In preparing to write this edition of Notes from the Field, I was given the opportunity to reflect on my life and my career as I considered the joys and challenges I face. At first, I thought of my professional life where, like many other university faculty, I often find I don’t have enough time in a day to do all that I need to do. Better yet, I often find myself walking a certain tension between the things I have to do and the things I want to do, which are not always in alignment. Like most jobs, mine is not without elements that I would prefer not to do such as writing accreditation reports, responding to countless emails, or going to meetings that I’m not particularly interested in attending. I generally find myself thinking, “I wish I was working on what I’m passionate about,” but the reality is that I have to attend to those less desirable tasks to do my job well and be a constructive member of the university community. Unfortunately, I found myself doing more of the less desirable tasks than the ones I wanted to do such as working with students, researching, writing, and advocating for an improved K-12 educational system.

 

Then I found myself looking into my core, thinking about why I decided to pursue a PhD in Curriculum & Instruction. I had been a relatively successful teacher with a tenured job in a school where I loved the diverse population of students I worked with – and I mean diverse in every way (racially, ethnically, linguistically, socioeconomically, etc.). While I love what I am doing now as a teacher educator and scholar, I thought about why I decided to leave that all behind. For answers, I unexpectedly turned to the admissions essay I wrote when applying to the University of Denver C&I program almost 13 years ago. In it I wrote:

 

In obtaining a PhD from the University of Denver I fully intend to affect change. It is my deepest desire to improve student success and help advance all, but specifically urban environments, by working with individual schools, districts, and with state and national level policymakers. I intend to utilize qualitative and quantitative research to further the accomplishments of all schools across the United States. Concurrently, I seek to empower teachers by providing them with a voice in this endeavor, encouraging them to become a part of the conversation instead of being given solutions. It is also my ambition to affect change through teacher candidates by teaching at a university. In engaging myself in a myriad of pursuits, I wish for nothing less than changing the landscape of education in the United States.

 

I was struck by the ambition in my younger self and even further struck by the fact that I still feel that way 13 years later. In fact, making schools better for our kids, our teachers, our communities, and our country still gets me out of bed in the morning. We all need a sense of purpose in our lives. So many of us find it in our careers, which I believe is a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in the sense that it drives me, gives me reason to work harder, and makes me feel as though what I do matters. I have found that the majority of educators are there because they want to do something that has impact, that will make the world a better place, even if in, at times, seemingly small ways.

 

However, there is a cost that can come with being so single-mindedly driven professionally. We can lose a sense of balance with other aspects of our lives. It can cause us to forget to call a good friend or to spend more time with our families, and maybe most concerningly, to take care of ourselves. To achieve a sense of inner peace and happiness, we must have a sense of balance in our lives that cannot be attained by working 15 hours per day, answering emails on our phones until we go to bed, or ceaselessly thinking about what we need to do at work tomorrow.

 

This new reality has had some startling effects. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), one third of workers in the US have chronic work-related stress (2013). More specific to education, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and advocacy group Badass Teachers (BAT) surveyed of over 5,000 teachers finding that two-thirds of educators find their jobs stressful (2017). A 2014 National Education Association (NEA) poll found that nearly half of the teaching force was considering leaving the profession due to stressors outside of their immediate control. Further, we are currently facing the worst mental health crisis America has ever seen. The Centers for Disease Control report that suicide rates are at an all-time high while a recent report commissioned by Blue Cross Blue Shield found that depression rates are rising dramatically. What this data suggests is that we have to get serious about balance in our lives, but what does that look like?

 

A Student of Happiness

Without getting overly personal, about a year ago I came to the realization that I was incredibly stressed and deeply unhappy with how my life was going. Despite pursuing my professional purpose and experiencing some level of success, I just wasn’t happy. I was tired, anxious, and felt like I always had something hanging over my head that I had to do. Worse yet, I felt like I wasn’t really present with my wife and two kids, I had lost touch with several good friends, and I treated family obligations like a chore. I saw my life as a big “To Do” list and finally came to the conclusion that this was just not tenable or acceptable. After one particular moment of overwhelming anxiety and unhappiness, I decided to make finding balance a priority.

 

I dove into everything I could find on happiness, inner peace, mindfulness, and balance. I listened to audiobooks on the way to work, podcasts while I worked out, read articles at night, began following blogs on the subject, and even joined some social media communities related to these ideas. Currently, I’m even taking an online course on the science of happiness. I’ve become an avid meditator and can say after all of this, I feel completely different. I have become a student of happiness, seeking how to maintain my drive and passion for what I do professionally with a healthy, happy personal life. While I most certainly do not have it all figured out, I would like to share some of what I have learned here.

 

Finding Balance

An APA report (2016) highlights research-based strategies for finding better balance in life which I have learned and applied in my own life:

 

  1. Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness is about being aware of our thoughts and in the present moment. This includes finding time to meditate at least 10 minutes every day. You could use a guided meditation app on your phone, borrow a guided meditation CD from the library, or play one on YouTube. Taking this time to pay attention to our thoughts and to just be has proven one of the few ways we can train our brains to be present, in the moment, where life really happens. By spending our time worrying about tomorrow, we squander today and, in the process, stress ourselves out.
  2. Make happiness a priority: It is so easy to get caught up on our day-to-day responsibilities or our endless “To Do” lists and to forget that we want to be happy. It’s important to note that being happy doesn’t mean that we are constantly laughing and smiling like some drunken hyena, it means that we feel peace, contentment, alive, and in the moment. Happiness is also not the fleeting moments of joy we feel when something outside of ourselves happens, a feeling that invariably passes. Happiness doesn’t just happen, it isn’t something we are born with, it’s something we work for. Making that a priority is critical to achieving it and being freed from the whims of good and bad things that happen to us, outside of our own control, that often determine our moods.
  3. Move: There is increasing empirical proof that the health of our mind and our body are connected. If you can exercise to the point of being out of breath three times per week for 30 minutes per session, you are doing what is optimal for your physical and mental health. If that’s too much, take a walk. Just moving has shown to reduce anxiety, improve depressive symptoms, and improve cognition.
  4. Remind Yourself of Your Professional Purpose: No one is advocating for placing no meaning in one’s work. After all, we want balance. Doing work that we find meaningful has shown to greatly improve our moods and gives us a sense of accomplishment and purpose. Journaling or simply writing down periodically why we do what we do is a great way to remind us of our bigger purpose beyond the loaded, unanswered inbox of emails we are dreading.
  5. Connect with People: Seeking support from and fostering relationships with others (professionally and personally) has been found to be critical to well-being. Those relationships can also serve to give us a sense of purpose while helping us reduce stress and experience enjoyment.
  6. Use Positive Psychology: Positive psychology might well have at its philosophical core the notion that as one thinks, so shall s/he be. Using mindfulness, we become aware of our thoughts and rather than trying to fool ourselves into thinking we’re happy about something when we are not, we seek out aspects that are positive. This approach, while certainly not easy to implement at first, has been found to boost resilience and a greater sense of well-being. In short, if we think about what makes us angry, we are going to be angry. If we think about things that make us happy, we are likely to be happy.
  7. Get Outside: Fellow DU C&I alum Christy McConnell might fall out of her chair when she reads this because I once said we should pour cement over grass, but being outdoors has proven to improve mood, cognition, attention, and a sense of well-being. I have personally felt the effects of this as I have embraced being in nature. I might not be a backwoods camper, but I love to take a walk in the park or sit by a beautiful pond; it does for me what the research says it will. I’m happier, more attentive to others, and healthier.
  8. Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself: Negative self-talk is a part of how our brains are wired so it’s important to be cognizant of that fact and to challenge negative self-talk. It’s important to take stock of all that you do that is good, recognizing that just being, is enough. Writing positives down periodically in a gratitude journal can be a great way to remind yourself that you are important, valued, and loved. This practice has shown to greatly improve mood, reduce stress, and foster a deeper sense of contentment.

 

Now Go Do it

Whether you are a graduate student, a DU alum, a faculty member, or you just happened to stumble across this article, you have a choice to make. You can put this article down and say, “Oh, that’s nice” or you can act. The ideas I’ve shared are not mine and to be honest, none of them were all that novel to me. I’ve heard it for years: “Happiness is a choice,” or “You’re as happy as you decide to be,” or some other such well-meaning witticism. However, if you really want to achieve your professional purpose, if you really want to feel a deep sense of contentment in your life (and why wouldn’t you?), you have to decide to act. Pick one strategy from that list and start there. Do it for a day, then maybe a couple days, then a week. Before you know it, it will become part of your daily life. You are retraining your brain to select a happier lifestyle where you can enjoy the day-to-day moments of your life and be far less stressed about the 122 emails you have to respond to. None of this is rocket science, but it’s up to you to act. Now go do it!

 

References

American Federation of Teachers and Badass Teachers (2017). 2017 educator quality of work life survey. Washington, DC.

 

American Psychological Association (2016). Research-based strategies for better balance. Monitor on Psychology, 47(7), 45.

 

American Psychological Association. (2013b). 2013 Work and Well-Being Survey. Retrieved from http://www.apaexcellence.org/assets/general/2013-work-and-wellbeing-survey-results.pdf

 

Blue Cross Blue Shield (2018). Major depression: The impact on overall health. Washington, DC.

About Our Guest Blogger

Bradley Conrad is an associate professor in the Education Department at Capital University. Dr. Conrad has published several articles in the areas of teacher dispositions, curriculum, the arts in education, and culturally responsive pedagogy. At Capital he teaches a variety of teacher education and graduate courses while mentoring students in their teaching and research. He received his Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Denver in 2011. 

 

 

There was a school that I used to visit as an itinerant assistant language teacher in rural Japan.  It was a small elementary school, and each year the entering first grade class got smaller.  I loved my days there.  The students had an enthusiasm for learning that pervaded the school.  Even on days that I did not get to visit, I usually drove past on my way to other schools.  It set beside one of the main roads that ran through a series of valleys.  Between the road and the school was a field where the students could often be seen checking on the crops they were growing.  Nestled behind the school, away from the road, was a sports field and a pool that backed up against a heavily wooded hillside, and I have many memories of playing catch with the students and enjoying the pool on hot summer days.

Inside the school, everything was wooden, with sliding doors that led from a central gathering area into each of the classrooms.  Everyone ate lunch together in the central gathering area, and the students took great joy in serving the food and cleaning up the area at the end of lunch.  Tucked in a nook off of the central gathering area was a library with not so many books and a globe.

The school served a small farming community.  The community showed up for school events and the school showed up for community events.  I once ran a 2 kilometer race with the third grade class in a suit and dress shoes because I showed up not knowing it was race day.  A third grader gave me a rock he found on the road as a prize for my efforts.  That same third grader held my hand as he excitedly led me to the opening of a new shrine building that had just been completed in the village.  To celebrate, the folks who had completed the building stood upon its roof and threw mochi out to the waiting kids.  Mochi is a kind of crushed rice.  One of the mochi thrown that day hit a student in the nose, and he cried as the school nurse helped to stop his nosebleed.  We all returned happily to the school at the end of the ceremony, with one student in particular telling a story of adventure to everyone who would listen.  The story was about being hit in the nose by mochi.

One day during rice planting season, we took a field trip up into the wooded hills behind the school.  We walked back into a small rice field.  The farmer leading the field trip told the class that this field was different.  It was like the fields of the past.  It had never been connected to the modern irrigation system.  Then, the farmer showed us the medaka that were swimming in the water pooled around the nascent rice plants.  Medaka are small black fish that used to teem in the rice fields of yesteryear.  The medaka have largely disappeared from rice fields irrigated with modern methods.  Their absence doesn’t affect the rice harvest in any noticeable way.  At least not to the person buying rice at the store.  The modern methods are efficient and stable.

This past summer, I was in Japan staying at my wife’s family’s home.  We took our dog for a walk most days, and on some days we followed a narrow street that led down a hill and under the freeway, opening out onto a large flat valley of rice fields.  Narrow cement trenches carried water between the fields and ran along the side of the roads.  One day we were out in this expanse of rice when my older daughter suddenly pointed to the irrigation channel.  The water was crisp and clear and devoid of living things, except for one little medaka swimming against the current.  My daughter found it and she was delighted.  For that matter, I was delighted and so was my wife.  As for my younger daughter, she was asleep in the stroller and my dog’s interest was directed onwards continuing our walk.

On a different day, my family and I drove along the road that ran by the small elementary school where I first learned about medaka.  Its windows were boarded up, and I heard from a friend that the school had been consolidated into another school up the road.

 

Author’s Notes

I read often throughout the school year in search of what it means to be a teacher.  This year, I’ve been reading Martin Buber’s I and Thou, a playful book that leaves more to the imagination of its reader than it explains.  In his book, Martin Buber reflects on how we can make sense of our lives by stepping just far enough away to see through the entangled relationships in which we are held, but not so far away as to let those relationships become unrecoverable.

For me, the single medaka swimming in a concrete irrigation channel brings a sense to medaka in general that may not have come into being for me if medaka were commonplace.  In the boarded up windows of the school where I used to teach, it strikes me that I remember everything joyful so easily.  It is only now when driving to school in Denver with the anxiety of what seems to be a million competing demands on my attention that I realize that I felt the same way when I was a younger teacher teaching in Japan.  Somehow all this helps me take joy in my memory of my daughter’s discovery of the medaka, and this in turn lets me see past the relationships I am currently entangled within so I can appreciate them fully.

It seems like the time of year for that kind of reflection.  The meaning of most educational experiences comes into being through the relationships in which I’ve been held, and those same relationships can blind me to what that meaning might be until the experience is long committed to the past.  I believe one aspect, one important aspect, of education is to raise the importance of the relationships that hold us while those relationships are still in place.

About Our Guest Blogger

Robert Evans currently serves as the Senior Team Lead of Special Education at Farrell B. Howell.  He entered education 14 years ago as an outdoor educator, and has followed his interest in education through various roles.  One of his favorite educational roles was when he served as a school bus driver in Minnesota. This role allowed him a glimpse into how children learn from each other about what they consider truly important.

I recently published an article entitled “Teaching in Good Faith: Towards a Framework for Defining the Deep Supports that Grow and Retain First-Year Teachers.” The article drew from my dissertation research and examined the ways in which first year teachers taught and lived in harmony with their reasons for becoming educators. Little did I know how soon after publishing that article that I’d be called upon to live out its central message.

Great writers and speakers urge you to follow your heart regardless of the cost. In Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer (2000) describes his journey to founding the Center for Courage and Renewal. On that path he followed byways and detours that led him, circuitously, to realizing his purpose.

Cheryl Strayed (2011) conjures the “fathomless bird of truth” who sings to you, and flutters violently if you step off your path. She says, “it is our work, our job, the most important gig of all: to make a place that belongs to us, a structure composed of our own moral code. Not the code that only echoes imposed cultural values, but the one that tells us on a visceral level what to do.”

I can think of countless others who encourage us to “follow our heart” and “fulfill our purpose.” I think I even saw these words on a tea bag recently.

However, these great, wise, compassionate poets (and well-meaning tea bags) seem to have one thing in common: they’re telling us to follow our hearts from the safe bank on the other side of a teeming river. They describe, in retrospect, the fear and courage it takes to “make a structure composed of our own moral code, “ and to live a life in harmony with their purpose and deepest desires. But the message is muffled somehow, wreathed in the certainty of a happy ending. We know it worked out for them. We can relax in the message, understanding that it took them somewhere alive and transcendent and fully their own.

I am writing to you from the first few steps into the river, the other bank all but invisible, and I can tell you it is a raw place of fear and courage. I think this, a message from the midst of transition, is an important perspective and one we rarely bring forth. This is the defatalized success story, poised in that moment of uncertainty where I’ve left the safe space of the known and look ahead to a yawning unknown, trusting fully to myself to find the right path.

What happened (is happening) is this: a change in leadership at my work caused my role to shift into something that looks, feels, and tastes anathema to my reasons for stepping into education. While listening to the new leadership outlining their vision and the part they need me to play in that vision, and I felt a tug at my insides. I dismissed it at first but it grew more insistent. My bird of truth was awake, agitated, and letting me know it.

My first thought was, “maybe I can just grind this out for another year while I find something else.” My next thought was, “maybe I can find something else sooner so I’ll have an excuse to leave.” This seemed reasonable, so I looked around at other institutions, other “safe” jobs that I could jump to, that I thought of as a, “just for now” option, a stepping stone to solid ground.

But I’m done with stepping stones, I realized. I don’t want another “sort of” fit. I am unwilling to compromise on this, the way I choose to be in the world. I would read job descriptions and think, “I could maybe do that. It’s got to be better than the role they have for me here.” But the whole time I knew that “better than what I have now” is a far, far cry from the joy, expansion, meaningful challenges, and aliveness that accompanies following my heart. I also knew that I knew that, and in knowing I couldn’t pretend otherwise. According to Jean-Paul Sartre (1966), someone acting in bad faith is either denying her true nature or deceiving herself about her true nature. If I stayed put or traded out for some tepid version of my intentions, I’d be doing both of those things he warns against.

So I leapt. In a wildly irresponsible or courageous (depending on your stance) move, I, with no backup plan, told the leadership that the impact I want to have on education is divergent from the role they’ve outlined for me. I would be resigning.

And so I write to you now from that first, headlong splash into the river. I’d like to tell you that I stand steadfast and resolute, striding with purpose and fearlessness in the direction of my dreams, but the truth is I spend some days caroming from crippling anxiety to heady exhilaration, from calm, serene stillness to feverish busyness. I didn’t jump in knowing I had the strength to get to the other side; I jumped in hoping I’d develop the strength as I went.

The move, however (perhaps because of its invitation to court fear), has been extremely generative. I want to share some of the textures and realizations that have surfaced so far for me:

 

An Act of Creation

I’ve found that, far from being an act of willfulness or destruction, the decision to leave my job has played out as an act of creation.

In defining that which is not right for me, I came hard up against the question, “what is right for me?” Where, in the words of Frederick Buechner (1973), is the place where my deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet? In answering that question I have begun to build a vision for my life that responds, honestly, gently, and without judgment, to both my strengths and my limitations.  In so doing I’ve learned more about who I am at my core, which has been invaluable at guiding me in all other aspects of my life. Answering the question “what is right for me” is a lifelong process that cannot and should not be rushed. I know that whatever is next may be another step in the evolution of my identity, but with equal certainty I know there will be no final arrival.

This understanding has helped me cultivate more comfort with ambiguity and a delight in the process of becoming. I realize also, in a flash of paradox so confusing it can only be truth, that who I am now is as fully whole and unbroken as the me who will exist in ten years, and the me who existed ten years ago. I am not some unfinished product on my way toward completion, but a whole person in the process of deepening my own self-awareness and acceptance.

 

Barriers are Straw Men

I recently engaged in a meditation practice that, for two weeks, asked me to become aware of self-defeating thought patterns. These would sound like, “I could never do that because…” or, “I’ll never be ____ enough for…” I was shocked at the number of times per day that thoughts like this would pop up in my head. I was even more shocked to realize how these thoughts drove my daily existence until I was living by dictums of fear, constraint, and a perception of safety.

These defeating thoughts will work differently on every person, but for me, when weighed against a life of empowerment, fulfillment, and joy, they began falling like so many straw men. I worried about practical things- money, health insurance, retirement, if I was doing right by my cat. I even fretted about losing my phone plan (this last fuselage was, perhaps, the most desperate effort of my subconscious to gain back control of my brain). But, while recognizing the importance of these needs (phone plan notwithstanding) I trusted that if I stepped toward my purpose the logistics would be easier to work out than my ingrained thought patterns wanted me to believe. So far, they have been. Shockingly so.

 

Staying Still

I have not been idle, but I have also been fighting the urge to immerse myself in logistics, details, job applications, and following every possibility that makes itself known to me. I know that, in my fear, I am in danger of scrabbling around in “worst case scenario” logistics to the point where I lose sight of why I got myself into this glorious mess in the first place. I didn’t launch myself here to end up right back where I was, and I am coming to understand the importance of setting aside swaths of time to reflect, read, write, contemplate, process, and simply be.

In these quiet moments I’m discovering that the world will powerfully reflect my path if I let it. The threads I’ve followed that would have been disastrous petered out and never gained traction in my life. Instead of railing against this, I’ve counseled myself to relinquish attachment to any one thing and listen for what is surfacing. These are sometimes subtle, sometimes unrecognizable, and if I wasn’t sitting in stillness and openness I would miss their signs. I believe this practice of stillness will be important, not just for this transition but for the rest of my life. If I believe that I am always in the process of becoming, then these invitations will be continual and lifelong.

 

Making Art of Your Life

When working with teachers I ask, “are you creating a space that is fully unique? Are you doing that which only you could do?” This, I believe, is what elevates teaching to art.

Recently I’ve been asking myself these same questions. Each time I make a decision from the deepest part of me I can see myself reflected in the world. In learning to recognize my own unique voice I suddenly become more visible to myself beyond the world of right and wrong and the flimsy, constructed identities I’ve lived by.  In taking this leap toward fulfillment and purpose, I am allowing myself to emerge and slowly, through patience, love, stillness, and time, I am resolving into myself.

REFERENCES

Buechner, F. (1973). Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Palmer, P. (2000). Let your life speak: Listening for the voice of vocation. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Sartre, J. P. (1966). Being and nothingness (H. E. Barnes, Trans.). New York, NY: Washington Square Press.

Strayed, C. (2011). We are Here to Build the House. The Rumpus. Retrieved from https://therumpus.net/2011/01/dear-sugar-the-rumpus-advice-column-62/

About Our Guest Blogger

Dr. Kate Newburgh is a writer and consultant with over a decade of experience in education. She began her career as a New York City Teaching Fellow in the Bronx, NY. Since then she’s held diverse roles in the field including Educational Researcher, Academic Affairs Director for a national non-profit, and Curriculum Specialist and Instructional Coach for Eagle County Schools, CO. She received her Ph.D in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Denver and works with schools and businesses to develop transformative practices and human-centered organizational cultures that foster renewal and growth. Learn more at www.deeppractices.com.

December 7th 2018—For many years I have experienced what I increasingly see as a moral dilemma.  It leads me to ask the question should I keep teaching and preparing new teachers or should I leave the profession.  This question has recently engaged my heart with increased vigor. Perhaps I’m on the edge of “moral-injury” as I’ve defined in previous posts.  I wonder if the tension between my ideal notions of preparing teachers and what I experience during the actual practice of teaching new teachers is leading me to make decisions that bend and distort my moral compass.  This may be the case, but as I reflect on my situation I don’t think my dilemma rises to that level of concern.  I continue to find ways to act with integrity and fidelity to my call to teach.  It doesn’t feel like my moral compass is non-functional and unreliable.  I still have a strong sense of my personal and pedagogical True North.  This assertion and confidence in my inner-teacher may perhaps seem odd given that I started this essay with the statement that I wonder if I should continue to teach or not.

I believe that what has been and is currently going on in my heart is a conflict between my love of teaching and the reality of what new teachers face as they enter the profession.  In particular I wonder if it is morally justifiable to feed my passion to teach—my inner calling—while at the same time knowing the high rate of early career burnout.  I know all too well the harsh meaning behind the statistic that 50% of new teachers leave in 5 years. In under-resourced and underserved schools the attrition rate rises to 50% in 3 years.  In real terms this means that half of my students will leave the profession and their calling to influence the life trajectory of their students.  Hovering above this shocking statistic are the real faces and caring hearts that I know all too well; the students in my classes.

It is equally clear to me that not all preservice teachers should become teachers.  I consider it a good and virtuous responsibility to determine if the profession of teaching is a good fit for every student I teach.  Low ratings on observations and poor academic performance suggest a lack of fit. It is good for the profession and good for the K-12 students experiencing a lack of teaching passion or ineffective pedagogy when I encourage my low performing students to seek other professions more consistent with their gifts. Yet the lack of fit as a rational for leaving the profession is not the reason for the early departure of many of my students.  They leave the profession for other reasons which are often more traumatic.  The origin of their challenge is remaining true to their calling within a system and social context that is more concerned with performance indicators than the love of teaching.  The social-emotional stress associated with testing, accountability, teacher-proof curriculum, and standards-based assessment can sometimes reach such an extreme that the only reasonable choice is to leave.  Teachers in this circumstance are broken-hearted and disillusioned.  How can a profession they love and care for treat them so poorly?

At the core of my moral dilemma is the question should I really continue to prepare young teachers for a profession that I know is often antithetical to all they hold dear?  Should I continue to encourage teachers to enter the profession when I know that for many of them they will experience an instructional and relational environment that crushes their spirit and leaves them broken hearted?  How long can I remain complicit with a system that tends to chew up new educators, even ones that show promise and are effective at igniting young minds?  As I’ve leaned into these questions I find myself encountering a number of sticking points. The first is rather practical and straightforward; how will I earn a living and pay my bills?  Although an important consideration, the transactional factors of my work are not compelling reasons to remain in the profession.  There are many other ways to earn a living.  A more deeply rooted reason for remaining in the role of teacher is that education is my professional calling.  It is the best way to interact with my gifts with integrity and fidelity.  Edna St. Vincent Millay captures the deeply spiritual feeling I encounter while teaching when she writes: “World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!” When I’m at my best as a teacher I get close enough to the richness of the learning moment and the sweet enticing engagement of my students, a moment of instructional bliss.  If I quit as a way to resolve the dilemma, I risk dishonoring my calling and cutting myself off from opportunities to become enlivened by the great mystery of education.  To be placed in relationship to something greater than self, as a fulcrum for personal and professional growth, is a gift of great value.

Perhaps my next observation is informed too much by ego and an inflated sense of my self-worth as a teacher.  If I quit who will teach my students the lessons and learnings they need to know about and experience while on the path toward effective instruction and professional self-worth?  My argument is that my ability to wrestle with moral questions and to express an openness to the broken-hearted world of what is compared to what should be provides me with unique insights.  It is within the wisdom of how to navigate the in-between spaces, what Parker Palmer calls the “tragic gap”, that students can find ways to thrive in their early years of teaching.  Instead of trying to collapse the poles of what is and what should be, Palmer argues for finding a place of productive tension between the two elements in a way that honors both perspectives.  By its definition good teaching exists at the dynamic interface between what is and what ought to be.  Who is better placed to teach about ways to respond to broken-heartedness and disillusionment in life-giving ways than someone who regularly experiences these emotions, integrates the two poles, and continues to love teaching?

There are two things I know, (1) I’m far from resolving my dilemma and (2) the tension around quitting or continuing to teach is increasing with intensity in apparent correlation with the lack of professional respect my students face as they enter the field of teaching.  So far I continue to see personal value and receive affirmation from my students in my role as coach and mentor to a greater extent than the less positive view I hold of myself as someone unconcerned about the fate of my students and who is willing to continue receiving a paycheck instead of resigning in protest.  In some sense I’m glad this moral dilemma is a regular meditation for me.  It helps, I believe, to keep me fairly honest about my motivations and intentions as an educator. My True North actually becomes stronger and more trustworthy the more I question its calibration.  It is this sense of personal honesty that contributes to my authenticity as an educator, a sense of inner trustworthiness that manifests itself in my outer forms of teaching.

“I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self-indulgence. Caring for myself is an act of survival.” Audre Lorde

Committed educators are aware that teaching in America’s public schools is a demanding and frequently unappreciated profession. Yet, it is a profession that when it is focused on fulfilling the needs of all students, it is life transforming for the student and the educator, which can in turn can create social justice. Further, students’ lives demonstrate the most productive results when teachers actively and intentionally address their mindset regarding personal privilege or socioeconomic class differences, work to create equitable classrooms and schools, and implement culturally responsive-culturally sustaining practices (Delpit, 2012; Hammonds, 2015; Irvine, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 2014; Ware, 2006).

The demands on educators are exacerbated by a public consciousness that perceives the demanding and highly impactful work of educators as having low status and deserving of low wages. The field of education often demonstrates that work driven by a moral commitment to the success of children and adults is not valued and those who perform the work are therefore, not valuable.

Working to ignore the noise of a society that does not appreciate the worth of hard and heart driven work and to remain committed to the needs of all students is stressful. Further, stress is increased by the requests, demands, and requirements occurring within schools that are driven by well-intended programs and policies that do not deliver the intended impact of insuring students’ academic and social emotional needs are met. Yet, teachers operate within and in-opposition to these daily struggles and demands to find solace in the smile of a child, the joyful demonstration of learning, and the successful completion of a lesson, course, grade level, or graduation.

To be sure, attaining the pivotal goal of education by demonstrating academic achievement with minoritized students when addressing privilege, equity, and implementing culturally responsive practices within systems of oppression is not an easily attainable success that naturally contains challenges and stress. The multiple demands of the noble duty of teaching can lead to benign or intentional self-neglect which in turn leads to un-managed stress.

As an educator who has experienced these challenges and supported educators who faced these challenges, I have experienced intentional and benign neglect of my wellbeing which lead to my creation of a body of work on self-care.

Self-care is a part of the popular lexicon that has encouraged many people to be aware of their needs and improve their stress management and wellbeing through a variety of means. Self-care experiences can be free and/or expensive and create life-long changes or temporary relief of the challenges of being an educator. To be sure, self-care is a significant strategy for all people who experience the stressors of daily life. However, it was through my experiences and research that I realized many self-care strategies are often temporary fixes for unaddressed stress and create temporary bursts of oxytocin which do not prevent occurrences of neglect that I have identified as radical self-care.

Radical self-care (Ware, 2016) occurs when inconsistent self-care, and the long-term neglect of health, fitness, or stress management lead to a health, physical, or emotional, crisis. This crisis can be demonstrated as an inability to fulfill personal or professional responsibilities or to simply function. The crash, no matter how it manifests, requires the person to implement radical self-care to overcome exhaustion. Think of the image of a depleted phone battery, the battery with the red line indicates the phone is not available for use because it is exhausted. When we reach that point of exhaustion, our personal reconnection to a power source or stress release is required. Like a phone, a brief recharge will make us functional (radical self-care intervention), but for extended use, we need to be completely recharged (active self-care).

To avoid the need for radical self-care (Ware, 2016), I propose that educators use temporary self-care strategies such as massages only as complementary strategies to a life of consistent active self-care. The specific types of active self-care strategy are personal and specific to the needs of each educator. Using reflective practice suggested in the culturally responsive education literature, (Cadray cited in Irvine, 2002) each educator must consider their individual needs to enhance their wellbeing, such as nutrition, hydration, caring relationships, exercise, sleep, relaxation, or extended periods of being unplugged from their electronic devices. Each one of those strategies offer well documented improvements to an educator’s health, wellbeing, and productivity (Amen, D. & Amen, T. 2015). Further, an educator engaged in active self-care increases their productivity and enhanced decision-making processes.

I propose that one of the challenges in creating equitable schools and culturally responsive education is a void of school communities that promote and engage in active self-care. Demands on the time of educators contribute to the neglect of self-care. Too many educators work to the point of exhaustion and make critical decisions while in crisis mode fueled by the release of cortisol and a hijacked amygdala (Glasser, 2014; Hammonds, 2015). This stress naturally prevents a critical analysis of systemic oppression for minoritized communities of students and the implementation of equitable learning conditions. Additionally, these stress-based decisions may destroy the critical element of trust in educator and student relationships (Glasser, 2014; Hammonds, 2015; Ware, 2006).

For educators to meet students’ needs and be the change agents that the current conditions of education demand, educators should start with examining their active self-care practices and determine the strategies they need to implement with consistently to be healthy and productive through out the school year. Many educators return from a summer break relaxed with many health strategies in place. Unfortunately, many educators do not maintain these practices and by midyear need a radical self-care intervention (Ware, 2016).

Educators are overwhelmed with the demands on their time, energy, and money. The premise of radical self-care (Ware, 2016) is not to make one more impossible demand on educators. Instead, it is the acknowledgement that the health and wellbeing of teachers is a priority in creating equitable and culturally responsive-culturally sustaining schools. A focus on active self-care of teachers can contribute to the creation of academically successful, culturally competent, and socio-politically conscious students (Ladson-Billings, 2014).

 

REFERENCES

Amen, D. & Amen, T. (2016). The Brain Warrior’s Way. New York: New American Library

Cadray, J. cited in Irvine, J., Armento, B. (2002). Culturally Responsive Teaching: Lesson Planning for Elementary and Middle Schools. McGraw Hill. New York, NY

Depit, L. (2012). Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children. NY: The New Press

Glasser, J. (2014). Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results. NY: Bibiomotion, Inc

Hammonds, Z. (2015). Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin.

Irvine, J. 2002. Culturally Responsive Teaching: Lesson Planning for Elementary and Middle Schools. NY: McGraw Hill

Ladson-Billings, G. (2014). Culturally Relevant Pedagogy 2.0: a.k.a. the Remix. Harvard Educational Review. 84(1) 74-83

Ware, F. (2016, October 25). Radical Self-Care, Elements of a culturally responsive practice. Live performance in Scholars Unlimited Training, Denver.

Ware, F. (2006). Warm Demander Pedagogy: Culturally Responsive Teaching That Supports a Culture of Achievement for African American Students. Urban Education 41(4) 427-456

About Our Guest Blogger

Franita Ware, Ph.D. is the author of the classic article, Warm Demander Pedagogy: Culturally Responsive Teaching That Supports a Culture of Achievement for African American Teachers. She is a Program Manager with the Culture Equity and Leadership Team of Denver Public Schools and a former Adjunct Professor with the Morgridge College of Education. She is currently writing a manuscript on effective warm demander and culturally sustaining teachers in contemporary public schools.

November 2nd, 2018—I have learned much about teaching by seeking out information and ideas from outside the field of education.  The teaching literature is certainly rich with new ways to approach teaching.  It is pushing forward, as it should, important themes of inclusiveness, equity, social emotional learning, empowering the voices of teachers/students, and best practices associated with learning that serves all students.  This internal dialogue, what is working and what is not is important and necessary work.  But any community that listens only to its own practitioners and researchers is a community that risks the danger of talking only to itself.  The mirror of education speak can become too sharply focused on the educators, researchers, policy makers, and parents who are looking intently into the polished glass of educational reform.

To be clear, self-reflection around theory and practice is an important skill for the profession of education and its educators.  Without the ability to gaze self-critically into the heart of educational practice the risk of self-delusion is high.  And if educators are careless, unexamined practices can precipitate unintended forms of teaching that can disempower and disenfranchise students in already under resourced and under-served schools.  For instance, teachers who teach in ways consistent with the ways they were taught should wonder if they are fully and genuinely responsive to the learning needs of their students.  Are they truly being effective for all learners if they don’t stop and periodically test their teaching assumptions with a few key questions?  For example, is my lived-experience really the same as the lived-experience of my students and therefore is it fair and reasonable to expect my students to think and behave like I do?  When I measure success in ways that matches the ways I was successful as a student, which of my learners is likely to struggle with my assessments?  When the social and cultural mismatch between teachers and students is amplified by the lack of self-critical analysis the damage to student learning can be amplified.  We know this in the field of education because the critical lens was turned inward to catch missteps that ran counter to the goal of educating all learners.  Internal reflection around best practices is a good thing.

Yet as I noted at the start of this essay there is much I have learned about teaching by straying from the field of education.  I’m currently pursuing a MA degree in Theological Studies from the Iliff School of Theology because I want to develop new ideas, new theories, and new language to speak about my philosophy of education which contains elements of transcendence and calling.  These themes are more fully developed in the field of theology than the discipline of education.  My anthropology of humanness needed more expansive language then typically found in education, which feels inadequate to my goal of creating classroom spaces that reach toward becoming fully awake to the wholeness of what it means to be human.  By entering the field of theology my descriptive vocabulary has increased.  I can now talk about education with words and concepts like mystagogue, sacred space, mysticism, inner eyes and ears, indwelling, spiritual awakening, and ritual.

Another field I turn to when broadening my understanding of effective forms of teaching is ecology/biology.  The natural world has always been a robust touch point for me when I search for new ways to see teaching with fresh eyes. The poet John Moffitt writes: “To look at any thing,/ If you would know that thing,/ You must look at it long:/ To look at this green and say,/ “I have seen spring in these/ Woods,” will not do – you must/ Be the thing you see:” The message for me is plain.  To really know my students, which is the gateway to effective teaching, I must take the time to get to know my students.  I must learn their moods, their vocabulary of learning, their hidden pain which they guard, and their passion to learn.  I find that this type of decentered-teaching works best when I step away from my ego, my institutional role, and move outside my narrow pedagogical interests to adopt new ways of seeing and talking about learning.

Ornithology, the study of birds, is also a non-teaching favorite of mine.  I find it is rich with metaphors and images of good practice as long as I can look beyond the language and technical descriptions to the deeper meaning.  I was recently watching a PBS show Autumnwatch New England.  One of the guests was David Allen Sibley, arguably one of the premier birders and illustrators in the world.  He made this remarkable statement when describing the process of writing and painting a field guide on birds: “A drawing is a picture of our understanding. If you don’t understand something you can’t draw it.”  And in a YouTube video on his drawing process, David states: “Every sketch that I do I discover something new.  I get to know the bird better.  It forces me to look at all the different aspects, the proportions, the shapes, the curves, the tones, and really understand all that.  There is no better way to get to know a bird than to draw it”.  Sibley’s insight on sketching and illustrating birds is a form of wisdom I can apply immediately to my teaching.  He reminds me that it is important, if not essential, to combine the precision of science with the illumination of art. There is a science or structure to my teaching anchored in proven teaching techniques.  But of equal importance is the art of teaching, which comes, as Sibley suggests from the process of intentionally watching and sketching the intricacies of my students, their ineffable qualities.  The more I turn outward and away from the taken for granted language of education and my own views of education, the more I’m likely to discover new ways to pursue my goal of student-transcendence of self and content.

If a drawing is a form of understanding as Sibley argues, how well can you sketch your students?  Without seeing them in front of you how precise is your drawing? Do you truly understand in the depth of your teacher heart and psyche what their form is?  What are the qualities and characteristics that separate and unify your students, one from the other?  Maybe it is time to sharpen your pencils and head out into the field, sketch book in hand, to do some close observation.  I know I haven’t done enough of that kind of teaching, the act of deep-observation, lately. It is time, I feel, to do some field work.  To get out and do some sketching.

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?

May 2nd, 2018—When you struggle as a teacher, and all teachers struggle at some point in their career, who do you turn to for wisdom and guidance?  Do you rely on your instructional teammate?  A relative who has taught for over 30 years and knows the ropes?  Maybe a university professor who was always there with just the right advice or question that broke open a deeper understanding of the problem?  Or perhaps a beloved K-12 teacher, because of all the people you know they had the gift of seeing you fully for who you are, even when you didn’t trust yourself?  For the past 20 years I’ve turned to Parker Palmer’s landmark book on the inner life of teachers; Courage to Teach for guidance when I’m troubled as an educator.

On the University of Denver campus we recently hosted a two day celebration of the 20th anniversary of his groundbreaking text with sessions designed to invite faculty, staff, and students into deeper contact with the call to serve and care for others.  The highlight of the event was a live video chat with Parker Palmer.  Each of the six panelists was invited to engage Parker around the following questions, 1) when did you first encounter Courage to Teach, 2) in what ways has the book changed your practice, and 3) what aspect of living the Courage to Teach still engages you.

One of the panelist spoke of the challenges and internal conflicts she faces initiating and sustaining change in her educational setting.  She described the constant struggle as “swimming upstream” against the strong current of institutional norms and resistance to innovation. For her the effort was exhausting and dispiriting and she wondered if Parker had any guidance or insights on how to remain true to her passion. In the way of a wise educator he paused in response to this heart-felt question, for a moment of reflection and empathy, before engaging the question.  He began his answer with a description of floating the Colorado River in a raft and ended with the observation that every good boatperson knows that if you overshoot your destination you can move to the side of the river and use the back-eddies to navigate against the current to your intended destination.

I find in Parker’s analogy a series of helpful steps for anyone working for change in a system they care deeply about, especially educational contexts with their strong tendency to preserve existing norms and protocols.  The first step is to literally get out of the current and stop battling the forces of tradition that seek to sweep you toward the intended goal and outcomes as quickly as possible.  Sometimes it is best to consciously search out the margins of the river where the current flows with a different sense of purpose. The second step is to realize that every rock, log, and obstruction in the river creates a back-eddy that can be used by the observant boater to move sideways to the current or even impossibly upstream.  In this way a change agent can artfully work the institutional barriers and roadblocks to quietly move past the obstructions toward a healthier more life-giving place to teach and learn.  The third step is to recognize that it takes practice to find the right eddies with the right physics of change capable of accomplishing your goal.  And a willingness to make mistakes; to end up where you didn’t intend or back where you started, swimming against the current.  The final step is to bring along an experienced guide who “knows the river” in all of its moods and rates of flow.  A person who can point out the sweet spots in the current.  A wise guide, when exhaustion threatens to overcome the boater, who points out the best eddies for resting, regrouping, and refocusing on the task of accomplishing change that is sustaining.  Someone who knows from experience when even the best boater risks disaster, given the strength of the current, and advises staying out of the river until the spring thaw diminishes and the river returns to more manageable flows.

With the analogy of institutional river of back-eddies in mind: who are your fellow paddlers?  Do you have a more experienced guide with you?  Have you studied the current, marked the obstacles, and tracked the location of the best eddies?  If you feel exhausted from the struggle where will you eddy out and rest?  If so, you are ready to push off into the current and work the margins toward meaningful and sustaining change.  Oh, and if you make a mistake and get “flushed out”, no worries; be patient, and work the eddy lines back against the current.

April 10th, 2018—Every year I search out the first signs of spring.  I begin watching long before the snow melts or the constellation Orion slides below the winter horizon.  I seem compelled into this state of being by two sources.  The first is an abiding fascination for the subtle ways that spring asserts the gift of renewal on the landscape.  The second is a sense of impatience; enough is enough.  I’ve had enough of winter’s cold and dormancy.  I’m ready to dance in the mud, anticipating spring’s jubilant colors.

And so it is with my teaching.  If I’m paying close attention I can see the winter of my teaching, when I feel most disconnected from my gifts, giving way to the explosive possibilities of spring.  This is the promise of spring.  As much as I welcome the thawing ground of my teaching despair I recognize that there is also a cautionary side to spring.  In the natural world; the sun warms the earth, the ground thaws, and my flowerbeds and gardens burst forth with growth. At first this is refreshing and energizing, but then the work comes; weeding, pruning, tending, deciding what to keep and what to till back into the soil.  This is the peril of spring gardening; and so it is with my teaching.  When I find myself consumed by all the teaching projects that need attention I turn to the wisdom/warning of Thomas Merton.  He writes:

“There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by non-violent methods most easily succumbs: activism and over-work.  The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.  The frenzy of the activist neutralizes [his/her] work for peace.  It destroys the fruitfulness of [his/her] own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom, which makes work fruitful.”

On my office wall I have a watercolor I painted in response to this quote.  When I find my inner activist-teacher vigorously responding to or worse, forcing, the early budding of spring in my teaching I look at my painting and try to remember to move deliberately.  Because as Merton suggests: “The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his/her work for peace.  It destroys the fruitfulness of his/her own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom, which makes work fruitful.”   For me, “frenzy” carries a distinct spring-like feel, a sort of inner disquiet centered on the urge to get really busy really fast, to work frantically for the promise of change in the world of education.

But if I’m not careful, my passion for setting things right, for cleaning up the messes of the thawing world, can actually contribute to disintegration, the peril, rather than bringing education into harmony with its bigger purposes.  Merton calls this “a pervasive form of modern violence…”  I see his point, although it is hard to fully accept that he is talking about me and my destructive forms of teaching.  The more I turn my frenzied energy, like the undisciplined nature of spring’s release, to making everything right the more I sabotage my best intentions. If I’m not careful I can become the violence in the world that I’m working to redirect into peace and justice.  I could become the sudden return of winter smothering budding daffodils in a blanket of snow; my winter teaching suppressing the emerging shoots of student knowing.

I believe that spring is a frenzy of promise and peril.  I look forward each spring to the decisions I make about how to invest my energy so as to advance the greater good in my classroom.  And like a good gardener I know I need to make conscious choices.  Which plants (ideas) grow best in the soil (classroom climate) I’ve cultivated?  But I also need to practice patience and awareness that learning and change happens on its pace not on my insistence.

December 11th, 2017—Why should the activity of giving thanks be confined to one day?  What about a season of Thanksgiving?  Why confine gratitude for others, your calling, the Earth, to one day during the year? Thanksgiving is many things to many people– it is known as a time to gather with family and friends to express thanks for the gift of deep relationships.  To gather with colleagues and honor a shared sense of professional calling.  Even to sit silently and express to the universe an appreciation for the experience of being alive.  In the field of education there are many aspects of teaching that are thankless and are so onerous that being grateful is beyond the realm of possibility.  The must do activities that have little intrinsic reward constitute the work of teaching.  But every teacher knows that teaching at its best is more than a to do list of life-draining tasks. Most of the time, good teaching is filled with many life-renewing experiences that deserve special treatment, to be named and to be thanked. Giving gratitude for the work of teaching can be a daily practice.

There is good reason to practice gratitude, to think of it as something more than just Thanksgiving Day.  For instance, the research is clear that the act of gratitude for physicians can reduce the symptoms of burnout by bringing joy into their work. The Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) offers this rationale for incorporating gratitude into the practice of medicine:

“Gratitude can add joy and meaning to their work. It can strengthen doctors’ social ties and commitment to generous helping and compassion, and help to meet their psychological needs for autonomy, competence and connectedness.

To add to the CMAJ report, Dr. Dike Drummond makes an argument for the physical, psychological, and social benefits of gratitude including: stronger immune systems, less bothered by aches and pains, better sleep, positive emotions, more optimism and happiness, more compassionate, more forgiving, and less lonely.

But what about teachers? What is the role of gratitude in their professional life?  With so many instructional and curricular constraints and the nearly constant criticism of teachers, what is there to be grateful for?  My short list includes: students who help me refine the elements of my teaching center—my calling, colleagues who help me see when I’m right and who are willing to challenge me when I’m wrong, a teaching context that allows for a degree of curricular and pedagogical freedom, and unexpected moments when the classroom dissolves away to reveal the mystery of learning.

Many of the best educators I know have rituals, practices, and traditions that anchor their teaching. Do you have any gratitude rituals?  Are there any regular activities that you engage in around giving thanks when teaching?  I know teachers who keep a gratitude journal, use a gratitude app on their phone, write notes to students thanking them for showing up every day, or welcome students to class with expressions of gratitude.  My favorite example of a gratitude practice occurs at the end of the day when a teacher, just before falling asleep, names three things that happened during the day that are worthy of thanks.  This simple practice can bring joy, contentment, increased feelings of connectedness, and better sleep to a teacher.

I’ve been paying attention to my gratitude practices lately, some I knew about (thanking students for asking deep questions) and other rituals that I was less aware of.  For instance, I now realize that at the end of the week, after I’ve straightened up my office, after I’ve checked to make sure I’m taking the right work home to be prepared for Monday, after I’ve watered by plants, I do one last thing.  I pause for just a moment before closing my door and I thank my office for all the big and small acts of teaching it facilitated during the week.  I picture the ways my office, as sacred instructional space, enabled me to bring forward the fullness of my calling to teach.  I think the poet Mary Oliver has it right when she states: “Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed.”  How are you blessed where you stand today as a teacher?  What act of teaching today deserves your gratitude?


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