June 17, 2020 — “Normal” is a word I hear often these days. It carries with it the allure, of well, normal. I sense that it is often used with good intention. A longing for stability and certainty about the world and our place in it. And as a leader and teacher I think there is a good reason to express a certain degree of skepticism about its meaning. Especially in the current context of a global pandemic, world-wide economic decline, and the calls for justice by Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples. A return to “normal” feels to me inadequate for the deep work that I need to do and that the institutions that I’m part of and love also need to do. In my head I hear the lyrics to a Bruce Cockburn song: “the trouble with normal is it always gets worse.” And by worse he means the divide between the haves and have nots, the rich and poor, and the empowered and disempowered. His song from 1983 is a prophetic warning to question normal as an operating principle, then and now.

This moment, now, compels me as educator and leader to address the realities of structural racism in every institution, especially schools, that support and perpetuate the pandemic of whiteness as normal. I don’t know how you are doing with this moment. Perhaps you carry sadness with you or fear. Rapid change and loss may well have brought weariness, bone weariness and a sense that you don’t know how to keep moving forward. Or even what forward looks like right now. You may be welcoming the change that is sweeping the world and the possibility found in chaos. You might sense that disruption is clearing away old habits and offering new ways to grow and heal. Regardless, I invite you to be fully present to your emotions. To feel them in your body. To know that they are real and contain the energy of transformation for self, others, and the field of education.

The questions I’m holding today are many and varied. Where should I look for wisdom, sense making, or something tangible to anchor to in hard times? What can I do when it feels like everything around me is in turmoil? Faculty, staff, students, and administrators are preparing for the fall quarter. I wonder how anyone can really plan amidst all the changes we are going through individually and collectively? I wonder how can we pick up the shattered pieces of social structures that empower some and disempower others—without recreating systems of oppression? I feel simultaneously charged and disoriented. I don’t really know what the best course of action is. I find myself searching for the generative space between deconstruction of power and privilege; and the construction of newness grounded in liberation and freedom for all. What can I do, is a daily question for me?

Two sources of wisdom have helped center me lately while keeping me open to personal and social change. The first dates to 1948 and the eve of the atomic revolution and potential world destruction. Four elders were appointed by the Hopi Nation to share ancient wisdom and prophecy. One story tells that now, a world in crisis, is like a mighty river. The eleventh-hour is here and so is the time to act.

There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above water.  And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate.

I hear in the prophecy of the Hopi elder that fear plays an important role in the way I and others choose to respond to this moment. The pain and loss associated with climate change, COVID-19, economic collapse, and the death of so many Black, Brown, and indigenous people feels like a mighty river. It is sweeping normal away and flushing out the no longer useful ways of being.

What can I do? I can let go and join the river as it flows to its destination, not my hoped for normal, but the river’s natural end point. What is of most use to me is the truth that once I let go and stop hanging on to my white-male-heterosexual privilege, for instance, I will find myself in the company of many others. In community we can celebrate and rejoice together as power is reconfigured in service of everyone, and every learner. Now is the time for me to give up privilege in order to give it back to all.

The second wisdom story comes from a June 5, 2020 National Public Radio StoryCorp conversation between a Black father (Albert Sykes) and his 9 year old son (Aiden).

Aiden: So, Dad, what are your dreams for me?

Mr. Sykes: My dream is for you to live out your dreams. There’s an old proverb that talks about when children are born, children come out with their fists closed because that’s where they keep all their gifts. And as you grow, your hands learn to unfold because you’re learning to release your gifts to the world. And so for the rest of your life, I want to see you live with your hands unfolding.

I like thinking in metaphors. They help me get beyond my rational mind to the living heart of truth. Albert Sykes offers me an understanding of change that combines the destructive and constructive image of a fist. What can I do? Now is a time, as many social justice educators argue, to raise a fist and break apart the power structures that oppress and kill (emotionally, socially, spiritually, and physically) so many. At some point, the closed fist will open, in its own time, to reveal gifts. New ways of knowing and being that the wounded world and broken schools need for healing.

Neither wisdom story offers a systematic and structured plan for change. They can’t be condensed into an email of next steps and phases or written as a five-year strategic plan. I find the wisdom that speaks to my heart takes its own time to settle in and create the conditions for growth and change. I need to sit with this wisdom and let it work me, rather than me applying my expectations and timeline to it.

Now is the eleventh-hour, a time to act. For some that means jumping into the river and swimming with fellow radical educators and protestors. For some that means sewing masks, painting slogans of empowerment, or pursuing other ways to disrupt and deconstruct the system. For others it means writing scholarly articles or leading professional development grounded in social justice practices and principles.

What can I do? I can look for companions with closed fists waiting for them to open and reveal gifts of insight, change, and the way forward to a more humane, compassionate, and just world. What can you do? What is in your fist today? What gifts do you carry? What is your unique wisdom to share with all of us?

May 29, 2020 — “Shelter in Place.” “Social distancing.” How do these words make you feel? I experience varying amounts of uncertainty, loss of autonomy, the urge to protect, and curiosity about what is coming. Three words I’ve heard before in the context of threatened violence or severe weather over the plains of Colorado. But in this era of coronavirus they carry a heavy load. Three words with a brooding sense of warning; take cover, watch out, something destructive is coming. The safest place, until the danger passes, is where you are right now. Stay put. Don’t move.

The poet Mary Oliver in her poem “Today” offers this advice for navigating troubled times: “the world goes on as it must.” Yikes that sounds like harsh advice from a poet known for her caring tone. She seems to be saying, what did you expect? Life is challenging. Get over your difficulties. Move on. It is also possible to read her tone as a frank assessment that the world is value neutral when it comes to human concerns like-shelter in place. “The world goes on as it must”. It has no choice. It can’t slowdown or stop to attend to my wants and needs. Or perhaps her tone is soothing reassurance that despite the trials and tribulations, the natural pace and purpose of life persists. I just have to trust in the wisdom of the world. What then might be the wisdom in “shelter in place” and “social distancing”?

A student who knows my love of poetry and stories sent me a Facebook post by Cheyanne Thomas that offers a way for me to trust the bigger forces that keep the world alive.

“I have been feeling very caged in with isolation and social distancing, and my partner Joseph gave me a bear teaching: When a bear goes into hibernation, they do it for the health of their community and themselves. In the winter, food is scarce, hibernating allows other animals to have access to the limited resources. It slows the spread of disease and viruses among other animals during a season when immune systems are lowered, and energy is limited.”

It is also a time of conserving health for the bear, a time for reflection… it is a time that allows you to renew, to undergo change, to honor your place in life and food cycles.

It is not a time for anxiety or fear. When it is time for hibernation, a bear can finally relax. All of the stress of finding food, territory, and a mate disappears. The bear believes that they have done enough and trust in themselves. They know this process is necessary and they will come out the other side renewed.

Be the bear. Stay home. Rest. Know you are doing this for something much bigger than yourself.”

In the opening stanza of “Today”, Mary Oliver writes: “Today I’m flying low and I’m / not saying a word / I’m letting the voodoos of ambition sleep.” There are many things about this opening line that resonate with Thomas’s bear story. She invites me, and I hope you as well, to realize that at times it is important to “fly-low” to rest, renew, and retool. I know many faculty, staff, and administrators who have a hard time saying “no”. It is easy, and I know this all too well myself, to say “yes” to the work. To always “fly-high” and take on more and more responsibilities and projects. I find myself, even though I’m working from home, doing more work than when I drove to campus every day. I ask, how can that be? I guess it is because my “voodoos of ambition” are still wide awake and unwilling to hibernate. I’m a helper by nature and there is lots that can be done to heal, help, and care for others these days. But if I fly too high with my sense of indispensableness I can lose track of the ground where the real work is done. Mary Oliver reminds me to fly low at times. To slow down enough to get up close and personal to the world. To be present to the people and needs right around me. I only need to give myself the gift of stillness.

I tend to rush opportunity. I’m a doer. I lean toward action in service of others. Cheyanne and the bear remind me to be patient, resist the urge to emerge too soon and push forward, back into old habits. I don’t have to feel like my work is essential to the smooth running of the world. And in this case, I’m thinking of the world as my teaching, service, and scholarship. My ego would like me to think that when I retire or if I suddenly quit, that some important aspect of the university will note my absence. That may be partially true but not fully true. The work of academia was here long before me and it will remain long after me. Yes, I have much to contribute and I know my work and presence makes a difference. But Mary Oliver and the bear remind me that ultimately what matters is not me individually but rather the way the collected whole, the world, moves along. We are all in this COVID-19 mess together. This is a good thing because the challenges are too great for any one person to resolve or even begin to approach with clarity. We are the world and we must go on.

Are there any ambitions you can set down for the moment in order to see your work as it should be, not as you are driven to achieve? What does it take to give yourself approval to fly low? To be the bear? What is the emotion you feel when you hear that the “the world goes on as it must”?

May 19, 2020 — When you are stressed, anxious, and struggling to make sense of your teaching or leadership, where do you turn for grounding? Centering? Anchoring? I have a tendency to do one of two things in my efforts at refocusing. One strategy is to go for a walk, mostly in nature where I often find a new way to see old problems. Perhaps it is seeing a plant pushing through the hard surface of blacktop pavement. Perhaps I find a rock that is rounded with age and the turbulent forces of nature. Now I have affirmation that with time and patience my troubles will push through to the light. Or perhaps they will be refined by life into a gentler and more accessible form. My other go to, when I’m looking for a connection to deep meaning is music. I don’t have a particular artist in mind. I just keep my heart open to lyrics that bring me to a new place of meaning and understanding. In this age of the coronavirus I find myself relying heavily on both meaning making strategies. Do you have strategies for navigating stress into clarity? Are these tactics still working in the era of COVID-19?

The weeks of sheltering in place have been tough for just about everyone. But they seem particularly tough on teachers and other members of the helping professions. They must shelter in place while attempting to construct learning experiences for their students who are also sheltering in place. This requires, it seems, an ability to set aside personal wants, worries, and needs in favor of serving the wants, worries, and needs of another person. Teachers are creative when it comes to imaginative responses to difficult instructional settings. I have heard stories of teachers recording messages, creating YouTube videos, organizing drive by instruction, and generally doing what is needed to engage students in learning. But it often feels like teachers are in a holding pattern, waiting for a return to “normal”. How much longer can everyone hold out? What is the goal toward which everyone is working?

We keep hearing that the measure of success in combating COVID-19 is flattening the curve. All our sacrifices and losses will be worth it when the number of infections drops, and we no longer need to be so careful and intentional about social distancing. This makes perfect sense when considering fact. The science of controlling a pandemic that spreads through physical proximity is clear. But that is not how I feel. My emotions and embodied response to the coronavirus doesn’t feel like it tracks along a predictable line. It can’t be plotted on a graph across time. I wonder how teachers are feeling these days as they attend to the needs of students while finding time for their own selfcare. How about you? How are you feeling right now? Does the logic of flattening the curve bring you solace and fuel your commitment to remain isolated from students, friends, family, colleagues? I’m finding it harder and harder to believe in the calculation of a flattened curve. I have no doubt that it will work, but right now my feelings and emotions are what I need to convince, not my mind.

I need a new metaphor that offers meaning to my feelings. One that is dynamic enough to honor my emotions, which are anything but flat. One day I’m up. One day I’m down. I’m looking for understandings that place fact and feeling in productive relationship, not opposites to each other. The image of waves moving across the surface of the water is an inviting metaphor for me. Sometimes the waves, like my feelings, can be nearly still and other times they can crest at incredible heights of unease or joy depending on the context. The poet Judy Brown offers a helpful fact about waves. They are as much their trough (low spot) as they are their crest (high spot):

“There is a trough in waves, / A low spot / Where horizon disappears / And only sky / And water / Are our company.”

I know this loneliness of the trough. My emotional bottom. I’m tired, frustrated, and just want to go to the store and buy peanut butter, cereal, or onions without having to cover my face in a mask or work to stand six feet from another human being. My mind knows why this is important, but right now it is not my mind but my emotions that need convincing.

I’ve noticed a curious thing about my emotions and feelings. They don’t typically respond to logic. They operate on a different circuit. You might say they have a mind of their own, a different kind of logic that is wired for a different kind of understanding. Judy Brown seems to sense this as well. She knows that negative emotions, like troughs, also rise and lift. The key is time and perspective:

“But if we rest there / In the trough, / Are silent, / Noticing the shape of things, / Then time alone / Will bring us to another / Place / Where we can see / Horizon.”

I don’t need to change my feelings. I only need to be present to them, to notice how they shape my response to COVID-19. And with patience I know that the curve of my feelings won’t flatten but rather rise, caring me to a new place and new emotions. Eventually the wave will lift, and I will see new possibilities. New ways of being. It is true that sometime the emotional wave of the corona virus will lift me to a new way of seeing and understanding. But for now, I’m in a trough. What about you? Where are you on your emotional wave? What are you noticing and paying attention to? What new perspective feels like it is waiting you?

April 3, 2020 — Stability is something I long for in these days of the coronavirus pandemic. I dread the uncertainties of what is next. The recent weeks of personal and professional transitions were anything but normal. I struggled to: integrate work and home responsibilities, change patterns of social interaction, set up a home-office, teach family how to Zoom, plan for the spring quarter of classes, track the latest updates on the virus, and find ways to virtually check on neighbors. Always in the background was COVID-19; amorphous, mysterious — peeking over my shoulder — assessing my safety protocols. Waiting, it seemed, to exploit cracks in my physical isolation, daring me to make skin to skin contact with another human. In a matter of days my usual spring rituals, practices, and traditions were upended. My new normal is composed of feelings of unease, uncertainty, and wonderment. Luckily I do not have to travel the path of fear and a new normal that is anything but normal, alone. My traveling companions are family, colleagues, poets, and keepers of wisdom stories.

The Columbian poet William Ospina, in response to the dread of the coronavirus envisions fear as a teacher:

“There is also something poetic in fear: it teaches us the limits of strength, the extent of audacity, the true value of our merits. Like the sea, it knows how to tell us where there is something that surpasses us. Like gravity, it shows us what powers are over us. Like death and like the body itself, it tells us what commands we cannot violate, what is not allowed, what border is sacred.”

I can find a sense of stability in knowing that fear, as a teacher, professes the truth that there are forces bigger than self and self-knowledge. Ospina names them as the sea, gravity, and death. He offers the image of fear as guardian and protector of the sacred borders of knowing and being. Fear and its compatriot change are reminders to me to pay attention, to walk softly, sacred ground is near. There is a certain spirituality to anxiety, a religion of observation, as Ospina writes: “That, as a Latin said, religion is not kneeling, praying and begging, but looking at everything with a calm soul.” In practical terms I welcome the fear and unease that I feel prior to the first class of the academic quarter. They are reminders to look sharp, to listen deeply, and to enter the classroom as a sacred space of learning. Anxiety keeps me instructionally alive and it provides the energy to resist complacency.

When faced with fear what do you find yourself paying attention to? What brings you closer to the center of your “calm soul” where you can see and experience the fullness of the world; the true complexity of the classroom? What brings you to a place where you can count on the stability of the bigness of the world to eclipse the ego and efforts to control self and others? For me, I count on the rhythms of nature in moments of dread. For instance, on March 19th the earth passed the spring equinox in its orbit around the sun, our trustworthy center of cosmic life. Every dawning day means more light, less darkness, in the world. I can count on that, day after day after day.

I too, like the seasons, can create predictable cycles in my life even in the midst of apprehension and change. For instance, the poet Wendell Berry shares his spring ritual, which speaks strongly to my teacher-heart. In “A Purification” he invites me to consider the ritual of cleaning out the old, overused, and false; to make way for the new. To bury fear deep into the fertile soil of possibility, not to hide from it but to repurpose it into something new and unpredicted. There is much that is disturbing and tragic about the coronavirus (viral fear in the world), its personal and professional impact is frightening. And the virus also invites me to reevaluate, create new practices, and wait for unexpected outcomes. The road map for turning failure, uncertainty, loss, and death into new life is clearly outlined by Berry:

At the start of spring I open a trench / in the ground. I put into it / the winter’s accumulation of paper, / pages I do not want to read / again, useless words, fragments, / errors. And I put into it / the contents of the outhouse: / light of the sun, growth of the ground, / finished with one of their journeys. / To the sky, to the wind, then, / and to the faithful trees, I confess / my sins: that I have not been happy / enough, considering my good luck; / have listened to too much noise; / have been inattentive to wonders; / have lusted after praise. And then upon the gathered refuse / of mind and body, I close the trench, / folding shut again the dark, / the deathless earth. Beneath that seal / the old escapes into the new.”

I can’t control or even attempt to control the coronavirus. I can protect myself and those I care for with proper handwashing and social distancing. But the virus, in its smallness, is bigger than me. Like the sea and gravity, it moves with a steady energy that exhibits a power over me and my definitions of normal. And at the same time, as Berry suggests, I can count on rituals and practices to bring a sense of stability to my life, especially when those traditions are aligned to movements in the natural world. What ritual or practice (past, rediscovered, or explored) brings you light and enlivens your spirit these days? If you were to dig a trench into the ground of your personal or professional identity/work. What items from the winter of your work, personal life, or coronavirus do you want to bury? What would it feel like to know that the elements of loss are composting, breaking down, and waiting to burst forth into the newness of your personal/professional life?

March 17, 2020 — Have you noticed? I’m sure you have or at least I hope you have. The gentle acts of kindness. The willingness to set aside personal needs, fears, and anxieties in service of the other. The undercurrent of humanness that is running, present but silently, even as the Coronavirus spreads across the land. The author Annie Dillard in “Teaching a Stone to Talk” reminds us to remember that the dragons of isolation are a means, if allowed, to bring us to places of deeper meaning and purpose. She writes:

In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned.

Good and sound advice but not easy to follow for leaders, educators, and members of the helping professions. The individuals who others in need look to for guidance and visions of what is possible beyond the immediate moment of despair. Here are a few ideas to pursue if you are interested in finding the substrate of hope and mutual human care

Walk the aisle of your grocery store or pharmacy. Find the empty shelves. They are easy to locate because they are everywhere. No more tissues, paper towels, toilet paper, wipes, frozen foods, bread, eggs, dried beans, butter… A few scattered packages of Ramen noodles. The lack of essential items speaks loudly in the voice of scarcity. The temptation, and I know this when I recently shopped for my groceries, is to succumb to the social impulse to draw in and circle around my needs and concerns. This feels like a natural impulse, a move toward self-preservation. To gather up all I can find.

But I also realized, while standing there, that much of my panic is driven by my social context; a society that values individual initiative, messages that I’m responsible for acquiring my own means of sustenance, and the privatization of purpose and responsibility. So, I encourage you to go to your grocery store with no other purpose than experiencing the emotion of fear. The impulse to hoard anything you can find, even when there is nothing left to put in your cart. Scarcity is a verb in our society. But also, ride those emotions to a deeper level. Why is fear such a powerful feeling? How realistic is it? Empathize with individuals who are in need in the communities you are most intimately connected to. Expand the circle of isolation beyond your personal sphere that surrounds you as you stand in that aisle, alone while surrounded by emptiness. Connect to everyone in need. You are not alone.

Here is another idea to consider, especially for leaders, formal and informal. In the landmark study by Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider, “Relational Trust in Schools” they identify four social-emotional factors associated with successful school reform. These core elements are equally applicable to organizational leadership or a personal response to social networks impacted by the Coronavirus. Here they are: respect, personal regard, role competency, and personal integrity. Respect; genuinely listening to the other, with regard and attentiveness, even when you disagree. Personal regard: the imperative of extending yourself beyond the confines of your role. Role competence; possessing the knowledge and skills to complete tasks of shared interest to the community. Personal integrity; following through, in a timely manner, tasks you have agreed to complete. Attending to relational trust, as they say, is not rocket science. Saying hello. Asking, with meaning, how someone is doing. Sending a supportive email or better yet a card. Buying flowers for the office. All count toward building and sustaining relational trust. Small acts yield big results in human connectedness and social resiliency.

Relational trust is simply a more descriptive version of hospitality, the age-old commitment to care for the other, the stranger in our midst. Aren’t we all strangers to each other at work and in the grocery store as we grapple with our scarcity inflamed fear?

Hospitality has always had a subversive, counter cultural dimension. Hospitality is resistance… especially when the larger society disregards or dishonors certain persons, small acts of respect and welcome are potent far beyond themselves… Hospitality resists boundaries that endanger persons by denying their humanness.  It saves others from the invisibility that comes from social abandonment.

I find in this definition of hospitality by Christine Pohl in “Making Room” to be easy to understand only a little harder to implement. It does take courage and a degree of vulnerability to meet, greet, and care for the stranger at the gate of your city, your office, your home. But like relational trust it is the small acts that add up to resist fear, scarcity, and social isolation. Leaders should make sure everyone they supervise knows the name of everyone else in their group. Create opportunities for sharing stories about navigating, toward wholeness, moments of crisis.

The world right now is full of dangerous emotions that seek to break apart relational bounds and community connections. Now is the time to turn toward others for help. When I’m sick of body and heart, and I’m isolated in my own needs and means I can only rely on others for support. This is the way humans have survived tragedy and the unexpected for tens of thousands of years. Our ancestors lived and traveled in small groups, self-sufficient to the best of their ability. But the archeological record tells another story worth hearing. These isolated groups may have been separated geographically but they were often relational connected to and dependent on other nearby groups. Periodically these wandering tribes would come together or cross paths, exchanging information, trading goods, and developing social bounds. In the face of an unexpected disaster, a group in need could turn to other groups for support until the challenge passes. Survival was both an individual responsibility but also a deeper understanding that underneath everything, as Annie Dillard tells us, is the unifying truth of wholeness; we are all connected. The Coronavirus makes this truth abundantly clear.

March 6, 2020 — Once a month, I meet with faculty and staff to share stories about ways to (balance/integrate) our call to care for students—our heart and passion as professionals—with institutional structures that lean heavily toward efficiency and structure. Our method for the conversation is simple. I email a poem or wisdom story with a few prompts to stir thinking and reflection from the heart. When we gather I read the poem out loud, hold a moment of reflective-silence, and then invite everyone to share a word, image, or phrase that grabs their attention. The conversation flows from a combination of lived-experience in higher education, insights from the poem, and unexpected connections drawn from what others share. Participants enter our shared space with a variety of emotions from heavy-hearts to the deep-joy of being together.  Our time has a sacred and transcendent quality. It is a real blessing to be part of this community, striving for integrity and fidelity to self and the nature of the work.

We recently explored the theme of burdens and the value of periodically laying them down. The poem “Burlap Sack” by Jane Hirshfield was particularly helpful in guiding the conversation. The poet draws on the metaphor of a mule burdened with burlap sacks full of sand, ropes, nails, and axes to draw a distinction between self and work. She writes: “To think that the stones or sand are the self is an error. / To think that grief is the self is an error.” I find this observation a wonderful reminder that what I do, especially the stuff that is onerous or challenging, is not me. This, I think, is important to keep in mind when the institutional work, that must be done, crowds out the heart-filling work that forms the core of my call to teach. When I’m overburdened, I must, as Hirshfield cautions, be “careful between the trees to leave extra room”. I know this feeling well, moving with intention in crowded emotional spaces. When I’m not careful my overloaded bags, my business, can cause harm and hurt as my sacks of stuff bump into students, colleagues, or family members. I think I can do it all, when in fact I can’t. My hubris is bigger than my actual capacity to do good in the world. Hirshfield concludes her poem with an invitation, to lay my burdens down, to no longer carry the heavy load: “What would it be to take the bride / And leave behind the heavy dowry? / To let the thin-ribbed mule browse in tall grasses, / Its long ears waggling like the tails of two happy dogs?”

In our group conversation we imagined, along with the poet, what it would be like to “browse in the tall grasses” of higher education with joy and pleasure. We went a step further. We wrote on sticky notes the sources of our burdens. The challenges and those tasks that are usually life-giving but can weigh us down if there are too many good things or when we must rush through the joy and on to the next task. We placed the sticky notes on a drawing of a burlap sack, filling it with the burdens we carry around like pack mules. We talked, in triads, about our bags and what they were filled with and we unburdened ourselves by pulling off sticky notes that named tasks we didn’t really need to keep carrying. We invited ourselves to be at peace with the work, both the challenges and the joys.

One theme that emerged during our investigation of the poem—and our willingness to be investigated by the poem—was the question of balance. It is helpful when carrying heavy loads to make sure the bags are well balanced. This is essential to the long-term health of the pack animal. Too much weight on one side creates an imbalance that a person works against to stay upright. Balance makes good sense in the metaphor of pack mules, but I’m not sure it works as well when applied to humans working in educational settings. Balance, in these setting, means stagnation. There is little room for experiencing the fullness of human emotions; the highs and lows. And when the load shifts, the person must add energy to the other side to balance the competing forces. Balance, it seems, ends up distracting a person from a closer examination of what the sources of the tension are. When I’m striving for balance I’m more concerned with the nature of the axes, sand, and shovels in my burlap sacks then how did those items get there and are they the right items in the first place.

I think a better goal to strive for is integration. How do I pull together, into wholeness, the competing forces of calling and institutional responsibilities? Rather than self as a counter weight balancing out other forces, in integration the self is a fulcrum between burdens. The self remains independent of the two demands of inner calling and outer institutional protocols and responsibilities. Integration values a dynamic approach to making sense of the lived experience of educators. It accounts for the ways that at times one side may weigh more, and be out of balance, but the self is still centered. As Hirshfield notes: “The self is not the load of ropes and nails and axes. / The self is not the miner nor builder nor driver.” The self is a combination of the various elements of identity, gifts, talents, and social context.

The balance metaphor is premised on parts and pieces that are consciously maneuvered to achieve a static relationship. The integration metaphor is premised on wholeness with the distinct elements in fluid relationship. The key concepts, for me, are wholeness and relationships. As long as these elements are present I’m okay with shifting sacks of responsibility and unbalanced loads. Here are a few questions to ponder as you seek to integrate your burdens, once you put down the unnecessary ones. In what ways have your gifts of service, leadership, or teaching turned into burdens? In what ways do you find it difficult to navigate your work when your burlap sack is full of burdens? Who or what have you harmed as you bumped into them with your burlap sacks? What burdens would you have to put down to feel like you could wonder freely in the pastures of education?

Sept 24, 2019—As an educator I have many rituals, practices, and traditions that inform my approach to teaching and learning. One in particular sticks out. When I’m slow to enact it my students are quick to ask me why and to call for its immediate implementation. The ritual and rhythm of snack time is at the center of their concern and interest. The classes I teach run from 4:00-6:20 and many of my students are practicing professionals in education, social work, and allied fields. They often come to class tired, hungry, and frequently distracted by the day’s work. The things they did right, and the things they did wrong. Their mistakes in particular seem to really impact their social-emotional state, even when the mistakes are less frequent or significant than their successes. In short they are often emotionally stressed, physically hungry, and in need of slowing down and centering.

Food is the base layer of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It is both the foundation of all other needs while also holding them captive to fulfilling the need for food first. When hunger dominates, learning, a higher tier in the hierarchy, can rarely be achieved. In basic human psychology and good pedagogy it makes sense to care for the nutritional and emotional needs of students before introducing content and engaged thinking. It is the obvious pedagogical move that is too seldom stated as such. But for me, there is more going, more to this story, more beyond the wisdom of tending to stomach so brain can hear, process, and learn.

When I first started teaching I was often annoyed and bothered when students brought food to class. Even worse when they were eating during a lesson. I was unable to say why food in class felt wrong. I just knew it was. My early attempts to make sense of my concern included: disrespect for me and classmates, a seemingly individualistic act in a space that was communal, and a personal inability to wait to eat until later. All eventually seemed inadequate in capturing my dislike of the behavior. I tried all the usual strategies for managing the behavior such as making announcements, talking to students privately, and ignoring the behavior. None seemed to lessen my personal angst. I began to ask myself what I was missing. What was I not listening to or paying attention to that energized the deep core of the struggle. Why did the importance of food in Maslow’s Hierarchy explain the need to eat but failed to ease my concerns, which I fully named as my problem and in no way could it be construed as student ill intent.

I can no longer say when it happened, what the catalyst was, but I can tell you how I transformed my understanding of food and eating away from a distraction into a practice of community and caring. A ritual everyone looks forward to and willingly partakes in, a part of the instructional space as important as texts, teacher, and student to learning and human flourishing. At some point I made the connection between food and the patterns throughout human history of people coming together in community. Around a meal they would tell stories, mark important moments, share fellowship, and reimagine a life giving relationship between individual drive and communal responsibility. That was it, the reason I disliked eating in class. As currently practiced in my pedagogy it fell short of the importance of food as a builder of deep connection and community. I almost immediately initiated a “snack time” in my teaching during instructional breaks. On a voluntary basis, each week, a different group of students will provide the food.  It doesn’t matter what they bring. It doesn’t matter how much they bring. It doesn’t matter if a student forgets their week or another brings extra on a week. It only matters that food is present, it is understood as a ritual of community, and that at the end of break everyone is nourished in body and spirit.

At the start of every quarter I share the food story, my initial dislike of eating in class, and my conversion to fully embracing it. At the end of the narrative I pass out the snack list for students to signup, if they wish, to bring something to share during break. I now understand what I was unable to see earlier in my career. Food is a mechanism to foster fellowship and community. In the simplest of terms it is a deep form of hospitality, to self and others. It is an invitation and ritual to reach beyond the moment, beyond individual needs, past the tendency to treat others as something different than self, and to expand the range of human potential in a learning space.

Hospitality as noted by Christine Pohl in her book: “Making Room” (1999) is a remarkable “mystery” given the deep emotions and connections it fosters for the giver and receiver in what otherwise seems like a mundane and “ordinary activity”. Pohl studies faith communities and the wisdom they can offer regarding hospitality, especially in contexts where the importance of hospitality is lost or downplayed. I find the following touch points helpful in thinking about my practice of hospitality in the classroom. They also provide a compelling rationale for my act of snack time.

  • Depending on someone else to provide, even minimally, for your needs builds compassion and empathy for others in need. In a classroom setting this can help support the wider mission of building a caring community where sometimes you have to ask for help with an assignment or reading;
  • Through the sharing of a meal one experiences the joy of being welcomed into a group “even if only briefly, the stranger is included in a life-giving and life sustaining network of relations”;
  • Hospitality “transcends social and ethnic differences” by creating a space of equals around a shared table where interaction is “face to face, gracious, unassuming, nearly indiscriminate, and always enthusiastic”; and
  • To fully benefit from hospitality “requires an openness of heart, a willingness to make one’s life visible to others, and a generosity of time and resources”.

These are lofty goals and a bit of stretch to think that they are all possible in a classroom setting. However, even little shifts in human to human interactions along the lines of hospitality will enable the development of a more life giving and academically enriching classroom. If a little food can achieve this small goal I’m all in. How about you?

Sept 7, 2019—What are your core values as a teacher; the three qualities of self that you strive to maintain at all cost? How did you come to this understanding? Through experience or scholarly study? Have those values been consistent across time? Would an observer agree or disagree that your teaching corresponds to those core commitments? What makes you uniquely you in your classroom? I’ve been recently reflecting on my core values as an educator. The trigger was a leadership retreat. The facilitator, for pre-work, sent everyone a handout inviting us to identify our core values. The working theory was that once we had individually identified our values that we could synthesize them into a collective list and from that list identify three to five themes or values defining our work. We never quite achieved the final goal but the activity did help me identify my core values. My top three values are: flourishing, relationships, and Love. There are certainly a number of sub-themes radiating out from each primary value but I think they all fit under these three core values.

By flourishing I mean things like growth, joy, change, curiosity, organic, and dynamic. It can take varying forms in accordance with the needs and talents of a particular person. Flourishing for one student can have different manifestations than flourishing for another student. But the unifying element is movement toward wholeness and fuller notions of self. Assignments in my classes that favor student choice and differentiation are more consistent with my value of flourishing than assignments that are pre-set and deterministic in their outcome according to my opinions and views.

Relationships are all about connections and honoring the inherent worth of the other. It is an acknowledgement that the individual “I” is problematic. The true-self exists only in relation to others; change the partners that one interacts with and notions of “I” change as well. This is well known in classrooms where students are frequently code switching to accommodate the “I” to the specific context the teacher has established. Yet, at the same time there are certain inherent qualities to the true-self that are less transient. But those attributes are best identified in the company of others; a community that names the deep gifts of self and checks false perceptions. In my classroom I work to build community and relationships that include people as well as texts. I encourage students to enter their readings with a sense that they are in direct conversation with the ideas the author is putting forward. I invite them to “hear” the words in the text that connect with the heart of their learning-self because it is through that unique connection that a relationship can form and support learning.

Love is both a standalone core value and the matrix within which flourishing and relationships find meaning and purpose.  \Love is that aspect of learning and classroom spaces that draws the learner toward something greater than self.  It invites learners to experience emotions like curiosity, passion, heart-break, grace, and commitment. It helps to be committed—deeply in love—with content when the nature of learning bogs down or becomes confusing. Love binds things together in a mutual relationship of two “others” seeking ways to flourish while realizing that self-flourishing is contingent on the flourishing of the other.  Love in the classroom can find expression in ideas, knowing a colleague well enough to predict their stance on a subject, giving a colleague the grace to let them change their ideas, and a class-wide shared sense of mutual commitment to sticking with a tough text that challenges superficial notions of self.

During the retreat the facilitator presented a framework for organizing core values that is based on three questions; 1) why do you act a certain way, or the ultimate goal you hope to achieve?; 2) how will you go about working toward your why through discreet activities?; and 3) what do those values look like as a finished product, the wholeness of the work? When I organize my three core values to align with the three questions I find the following to be true. My why is Love. I’m at my best as an educator when my curriculum and instruction sets a climate of learning that transcends the ordinary. A classroom culture where ego, commodification, and competition is displaced by a sense of shared connection to something greater than self. Love inspires courage and fearlessness to explore, change, and hold firm with fidelity to truths. The how of my instruction, the ways I work toward Love, are relationships. They materialize in an array of activities involving students, text, classroom settings, and me. I encourage students to listen to the “voice” of the text. To hear how words and ideas in a reading are speaking to them, seeking a relationship of engagement. During instructional breaks we always have food, we gather around the table of fellowship and share stories of the day. We even pursue topics raised earlier in the class. Relationships are the micro-activities building toward the what. When combined into a collective whole the what, the evident object, of my core values is flourishing. The classroom is alive with positive energy, collectively and individually, inviting inner integrity to become external and vibrant. A student who spontaneously shares a deep moment of learning and understanding, connecting concepts and personal experiences in novel ways, is flourishing. They are becoming a new person, a truer version of self. Such expressions of transcendence elicit feelings of awe and anticipation of what might come next.

What are your core values? Can you winnow them down to three? How might those values map onto a framework of why, how, and what? If presented with your core values would your students concur or would they name a different set of core values? What the features of your instructional context that make it easy or hard to enact your core values?

August 22, 2019—I’m captivated and intrigued by human behavior; mine especially, but others as well.  It is one of the reasons I became a teacher, nearly unfettered opportunities to watch and learn from the ways that students and educators navigate classroom choices.  I’ve learned so much about myself: likes/dislikes, fears/joys, and power/autonomy from observing and responding to my instructional moves. The first scholarly article I wrote was a reflection on a teaching conundrum I experienced, the sources of inner-wisdom I drew from in making sense of the moment, and the ways I acted on my core beliefs that day in the classroom. Internal observations of self as teacher has become a principle way I come into greater contact with my true-self; the inner wisdom that lends consistency and groundedness to my teaching.

But the classroom is only one place I access this wisdom and come into contact with the deep questions of human flourishing.  For instance, my latest musings on the human condition and its implications for teaching started with the very mundane activity of going to the hardware store. I was in search of lightbulbs for a lamp and numbers for the new mailbox I installed.  As I walked toward the cashier to pay for my items I overheard one of the clerks say to a customer: “All religions are totally corrupt.”  My body kept moving, as this wasn’t my conversation, but my mind and soul took a double take at the abruptness and pointedness of the statement.

In my head I was thinking: “yes and no.” To be human, I’ve learned from experience and my theological studies, is to be prone to both ego-driven self-interest and transcendent empathy in service to the other.  And since religion is mostly a human construct, even though focused on the ineffable, it can devolve toward “corruption”.  Most human endeavors by their nature, if not infused with Love, are prone to duplicity and drift from their original intent.  And at the same time people seem to have a universal capacity to make choices that benefit others.  Not all religions or religious activities are bankrupt in just the same way that not every school or teacher is acting with ill intent even though their actions may bring harm to a student.

As I was driving home with my lightbulbs and mailbox numbers my musings led to the topic of choice and the questions of inner authority.  When do I chose a path and when is the path chosen for me (directly or indirectly)?  What is the role of the individual and what is the role of social/institutional forces in choice?  Is it truly possible to claim individual authority in choice?  These questions were informed, in part, by an episode of the Amazon series, Man in the High Castle by Frank Spotnitz.  The show is set in an alternative version of history where Germany and Japan defeat the Allies in WWII.  They are now an occupying force in what was once America. In an episode I watched, two actors were engaged in a discussion about resistance, power, authority, and personal choice.  The conversation ends when one of the characters points to his head and states: “…as long as you have an inner fascist telling you what you can and can’t do they don’t need an external authority to rule over you.  You will police yourself.”

I can relate to this description of an inner authority; the voices I carry around that inform my actions and reactions in the world.  It can be confusing in my head, at times, with all the voices offering advice and guidance, especially when I’m struggling as a teacher. But in the simplest of terms my inner authority has two primary manifestations.  On one end of the continuum are my inner-teachers who use the power of conformity to encourage choices that serve my ego or wider institutional systems of oppression.  I know this aspect of my inner authority is influencing my activities when I’m acting out of fear, anger, righteousness, or ego inflation. May Sarton in her poem Angels and Furies describes this ever present human attribute as “black rage in the blood” that leaves everyone, initiator and receiver, feeling “wounded” and “battered”.  Yet Sarton knows that the furies are only one end of the continuum. Only one half of our humanness. We are also capable of responding to the call of our inner angels who “shower blessings” with “sudden motions or intimations of goodness”.  My inner authority resonates with the voice of an angel when I speak out against institutional norms on behalf of students; when I look beyond my narrow instructional disappointment with a student to see the wider context of their life and the miracle of their humanness; and when I make classroom choices that lean toward community building over individualism. When my angels are prominent I take a more gracious, empathetic, and wholehearted stance toward my teaching and the learning of students.

The real wisdom in Sarton’s poem is that choice is not about one inner authority over the other.  Rather it involves the dance of both my furies and my angels.  As an educator I can only approach “the light of understanding” regarding the best instructional choices by attending to both aspects of myself. It can be just as misleading to say that all acts of teaching are corrupt as it is to say that all acts of teaching are blessed.  For me the gift of teaching is the creation of a space where I can explore the fullness of my emotions and choices in service of learners.  Sometimes I hit the mark and students flourish and other times I cause harm.  But as long as I can keep the dance of my angels and furies moving to the music of Love and Relationships I’m pretty sure I’m doing the best I can as an educator.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 11, 2019—Two questions I’ve been sitting with lately: What does it mean to be fully committed to the inner life of teaching?  How does commitment become evident to others? By “sitting” I mean, in relationship with. The inner life invites me to be attentive and present to my emotions, my feelings, and my inclinations.  A good sign of attentiveness is entering into dialogue. To engage in a conversation geared toward hearing the wisdom of the other. To be attentive is an invitation to wonder and be open to the unexpected.  I don’t mean to suggest that going inward is some sort of ego-inflation technique. Going in is never for the purpose of self-congratulatory affirmation of what I already know to be true about myself. This certainly can happen and it is a social-emotional mud hole that I can easily slide into.  The discipline of mindfulness and the objective lens of community help keep my inward eye from becoming too ego-centric. For me, the purpose of going in and rummaging around the inner spaces of my teacher heart is to go out and be an activist for justice, peace, and love in the world. Through the inner journey, conducted with disciplined fidelity, I can act with commitment to truths that allow for greater amounts of human flourishing for all.  This is as much a spiritual journey of knowing as it is a political or intellectual commitment. As such the examination of the inner life is rich with various formulations of spiritual paradoxes: you have to go in to go out; you have to lose self to find self; and you have to be alone to be together in community.  

 

One strategy I use to invite conversation between my intellectual head-talk and my teacher heart of action is to invite the questions to interpret me even as I’m working to discern their meaning.  In her book Figuring, Maria Popova notes that Sylvia Plath made this observation about poetry: “Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.”  In other words, once a poem is read, interpretation begins, and interpretation is highly contingent on the life journey and experiences of the reader.  Thus the poem tends to ultimately say more about the reader/interpreter than about the intent of the poet. In curriculum theory Bruce Uhrmacher and Christy Moroye teach us that the arc of curriculum consists of three elements: intended, delivered, and received.  Educators, like poets, have the greatest influence on their intentions and the least impact on what students and readers receive or hear. For poets and for teachers this can be a good thing in that learning and understanding, what is received, is best regarded as an interactive process of meaning making.  Ownership, deep learning, is more a product of what is received as knowing in the heart of the learner than it is an external indicator of performance. 

 

This form of ownership and commitment to heart-wisdom as received knowing fits my personal and professional experience with poetry and professional development.  Once a month I host a conversation for faculty and staff on my campus. A week before meeting I send out a poem to anchor the conversation. Our ritual is for one voice to read the poem out loud and then invite sharing around a word, image, or phrase that grabbed someone’s attention.  In the conversation we have a rule against fixing, saving, or advising members of the group. This is a norm I borrowed from the Courage to Teach community and their Circle of Trust retreats centered on teacher renewal and courage. When applied with integrity the norm dampens the impulse to heal a colleague and instead the energy shifts to whole-hearted story sharing and story receiving.  What are participants hearing in the poet’s words and metaphors that speak to some aspect of their inner-life? In the back and forth between telling and listening participants begin hearing their own deeper inner wisdom and commitment to values, passions, and professional callings. One participant recently described our communal time together as a form of “sanctuary” where they could recommit to their true passions and resist institutional norms toward compliance.  Questions, it seems to me, can become a curriculum of self-awareness. They are like poetry inviting self-interpretation, but only more personal and more particular than a poem. As I write or state a question I both make my musing public, even if it is just to myself, and I begin the process of interpretation. I started this essay with two questions: What does it mean to be fully committed to the inner life of teaching? How does commitment become evident to others?  

 

Let me answer both questions with a reference to a recent experience in the natural world, which is my go to place for wisdom beyond the rational and beyond the intellect.  I was recently visiting Pawnee Buttes in northern Colorado, a remarkable remnant of short grass prairie. The ancestral lands of indigenous communities for over ten thousand years.  Like a good question the spirit runs deep in these ancient lands which are mostly undisturbed by the forces of commodification and profit making. The wind, typical of these open lands, was howling at a constant rate.  I found it disturbing and affirming at the same time. The treeless prairie, with only the periodic ravine to dip into, provided no place to escape from the wind. Again, like a good question there is no hiding from a commitment to explore.  The only relief, which is temporary, is to go below the surface, into the deeper spaces of knowing. To fully commit to the inner-life of teaching means a willingness to stand exposed to the winds of the social world which often blow toward conformity.  Instead of yielding to normality, holding true to yourself, taking sanctuary in your inner knowing.  

 

When it comes to demonstrating commitment, a standing firm in unapologetic alliance with the source of knowing that is spiritual and non-rational, the grasses have wisdom to share.  The wind pushed the grasses this way and that way. At times a gust could be seen working its way, in waves of chaotic uniformity, across the shimmering green blades. Additionally, the swishing grasses sang a song distinct to short grass prairies.  In an interesting paradox, only the wind can invite and perhaps at times compel the grasses into song. Only a good question in the face of the winds of tradition can invite me into singing the song of my inner-wisdom. And at times I’m compelled into action by particularly egregious forms of social and educational inequity.  Like the twirling grass blades it is only when others also commit to the inner-life and embrace the wind that we can collectively sing. It is the adversity of the wind that makes the short grass prairies of our teaching come to life as waves of reform dancing across the landscape. So my invitation to you is to commit to your inner-life and by boldly singing that unique song that defines your inner-wisdom.  Once you begin dancing and singing I’m sure you will encounter other blades of grass singing along in collective songs of change.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb 26, 2019—I was recently thinking about embodied teaching.  The source of my reflection is the theology course I’m taking.  The class readings describe the diverse ways that Spirit, ritual practices, and professional calling are best understood as embodied, not rational, experiences and orientations to truth.  As I thought about the application of embodiness to teaching it became clear to me that an element of good teaching is an embodied, not rational, practice.  In support of this claim I generated the following list of expressions and concepts that resonate with a bodily form of knowing in teaching: wholehearted, embracing change, feel for the work, heart-felt, wounded, heartbroken, gut feeling, and presence.  This short list, I’m sure, only scratches the surface.  I suspect you will have additional terms for teaching that are equally embodied.

Embodiedness as a distinguishing characteristic of teaching provides unique answers to the philosophical questions about knowing (epistemology) and being (ontology) in education.  Embodied teaching, in contrast to Western ways of knowing and being, involves feeling, emotions, and intuition.  The embodied educator trusts the full range of their inner sense making tools while also recognizing the limitations and pitfalls of blindly following subjective perceptions and understandings.  Embodied educators have no choice but to teach through the wisdom of their bodies.  They have no choice because that is who they are at the level of their instructional core; embodiedness is their being.  To act otherwise is to teach out of a sense of falsehood and inauthenticity that students will sense and respond to in kind.  Students will learn from their teacher how to hide their true self.  To understand teaching as a calling is to acknowledge gifts and talents embodied in unique ways for each teacher.

Laura Rendon in her book Sentipensante summarizes the contrast between embodiness and rationalism in this way.  Instead of embracing the Cartesian world view of “I think therefore I am” she argues for a more holistic framing of teaching as “I belong therefore I am”.  Belonging in both the sense of being part of a group of others (external embodiment) and attentiveness to one’s inner life (internal embodiment).  To truly belong to a group is to be recognized as a distinct person inhabiting a particular body. To belong internally is to know your moods, emotions, gifts, shadows, and the places in your body where you hold pain or experience joy.  I can tell, for instance, when I’m more or less in my body as a teacher.  The more I feel grounded and centered, rooted into the classroom space, the more I am energized and connected to the content and to my students.  I’m alive and flourishing in the instructional space.

bell hooks, another educator concerned about embodied teaching, speaks of educators who are weary.  They carry around a sense of disconnection from themselves, their students, and their content knowledge.  Her antidote to this deep sense of professional weariness is attentiveness to spiritual energy and wellness.  It is from these deep sources of passion that good teaching flows through the hands of the teacher and into the hearts of students.  For both Rendon and hooks the move toward teaching as an embodied practice means dropping the metaphor of student as object and embracing the understanding of student as subject; a body of unique qualities and characteristics.  Additionally, teacher as subject can meet student as subject in an embodied emancipatory-relationship of mutual respect, appreciation, and empathy.

In concrete terms, embodied teaching can take a variety of forms and styles. Here are a few examples that come to mind.  I once observed an apprentice teacher who was a master at greeting students at the door of the classroom.  The ritual practice of greeting was more than a handshake, fist bump, or loving pat on the back.  The bodily presence of the teacher met the bodily presence, in all its forms, of the students entering the classroom.  The chemistry of teacher true-self welcoming student true-self set the stage for engaged learning.  One of my consistent embodied practices is having students complete name cards during the first class session.  At the end of class I collect the cards and pass them out at the start of the next class period.  This practice provides me an opportunity to walk around the class and greet each student.  I often follow up on an email or check to see how a project is going.  My embodied presence invites the embodied presence of my students to show up.  In another example, materials in some classrooms are passed out by the teacher with care and concern.  Thus the students see the importance of respect for the learning process.  In other classrooms materials are passed out haphazardly or even worse tossed onto the desks of students.  In the second example the embodied practice of disrespect for curriculum conveys an implicit message of disrespect to students about the value of knowing and becoming educated.

Rapport with students is a common indicator in most teacher observation tools.  In many cases this is measured and met through the frequency and quality of greetings, expressions of interest in students and their home life, or demonstrating belief in a student’s capacity to learn. These are important and necessary steps but only the early stages of rapport.  An embodied teacher understands rapport as an opportunity to meet each student as a fully complete human being, with all the strengths and struggles that being human entails.  The challenge lies in measuring this quality of teaching since it is often individual to each teacher.  But that should not stop educators from developing language, metaphors, and descriptors for embodied teaching.  How do you know—feel—when you are more or less in your body while teaching.  What does it feel like when you shift from your rational teaching mind to a sense of intuition?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Copyright © 2018 University of Denver. | All rights reserved. | The University of Denver is an equal opportunity affirmative action institution
X