June 8th, 2018—Marge Piercy concludes her poem “Seven of Pentacles” with an acknowledgement to endings and the rewards for work done well: “Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen: reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in. This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always, for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.” As another year of teaching and learning draws to a close, from pre-school to higher education, it seems appropriate to take a moment and lean into the educational wisdom of Marge Piercy. What might she mean for a teacher to live as if they liked themselves? How does it make sense to both live a life you haven’t achieved while also continuing to grow and connect? And finally, what is the harvest of your teaching?
I find her line, “live as if you liked yourself…” one of the most challenging aspects of teaching. To teach as if I like myself is not an approach to education that I typically turn to in celebration at the end of the year. Instead I’m quick to disregard my instructional successes during the year as products of luck or students who are overly kind. In contrast I’m quick to accept criticism, even minor forms of critical feedback, as accurate and an indication of my instructional inadequacies; the real harvest of my year of teaching. To teach as if I liked myself is a real challenge. It is far easier to dislike myself when I struggle pedagogically. Yet Piercy invites me to see the world of the classroom differently and live into the challenges of teaching “as if” all is well. Not denying the pain that exists but also including in my thoughts what I’m capable of achieving. The mission is to see teaching through an asset instead of a deficit lens. For instance, I recently coached a novice teacher, who was completing a year of teaching, about the challenges of turning the call to teach into an affirmation of true-ability. To help with this transformation I encouraged this teacher to extend to themselves a healthy dose of self-grace in recognition that learning to teach is a truly difficult endeavor. To reflect back over the year and fully own all they accomplished.
Teaching as if you like yourself, especially in moments of struggle, is an act of self-grace that acknowledges it is easier to dislike your teaching than it is to embrace pedagogical success. I know for myself that too much self-grace has two downsides (1) it can lead to an overly grandiose sense of instructional success (a form of instructional amnesia to what really happened in the classroom), and (2) it turns the gift of reflection inward to the exclusion of the interests and external perspective of students, colleagues, or other professionals. Marge Piercy reminds me that a good way to integrate the shadow of self-grace—live as if you liked yourself—is to combine instructional egoism with the counter force of being present to others: “reach out, keeping reaching out, keep bringing in”. It is not enough to stand in the glow of self-congratulation for teaching well done this year. There is also the necessity of connecting with others and becoming part of a larger community. When I’m engaged in deep and honest pedagogical-relationships with students and colleagues I create the possibility that they will check my overly extravagant use of self-grace. They help me, at the end of the year, to honestly listen to the criticism and advice in ways that can truly improve my teaching.
The combined potency of self-grace, which calms the wounds of instructional struggle, and external accountability to community will effectively frame the rewards of teaching well done. As Piercy observes: “after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.” For teachers the harvest time is now at the end of the instructional year. After a long season of teaching, conflict management, community building, curriculum development, caring for others, advocating for students, and grading papers it is time to take stock of the instructional harvest. To own the professional accomplishments and areas of academic and emotional growth that were carefully facilitated for students. These are real accomplishments, more than the product of happenstance and good luck. For teachers the harvest comes at the start of summer not the fall as it does for farmers and backyard gardeners. What is the harvest of your season of teaching? Who has changed emotionally or intellectually because of your care and attentiveness? Who is the student you never gave up on? How has your teacher-heart been renewed through the connections you made, even in the midst of self-doubt? Where are you endings this year leading you instructionally and personally?