona virus will lift me to a new way of seeing and understanding. But for now, I’m in a trough. What about you? Where are you on your emotional wave? What are you noticing and paying attention to? What new perspective feels like it is waiting you?

April 3, 2020 — Stability is something I long for in these days of the coronavirus pandemic. I dread the uncertainties of what is next. The recent weeks of personal and professional transitions were anything but normal. I struggled to: integrate work and home responsibilities, change patterns of social interaction, set up a home-office, teach family how to Zoom, plan for the spring quarter of classes, track the latest updates on the virus, and find ways to virtually check on neighbors. Always in the background was COVID-19; amorphous, mysterious — peeking over my shoulder — assessing my safety protocols. Waiting, it seemed, to exploit cracks in my physical isolation, daring me to make skin to skin contact with another human. In a matter of days my usual spring rituals, practices, and traditions were upended. My new normal is composed of feelings of unease, uncertainty, and wonderment. Luckily I do not have to travel the path of fear and a new normal that is anything but normal, alone. My traveling companions are family, colleagues, poets, and keepers of wisdom stories.

The Columbian poet William Ospina, in response to the dread of the coronavirus envisions fear as a teacher:

“There is also something poetic in fear: it teaches us the limits of strength, the extent of audacity, the true value of our merits. Like the sea, it knows how to tell us where there is something that surpasses us. Like gravity, it shows us what powers are over us. Like death and like the body itself, it tells us what commands we cannot violate, what is not allowed, what border is sacred.”

I can find a sense of stability in knowing that fear, as a teacher, professes the truth that there are forces bigger than self and self-knowledge. Ospina names them as the sea, gravity, and death. He offers the image of fear as guardian and protector of the sacred borders of knowing and being. Fear and its compatriot change are reminders to me to pay attention, to walk softly, sacred ground is near. There is a certain spirituality to anxiety, a religion of observation, as Ospina writes: “That, as a Latin said, religion is not kneeling, praying and begging, but looking at everything with a calm soul.” In practical terms I welcome the fear and unease that I feel prior to the first class of the academic quarter. They are reminders to look sharp, to listen deeply, and to enter the classroom as a sacred space of learning. Anxiety keeps me instructionally alive and it provides the energy to resist complacency.

When faced with fear what do you find yourself paying attention to? What brings you closer to the center of your “calm soul” where you can see and experience the fullness of the world; the true complexity of the classroom? What brings you to a place where you can count on the stability of the bigness of the world to eclipse the ego and efforts to control self and others? For me, I count on the rhythms of nature in moments of dread. For instance, on March 19th the earth passed the spring equinox in its orbit around the sun, our trustworthy center of cosmic life. Every dawning day means more light, less darkness, in the world. I can count on that, day after day after day.

I too, like the seasons, can create predictable cycles in my life even in the midst of apprehension and change. For instance, the poet Wendell Berry shares his spring ritual, which speaks strongly to my teacher-heart. In “A Purification” he invites me to consider the ritual of cleaning out the old, overused, and false; to make way for the new. To bury fear deep into the fertile soil of possibility, not to hide from it but to repurpose it into something new and unpredicted. There is much that is disturbing and tragic about the coronavirus (viral fear in the world), its personal and professional impact is frightening. And the virus also invites me to reevaluate, create new practices, and wait for unexpected outcomes. The road map for turning failure, uncertainty, loss, and death into new life is clearly outlined by Berry:

At the start of spring I open a trench / in the ground. I put into it / the winter’s accumulation of paper, / pages I do not want to read / again, useless words, fragments, / errors. And I put into it / the contents of the outhouse: / light of the sun, growth of the ground, / finished with one of their journeys. / To the sky, to the wind, then, / and to the faithful trees, I confess / my sins: that I have not been happy / enough, considering my good luck; / have listened to too much noise; / have been inattentive to wonders; / have lusted after praise. And then upon the gathered refuse / of mind and body, I close the trench, / folding shut again the dark, / the deathless earth. Beneath that seal / the old escapes into the new.”

I can’t control or even attempt to control the coronavirus. I can protect myself and those I care for with proper handwashing and social distancing. But the virus, in its smallness, is bigger than me. Like the sea and gravity, it moves with a steady energy that exhibits a power over me and my definitions of normal. And at the same time, as Berry suggests, I can count on rituals and practices to bring a sense of stability to my life, especially when those traditions are aligned to movements in the natural world. What ritual or practice (past, rediscovered, or explored) brings you light and enlivens your spirit these days? If you were to dig a trench into the ground of your personal or professional identity/work. What items from the winter of your work, personal life, or coronavirus do you want to bury? What would it feel like to know that the elements of loss are composting, breaking down, and waiting to burst forth into the newness of your personal/professional life?

March 17, 2020 — Have you noticed? I’m sure you have or at least I hope you have. The gentle acts of kindness. The willingness to set aside personal needs, fears, and anxieties in service of the other. The undercurrent of humanness that is running, present but silently, even as the Coronavirus spreads across the land. The author Annie Dillard in “Teaching a Stone to Talk” reminds us to remember that the dragons of isolation are a means, if allowed, to bring us to places of deeper meaning and purpose. She writes:

In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. 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 substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned.

Good and sound advice but not easy to follow for leaders, educators, and members of the helping professions. The individuals who others in need look to for guidance and visions of what is possible beyond the immediate moment of despair. Here are a few ideas to pursue if you are interested in finding the substrate of hope and mutual human care

Walk the aisle of your grocery store or pharmacy. Find the empty shelves. They are easy to locate because they are everywhere. No more tissues, paper towels, toilet paper, wipes, frozen foods, bread, eggs, dried beans, butter… A few scattered packages of Ramen noodles. The lack of essential items speaks loudly in the voice of scarcity. The temptation, and I know this when I recently shopped for my groceries, is to succumb to the social impulse to draw in and circle around my needs and concerns. This feels like a natural impulse, a move toward self-preservation. To gather up all I can find.

But I also realized, while standing there, that much of my panic is driven by my social context; a society that values individual initiative, messages that I’m responsible for acquiring my own means of sustenance, and the privatization of purpose and responsibility. So, I encourage you to go to your grocery store with no other purpose than experiencing the emotion of fear. The impulse to hoard anything you can find, even when there is nothing left to put in your cart. Scarcity is a verb in our society. But also, ride those emotions to a deeper level. Why is fear such a powerful feeling? How realistic is it? Empathize with individuals who are in need in the communities you are most intimately connected to. Expand the circle of isolation beyond your personal sphere that surrounds you as you stand in that aisle, alone while surrounded by emptiness. Connect to everyone in need. You are not alone.

Here is another idea to consider, especially for leaders, formal and informal. In the landmark study by Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider, “Relational Trust in Schools” they identify four social-emotional factors associated with successful school reform. These core elements are equally applicable to organizational leadership or a personal response to social networks impacted by the Coronavirus. Here they are: respect, personal regard, role competency, and personal integrity. Respect; genuinely listening to the other, with regard and attentiveness, even when you disagree. Personal regard: the imperative of extending yourself beyond the confines of your role. Role competence; possessing the knowledge and skills to complete tasks of shared interest to the community. Personal integrity; following through, in a timely manner, tasks you have agreed to complete. Attending to relational trust, as they say, is not rocket science. Saying hello. Asking, with meaning, how someone is doing. Sending a supportive email or better yet a card. Buying flowers for the office. All count toward building and sustaining relational trust. Small acts yield big results in human connectedness and social resiliency.

Relational trust is simply a more descriptive version of hospitality, the age-old commitment to care for the other, the stranger in our midst. Aren’t we all strangers to each other at work and in the grocery store as we grapple with our scarcity inflamed fear?

Hospitality has always had a subversive, counter cultural dimension. Hospitality is resistance… especially when the larger society disregards or dishonors certain persons, small acts of respect and welcome are potent far beyond themselves… Hospitality resists boundaries that endanger persons by denying their humanness.  It saves others from the invisibility that comes from social abandonment.

I find in this definition of hospitality by Christine Pohl in “Making Room” to be easy to understand only a little harder to implement. It does take courage and a degree of vulnerability to meet, greet, and care for the stranger at the gate of your city, your office, your home. But like relational trust it is the small acts that add up to resist fear, scarcity, and social isolation. Leaders should make sure everyone they supervise knows the name of everyone else in their group. Create opportunities for sharing stories about navigating, toward wholeness, moments of crisis.

The world right now is full of dangerous emotions that seek to break apart relational bounds and community connections. Now is the time to turn toward others for help. When I’m sick of body and heart, and I’m isolated in my own needs and means I can only rely on others for support. This is the way humans have survived tragedy and the unexpected for tens of thousands of years. Our ancestors lived and traveled in small groups, self-sufficient to the best of their ability. But the archeological record tells another story worth hearing. These isolated groups may have been separated geographically but they were often relational connected to and dependent on other nearby groups. Periodically these wandering tribes would come together or cross paths, exchanging information, trading goods, and developing social bounds. In the face of an unexpected disaster, a group in need could turn to other groups for support until the challenge passes. Survival was both an individual responsibility but also a deeper understanding that underneath everything, as Annie Dillard tells us, is the unifying truth of wholeness; we are all connected. The Coronavirus makes this truth abundantly clear.

March 6, 2020 — Once a month, I meet with faculty and staff to share stories about ways to (balance/integrate) our call to care for students—our heart and passion as professionals—with institutional structures that lean heavily toward efficiency and structure. Our method for the conversation is simple. I email a poem or wisdom story with a few prompts to stir thinking and reflection from the heart. When we gather I read the poem out loud, hold a moment of reflective-silence, and then invite everyone to share a word, image, or phrase that grabs their attention. The conversation flows from a combination of lived-experience in higher education, insights from the poem, and unexpected connections drawn from what others share. Participants enter our shared space with a variety of emotions from heavy-hearts to the deep-joy of being together.  Our time has a sacred and transcendent quality. It is a real blessing to be part of this community, striving for integrity and fidelity to self and the nature of the work.

We recently explored the theme of burdens and the value of periodically laying them down. The poem “Burlap Sack” by Jane Hirshfield was particularly helpful in guiding the conversation. The poet draws on the metaphor of a mule burdened with burlap sacks full of sand, ropes, nails, and axes to draw a distinction between self and work. She writes: “To think that the stones or sand are the self is an error. / To think that grief is the self is an error.” I find this observation a wonderful reminder that what I do, especially the stuff that is onerous or challenging, is not me. This, I think, is important to keep in mind when the institutional work, that must be done, crowds out the heart-filling work that forms the core of my call to teach. When I’m overburdened, I must, as Hirshfield cautions, be “careful between the trees to leave extra room”. I know this feeling well, moving with intention in crowded emotional spaces. When I’m not careful my overloaded bags, my business, can cause harm and hurt as my sacks of stuff bump into students, colleagues, or family members. I think I can do it all, when in fact I can’t. My hubris is bigger than my actual capacity to do good in the world. Hirshfield concludes her poem with an invitation, to lay my burdens down, to no longer carry the heavy load: “What would it be to take the bride / And leave behind the heavy dowry? / To let the thin-ribbed mule browse in tall grasses, / Its long ears waggling like the tails of two happy dogs?”

In our group conversation we imagined, along with the poet, what it would be like to “browse in the tall grasses” of higher education with joy and pleasure. We went a step further. We wrote on sticky notes the sources of our burdens. The challenges and those tasks that are usually life-giving but can weigh us down if there are too many good things or when we must rush through the joy and on to the next task. We placed the sticky notes on a drawing of a burlap sack, filling it with the burdens we carry around like pack mules. We talked, in triads, about our bags and what they were filled with and we unburdened ourselves by pulling off sticky notes that named tasks we didn’t really need to keep carrying. We invited ourselves to be at peace with the work, both the challenges and the joys.

One theme that emerged during our investigation of the poem—and our willingness to be investigated by the poem—was the question of balance. It is helpful when carrying heavy loads to make sure the bags are well balanced. This is essential to the long-term health of the pack animal. Too much weight on one side creates an imbalance that a person works against to stay upright. Balance makes good sense in the metaphor of pack mules, but I’m not sure it works as well when applied to humans working in educational settings. Balance, in these setting, means stagnation. There is little room for experiencing the fullness of human emotions; the highs and lows. And when the load shifts, the person must add energy to the other side to balance the competing forces. Balance, it seems, ends up distracting a person from a closer examination of what the sources of the tension are. When I’m striving for balance I’m more concerned with the nature of the axes, sand, and shovels in my burlap sacks then how did those items get there and are they the right items in the first place.

I think a better goal to strive for is integration. How do I pull together, into wholeness, the competing forces of calling and institutional responsibilities? Rather than self as a counter weight balancing out other forces, in integration the self is a fulcrum between burdens. The self remains independent of the two demands of inner calling and outer institutional protocols and responsibilities. Integration values a dynamic approach to making sense of the lived experience of educators. It accounts for the ways that at times one side may weigh more, and be out of balance, but the self is still centered. As Hirshfield notes: “The self is not the load of ropes and nails and axes. / The self is not the miner nor builder nor driver.” The self is a combination of the various elements of identity, gifts, talents, and social context.

The balance metaphor is premised on parts and pieces that are consciously maneuvered to achieve a static relationship. The integration metaphor is premised on wholeness with the distinct elements in fluid relationship. The key concepts, for me, are wholeness and relationships. As long as these elements are present I’m okay with shifting sacks of responsibility and unbalanced loads. Here are a few questions to ponder as you seek to integrate your burdens, once you put down the unnecessary ones. In what ways have your gifts of service, leadership, or teaching turned into burdens? In what ways do you find it difficult to navigate your work when your burlap sack is full of burdens? Who or what have you harmed as you bumped into them with your burlap sacks? What burdens would you have to put down to feel like you could wonder freely in the pastures of education?

Sept 24, 2019—As an educator I have many rituals, practices, and traditions that inform my approach to teaching and learning. One in particular sticks out. When I’m slow to enact it my students are quick to ask me why and to call for its immediate implementation. The ritual and rhythm of snack time is at the center of their concern and interest. The classes I teach run from 4:00-6:20 and many of my students are practicing professionals in education, social work, and allied fields. They often come to class tired, hungry, and frequently distracted by the day’s work. The things they did right, and the things they did wrong. Their mistakes in particular seem to really impact their social-emotional state, even when the mistakes are less frequent or significant than their successes. In short they are often emotionally stressed, physically hungry, and in need of slowing down and centering.

Food is the base layer of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It is both the foundation of all other needs while also holding them captive to fulfilling the need for food first. When hunger dominates, learning, a higher tier in the hierarchy, can rarely be achieved. In basic human psychology and good pedagogy it makes sense to care for the nutritional and emotional needs of students before introducing content and engaged thinking. It is the obvious pedagogical move that is too seldom stated as such. But for me, there is more going, more to this story, more beyond the wisdom of tending to stomach so brain can hear, process, and learn.

When I first started teaching I was often annoyed and bothered when students brought food to class. Even worse when they were eating during a lesson. I was unable to say why food in class felt wrong. I just knew it was. My early attempts to make sense of my concern included: disrespect for me and classmates, a seemingly individualistic act in a space that was communal, and a personal inability to wait to eat until later. All eventually seemed inadequate in capturing my dislike of the behavior. I tried all the usual strategies for managing the behavior such as making announcements, talking to students privately, and ignoring the behavior. None seemed to lessen my personal angst. I began to ask myself what I was missing. What was I not listening to or paying attention to that energized the deep core of the struggle. Why did the importance of food in Maslow’s Hierarchy explain the need to eat but failed to ease my concerns, which I fully named as my problem and in no way could it be construed as student ill intent.

I can no longer say when it happened, what the catalyst was, but I can tell you how I transformed my understanding of food and eating away from a distraction into a practice of community and caring. A ritual everyone looks forward to and willingly partakes in, a part of the instructional space as important as texts, teacher, and student to learning and human flourishing. At some point I made the connection between food and the patterns throughout human history of people coming together in community. Around a meal they would tell stories, mark important moments, share fellowship, and reimagine a life giving relationship between individual drive and communal responsibility. That was it, the reason I disliked eating in class. As currently practiced in my pedagogy it fell short of the importance of food as a builder of deep connection and community. I almost immediately initiated a “snack time” in my teaching during instructional breaks. On a voluntary basis, each week, a different group of students will provide the food.  It doesn’t matter what they bring. It doesn’t matter how much they bring. It doesn’t matter if a student forgets their week or another brings extra on a week. It only matters that food is present, it is understood as a ritual of community, and that at the end of break everyone is nourished in body and spirit.

At the start of every quarter I share the food story, my initial dislike of eating in class, and my conversion to fully embracing it. At the end of the narrative I pass out the snack list for students to signup, if they wish, to bring something to share during break. I now understand what I was unable to see earlier in my career. Food is a mechanism to foster fellowship and community. In the simplest of terms it is a deep form of hospitality, to self and others. It is an invitation and ritual to reach beyond the moment, beyond individual needs, past the tendency to treat others as something different than self, and to expand the range of human potential in a learning space.

Hospitality as noted by Christine Pohl in her book: “Making Room” (1999) is a remarkable “mystery” given the deep emotions and connections it fosters for the giver and receiver in what otherwise seems like a mundane and “ordinary activity”. Pohl studies faith communities and the wisdom they can offer regarding hospitality, especially in contexts where the importance of hospitality is lost or downplayed. I find the following touch points helpful in thinking about my practice of hospitality in the classroom. They also provide a compelling rationale for my act of snack time.

  • Depending on someone else to provide, even minimally, for your needs builds compassion and empathy for others in need. In a classroom setting this can help support the wider mission of building a caring community where sometimes you have to ask for help with an assignment or reading;
  • Through the sharing of a meal one experiences the joy of being welcomed into a group “even if only briefly, the stranger is included in a life-giving and life sustaining network of relations”;
  • Hospitality “transcends social and ethnic differences” by creating a space of equals around a shared table where interaction is “face to face, gracious, unassuming, nearly indiscriminate, and always enthusiastic”; and
  • To fully benefit from hospitality “requires an openness of heart, a willingness to make one’s life visible to others, and a generosity of time and resources”.

These are lofty goals and a bit of stretch to think that they are all possible in a classroom setting. However, even little shifts in human to human interactions along the lines of hospitality will enable the development of a more life giving and academically enriching classroom. If a little food can achieve this small goal I’m all in. How about you?

Sept 7, 2019—What are your core values as a teacher; the three qualities of self that you strive to maintain at all cost? How did you come to this understanding? Through experience or scholarly study? Have those values been consistent across time? Would an observer agree or disagree that your teaching corresponds to those core commitments? What makes you uniquely you in your classroom? I’ve been recently reflecting on my core values as an educator. The trigger was a leadership retreat. The facilitator, for pre-work, sent everyone a handout inviting us to identify our core values. The working theory was that once we had individually identified our values that we could synthesize them into a collective list and from that list identify three to five themes or values defining our work. We never quite achieved the final goal but the activity did help me identify my core values. My top three values are: flourishing, relationships, and Love. There are certainly a number of sub-themes radiating out from each primary value but I think they all fit under these three core values.

By flourishing I mean things like growth, joy, change, curiosity, organic, and dynamic. It can take varying forms in accordance with the needs and talents of a particular person. Flourishing for one student can have different manifestations than flourishing for another student. But the unifying element is movement toward wholeness and fuller notions of self. Assignments in my classes that favor student choice and differentiation are more consistent with my value of flourishing than assignments that are pre-set and deterministic in their outcome according to my opinions and views.

Relationships are all about connections and honoring the inherent worth of the other. It is an acknowledgement that the individual “I” is problematic. The true-self exists only in relation to others; change the partners that one interacts with and notions of “I” change as well. This is well known in classrooms where students are frequently code switching to accommodate the “I” to the specific context the teacher has established. Yet, at the same time there are certain inherent qualities to the true-self that are less transient. But those attributes are best identified in the company of others; a community that names the deep gifts of self and checks false perceptions. In my classroom I work to build community and relationships that include people as well as texts. I encourage students to enter their readings with a sense that they are in direct conversation with the ideas the author is putting forward. I invite them to “hear” the words in the text that connect with the heart of their learning-self because it is through that unique connection that a relationship can form and support learning.

Love is both a standalone core value and the matrix within which flourishing and relationships find meaning and purpose.  \Love is that aspect of learning and classroom spaces that draws the learner toward something greater than self.  It invites learners to experience emotions like curiosity, passion, heart-break, grace, and commitment. It helps to be committed—deeply in love—with content when the nature of learning bogs down or becomes confusing. Love binds things together in a mutual relationship of two “others” seeking ways to flourish while realizing that self-flourishing is contingent on the flourishing of the other.  Love in the classroom can find expression in ideas, knowing a colleague well enough to predict their stance on a subject, giving a colleague the grace to let them change their ideas, and a class-wide shared sense of mutual commitment to sticking with a tough text that challenges superficial notions of self.

During the retreat the facilitator presented a framework for organizing core values that is based on three questions; 1) why do you act a certain way, or the ultimate goal you hope to achieve?; 2) how will you go about working toward your why through discreet activities?; and 3) what do those values look like as a finished product, the wholeness of the work? When I organize my three core values to align with the three questions I find the following to be true. My why is Love. I’m at my best as an educator when my curriculum and instruction sets a climate of learning that transcends the ordinary. A classroom culture where ego, commodification, and competition is displaced by a sense of shared connection to something greater than self. Love inspires courage and fearlessness to explore, change, and hold firm with fidelity to truths. The how of my instruction, the ways I work toward Love, are relationships. They materialize in an array of activities involving students, text, classroom settings, and me. I encourage students to listen to the “voice” of the text. To hear how words and ideas in a reading are speaking to them, seeking a relationship of engagement. During instructional breaks we always have food, we gather around the table of fellowship and share stories of the day. We even pursue topics raised earlier in the class. Relationships are the micro-activities building toward the what. When combined into a collective whole the what, the evident object, of my core values is flourishing. The classroom is alive with positive energy, collectively and individually, inviting inner integrity to become external and vibrant. A student who spontaneously shares a deep moment of learning and understanding, connecting concepts and personal experiences in novel ways, is flourishing. They are becoming a new person, a truer version of self. Such expressions of transcendence elicit feelings of awe and anticipation of what might come next.

What are your core values? Can you winnow them down to three? How might those values map onto a framework of why, how, and what? If presented with your core values would your students concur or would they name a different set of core values? What the features of your instructional context that make it easy or hard to enact your core values?


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