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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 14th, 2018—It is a well-known fact that teachers are leaving the profession at increasingly higher rates.  50% of teachers leave the profession in 5 years and in urban or rural schools the rate can be as high as 50% in three years.  Burnout is the current explanation for this phenomena.  There are, it seems, a lot of good reasons to accept this account.  It is challenging to keep the tender flame of calling burning when the fierce storms of testing, accountability, and low-social status are blowing hard.  Most teachers value data, assessments, and information that guides their instruction.  The best teachers are not anti-testing and accountability.  They know that data can provide a true-sense of how well their teaching is impacting learning.  But the daily grind of doing your best with little or no recognition or acknowledgement of improving student learning can wear the spirit of the teacher down; wellbeing becomes a concern.  Burnout happens when the idealism of serving the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual needs of students drifts to the background in the face of institutional imperatives that are narrowly focused on standards and performance indicators.

Burnout is an occupational hazard of teaching, but there may be a more complex undercurrent to burnout that is worth considering.  The struggle to retain deep meaning and purpose is a phenomena wider than teachers. Other members of the “helping professions” also experience it.  Physicians, for instance, find that the institutional demands, structures, and narrowly defined performance indicators they experience daily tend to divide their professional identity in two.  Their inner calling to heal begins to separate from the outer requirements of the profession. Doctors, like teachers, are increasingly practicing medicine in professional settings that are less concerned with their wellbeing (humanity) and more attentive to efficiency metrics, bottom lines driven by prescribed daily contact hours, pay for performance, and pre-determined treatment protocols.  A recent article in STAT on physician burnout by Simon Talbot, M.D. and Wendy Dean, M.D. (2018) makes the argument that doctors are suffering less from burnout and more from “moral injury” because of the health care system.  Most doctors, like teachers, support accountability and value the link between performance, effectiveness, and patient satisfaction.  What they resist, like their teacher counterparts, is the commodification of their identity and numeric narrowing of the profession.

I think the argument Talbot and Dean make for shifting the language away from burnout, which can seem rather deterministic, to moral injury is worth considering as a more accurate descriptor for teachers as well.  The first concern they raise is that burnout, for physicians, “suggests a failure of resourcefulness and resilience”.  How can this be, they ask, given the strain and stress associated with the long-years of medical training?  Resourcefulness and resilience, it seems, are baked into the professional education of doctors.  When it comes to teachers the financial, emotional, and relational demands of learning to teach may not be as severe or demanding as medical school.  Yet, the year of student teaching followed by the first three-years of teaching, by all account, is pretty intense and challenging.  Resilience, self-determination, and resourcefulness are important skills that all successful early-career teachers have mastered.

From a critique of resourcefulness and resilience they move to a more troubling description of the work of physicians: “Physicians on the front lines of health care today are sometimes described as going to battle. The moral injury of health care is not the offense of killing another human in the context of war. It is being unable to provide high-quality care and healing in the context of health care. Continually being caught between the Hippocratic Oath, a decade of training, and the realities of making a profit from people at their sickest and most vulnerable is an untenable and unreasonable demand.” Moral injury was first used when describing the emotional and psychological costs of a soldiers’ actions in war which often violated their deeply held beliefs and values about life.  In the world of medicine, moral injury describes the impact of the gap between who physicians want to be because of training or calling to heal and what is required by the current system.  It is defined by journalist Diane Silver as “a deep soul wound that pierces a person’s identity, sense of morality, and relationship to society.” The strain of constantly struggling to serve the needs of patients can have profound impact on the psyche of physicians.  As Talbot and Dean note: “Navigating an ethical path among such intensely competing drivers is emotionally and morally exhausting.”

The metaphor of going to battle is not as farfetched for teachers as it might seem. The cover of the September 9th, 2018 issue of The New York Times Magazine boldly claims: “Teachers just want to teach but the classroom has become a battleground”.  The influential book on the history of teaching in America by Dana Goldstein (2015) is titled, “Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession”. Alfred North Whitehead in Aims of Education described the outcomes of an education that stunts the enjoyment of the learner as “soul murder”.  And now policy makers and pundits are pushing to arm teachers in their classrooms. Teachers regularly face choices that cut against their training and moral instincts to care for students and facilitate learning.  For instance, when a teacher makes a pedagogical choice that doesn’t really address a particular student’s learning needs but it does fit the assessment rubric they are being evaluated by.  The battlefield metaphor of teaching, it seems, has a certain resonance with the profession.  Like physicians, the concern for teachers is less the need to navigate these choices, that is what professionals do, it is part of the work.  The concern is that the cumulative effect of the persistent feeling of moral exhaustion, like the repeated moral exhaustion of a soldier in war, leads to a condition where physicians and teachers can “stay—wounded, disengaged, and increasingly hopeless.”

Maybe it is time in education to shift from the soft language of burnout to the starker but perhaps more accurate description of moral injury to describe the experiences and choices teachers face in schools.  What if a teacher or school were rated equally on the ability of the system to help teachers sustain their moral integrity—consistent with their calling and training—with the same vigor that well-crafted external metrics of success are held?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy Planeta Incognito

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

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

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

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

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

July 23rd, 2018—Abundance can take many forms for teachers but from my experience teachers, including myself, spend far more time trapped by feelings of scarcity than living into the possibilities of teaching from a stance of abundance. How might summer’s abundance translate into teaching? In the natural world the long warm days of summer foster a sense of easy living which stands in stark laughing-contrast to winter’s dormancy and the challenge of finding enough food, shelter, warmth, water, and the necessary ingredients for life to continue. When you think of summer what comes to mind?  My experience of summer evokes memories of slowing down, resting, and hanging out with friends and family, community and all of its blessings; watermelon seeds in my hair. From my childhood I hear Cicadas singing their slow dreamy songs of summer love—hot and languid—the best that can be mustered with fidelity in the face of rising humidity and mercury. As an adult I venerate the summer thunderheads building over the eastern plains of Colorado, tall and inspiring columns of living moisture and curving cloud masses. If I’m lucky, these giants of the plains will anoint me with cooling breezes, heavy with the dusty scent of water.  Summer storms like summer itself have a certain fullness, a sensual abundance lacking in the clouds of more sedate and sensible seasons. This is what the summer’s abundance of my teaching looks like when viewed through the teachings of the natural world.

One of my favorite summer poems is From Blossoms by Li-Young Lee. The poet captures the feel of summer with his descriptions of peaches from roadside stands that are “devoured dusty skin and all”. His poem and the metaphor of peaches suggest new ways of appreciating the abundance of my teaching. Summer is a good time to reflect on teaching, to pull into my teaching soul the goodness of what was accomplished during the year. To live fully into my teaching gifts—without concern—unencumbered by images of scarcity. My favorite stanza From Blossoms reads: “There are days we live/ as if death were nowhere/ in the background; from joy/ to joy to joy, from wing to wing,/ from blossom to blossom to/ impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.”

As an educator I’m drawn to the word “impossible.” I understand impossible not as a negative quality as in difficult or challenging but rather as a positive characteristic such as miraculous, unexpected, or fully-whole. This understanding of impossible encourages me to reflect on all the times during the past academic year where the impossible became manifest in my classroom. The times when my students as “impossible blossoms”, miraculously and unexpectedly became fully-whole; giants rising up through the educational stratosphere showering us with robust drops of wisdom and understanding. Thinking about the similarities between my classroom and a summer orchard of peaches, rich with the process of transformation from flower to glory incarnate is life giving and affirming for me. For sure, classroom as orchard also evokes work, pruning unproductive habits, and accepting the possibility of a lost crop due to early frosts, disease, or lack of water. But not now—this is the time of summer, an invitation to live “as if death were nowhere in the background; from joy to joy…” Where do you find deep and abiding joy in your teaching? The kind of joy that dampens your chin like the juices of a summer peach freshly picked from the tree of your teaching? Where and how are you likely to experience the “the round jubilance” of your teaching fullness?

As an educator I feel compelled to rewrite the ending of Li-Young Lee’s poem to read: “from student to student to impossible student, to sweet impossible student.” The source of my teaching abundance are the students I’m privileged to share the classroom with. Does From Blossoms speak to your teacher heart? If so, how might you rewrite the stanza to reflect your personal sense of summer’s abundance in your teaching? I encourage you to enjoy the tastes, textures, and flavor of your teaching; its abundance is real and abiding just like peaches waiting for you at your local fruit stand or grocery store.

June 8th, 2018—Marge Piercy concludes her poem “Seven of Pentacles” with an acknowledgement to endings and the rewards for work done well: “Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen: reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.  This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always, for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.”  As another year of teaching and learning draws to a close, from pre-school to higher education, it seems appropriate to take a moment and lean into the educational wisdom of Marge Piercy.  What might she mean for a teacher to live as if they liked themselves?  How does it make sense to both live a life you haven’t achieved while also continuing to grow and connect?  And finally, what is the harvest of your teaching?

I find her line, “live as if you liked yourself…” one of the most challenging aspects of teaching.  To teach as if I like myself is not an approach to education that I typically turn to in celebration at the end of the year.  Instead I’m quick to disregard my instructional successes during the year as products of luck or students who are overly kind.  In contrast I’m quick to accept criticism, even minor forms of critical feedback, as accurate and an indication of my instructional inadequacies; the real harvest of my year of teaching. To teach as if I liked myself is a real challenge.  It is far easier to dislike myself when I struggle pedagogically. Yet Piercy invites me to see the world of the classroom differently and live into the challenges of teaching “as if” all is well.  Not denying the pain that exists but also including in my thoughts what I’m capable of achieving.  The mission is to see teaching through an asset instead of a deficit lens.  For instance, I recently coached a novice teacher, who was completing a year of teaching, about the challenges of turning the call to teach into an affirmation of true-ability.  To help with this transformation I encouraged this teacher to extend to themselves a healthy dose of self-grace in recognition that learning to teach is a truly difficult endeavor.  To reflect back over the year and fully own all they accomplished.

Teaching as if you like yourself, especially in moments of struggle, is an act of self-grace that acknowledges it is easier to dislike your teaching than it is to embrace pedagogical success.  I know for myself that too much self-grace has two downsides (1) it can lead to an overly grandiose sense of instructional success (a form of instructional amnesia to what really happened in the classroom), and (2) it turns the gift of reflection inward to the exclusion of the interests and external perspective of students, colleagues, or other professionals.  Marge Piercy reminds me that a good way to integrate the shadow of self-grace—live as if you liked yourself—is to combine instructional egoism with the counter force of being present to others: “reach out, keeping reaching out, keep bringing in”. It is not enough to stand in the glow of self-congratulation for teaching well done this year.  There is also the necessity of connecting with others and becoming part of a larger community.  When I’m engaged in deep and honest pedagogical-relationships with students and colleagues I create the possibility that they will check my overly extravagant use of self-grace. They help me, at the end of the year, to honestly listen to the criticism and advice in ways that can truly improve my teaching.

The combined potency of self-grace, which calms the wounds of instructional struggle, and external accountability to community will effectively frame the rewards of teaching well done.  As Piercy observes: “after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.” For teachers the harvest time is now at the end of the instructional year.  After a long season of teaching, conflict management, community building, curriculum development, caring for others, advocating for students, and grading papers it is time to take stock of the instructional harvest.  To own the professional accomplishments and areas of academic and emotional growth that were carefully facilitated for students.  These are real accomplishments, more than the product of happenstance and good luck.  For teachers the harvest comes at the start of summer not the fall as it does for farmers and backyard gardeners.  What is the harvest of your season of teaching?  Who has changed emotionally or intellectually because of your care and attentiveness?  Who is the student you never gave up on?  How has your teacher-heart been renewed through the connections you made, even in the midst of self-doubt?  Where are you endings this year leading you instructionally and personally?

May 18, 2018—There is strong agreement among many scientists and poets that all things are connected; the human and natural world are not separate but rather constitute an integrated whole.  The naturalist John Muir observed that “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”  And the author and story teller Annie Dillard argues that the best way to attend to the fears and uncertainties of life is not to dismiss them but rather to walk with them deep into the mystery: 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 unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned.”  If Muir and Dillard are correct that all of life—physical and emotional—is interconnected and bound together in a unified whole, why is it that education, which teaches about life, is often informed by metaphors of disconnection?  What drives the fragmentation of self and knowing into content knowledge, outcomes, and facts rather than curricular integration, completeness, and unity?  And how might being schooled in a context that favors separation over fullness, parts over wholeness, and mind over emotions impact the instructional life of teachers and students?

Western ways of knowing, curriculum, and pedagogy have a history of breaking things into smaller and smaller parts which fuels the impulse in education toward disintegration; taking the whole of life and fracturing it into pieces.  For instance, curriculum writers—professionals who map out the day to day instructional activities of teachers and students—have at times “written” teachers out of the craft of teaching.  What has been dubbed “teacher-proof” curriculum is built on the promise that following a prescribed script will efficiently transfer abstracted forms of knowledge—subject matter—through the teacher, into the minds of learners.  The teacher, under such a model, becomes one more piece in a linear system of knowing to be moved around for the purpose of accomplishing strategic outcomes and performance goals.  In 21st century schools, many critics of testing, accountability, and standards chafe against the ways that assessments, if improperly applied, tend to reduce the wholeness of the learner into numeric indicators to be tracked and managed.

Data and the patterns that can be discerned over time are an important tool for educators hoping to make the most efficacious instructional choices for their students.  Numbers can answer the question, “what does this student need right now to enhance their learning?” Yet when employed too regularly, or without taking time to reconnect with the wholeness of life and the learning task, it becomes easy to lose track on the unified whole of the world, which puts the teacher and student in opposition to each other.  According to the quantum physicist Richard Feynman the danger of focusing on the narrow and particular story, one goal of data, is to lose the essence of the larger story: “The internal machinery of life, the chemistry of the parts, is something beautiful. And it turns out that all life is interconnected with all other life.”  The fullness of learning occurs when teacher, student, and text are in dialogue with each other, each with a distinct voice to contribute to the conversation and living into the process of being connected, of being fully human.

What would teaching and learning spaces look like if measures of wholeness, integration, and interconnectedness were the indicators of success in schools?  Imagine if pay for performance was anchored around the degree to which a teacher puts the world back together for students, re-connecting learners with the immensity and interconnected nature of reality.  What if teaching was an act of integration rather than disaggregation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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