November 2nd, 2018—I have learned much about teaching by seeking out information and ideas from outside the field of education. The teaching literature is certainly rich with new ways to approach teaching. It is pushing forward, as it should, important themes of inclusiveness, equity, social emotional learning, empowering the voices of teachers/students, and best practices associated with learning that serves all students. This internal dialogue, what is working and what is not is important and necessary work. But any community that listens only to its own practitioners and researchers is a community that risks the danger of talking only to itself. The mirror of education speak can become too sharply focused on the educators, researchers, policy makers, and parents who are looking intently into the polished glass of educational reform.
To be clear, self-reflection around theory and practice is an important skill for the profession of education and its educators. Without the ability to gaze self-critically into the heart of educational practice the risk of self-delusion is high. And if educators are careless, unexamined practices can precipitate unintended forms of teaching that can disempower and disenfranchise students in already under resourced and under-served schools. For instance, teachers who teach in ways consistent with the ways they were taught should wonder if they are fully and genuinely responsive to the learning needs of their students. Are they truly being effective for all learners if they don’t stop and periodically test their teaching assumptions with a few key questions? For example, is my lived-experience really the same as the lived-experience of my students and therefore is it fair and reasonable to expect my students to think and behave like I do? When I measure success in ways that matches the ways I was successful as a student, which of my learners is likely to struggle with my assessments? When the social and cultural mismatch between teachers and students is amplified by the lack of self-critical analysis the damage to student learning can be amplified. We know this in the field of education because the critical lens was turned inward to catch missteps that ran counter to the goal of educating all learners. Internal reflection around best practices is a good thing.
Yet as I noted at the start of this essay there is much I have learned about teaching by straying from the field of education. I’m currently pursuing a MA degree in Theological Studies from the Iliff School of Theology because I want to develop new ideas, new theories, and new language to speak about my philosophy of education which contains elements of transcendence and calling. These themes are more fully developed in the field of theology than the discipline of education. My anthropology of humanness needed more expansive language then typically found in education, which feels inadequate to my goal of creating classroom spaces that reach toward becoming fully awake to the wholeness of what it means to be human. By entering the field of theology my descriptive vocabulary has increased. I can now talk about education with words and concepts like mystagogue, sacred space, mysticism, inner eyes and ears, indwelling, spiritual awakening, and ritual.
Another field I turn to when broadening my understanding of effective forms of teaching is ecology/biology. The natural world has always been a robust touch point for me when I search for new ways to see teaching with fresh eyes. The poet John Moffitt writes: “To look at any thing,/ If you would know that thing,/ You must look at it long:/ To look at this green and say,/ “I have seen spring in these/ Woods,” will not do – you must/ Be the thing you see:” The message for me is plain. To really know my students, which is the gateway to effective teaching, I must take the time to get to know my students. I must learn their moods, their vocabulary of learning, their hidden pain which they guard, and their passion to learn. I find that this type of decentered-teaching works best when I step away from my ego, my institutional role, and move outside my narrow pedagogical interests to adopt new ways of seeing and talking about learning.
Ornithology, the study of birds, is also a non-teaching favorite of mine. I find it is rich with metaphors and images of good practice as long as I can look beyond the language and technical descriptions to the deeper meaning. I was recently watching a PBS show Autumnwatch New England. One of the guests was David Allen Sibley, arguably one of the premier birders and illustrators in the world. He made this remarkable statement when describing the process of writing and painting a field guide on birds: “A drawing is a picture of our understanding. If you don’t understand something you can’t draw it.” And in a YouTube video on his drawing process, David states: “Every sketch that I do I discover something new. I get to know the bird better. It forces me to look at all the different aspects, the proportions, the shapes, the curves, the tones, and really understand all that. There is no better way to get to know a bird than to draw it”. Sibley’s insight on sketching and illustrating birds is a form of wisdom I can apply immediately to my teaching. He reminds me that it is important, if not essential, to combine the precision of science with the illumination of art. There is a science or structure to my teaching anchored in proven teaching techniques. But of equal importance is the art of teaching, which comes, as Sibley suggests from the process of intentionally watching and sketching the intricacies of my students, their ineffable qualities. The more I turn outward and away from the taken for granted language of education and my own views of education, the more I’m likely to discover new ways to pursue my goal of student-transcendence of self and content.
If a drawing is a form of understanding as Sibley argues, how well can you sketch your students? Without seeing them in front of you how precise is your drawing? Do you truly understand in the depth of your teacher heart and psyche what their form is? What are the qualities and characteristics that separate and unify your students, one from the other? Maybe it is time to sharpen your pencils and head out into the field, sketch book in hand, to do some close observation. I know I haven’t done enough of that kind of teaching, the act of deep-observation, lately. It is time, I feel, to do some field work. To get out and do some sketching.