July 15, 2019—The field of education is rife with paradoxes, two things that are distinct yet cohere into one unified frame of reference.  In a paradoxical relationship power is contingent on the equal strength of each side of the pair. If one side is more powerful than the other than the paradoxical relationship is weakened and the full potential of the pairing is not realized.  For instance, in the teacher/student paradox if the student holds all the power than the wisdom, voice, and understanding of the teacher is only weakly present to inform the learning trajectory of the student. And when the teacher voice is too loud, students are limited in their choice of content, product, or learning style.  The goal in paradoxical relationships is integration, not balance or resolution of the tension. John Dewey in Experience and Education cautions against either/or thinking and instead he advocates for both/and conceptualizations of teaching and learning.  The emphasis between the poles should shift back and force, dialectically, in dynamic tension, always in response to the particularities of the educational context.  Sometimes the student should have more power and other times of the power shifts to the teacher. The when and how is dependent of learning outcomes that allow for the greatest potential for growth and transcendence of the student and teacher.  Common paradoxes in education include: freedom/structure, formative/summative, content/experience, individual/community, and external/internal.  

One paradox that has grabbed my attention lately is knowledge/knowing.  It has materialized in my studies of theology, education, and critical theory.  If knowledge/knowing is truly a paradox then it offers some explanatory power to describe a core weakness of contemporary forms of education.  Although both terms are evident in education the power differential is skewed, mostly in favor of knowledge. This is evident, it seems, in the emphasis on content knowledge, standardized assessments, and performance indicators in the curriculum.  What is lost or weakened is the unexpected, transcendent, and unanticipated.   

Let me broaden out my definition of the knowledge/knowing paradox before I go much further.  Dwayne Huebner (1985) in his essay Spirituality and Knowing provides the following contrast between knowledge and knowing.

“Knowledge is form separated from life… It stands by itself, removed from the vitality and dynamics of life, from the spirit” (p. 351).   

“Every mode of knowing witnesses to the transcending possibilities of which human life is a part.  All knowing requires openness and vulnerability” (p. 350).  

I find this distinction helpful as I approach the process of preparing, delivering, and evaluating my teaching.  When I’m leaning too heavily toward knowledge in the paradox I engage in the following behaviors: I focus on product; I engage learning as if it were a commodity to be exchanged or transacted; and I form a relationship with knowledge is if it were a “thing”.  When acting more fully in my knowledge-teaching mode I’m teaching from a Western tradition which conceptualizes knowledge as a thing, capital, a noun; something not-me. As Huebner notes: “knowledge is form separated from life”.  To be clear, there are times when teaching from a knowledge orientation is important; standards and expectations can help to keep everyone pointed in the direction of flourishing and fulfillment. When I move my teaching too far in the direction of knowing my instructional behaviors include: I’m concerned with process; learning occurs as interaction between the self and the other; and my relationship with knowing is as if we are both elements of life engaged in a mutual dance of exploration.  My knowing-teaching leans heavily toward Eastern-Tribal ways of knowing which means treating knowing as a being, life, and a verb; something that is-me. As Huebner argues, knowing drives toward the “transcending possibilities of which human life is a part”.

The discipline of Theology offers a different, and helpful, way of understanding the knowledge/knowing paradox.  And by Theology I’m thinking of the diverse ways that humans connect with and are in relationship with something greater than self which is often but not exclusively defined by religious traditions and practices.  In various faith traditions a form of irrationality is understood as separation from the Divine source of knowing; to be outside of one’s wholeness and out of synch with the completeness of the living world. A sort of unrootedness and disconnection that is the result of too much reliance on the markers of success in this world. On the other side of the spiritual equation it can be equally problematic to invest too much on the ineffable and transcendent elements of the Divine in the world.  Under these circumstances a person is cut loose from the lived world and a sort of disconnection from the practical problems and concerns of life materializes. Although a person may appear saintly in their behavior and someone to aspire to they may also act removed and aloof, unconcerned with the wants and needs of this world.  

Both examples from Huebner and Theology are applicable to my teaching.  I can be so grounded in the practicalities of curriculum that I measure my educational success by the metric of student evaluations, the number of times students talk in class, or comparisons between the learning of my students and the students of other faculty.  Concrete forms of knowledge that can be characterized and charted dominate my understanding of teaching. In contrast, I can sometimes be so “up in my head” with my theories and conceptual models that I’m just talking to myself. I’m busy spinning complex ways of understanding that may make me feel smart but may leave my students wondering what I’m talking about.  Huebner’s observation that “all knowing requires openness and vulnerability” is for me a good marker of when I’m more or less successful at integrating and elevating the knowledge/knowing paradox. When I’m truly open to knowing instead of knowledge I avoid the trap of the theory/practice distinction. I embrace wisdom and knowing from both perspectives. When I approach teaching with vulnerability I resist the temptation of anchoring knowing exclusively in my sense of selfhood; instead I welcome the unexpected, the unpredictable, and the dynamic.  In short I try to live with the curriculum in the ways that it lives in and through me.

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.  

May 20, 2019—In Part One of this two part blog-post I painted in broad brush strokes the features of teaching as a mystical experience.  A connection to a calling to teach.  As in the first post I will draw from the work of Dorothee Soelle and her book, The Silent Cry.  She is a theologian and therefore for her the Divine means all the diverse ways humans describe the source of all knowing and all being.  I think that for secularly inclined educators Divine could mean relationship to the source of knowing that is greater than self, which can be internal or external.  For example, curriculum, students, deep self-awareness, or subject matter. In Part Two I will focus in on the three core elements of the mystical experience (purification, illumination, and union) with a particular goal of showing how they might materialize in the life of the classroom.

Although perhaps not equivalent to the life-long journey of a mystic there is a strong similarity in the ways that teachers become more fully aware of their inner-calling and its pull toward instructional wholeness.  By calling I mean the deep inner drive of educators to teach.  An identity that once felt by the teacher is nearly impossible to not hear or abandon for other professional pursuits.  In the language of mysticism a calling is the Divine spark to teach within the heart of the educator.  Sometimes a calling is experienced while still a child and for others it emerges much later in life.  Regardless of when the initial call appears, the first step toward fully accessing that spark and allowing it to flame fully into pedagogical life is purification.  Soelle describes purification as “being emptied of cares, ideas, and purposes”.  Through this process teachers can rediscover a childlike sense of “wonderment” and “amazement” associated with the power of teaching.  For educators this entails letting go of preconceived ideas about teaching, learning to set aside fears, and developing techniques to calm inner turmoil and doubt.  One of the biggest challenges, according to Dan Lortie, to learning to teach is the “apprenticeship of observation” that accrues over time as the future-teacher moves from Kindergarten through high school graduation.  Each educator encountered along the K-12 journey infuses, for better or worse, images and inclinations of what a teacher is and does.  Unfortunately this overburden of layered identity can often smother the true-self of the teacher to be, the birth-right gift to heal through teaching.  The uncovering of identity requires the tools of amazement and wonderment to facilitate a state of “self-forgetfulness” of the old false-self of layered impressions and the embracing of “being here, being today, being now”.  Purification for educators wipes the slate clean of preconceived notions of teacher imposed from outside as well as the unrealistic inner expectations and assumptions of what a good teacher does.

Once some level of inner calmness and clarity of purpose is achieved and sustained the next step is illumination.  Key to illumination is “transformation” where “the light of the new reality may stream in and completely enlighten and change the soul”.  In my personal experience of learning to teach and through years of coaching teachers I equate the mystical illumination with the acceptance of one’s gifts as an educator.  This is far from an easy process.  It takes time, practice, and discipline so that the “light of the new reality may stream in” and change the teacher’s heart and craft. Teachers are, it seems by nature, hesitant to accept their skills as a gift. I for one, would rather not draw attention to my accomplishments.  I’m quick to dismiss educational successes as something common place with the phrase, “I’m not that special. That is just what teachers do”.   For the teachers who do experience some element of illumination at the heart of their craft, they begin to view their teaching skills as something coming from beyond themselves; a gift moving from deep inside which becomes visible in the form of their pedagogical choices.  In the language of mysticism the “Divine spark” or calling begins to glow and shine.  An illuminated educator becomes transformed as their pedagogy moves from ego-centric and external technical expertise to inner-wisdom that flows in a natural state of being.  They experience an “un-forming” or a sense of “letting go of our false desires”.  The taken for granted world view of educator as all powerful and all-knowing is turned on its head and instead openness, vulnerability, and wholeheartedness become the source of authority in the classroom.  As Parker Palmer notes: “technique is what a teacher uses until the real teacher arrives”.  An illuminated teacher is real and fully present to their gifts and the learning interests of their students.

The third step in the mystical journey according to Soelle is “union of the soul with God”.  The Flemish mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck, according to Soelle, defines union as the stage of “oneness of being itself”.  Educators approach this state of “oneness” when they are one with their gift, their calling to teach.  This is not a way of teaching that can be taught or mastered through technical expertise.  And it is not typically a constant state of being, it fluctuates in accordance with a range of contextual variables.  But at its best it feels like a union of one’s teaching with the spark of the calling to be an educator.  Some call this a state of “flow” where time seems to slow down, the space between teaching and learning collapses, and a feeling of unity between inner energy and outer practice becomes the norm.  In union there is no student, no teacher, no curriculum, just a unifying sense of integration and completeness which is often described as oneness with the subject matter.  This state of instructional bliss is experienced as a “healing” or “wholeness” where the small intellectual and ego deaths of traditional forms of teaching are transcended into life giving human flourishing.  The gifts of the teacher flow freely from their Divine calling into the classroom and are available to the hearts and minds of students.  Love for self, others, and text infuse the learning experience; the stifling elements of structure, accountability, and rigor vanish or are subsumed under something bigger for brief moments in time.

In my professional role as educator and sometimes mystic I see potential in using the stages of mysticism in the preparation and professional development of teachers.  My commitment to pursuing this framing is premised on two assumptions and one challenge, all three grounded in my personal and professional experience.  The first assumption is that all true teachers have within a Divine spark labeled “educator”.  I recognize that not everyone would agree with this point and that some educators would resist or hesitate at my use of theological language to describe this aspect of teaching. Two, given the right circumstances, rituals, and disciplined practice the Divine gift of teaching can be liberated and breathed fully into instructional brilliance.  The biggest challenge to the initiation and development of purification, illumination, and union are the norms of education which lean heavily away from the spiritual and toward structure, regimentation, and standardization.  My goal is to awaken, in a non-religious sense, teachers to the potential fullness of their calling to teach.  Mysticism for myself and others seems like a good walking companion in this task.

May 5, 2019—Educators love to create categories and frameworks for learning, as if learning is solely contingent on structure and form.  The modern field of education is so focused on standards that it is almost as if human learning never occurred before the formalization of curriculum. The wider history of education, however, shows that the traditionalist approach to teaching and learning is a recent focus of education.  Karen Armstrong argues in her book The Case for God that as early as 50,000 years ago people used cave paintings and sophisticated ritual to usher young people into adulthood and full participation in the life of the tribe.  In antiquity, Greek, Roman, and Jewish communities organized learning around preparation for entry into religious communities, participation in civic life, or general intellectual enrichment.   And throughout the history of curriculum in America there were educators who argued for and actively sought to elevate holistic notions of knowing and organization of curriculum.  More recently, Parker Palmer in his well-known text Courage to Teach brings attention to the fact that: “We teach who we are”. By this he means that the inner life of the teacher has to be taken into account for any serious conversation about teaching to occur.  To not address, for instance, feelings of fear or abundance, as aspects of the inner life of educators is to risk pedagogical disaster.  Students know when a teacher is inauthentic and not showing the fullness of their humanity and if the teacher is holding back why should the learner fully invest in the learning process?

The challenge for holistic educators is less about knowing the inner-life exists but rather more about developing a language to describe this orientation to teaching.  Unlike the traditionalist model which attends to concrete phenomena like lesson plans, instructional strategies, and performance indicators anchored in observable behaviors, the inner-life of educators is less tangible and difficult to observe directly.  But as Abraham Heschel argues just because something is ineffable doesn’t mean it can’t be understood: “The ineffable, then, is a synonym for hidden meaning rather than for the absence of mean­ing”.  A case in point is Dorothee Soelle’s text, The Silent Cry (2001) in which she provides a detailed analysis of mystical experiences where the inner-life of the person finds unity with Divine Love. In quoting Jan Van Ruysbroeck, Soelle makes a good case for the connection between the inner life of teachers and their outer performance: “Self-knowledge teaches us whence we come, where we are and whither we go”.  In other words, as Palmer states: “We teach who we are” and the stronger the sense of self-knowledge the more effective and authentic teaching becomes.

Beyond this broad argument connecting the outer performance of teachers to the condition of their inner-life, Soelle provides specific language and markers that are useful for anyone interested in deepening their spiritual formation as an educator.  She begins by first arguing that all people are capable of mystical experiences, connections to and with something greater than self.  As she notes, her goal is to “democratize the mystical experience” so that all people, not just the pious few, can access the wisdom of Divine Love.  Soelle is a theologian and therefore for her the Divine means all the diverse ways humans describe God.  I think that for secularly inclined educators Divine could mean something greater than self.  I’m thinking here particularly of subject matter, the great historical narrative of an academic discipline, or a deep dedication to a student, anything that goes beyond the expected which results in personal or academic transcendence.  Furthermore, she claims that “the trivialization of life is perhaps the strongest antimystical force among us”.  For educators “trivialization” comes in the form of teacher-proof curriculum that overly structures and constrains the instructional life of educators.  For Soelle, a good way to resist the “trivialization of life” is to embrace the mystical experience which all people are capable of achieving.  For me this raises the question, what might viewing education through mysticism add to our understanding of effective forms of teaching?

According to Soelle there are two types of mystics, individuals who advocate the virtues of pure mystical experience and mystics who are more interested in teaching about the process of preparing for the mystical encounter with Divine Love.  This later group she calls the “mystagogues” who by their nature teach about the mysteries of the mystical experience.  The work of the mystagogue is tricky because mysticism by definition involves developing a relationship with something, Love, that can’t be defined, described, or delineated.  Yet the Divine can be experienced and the mystagogues have developed rituals and practices that prepare a person for the mystical experience.  The same categorization of knowing seems true for educators who experience the inner-life of teaching.  There are teacher educators who argue that the inner-life of educators can only be experienced, not taught. And there are educators who believe that it is possible to formalize the process of connecting teachers to Divine educational energies.

I belong to the latter group.  I can’t and would never want to craft a mystical experience for educators, but I can facilitate the conditions for the likelihood of a mystical experience to occur.  By mystical I mean the ability of educators to move beyond purely technical approaches to teaching; to embrace those aspects of teaching that are ineffable, transcendent, and bound to something greater than self.  I long ago claimed, or better yet have been claimed by, the identity of educator.  Teaching is the unique spark of the Divine that glows most fervently in my heart.  It is my gift, my calling, and my passion.  I have also come to realize that my deepest experiences with Love while teaching fall into the category of mysticism.  Given my mystical tendencies and mystagogical orientation to curriculum I’m frequently looking for and inclined toward models or descriptions of teaching that are organized around the acquisition of knowledge that anchor the teaching process in some notion of mystery.  Dorothee Soelle describes several key elements of the mystical experience that I think can be repurposed to the mystagogical task of structuring a learning curriculum for teachers that attends to the mystical aspects of their teaching; their inner-life.  The three stages of mysticism, “purification, illumination, and union”, presented by Soelle provide guideposts for speaking about the mystical preparation of teachers.

In my next blog-post I will define these three stages and provide personal and professional examples of what they might look like in the daily practice of educators.  In the meantime I invite you think about the ways that you experience teaching as a form of mystery, perhaps most clearly in those moments of awe and wonder in the classroom.

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?

 

February 7, 2019—Is empathy fatigue just another word for burnout or is there something particular about empathy fatigue that is worth leaning into?  In the past week I led a professional development session on empathy fatigue and I had two separate and unrelated conversations with professionals around this theme.  I have learned over the years that when something appears frequently in my life it is worth paying attention to.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, empathy or compassion fatigue is defined as the “indifference to charitable appeals on behalf of those who are suffering, experienced as a result of the frequency or number of such appeals.” In other words, empathy fatigue is a response by caregivers to repeated requests for help by someone else in need.  Empathy fatigue is more typically experienced by physicians, nurses, and other health care providers as their capacity to express empathy for patients is eroded by stress, external performance indicators, and the press to increase efficiency.  It is also sometimes called empathy fatigue. However, I think empathy fatigue, or some variant, is experienced by teachers when their calling to serve learners collides with the frequent appeals by learners (expressed and unexpressed) for social, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual support.

Empathy fatigue for educators, much like for health care workers, is more of a systems problem than the work of individual teachers or students. Most teachers I know care deeply about their students.  They want to help; that is why they are educators.  Teachers don’t set out to experience it and equally so I don’t think most students intend to inflict their teachers with it.  Yet empathy fatigue is part of the teaching landscape and is a contributing factor to teacher attrition rates.  One underlying social factor that contributes to empathy fatigue is chronic stress.  The American Psychological Association reports that a third of workers experience regular and sustained stress.  Suicide and rates of depression are rising, in part from stress, according to the Center for Disease Control and surveys from Blue Cross Blue Shield.  Within the field of education half of the teaching force has contemplated leaving because of personal and professional stress.  Two-thirds of educators in a survey of 5,000 teachers stated that they found their work environment stressful.  These statistics may help explain why empathy fatigue can materialize despite the deep sense of calling a teacher holds for her craft.  It can happen to the best of teachers who deeply care about the learning and emotional state of their students.  In fact, the more a teacher cares the more likely they are to experience empathy fatigue as they dig deep into their empathy tank in response to frequent appeals for assistance from students.

There are several actions a teacher can take to either reduce the likelihood of empathy fatigue or to work their way toward better health and wellness.  On an individual basis, mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing and contemplative activities can help.  Another workable response to empathy fatigue is keeping a gratitude journal or log.  A simple list of things to be grateful for in the teaching day.  Maybe it was an instructional breakthrough that opened up a new way to teach a concept.  Maybe it was a joke a student told during class.  Maybe it is the feeling of gratitude for a colleague who took the time to check in.  A variant on the gratitude log is keeping the hand written notes, drawings, and emails from students, parents, or colleagues complimenting some aspect of your teaching.  When the days are rough, and those days do occur, looking through the file can be a reminder of your ability to do great things to enhance learning.  And most importantly, there is always self-empathy, recognizing that empathy fatigue is a part of what it means to be a teacher, because you care enough to invest your heart in service of another person.  You can’t be perfect all the time; imperfection and imperfect care are human qualities.

Beyond individual actions in combating empathy fatigue it is helpful to have a good social network of like-minded colleagues, especially colleagues who know you well enough to recognize if you are not quite yourself as you interact with students.  Fellow educators who ask how you are doing, invite you out for a cup of coffee/tea to talk, or shine a light in your darkness reminding you about your calling.  A trusted colleague, friend, or partner can recognize the symptoms of empathy fatigue and make you rest and renew your empathy gas tank.  As anyone who travels by plane knows you have to put your oxygen mask on first before you can help others in need.

Students can help as well.  They are highly tuned to the moods of their teachers and therefore make good empathy fatigue detectors.  One of the signs of empathy fatigue is a loss of focus or interest in the other.  Students spend large parts of their day in direct contact with teachers, watching their emotional states and anticipating their teaching moves.  As such, if they have a strong relationship with their teacher, they can call the teacher out when they are inattentive and wandering, seeming to lose focus and interest in the educational needs of the student.  If the teacher is resilient they will recognize the truth of the critique, and if true, admit they were not fully present to the student and take steps to refocus.  It is also the case that empathy fatigue for teachers can be the result of trying too hard to reach into the learning heart of the student.  Teachers are typically hardwired to help students learn and this is generally an admirable quality.  But the shadow side of this gift is that a teacher’s identity and sense of accomplishment can become affixed to the learning performance of students.  Yet if for any number of reasons a student resists taking ownership of their learning by constantly asking the teacher for help, the end result can be empathy fatigue.  The teacher’s sense of self becomes depleted by the cycle of emotionally and intellectually extending oneself to meet the student’s need combined with minimal or slow student learning outcomes.

Students can also be a source of energy, giving back to the teacher, restocking their empathy tank.  Care dynamics are reversed and the student is now helping the teacher. An observant teacher knows which students in their classes are likely to give caring-energy.  With that knowledge a empathy fatigued teacher can look ahead into the daily class schedule with a sense of anticipation, not to burden the student with unreasonable and unprofessional expectations, but simply to be present to the mutual joy of teaching and learning.  This is a form of positive, rather than negative, projection into the instructional day. Who are the students just as ready to greet you as you are to greet them?  After all isn’t this one way to describe good teaching: a shared sense of care for the other?  Empathy fatigue is real for teachers but it doesn’t have to blunt the teacher’s call to serve others.

January 22, 2019—The winter solstice is a month past.  The earth is no longer at its maximum tilt away from the sun in the northern hemisphere.  As my backyard incrementally tilts toward the sun it slowly absorbs more heat as the season of winter leans toward spring and then on to the summer solstice.  Two periods of equal light and dark (equinox) and two periods of unequal light and dark (solstice) are key markers as the earth orbits the sun.  The natural world crosses four thresholds and passes through four doorways during the year in the process of integrating varying amounts of light and dark.  Parker Palmer encourages educators to look to the natural world for clues and metaphors for understanding the tilted-axis of the teacher’s identity as we journey around the gravitational pull, periods of light/dark, and the warming presence of our students.  The seasonal metaphor of thresholds and doorways offer, I think, an interesting way to understand the ebb and flow of teaching.

What are the doorways of my teaching?  What are the thresholds of your teaching?  Where are they inviting you and me to enter and experience the newness of our craft?  The first doorway that speaks to me is the threshold of my classroom.  I teach in different buildings and different rooms with different doors but the threshold experience is the same for my teacher heart.  It marks the boundary between the ordinary spaces of the university and sacred space of the classroom.  In the classroom we have, as a collected community of teacher and students, the opportunity to structure time and space in ways that preserve aspects of power and hierarchy or we can disrupt those elements.  Doors and thresholds are magical and powerful.  They are at their best symbols reminding everyone to enter the classroom with openness, vulnerability, and attentiveness to the other.  The more explicit I am with naming this threshold the easier it is to enter ready to consider new approaches to learning and to embrace opportunities to change perceptions of self and others.  Rituals are important when passing through doorways and crossing thresholds intended to facilitate transformation.  I mark this transition by reading a poem at the start of class.  A good poem allows time for everyone to settle into our shared space and to begin the task of education, change, and challenge.

A second teaching doorway is my office door.  Although not directly associated with traditional images of a classroom my office is an important feature of teaching and learning.  Sometimes the office-lessons are planned: mentoring sessions around doctoral research or office appointments with a student requesting modifications to a course assignment.  Other times my door stands wide open and the teaching moment is more organic and spontaneous.  Only when the conversation is sensitive is my door closed.  I try to pay attention to the fact that my office door is more than an institutional barrier between faculty professional life and student interests, wants, and needs. My office door is just a different kind of threshold that once crossed is an invitation to change and learn in the same way as the threshold into my classroom.  My plants, my books, and a small round table are meant to signal this transition for students, colleagues, and myself.  At the end of every week I take a moment, a regular ritual of practice, to honor this threshold as I close my door.

The real quality of doors and their metaphorical equivalent can make a difference in the crossing of thresholds along the journey of knowing.  Some doors are glass and others steel; some teaching is transparent and some is not.  What would it mean to teach as if you were separated from the rest of the world by a screen door?  Some classroom doors are unlocked and easy to pass through.  Others are locked and require a key or access code to enter as if only people with the official code are privy to the learning within.  Some educators find themselves teaching from behind the locked doors of fear, anxiety, and a sense of instructional inadequacy.  In these classrooms students may find it harder to step over the threshold of deep learning and into a space of intellectual transcendence.  What type of door are you when you are at your best as a teacher?  How about when nothing seems to be working and you feel ill-suited for the work of teaching?  When I’m at my least effective my door is bolted shut with only a small sliding panel for communication across the threshold.

Anne Hillman in her poem “We Look With Uncertainty” reminds me to remain humble in the face of successful moments of learning as my students cross the threshold into knowledge and knowing.  She writes: “We look with uncertainty… to a softer, more permeable aliveness which is every moment at the brink of death”.  The possibility for pedagogical uncertainty is always just over the threshold of my classroom instruction.  But as Hillman notes the possibility of a failed lesson is an invitation to aliveness and the movement through new and unexpected doorways; places where transformation exists on the other side.  Her response to this uncertainty contains good advice for me and other teachers: “We stand at a new doorway, awaiting that which comes…”  What are the new doorways in your teaching inviting you to cross the threshold to change?  Who or what is preventing or encouraging you to open a door and move into a new instructional room?

December 20th, 2016 – I frequently start my higher education classes with a poem, typically a poem that has little direct connection to teaching, my primary area of expertise and interest. Why and toward what end? What if anything does poetry contribute to an understanding of history, philosophy, or social context of schooling?

The poet Emily Dickinson in her poem Tell all the truth but tell it slant opens with the line “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” and she ends with the explanation “The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind”. T.S. Eliot, when asked about the value of poetry replied, “The chief use of the “meaning” of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog”. I find that poetry is an effective way to introduce core ideas and concepts about teaching and schooling but in a way that is less direct, thus increasing the chance that students will incorporate or at least strongly consider the main points of the class. Poetry allows for the introduction of controversial or strong ideas but at a “slant” or like the burglar who brings a “bit of nice meat for the house-dog”. The poem opens up the learning heart of my students while temporarily distracting their academic mind. By starting class this way I find that my students are more likely to express their understanding of the text through fresh critical eyes instead of the voice of well-trained students trying to impress the professor.

How do I introduce poetry to my students? I initially tell them that poems are like a Rorschach test where the psychiatrist asks a patient to interpret an ink blot on a piece of folded paper. In my case, the poem invites their inner teacher to see or hear what they most need to understand about the poem as it connects with the text for the day. I make it clear that like a Rorschach test each student will likely hear or see something different in the poem. In a subtle but direct way this conveys the message that intellectual diversity is valued in our community of scholars. I pass out the poem and read it out loud (there is something about hearing a poem read by someone else that goes deeper into the space of meaning than reading a poem in silence). I hold a few minutes of silence for the deep meaning of the poem to sink into the deep learning spaces of my students. I break the silence with an invitation to share a word, image, or phrase that speaks to them about the link between the poem and the essence of the texts we read for the class.

For the next 10-15 minutes at least three things happen. One, I get a real time sense of how my students understood, in a truly personal and intellectual sense, the readings for the class session. Two, students get a chance, in a non-threatening way, to hear the different ways that their classmates connected to or made sense of the readings. Three, all of us (teacher and students) slow down and settle into the class period. In no way does poetry provide an escape from the rigor of engaging critical ideas but as Emily Dickinson argues: “The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind”.

November 25th, 2016 – This picture of a blackbird perched on a branch singing over a marsh of cattail reeds in the early morning hours of a new day is one my favorite images of teaching.  I invite you to take some time and look closely.  What are the signs of good teaching evident in this image?  What are the conditions of the environment that allow for the presence of good teaching to present itself for examination?  How would you begin to compare this male blackbird and his song to all the other males singing that day?  How might we use this image of a singing bird to talk about the ineffable or hidden qualities of good teaching?

First let me make an argument for the ineffable, that which we know exists but frequently can’t see; courage, passion and grit for instance.  One way bird lovers make distinctions between birds are their songs, each species has a signature melody.  But a song, like many aspects of good teaching can be heard but not seen, except when the right conditions bring the ineffable forward for examination.  In this image we can actually see the song of the blackbird in the exhaled breath.  Each curl, curve and break makes the unseen elements of the song present for inspection.

An important lesson in this image for anyone interested in the unseen aspects of teaching is the importance of the right conditions for the ineffable to materialize.  Externally, there must be a rising sun that back lights the scene, the temperature must be cold enough for the breath to condense into visible droplets, and the wind must be perfectly still or the notes will be distorted.  Internally, the bird must exhibit a certain confidence in his song, head back and throat full of commitment.  Additionally, without a compelling urge to sing the marsh will be quiet and the song of the blackbird will remain invisible.

What are some of the essential learnings that might help with ways of making the unseen or ineffable elements of teaching more evident and available for examination?  The first learning is that the right conditions, externally and internally, must be present. Only a teacher who is encouraged or supported by colleagues or school leaders will take the risk of singing while perched on an exposed branch.  Only a teacher with strong internal sense of calling to teach will throw her head back and in a full-throated way announce with authenticity her particular teaching style.

What might be at stake if we stop paying attention to the ineffable qualities of teaching?  The  graphic novel “Watchman” by DC Comics (2014) warns of the dangers of becoming too analytic in our studies of nature or teaching.  The narrator, whose superhero persona is an owl, muses on the danger of narrowing the investigative eye to only technical qualities when describing what makes a bird a bird:

“Looking at a hawk, we see the minute differences in width of the shaft lines on the under-feathers where the Egyptians once saw Horus and the burning eye of holy vengeance incarnate. Until we transform our mere sightings into genuine visions; until our ear is mature enough to order a symphony from the shrill pandemonium of the aviary; until then we may have a hobby, but we shall not have a passion.  When I was a boy, my passion was for owls. Somewhere over the years; some-place along the line my passion got lost, unwittingly refined from the original gleaming ore down to a banal and lusterless filing system.”

When it comes to describing good teaching we must look past the external qualities of “best practices” as defined by standards and accountability rubrics.  We must learn to un-see the world of teaching as solely a technical process that has the potential of de-evolving into “a banal and lusterless filing system”.  We must regain the passion and vision to see the mystery and magic of teaching that is only visible, although always present, on certain cold mornings in the face of a rising sun.

If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Like many twenty-somethings fresh out of undergrad, I landed in a position that felt more like a career than not, but certainly didn’t fulfill an all-encompassing life purpose. I was simply happy to be working in a position I enjoyed, not thinking too much about the next steps in my career path. I was fortunate to develop experience as a sales manager with a large and reputable company, which would later prove to be invaluable in my career change. But, as I eventually realized that particular job was not going to lead to a place of lasting interest to me, I had to decide how I was going to use the skills I had gained to work my way toward something more fulfilling.

A part time position at a public library lead me to discover something about myself. Whether it would be in libraries or another type of organization, I knew that I needed to pursue something that felt purposeful to me.

I decided it was important to obtain a Library Information Science degree, which would provide me with a basis of knowledge for a library position. I didn’t have a great deal of experience working in libraries, and felt that this would help prepare me for the type of work I was excited to begin doing.

I applied to a handful of LIS programs, and at the top of my list was the University of Denver and Morgridge College of Education’s LIS program. I wanted to be in Colorado if possible, and I wanted a program that would offer an in-person academic experience. Networking and learning from professionals face to face was one of my priorities, and DU delivered.

I was able to learn from many different professionals working in the field locally. The in-person program provided me with a variety of hands-on, practical experiences that boosted my knowledge and local support system. I graduated with my MLIS and a job in public libraries at the end of 2 years. And, during that time, I discovered a particular interest within libraries and non-profits I wouldn’t have known existed without going through the LIS program within Morgridge.

With the many opportunities the program led to, I discovered evaluation, analysis, and assessment in libraries and non-profits. The work is an excellent match to my passion that was there before I even knew what to do with it. While completing the LIS program, I became familiar with the Research Methods and Statistics program in MCE, and it proved to be the perfect avenue to continue my studies and deepen my focus in my chosen field. I’m completing my first year in the RMS doctorate program now, while continuing to work in public libraries, which will inform my work in research to come.

The faculty in MCE have been continuously supportive and steadfast in assisting me in reaching my goals. I’m continually challenged to think about my path, the steps I’m taking to get there, and how this is fulfilling my goal and professional purpose. My time working on my graduate studies at MCE has certainly shaped me as a professional, as an individual, as well as a seeker of education. Community and education is the thread of passion that links all MCE graduate students together. I’ve discovered that, as varied as our careers and interests are, our common goal is to do meaningful work in our fields.

 


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