February 23rd, 2018—The inner-life of the teacher is a lot like an iceberg, which is to argue that the bulk of an iceberg rests below the water line, unseen, but essential to the life of the berg. The ice bobbing above the water line, the outer domain of teaching, is the most recognizable, the most easily described, and most likely to capture the attention of an observer. Parker Palmer in “Courage to Teach” synthesizes teaching into four questions: what is being taught (content); how is it being taught (pedagogy); why is it being taught (philosophy); and who is the self that teaches (calling). Palmer argues that the first two (what and how) are frequently considered within the realm of education. The second two (why and who) are rarely examined in detail, especially the last question; who is the self that teaches.
An iceberg exists both above and below the water line. So too does teaching in its entirety consist of both the technical outer tasks as well as the inner more ineffable and intangible elements of teaching. By technical I mean consisting of concrete instructional moves and curriculum design that can be described as “best-practices”. The teaching literature is rampant with articles and books collecting, sorting, and categorizing the most effective instructional moves. These are valuable resources for how to teach. I think of best practices as technical, rational, and residing in the “head” of the teacher. By inner and ineffable, I mean consisting of the intangible, vocational, and requiring discernment rather than quick action; hence they are best described as “deep-practices”. Because of their less tangible nature and close affiliation with the call to teach I tend to think of the why and who as more closely associated with the “heart” of the teacher. The head and the heart, best and deep practices, are best conceptualized and treated as a unified whole. Best-practices become dispassionate instructional moves without the deep-practices that provide a sense of buoyancy, passion and energy to the practices of teaching; deep-practices can easily become explosively-chaotic instinctual moves without the guiding structure of best-practices.
Most teacher evaluation or coaching frameworks target the what and how in the iceberg metaphor, those components above the water line that are more easily seen, described, and measured. The lower two elements of why and who receive, it seems, less attention in part because they are less tangible, making them harder to measure with data-driven metrics and thus more difficult to fold into coaching conversations. The teaching as iceberg metaphor is helpful in another way. A wise captain gives an iceberg a wide berth not so much for what is seen but for the mass of the berg hidden deep under the water that can easily slice open the hull of the ship. The deeper elements of the berg deserve as much if not more attention than the gleaming pinnacles rising above the waves. When teachers lose track of the deeper callings behind their teaching they can easily slide into practices that are devoid of heart and spirit. Their best instructional intentions and practices can become shipwrecked on the deeper social-emotional shoals of teaching.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately, even more than usual, about the question; who is the self that teaches? How should we go about describing the heart of the teaching self? Are there ways to more accurately describe the teaching heart for coaching and professional development purposes? My recent reflections on these questions are informed by my course work in the field of Theology which describes the soul, in a spiritual sense, as three elements: base impulses, emotions, and spirit. Soul, in a more secular sense the heart, is one way of describing the inner-life of teachers out of which deep-practices emerge to inform the day to day best-practices of teaching. As such, the concepts of base impulses, emotions, and spirit seem to provide a road map for describing the teacher’s heart with greater accuracy and care.
The base impulses of the teacher-heart consist of rather blunt and undifferentiated instructional instincts. They are, at their best, the driving energy behind deep-practices. Marge Piercy in her poem “To Be of Use” speaks to the more positive aspects of the base impulses in teaching when she writes: “I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart, who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience, who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward, who do what has to be done, again and again.” The image of a patient and persistent ox or water buffalo is an apt image for the base impulses of teacher-heart which silently and with great fidelity pulls the educator deeper into the mystery of teaching.
Emotions, on the other hand, are less patient and often explosive in their appearance and instructional impact. They can emerge spontaneously as joy, anger, frustration, excitement, or laughter; raw markers pointing toward what the teacher-heart cares deeply about. Emotions are useful short-term tools guiding the educator toward a point of integration between extremes such as joy/frustration, excitement/disappointment, or clarity/confusion. In the poem “The Angels and Furies” May Sarton uses the metaphor of dancing to describe the role of emotions in professional behavior: “Have you not wounded yourself and battered those you love by sudden motions of evil. Have you not surprised yourself sometimes by sudden motions or intimations of goodness. The angels, the furies are never far away while we dance, we dance, trying to keep a balance to be perfectly human.” The ballerina, the image of calm perfection and explosive energy in Sarton’s poem speaks to the emotional elements at the heart of good teaching.
Spirit rounds out the teacher-heart trinity of teaching and is the root of authenticity, fidelity, and presence. Students are drawn to teachers who are spirit-filled and are one with the classroom, the content, and their students. Teachers with refined understandings of their spirit are called to the profession; they are joyfully in relationship to something greater than self. John O’Donohue in his poem “For a Mother” speaks of the ways that a teacher’s spirit brings life to the classroom in forms of learning possibility, that like a child, explore out into the far corners of the classroom: “Like some primeval moon, your soul brightens the tides of essence that flow to your child.”
What does it mean to be full and whole as a teacher? It means recognizing the aspects of teaching, the teacher-heart, that rest below the waterline; the demarcation between the seen and unseen. It means attending to the teacher’s heart as base impulses, emotions, and spirit.