October 16th, 2017—For many teachers the driving question of their professional identity is, how do I teach in a way that honors my calling, my gifts, and my vocation to educate while resisting the role of teacher? In this question I hear the twin pulls of teaching as it is practiced today. In one direction lies the reason why many teachers choose the profession of teaching; they can simply not imagine any other profession but teaching and the tremendous responsibility for changing lives. To pursue any other career would represent a betrayal of core-identity. So compelling is the call to teach that even a teacher pursuing a non-teaching profession often hears the still small voice of the inner-teacher whispering away until the teacher returns to the call to teach. In the other direction are the external professional responsibilities of teaching, the necessary institutional and bureaucratic tasks that make up the role of teacher. Most teachers recognize the importance of these tasks while also knowing that the external elements of instruction can never define the true essence of teaching. There is an inherent tension between these two orientations (internal and external) both are necessary and neither can exist without the other. But in the highly structured and regulated climate of teaching today, the internal drivers, the calling to teach, are often silenced or quieted by the external imperatives to master the benchmarks, achieve proficiency, or measure up to the curriculum standards and district assessments. So as many teachers ask: how do I teach in a way that honors my calling, my gifts, and my vocation to educate while resisting the role of teacher?
The poet Judy Brown in her poem “Wooden Boats” points in the direction of an answer by asking a question of her own. She employs the metaphor of ship making to capture the process of professional formation: “could we return to more of craft / within our lives, / and feel the way the grain of wood runs true…” To my ear as an educator I hear her asking what would it take for teachers to return to a teaching posture that honors the call to teach in such a way that the internal drive to educate is visible and felt within the daily practice of educating students. In the language of an educational shipwright, in what ways can educators set their teaching keel deep in the water of curriculum and instruction so that the boat of practice runs true to its making? Brown continues her analysis of true-teaching by asking yet another question: “could we recall what we have known / but have forgotten, / the gifts within ourselves, / each other too, / and thus transform a world / … (by) shaping steaming oak boards / upon the hulls of wooden boats?” In the wonderful ways that poets use language to obscure surface interpretations while also revealing deeper truths, Judy Brown provides a prescription for teaching that “runs true to its making” so as resist the forces of deformation. Her suggestions operate in much the same way that a boat built with integrity and fidelity finds its way through the home waters no matter the condition of the waves. The first ingredient is to approach teaching as if it were a craft, mastering both the technical as well as ineffable elements; to learn how to feel the way the grain of teaching runs true, unique to the gifts of each teacher. The second key is to linger and enjoy, developing the skill of listening to the voice of teaching in the heart of the educator; a voice present but often quieted by the noise of institutional necessity. The next essential element is community. Brown argues, that the best way to recapture inner knowing is with the help of other educators who are also searching for the fullness of their teaching. It is only after the deep inner wisdom of teaching emerges that the boards of standards and curriculum can be steamed and bent to the hull of pedagogy in such a way that the world of the student becomes transformed. Now the boat of one’s calling can run true to its making while responding with intention to the external requirements of teaching.