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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy Planeta Incognito

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 23rd, 2018—Perhaps you have heard someone say with a tone of admiration and respect that a teacher “put their heart and soul into a lesson.”  But what does putting one’s heart and soul into a lesson mean?  Is there a difference between a teacher’s heart and a teacher’s soul?  What might an instructional coach look for when guiding an educator toward greater effectiveness around connecting instructional passion (heart and soul) with educational outcomes and the learning interests of students?  I find this question about identifying ways of seeing the ineffable elements of teaching, such as a teacher’s heart and soul, compelling.  I’m constantly looking for ways to see the unseen in teaching because for me that is where the alchemy lies; where magic as craft knowledge of teaching develops. To put one’s heart and soul into a lesson doesn’t guarantee the success of the lesson or student learning but it does indicate a degree of commitment from the teacher making it more likely that students will take the lesson seriously.  The pledge of a teacher’s heart and soul, the open vulnerability of deep caring for content, can signal to students that the topic of the day is important.

I find that sometimes the best place to witness signature moments of teaching is to look outside the field of education.  This is because an unfamiliar venue may reveal elements of teaching, in this case the pedagogical unseen, that are often obscured by teaching contexts that are too familiar. I recently experienced a moment of seeing teaching anew during a concert by the Spirituals Project at the University of Denver.  At intermission I was asked what I thought of the concert.  Because the music was moving and spiritually stirring I was a bit at a loss for words. I couldn’t articulate what I had witnessed—experienced—because so much of it was indescribable and awe inspiring; just like great teaching.  But in my attempt to name the un-nameable I uttered: “Out of his hands came their voices”.  The ineffable and intangible nature of the human voice was brought as close as possible to the visible light of this world by the skilled conducting of M. Roger Holland, director of the Spirituals Project.

I was captivated by the transcendent link between the conductor, the written music, and the choir as individual singers and as a chorus.  Mr. Holland skillfully combined his individual passion for music with the shared passion of the choir to sing.  The alchemy occurred at the interface between his inner-calling to conduct and the inner-calling of others to sing.  In between the two (conductor and singer) was the music as text and notes, content in educational terms. It might be said that both the conductor and the choir put their heart and soul into the creative act of making music, of lifting notes off a piece of paper to float free around the concert hall. But this does not just happen accidently.  Transcendence for both conductor and choir requires trust, vulnerability, skill, and a willingness to release individual agendas to something greater than self; the universal impulse of Creation to sing.  Additionally, the alchemy of conductor and musical text increases the likelihood that the music will lift off the hands of the conductor and the voices of the choir to enter the hearts of listeners.  In education this speaks to the importance of going beyond pure technique and the importance of allowing the teacher to exercise some power over the selection of the curriculum.  This allows the knowledge of the teacher about the unique gifts/needs of their students to push toward the best fit between learner, content, and teacher.

There was a time, I believe, when educators were honored for their ability to bring learners into deeper relationship with the mystery of self, text, and things greater than self.  It could be said that “Out of their hands came the wisdom of students”.  These early educators were true to the root definition of education which is to draw-out knowing beyond simply imparting facts. To be an educator in antiquity was to be simultaneously a teacher, philosopher, and theologian.  Educators in the second through the fourth century who had the ability to elevate learning beyond day to day human experience, to encompass a higher plain of spiritual understanding or mystery, were called mystagogues. Like the conducting of Mr. Holland they had the gift of transforming learning into something that went beyond best practices.  They intentionally mystified the known in a way that moved learner, fact, and instructional technique into the realm of the unseen seen.  I wonder what greatness could be achieved for both teachers and learners if the goal of learning to teach included both technique and the dispositions of the mystagogue.  In such an education system when someone said a teacher put their heart and soul into a lesson we would know what that meant and what the implications would be for definitions of good teaching.


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