June 11, 2019—Two questions I’ve been sitting with lately: What does it mean to be fully committed to the inner life of teaching? How does commitment become evident to others? By “sitting” I mean, in relationship with. The inner life invites me to be attentive and present to my emotions, my feelings, and my inclinations. A good sign of attentiveness is entering into dialogue. To engage in a conversation geared toward hearing the wisdom of the other. To be attentive is an invitation to wonder and be open to the unexpected. I don’t mean to suggest that going inward is some sort of ego-inflation technique. Going in is never for the purpose of self-congratulatory affirmation of what I already know to be true about myself. This certainly can happen and it is a social-emotional mud hole that I can easily slide into. The discipline of mindfulness and the objective lens of community help keep my inward eye from becoming too ego-centric. For me, the purpose of going in and rummaging around the inner spaces of my teacher heart is to go out and be an activist for justice, peace, and love in the world. Through the inner journey, conducted with disciplined fidelity, I can act with commitment to truths that allow for greater amounts of human flourishing for all. This is as much a spiritual journey of knowing as it is a political or intellectual commitment. As such the examination of the inner life is rich with various formulations of spiritual paradoxes: you have to go in to go out; you have to lose self to find self; and you have to be alone to be together in community.
One strategy I use to invite conversation between my intellectual head-talk and my teacher heart of action is to invite the questions to interpret me even as I’m working to discern their meaning. In her book Figuring, Maria Popova notes that Sylvia Plath made this observation about poetry: “Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.” In other words, once a poem is read, interpretation begins, and interpretation is highly contingent on the life journey and experiences of the reader. Thus the poem tends to ultimately say more about the reader/interpreter than about the intent of the poet. In curriculum theory Bruce Uhrmacher and Christy Moroye teach us that the arc of curriculum consists of three elements: intended, delivered, and received. Educators, like poets, have the greatest influence on their intentions and the least impact on what students and readers receive or hear. For poets and for teachers this can be a good thing in that learning and understanding, what is received, is best regarded as an interactive process of meaning making. Ownership, deep learning, is more a product of what is received as knowing in the heart of the learner than it is an external indicator of performance.
This form of ownership and commitment to heart-wisdom as received knowing fits my personal and professional experience with poetry and professional development. Once a month I host a conversation for faculty and staff on my campus. A week before meeting I send out a poem to anchor the conversation. Our ritual is for one voice to read the poem out loud and then invite sharing around a word, image, or phrase that grabbed someone’s attention. In the conversation we have a rule against fixing, saving, or advising members of the group. This is a norm I borrowed from the Courage to Teach community and their Circle of Trust retreats centered on teacher renewal and courage. When applied with integrity the norm dampens the impulse to heal a colleague and instead the energy shifts to whole-hearted story sharing and story receiving. What are participants hearing in the poet’s words and metaphors that speak to some aspect of their inner-life? In the back and forth between telling and listening participants begin hearing their own deeper inner wisdom and commitment to values, passions, and professional callings. One participant recently described our communal time together as a form of “sanctuary” where they could recommit to their true passions and resist institutional norms toward compliance. Questions, it seems to me, can become a curriculum of self-awareness. They are like poetry inviting self-interpretation, but only more personal and more particular than a poem. As I write or state a question I both make my musing public, even if it is just to myself, and I begin the process of interpretation. I started this essay with two questions: What does it mean to be fully committed to the inner life of teaching? How does commitment become evident to others?
Let me answer both questions with a reference to a recent experience in the natural world, which is my go to place for wisdom beyond the rational and beyond the intellect. I was recently visiting Pawnee Buttes in northern Colorado, a remarkable remnant of short grass prairie. The ancestral lands of indigenous communities for over ten thousand years. Like a good question the spirit runs deep in these ancient lands which are mostly undisturbed by the forces of commodification and profit making. The wind, typical of these open lands, was howling at a constant rate. I found it disturbing and affirming at the same time. The treeless prairie, with only the periodic ravine to dip into, provided no place to escape from the wind. Again, like a good question there is no hiding from a commitment to explore. The only relief, which is temporary, is to go below the surface, into the deeper spaces of knowing. To fully commit to the inner-life of teaching means a willingness to stand exposed to the winds of the social world which often blow toward conformity. Instead of yielding to normality, holding true to yourself, taking sanctuary in your inner knowing.
When it comes to demonstrating commitment, a standing firm in unapologetic alliance with the source of knowing that is spiritual and non-rational, the grasses have wisdom to share. The wind pushed the grasses this way and that way. At times a gust could be seen working its way, in waves of chaotic uniformity, across the shimmering green blades. Additionally, the swishing grasses sang a song distinct to short grass prairies. In an interesting paradox, only the wind can invite and perhaps at times compel the grasses into song. Only a good question in the face of the winds of tradition can invite me into singing the song of my inner-wisdom. And at times I’m compelled into action by particularly egregious forms of social and educational inequity. Like the twirling grass blades it is only when others also commit to the inner-life and embrace the wind that we can collectively sing. It is the adversity of the wind that makes the short grass prairies of our teaching come to life as waves of reform dancing across the landscape. So my invitation to you is to commit to your inner-life and by boldly singing that unique song that defines your inner-wisdom. Once you begin dancing and singing I’m sure you will encounter other blades of grass singing along in collective songs of change.