Feb 26, 2019—I was recently thinking about embodied teaching. The source of my reflection is the theology course I’m taking. The class readings describe the diverse ways that Spirit, ritual practices, and professional calling are best understood as embodied, not rational, experiences and orientations to truth. As I thought about the application of embodiness to teaching it became clear to me that an element of good teaching is an embodied, not rational, practice. In support of this claim I generated the following list of expressions and concepts that resonate with a bodily form of knowing in teaching: wholehearted, embracing change, feel for the work, heart-felt, wounded, heartbroken, gut feeling, and presence. This short list, I’m sure, only scratches the surface. I suspect you will have additional terms for teaching that are equally embodied.
Embodiedness as a distinguishing characteristic of teaching provides unique answers to the philosophical questions about knowing (epistemology) and being (ontology) in education. Embodied teaching, in contrast to Western ways of knowing and being, involves feeling, emotions, and intuition. The embodied educator trusts the full range of their inner sense making tools while also recognizing the limitations and pitfalls of blindly following subjective perceptions and understandings. Embodied educators have no choice but to teach through the wisdom of their bodies. They have no choice because that is who they are at the level of their instructional core; embodiedness is their being. To act otherwise is to teach out of a sense of falsehood and inauthenticity that students will sense and respond to in kind. Students will learn from their teacher how to hide their true self. To understand teaching as a calling is to acknowledge gifts and talents embodied in unique ways for each teacher.
Laura Rendon in her book Sentipensante summarizes the contrast between embodiness and rationalism in this way. Instead of embracing the Cartesian world view of “I think therefore I am” she argues for a more holistic framing of teaching as “I belong therefore I am”. Belonging in both the sense of being part of a group of others (external embodiment) and attentiveness to one’s inner life (internal embodiment). To truly belong to a group is to be recognized as a distinct person inhabiting a particular body. To belong internally is to know your moods, emotions, gifts, shadows, and the places in your body where you hold pain or experience joy. I can tell, for instance, when I’m more or less in my body as a teacher. The more I feel grounded and centered, rooted into the classroom space, the more I am energized and connected to the content and to my students. I’m alive and flourishing in the instructional space.
bell hooks, another educator concerned about embodied teaching, speaks of educators who are weary. They carry around a sense of disconnection from themselves, their students, and their content knowledge. Her antidote to this deep sense of professional weariness is attentiveness to spiritual energy and wellness. It is from these deep sources of passion that good teaching flows through the hands of the teacher and into the hearts of students. For both Rendon and hooks the move toward teaching as an embodied practice means dropping the metaphor of student as object and embracing the understanding of student as subject; a body of unique qualities and characteristics. Additionally, teacher as subject can meet student as subject in an embodied emancipatory-relationship of mutual respect, appreciation, and empathy.
In concrete terms, embodied teaching can take a variety of forms and styles. Here are a few examples that come to mind. I once observed an apprentice teacher who was a master at greeting students at the door of the classroom. The ritual practice of greeting was more than a handshake, fist bump, or loving pat on the back. The bodily presence of the teacher met the bodily presence, in all its forms, of the students entering the classroom. The chemistry of teacher true-self welcoming student true-self set the stage for engaged learning. One of my consistent embodied practices is having students complete name cards during the first class session. At the end of class I collect the cards and pass them out at the start of the next class period. This practice provides me an opportunity to walk around the class and greet each student. I often follow up on an email or check to see how a project is going. My embodied presence invites the embodied presence of my students to show up. In another example, materials in some classrooms are passed out by the teacher with care and concern. Thus the students see the importance of respect for the learning process. In other classrooms materials are passed out haphazardly or even worse tossed onto the desks of students. In the second example the embodied practice of disrespect for curriculum conveys an implicit message of disrespect to students about the value of knowing and becoming educated.
Rapport with students is a common indicator in most teacher observation tools. In many cases this is measured and met through the frequency and quality of greetings, expressions of interest in students and their home life, or demonstrating belief in a student’s capacity to learn. These are important and necessary steps but only the early stages of rapport. An embodied teacher understands rapport as an opportunity to meet each student as a fully complete human being, with all the strengths and struggles that being human entails. The challenge lies in measuring this quality of teaching since it is often individual to each teacher. But that should not stop educators from developing language, metaphors, and descriptors for embodied teaching. How do you know—feel—when you are more or less in your body while teaching. What does it feel like when you shift from your rational teaching mind to a sense of intuition?