August 22, 2019—I’m captivated and intrigued by human behavior; mine especially, but others as well. It is one of the reasons I became a teacher, nearly unfettered opportunities to watch and learn from the ways that students and educators navigate classroom choices. I’ve learned so much about myself: likes/dislikes, fears/joys, and power/autonomy from observing and responding to my instructional moves. The first scholarly article I wrote was a reflection on a teaching conundrum I experienced, the sources of inner-wisdom I drew from in making sense of the moment, and the ways I acted on my core beliefs that day in the classroom. Internal observations of self as teacher has become a principle way I come into greater contact with my true-self; the inner wisdom that lends consistency and groundedness to my teaching.
But the classroom is only one place I access this wisdom and come into contact with the deep questions of human flourishing. For instance, my latest musings on the human condition and its implications for teaching started with the very mundane activity of going to the hardware store. I was in search of lightbulbs for a lamp and numbers for the new mailbox I installed. As I walked toward the cashier to pay for my items I overheard one of the clerks say to a customer: “All religions are totally corrupt.” My body kept moving, as this wasn’t my conversation, but my mind and soul took a double take at the abruptness and pointedness of the statement.
In my head I was thinking: “yes and no.” To be human, I’ve learned from experience and my theological studies, is to be prone to both ego-driven self-interest and transcendent empathy in service to the other. And since religion is mostly a human construct, even though focused on the ineffable, it can devolve toward “corruption”. Most human endeavors by their nature, if not infused with Love, are prone to duplicity and drift from their original intent. And at the same time people seem to have a universal capacity to make choices that benefit others. Not all religions or religious activities are bankrupt in just the same way that not every school or teacher is acting with ill intent even though their actions may bring harm to a student.
As I was driving home with my lightbulbs and mailbox numbers my musings led to the topic of choice and the questions of inner authority. When do I chose a path and when is the path chosen for me (directly or indirectly)? What is the role of the individual and what is the role of social/institutional forces in choice? Is it truly possible to claim individual authority in choice? These questions were informed, in part, by an episode of the Amazon series, Man in the High Castle by Frank Spotnitz. The show is set in an alternative version of history where Germany and Japan defeat the Allies in WWII. They are now an occupying force in what was once America. In an episode I watched, two actors were engaged in a discussion about resistance, power, authority, and personal choice. The conversation ends when one of the characters points to his head and states: “…as long as you have an inner fascist telling you what you can and can’t do they don’t need an external authority to rule over you. You will police yourself.”
I can relate to this description of an inner authority; the voices I carry around that inform my actions and reactions in the world. It can be confusing in my head, at times, with all the voices offering advice and guidance, especially when I’m struggling as a teacher. But in the simplest of terms my inner authority has two primary manifestations. On one end of the continuum are my inner-teachers who use the power of conformity to encourage choices that serve my ego or wider institutional systems of oppression. I know this aspect of my inner authority is influencing my activities when I’m acting out of fear, anger, righteousness, or ego inflation. May Sarton in her poem Angels and Furies describes this ever present human attribute as “black rage in the blood” that leaves everyone, initiator and receiver, feeling “wounded” and “battered”. Yet Sarton knows that the furies are only one end of the continuum. Only one half of our humanness. We are also capable of responding to the call of our inner angels who “shower blessings” with “sudden motions or intimations of goodness”. My inner authority resonates with the voice of an angel when I speak out against institutional norms on behalf of students; when I look beyond my narrow instructional disappointment with a student to see the wider context of their life and the miracle of their humanness; and when I make classroom choices that lean toward community building over individualism. When my angels are prominent I take a more gracious, empathetic, and wholehearted stance toward my teaching and the learning of students.
The real wisdom in Sarton’s poem is that choice is not about one inner authority over the other. Rather it involves the dance of both my furies and my angels. As an educator I can only approach “the light of understanding” regarding the best instructional choices by attending to both aspects of myself. It can be just as misleading to say that all acts of teaching are corrupt as it is to say that all acts of teaching are blessed. For me the gift of teaching is the creation of a space where I can explore the fullness of my emotions and choices in service of learners. Sometimes I hit the mark and students flourish and other times I cause harm. But as long as I can keep the dance of my angels and furies moving to the music of Love and Relationships I’m pretty sure I’m doing the best I can as an educator.