December 1st, 2017—“How do you see yourself changing the world?” My friend Mark and I were enjoying a pint and conversation one evening. Spending time with Mark is a blessing as he often brings me new insights and perspectives on the world. He shares stories about managing retirement accounts and I tell him stories of teaching. We both love riding bikes so we have that in common. Mark was telling me that five years ago he started asking his clients, “How do you see yourself changing the world?” This question has obvious practical application as he manages his client’s investments toward an end goal. But the wisdom of his question goes even deeper. As his clients untangle their answer to his question Mark learns something about their inner-drivers and motivations. With this understanding he can both honor his fiduciary obligation to provide responsible investment recommendations and he invites his client to see their investment choices within a larger context. “How do you see yourself changing the world?”
As Mark told his story my teacher heart felt the kind of lifting that tells me that I need to pay attention to the strange alchemy of relationship, storytelling, personal-integrity, and mystery that was unfolding. I wondered how I would answer the question as a professor and teacher educator; “Paul, how do you see yourself changing the teaching world?” By disposition and academic training I tend to initially lean into the bigness of the question. I contemplate macro-themes of change like: equity, social-justice, transcendence, and the fullness of what it means to be human. These are worthy ways to change the world and they should rest deep within the instructional motivations of a teacher. But there is so much more to the question Mark asks: “How do you see yourself changing the world?”
As his story unfolded Mark described a painting hanging on his office wall. His dad was the artist. The image is a pond in the late evening light, someplace in the northeast. The surface is mirror smooth except for a trout rising and the concentric ripples echoing out toward the distant shoreline. I know this kind of place. I’ve spent many days in and around northeast ponds. They are magical like so many places in nature. To catch their wisdom I need to sit quietly and let the ineffable speak. With his dad’s painting in my mind’s eye and his question rattling around in my psyche, my teacher-heart lurched even deeper into a place of meaning and understanding. Sure the bigness of teaching matters; we teach in context (race, class, gender, politics, and history). To discount these elements does grave injustice to student learning and the gifts of teaching. The pond exists only in relationship to the shoreline, the trees reflected on its surface, the loon calling from a hidden cove, and the ethereal nature of the sky. Yet in the midst of the bigness a single solitary trout rises as it is called to do by the deep wisdom of its species—a wisdom universal to all trout—a wisdom passed down generation to generation by trout in response to the particularities of this particular pond.
Two elements of this metaphor resonate with my teacher heart. One, to initiate change I must rise from the deep and safe places of my teaching—the world of water that I know well—and break the surface of the pond. I must be willing to venture into a less secure and somewhat alien environment; every trout realizes at a minimum, through reflex, that the world beyond the surface of the pond is deadly. And every trout understands through eons of evolution that food and survival exist just on and slightly above the surface of the divided worlds. I think this is an insightful description of when I’m at my best as a teacher. I’m willing to leave the comfort of my tried and true curriculum and instructional strategies and rise toward the surface disturbances that call me toward risk, uncertainty, danger, and the potential for sustaining rewards; toward learning.
The second element of the rising trout that speaks to my understanding of change in teaching are the ripples working their way toward the shoreline. The little waves disturb the quiet surface of the pond as they migrate outward from the original impulse of the trout to rise; to risk the unknown. As much as context in teaching matters what may ultimately be of greater importance are the micro-waves of disturbance created by my smaller and more intimate teaching acts. The little things matter: saying hello to students as they enter the classroom, listening to the ways my students struggle with content, breathing deeply before I engage a student in conversation, and trusting my instructional instincts. “How do you see yourself changing the world?” I see myself changing the world of teaching, or more pointedly the lives of my students, through little acts of instructional integrity. The ripples that spread out across the surface of my teaching with intentional energy that ultimately changes the shoreline, the macro-conditions of teaching. Sure this is a long and slow process, outcomes I will likely never see, and I must always work to change the context, but these micro-actions are well within my ability to rise and engage. “How do you see yourself changing the world?”