October 19th, 2018—Frederick Buechner famously described a professional calling as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”.  Most teachers when asked why they teach will provide an answer similar to Buechner’s definition of calling.  They feel most alive and in synch with their “deep gladness” when they help learners fulfill their “deep hunger” to understand the world.  Teachers who are called to the profession find it difficult to quit and if they do they often find themselves either back in the classroom or working in an allied profession.  It is common in teacher education programs to hear students talk about leaving successful careers in non-teaching professions because they were bored or knew deep within their heart that they were not following their passion.  They resisted the call to teach for many years until they just couldn’t resist anymore.  It was time to start over, embrace the call, take up their “deep gladness” and follow the passion to teach.  In short, a teacher with a calling to serve the learning needs of students is responding to some deep inner gift or spiritual pull to teach.  Linda Alston in her book Why We Teach explains her experience with trying to resist the call to be a teacher: “we must return because the call resonates in a place within us, and we must answer, Yes!

Because calling is rooted in a deep inner feeling that is more spiritual than practical it often contains an element of idealism.  A longing to serve that is hard to quantify and validate through objective measures more commonly found in teacher accountability rubrics.  Educators teach with the hope of bringing a better world into existence through the kind of teaching that connects their “deep gladness with the world’s deep hunger”.  But these connections can be fleeting and unpredictable. As Alston notes, “the day that we don’t go back might well be the day that we miss the miracle of a child making a connection, saying something funny or profound, creating a work of art, and giving our lives meaning and purpose”. Joy in the miraculous and humorous is a significant component to the identity and idealism that is associated with teaching. Teachers know a lot about the joy of directing their teaching gifts toward learning, the drawing out of knowledge from a student. And in times of stress or uncertainty, joy can provide the needed energy to thrive during the challenges of teacher preparation and the high stakes environment of early career teaching.

As much as idealism and joy are powerful forces for educators they also have their down side.  What happens when the passion of idealism meets the cold hard facts of industrial models of schooling? What happens when the flames of idealism flicker out and instead a teacher succumbs to the reality of bench mark assessments, data sets, instructional rubrics, disinterested learners, and standardized assessments?  What happens when disenchantment overshadows joy?  Is the miraculous transformation of a learner still worth noticing and celebrating if the teacher is cynical, embittered, or burnt-in? In times like this the centering and reassuring power of calling can seem far away and elusive.  Joy and role-certainty is replaced with a sense of vocational amnesia.  “I’m a teacher” is replaced with “who am I?” and “why am I here?”  These are dangerous questions for a teacher to ask.  The Mayo Clinic defines medical amnesia as “the loss of memories, such as facts, information and experiences” that can follow severe illness, head trauma, or psychological distress.  Teaching amnesia is a loss of identity and classroom presence, a realization that you no longer know who you are and why you are teaching.  You find it a challenge to answer “Yes” to the call to teach and without that sense of “deep gladness” you are less effective at meeting the “deep hunger” of your students.

Like medical amnesia, teaching amnesia is the result of instructional/institutional trauma or distress.  For instance, the long and protracted sense that no one in your school cares about whether or not you show up in the morning.  Your colleagues or school leadership cannot accurately describe your educational gifts.  Or perhaps the sudden realization that what matters most to society is not your passion for content knowledge but rather your ability to produce high test scores and move “bubble students” to the next level of proficiency.  Vocational amnesia is a consequence of the industrialization and commodification of the craft of teaching, art and ambiguity is replaced with the siren’s call of certainty through a technocratic model of efficiency.

How can teachers heal from vocational amnesia and return to a life-giving state of instructional wellness?  As Alston notes the call never goes away but what does change is the teacher’s ability to hear the call and answer “yes!’. If at its core amnesia is characterized by a state of forgetfulness and memory loss it can be helpful to remember the reasons for entering the profession of teaching in the first place.  A good and trusted colleague or instructional team can provide the necessary reminders about a teacher’s calling.  They can remind a teacher with vocational amnesia of students they helped, differences they made in school culture, or name the teaching gifts that confirm their respected status as a team member.  Mindfulness practices that calm the inner dialogue about inadequacy and encourage a more open stance to the teaching landscape can also help.  Three deep breaths or a gratitude journal can widen the technocratic instructional blinders to encourage a more wholehearted orientation to teaching.  Poetry and wisdom stories of loss can remind a teacher’s languishing heart that remaining in a constant state of instructional joy is a myth and that out of suffering and battered idealism can emerge a renewed spirit.  Taking time to remember the feelings and emotions of that initial call to teach is another remedy for vocational amnesia. The next time you are feeling disconnected from the call, answer this question and share it with a colleague; what three words immediately come to mind when you think back to when you first considered the profession of teaching?

October 5th, 2018—In my previous post I drew comparisons between the moral injury that physicians and teachers experience because of the choices they face when treating patients or educating learners.  Both professions, it seems, experience moral injury as a result of limited professional freedom in response to institutional imperatives that generate goals focused on efficiency, numerics, prescribed treatment/teaching protocols, and economic bottom lines.  The repeated exposure to decision making that threatens moral or professional values can, as Diane Silver (2011) writes, leave “a deep soul wound that pierces a person’s identity, sense of morality and relationship to society.”  Moral injury was first used to describe soldiers returning from war where life and death decisions are made that often cut across a soldier’s morals, values, or beliefs.  Although the experiences of teachers are not analogous to that of soldiers on the battlefield there are still many comparable elements that resonate with the descriptions and costs of moral injury.

The counseling literature addresses the question of how to begin repairing moral injury through a process called “moral repair” or “soul repair.”  Soul repair is an apt descriptor for the healing that many teachers are seeking in response to the professional pain they experience.  Soul repair fits because teaching is a profession anchored in “calling”; a tight relationship between the inner commitments of a teacher and external conventions of the profession. Most teachers dedicate time, talent, and treasure to the education of learners because of a sense of moral drive or longing to serve others.  And it is broken heartedness—a separation from calling—that underscores the moral injury when in order to retain their job they are asked to reduce students to data on a spreadsheet.  Although this shift in seeing students as objects is momentary and can reveal negative-instructional trends that should be addressed, the repeated diminishment of students over an extended period of time can result in a moral rupture.  A teacher can, as Parker Palmer notes, find themselves in a state of “divided-self” where the inner calling to teach becomes separate from the external role.  This is remarkably similar to the consequences of moral injury described in the newsletter Good Therapy: “A moral injury can also be described as a sort of disconnect between one’s self and second self, where the second self is the part of the person that develops in the face of combat or a situation requiring a difficult decision.  Moral injury confuses the two selves…” (2016).

Depending on the depth or nature of a teacher’s moral injury the elements of soul repair can include individually-focused practices like mindfulness, meditation, or the modulation of emotions through training in social-emotional learning (SEL).  These are everyday approaches to stress reduction that any teacher can initiate during breaks in the day, practice as part of a curriculum aimed at teaching students mindfulness, or during an instructional breather when students are engaged in self-directed learning.  Taking three deep breaths is a simple way to restore some healing to a bruised or wounded heart.  Another easy practice is the keeping of a gratitude journal.  The goal is to write two or three things that made you laugh, smile, or feel connected to someone else during the day.  By their very nature these strategies are designed to bring teachers back into relationship with their inner-wisdom; the deep center of quietness out of which their moral integrity emerges.

Sometimes the moral violation cuts deeply into the soul of the teacher and the healing process—the return to moral integrity—entails more extensive work and repair.  Let me provide an example that will suggest a process by which a community of educators can work toward a shared sense of wellbeing.  Throughout this description I will draw on strategies pioneered and practiced in the therapeutic care of soldiers recovering from moral injury.

I regularly host conversations with educators with the explicit purpose of helping them reconnect their inner call to teach with the external imperatives of their institutional life.  These teachers, in varying ways and times, are experiencing some aspect of moral injury.  They are thirsting for reconnection and the integration of their two-selves. In soul repair the first step toward wholeness is responding to the internal cry of the heart as it reaches out for support and reintegration.  These teachers, knowingly or not, are following the guidance of The Moral Injury Project at Syracuse University to never approach the process of soul repair alone but rather to seek out “community for a shared process of healing.”  In the field of education the ubiquitous Professional Learning Community (PLC) could be a readymade community for healing the heart of educators.  Of course, not all PLCs have the requisite level of relational trust, listening skills, and communication to successfully follow the conventions of soul repair.  If this is the case then alternative sites for gathering in community should be explored.

In keeping with the soul repair literature we always begin our time together with ritual.  This typically means welcoming participants and establishing norms which create a container where participants are: invited—not required—to share their story; encouraged to avoid fixing or saving each other; expected to show up completely with all their challenges and gifts; focused on deep-listening to the teaching heart of their colleagues; and bounded by a commitment to confidentiality (what is shared in the meeting stays in the meeting).  Prior to our gathering I email a poem and reflection questions to participants.  The purpose is to invite the soul to “engage” the material in a way consistent with the slow and deliberate approach the heart uses to construct knowledge. I recently sent Galway Kinnell’s Saint Francis and Sow to a group because the images in his poem invite me to remember that effective teaching stems as much from “self-blessing” as it does from technique.  The power of poetry, as Emily Dickinson, notes comes from its ability to “tell the truth but tell it slant.”  The Moral Injury Project advocates the use of “artistic and literary formats for public engagement” because they invite “listening and witnessing” to the divided heart.  Healing language for the teacher heart is metaphor, imagery, and analogy.  In high school I learned to take poems apart, to analyze for meaning and the poet’s word choice.  In soul repair the goal is to let the poem speak to your wholeness, to let the poem interpret you.

My goal with a community of brokenhearted educators is not to achieve the measurable metrics of industrial teaching.  Instead I’m offering a brief respite from the divided life.  The longer term goal of soul repair is self-forgiveness, spiritual healing, restoring notions of self-worth, and the restoration of wholeness.  Kinnell seeks a similar outcome when he writes: “for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;/ though sometimes it is necessary/ to reteach a thing its loveliness…” Imagine if you will an educational setting where the measure of success is the depth to which the “reteaching of loveliness” is achieved.

August 31st, 2018—Summer is coming to a close and students from Kindergarten through graduate school are heading back to classrooms to continue their educational journey.  How they experience the classroom will directly impact the depth and complexity of their learning.  In learning spaces where rules, protocols, and prescribed curriculum is the norm, students are likely to approach learning as a transaction.  They adapt their intellectual and personal behavior to align with teacher notions of “right actions and right thinking” in exchange for a good grade. In such classrooms the emphasis is on behavior rather than learning.  When the course is finished—the grade is given—and there is little need to retain the knowledge.  In contrast are the classrooms that strive for “moreness” where students and teachers “…go beyond what we were and are and become something different, somehow new” (Dwayne Huebner). In this classroom, knowledge as commodity is abandoned in favor of holistic understandings of wisdom as transcendent, mysterious, and transformational.  The language and experiences of spirituality replace the technocratic, product, and procedural definitions of learning.  Learning as “moreness” favors a trajectory toward newness for teacher, student, and text.  The classroom is alive with the possibility of change and growth for all.

How might a teacher go about creating such a classroom? What are the markers of the classroom as sacred space where teacher and students participate in shared activity that transforms the content and personal understandings into “moreness” that invites educator and learners together to “become something different, somehow new?” The idea of sacred spaces—a place where the extraordinary occurs—has been a part of the human experience for ages.  Long before the advent of written language and the spiritual codices that followed, the understandings and learnings associated with sacred spaces found expression through art on cave walls.  Sacred spaces are most commonly associated with places of and experiences with a connection to a power greater than human knowing.  The language and practices of sacred spaces as learning spaces is rich with possibility when applied to classrooms striving for an experience of “moreness.”

One of the early stages of sacred space formation is shifting power dynamics away from the dichotomy of me and you (teacher/student) and towards an overt recognition of being in relationship to something greater than either of us.  The separation of individual selves becomes unified—not homogenized—around a shared experience of awe, exploration, and reverence.  It is an easy leap to envision curriculum as something greater than both the student and teacher, therefore worthy of a kind of relationship characterized by reverence, awe, and mysticism.  Parker Palmer invites educators to ask, what is this “great thing” in the curriculum toward which we are willing to dedicate our life-energy in the service of understanding; even while knowing that our knowledge will always be tentative and transient?  When the choices of curriculum (texts and experiences) are influenced by transcendence (moreness) rather than goals (transaction), educators move toward classrooms as sacred spaces.  Curriculum is no longer static knowledge to be mastered.  Instead it becomes a doorway to newness—a passage that has always been present—but now students and teacher alike have the refined ability to see the doorway.  What was once illusive and perceived as separate from the learning space is now transparent and available to all.

The second aspect of classrooms that lean toward sacred space are the forms of pedagogy that invite learners into a transformational relationship with self, others, and the curriculum.  In the field of education it is known that certain forms of teaching confine and constrain learners.  For instance, an overemphasis on lecture elevates teacher knowledge over learner agency.  In contrast, there are ways to teach that empower learners to own their intellectual and personal growth.  For example, assessments that encourage students to choose the best form of expression to demonstrate mastery of the content as well as reflections on ways that the content has “changed” the learner.  Consistent with sacred spaces a good pedagogical question for educators to ponder is, what are the rituals, practices, and traditions in my classroom?  Do they open up or close off student agency toward learning, sense of self as transcendent, or shift the lens of power away from individuals to something greater than self? How does the history of our shared time together as learner and teacher infuse the classroom with the sense that we are experiencing sacred space—a different form of education—where we take off our metaphorical shoes?  The rituals, practices, and traditions of classrooms as sacred space can be as simple as beginning every class session with a minute of stillness to allow everyone to transition into the learning space.  Or as intricate as assessments that invite learners into deep reflection on changed behavior toward others, expanded intellectual understandings, or a more nuanced sense of self in the world.

My tepid orientation toward structure and instructional authority are not meant as a call for elimination; structure, authority, and instructional intentions are a necessary element of any well run classroom.  But I do think it matters toward what end formality serves; transaction or transcendence?  And when teachers work toward sacred space in their classroom a third quality, beyond curriculum and pedagogy, mystery is a helpful guide to instructional choices.  Do the rituals, practices, and traditions create more or less opportunity to experience and learn from ambiguity, spontaneity, and the unexpected when the candle of knowledge burns brightly for a student?  Learning as transcendence is mysterious.  It can be a permanent feature of the classroom when students expect a moment of stillness as they settle in.  And at the same time transcendence is illusive, temporary, and can feel mysteriously absent from the learning space. This means that during any particular instructional moment one student can experience transcendence while another sees only content to master.  Structure helps with transcendence but the spirit of learning is too illusive, mystical, and mercurial to yield to a programed appearance.

Curriculum, pedagogy, and mystery are the hallmarks of classrooms as sacred space.  How might you change one of these elements to achieve a greater sense of transcendence in your classroom?

Image courtesy Planeta Incognito

August 17th, 2018—Invoking winter may seem like an odd place to start an essay on summer but that is where I’m going to start.  Using winter as a metaphor; what were your most challenging moments as a teacher?  When do you feel least connected to your calling?  How would you describe the days when it feels like the warmth of connection to your content, your students, and your personal integrity as a teacher is just a distant memory?  Now that you are thinking of the winter of your teaching I invite you to consider what aspects of summer do you roll around in with joy?  Remembering winter has a way of naming and attending to the elements of summer you are most attracted to.  To be clear what I’m proposing is that all teachers experience both winters and summers in their teaching.  In fact most teachers spend more time in winter than in the summer of their teaching because most teachers are overly critical of their teaching.  This is why in the midst of the season of summer it can be helpful to reflect on and incorporate into your teacher being the metaphorical elements of summer that are experienced as abundance and fruition.

I have experienced a prolonged winter in my teaching and leadership this past year.  I felt more off my game than on it far too many times.  But now that summer is here and I’m finding great reward in paying close attention to the fruits of my winter-labor and acknowledging my willingness to teach and lead with fidelity despite the potential for institutional-frostbite. Summer provides me the opportunity to let go of old fears, self-imposed limitations, unproductive feelings, to breathe deeply, take note of my successes, and begin living into the next season of my professional journey.  It feels empowering to teach from a sense of summer agency and boundless potential, instead of holding my teacher self in the isolating constraints of winter.

One poem that guides my summer reflections is Marge Piercy’s, Seven of Pentacles.  The following line is particularly rich with connections between the working life of a professional and the rewards of gardening: “for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.”  I hear in her words an invitation to consciously tend to the work, the winter struggles, because that is what teachers do.  And I also hear Piercy’s reminder of the importance of taking time to gather in the benefits of work well-done; winter and summer are partners not antagonists in the work I do. This is particularly the case in education where the norm is to focus, almost exclusively, on what is ineffective, below standard, or inconsistent with reform protocols.  But as Piercy suggests it is equally valuable and worthy to ask; what are you hoping to harvest this summer from the long season of tending to your work?  Who are the beneficiaries of the excess production from your labor?

I find that stories of teaching are helpful at centering my inner teacher/leader on a learning I need to incorporate into my teaching. Let me offer a story that combines winter and summer themes in new ways with direct application to my personal and professional journey.  One recent summer I was riding a bus to the airport and as we approached the terminal the bus driver pointed out a 26 foot tall, 7 ton statue of the Egyptian god Anubis. The statue was advertisement for the King Tut exhibit coming to my local museum that summer.  As we drove past Anubis, standing quietly at attention and gazing toward the terminal, the driver commented how odd it seemed to pick the god of death as the symbol for the exhibit. And that it seemed even more ironic and puzzling to install Anubis outside an airport terminal where the success of summer vacations was contingent on safe departures and return flights.

I had to agree with the bus driver that the statue was an intriguing visual paradox. Anubis (the guardian of the portal of death) facing the airport terminal (the portal to fun, sun, and vacations); metaphorical images of winter and summer in tension.  Symbolically the statue of Anubis was very compelling, standing with grace and power, staff in hand, patiently waiting for the earth to tilt away from the sun and toward winter, his season of death.  I remember Anubis less as a threatening presence ready to overturn the natural order of things, a well-deserved summer vacation.  Instead, he represented an affirmation of the precious but transient qualities of summer.  Anubis was my wise and attentive advisor reminding me to fully live the gifts of summer, to not squander the blessings.  I’m confident that if I use the fullness of summer’s rest and renewal I know that I will be moving in professional directions that are consistent with the gifts of my inner teacher/leader.  And I also know that if I get too complacent in the drowsy, fulfilling nature of summer and forget to take stock of my learnings, I can always drive to the airport where Anubis will remind me of the importance of gleaning all of my summer harvest.  Because as Mary Oliver writes in her poem The Summer Day:  “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?  Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  What are you planning on doing with your one wild and precious summer?


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