August 8, 2019—Earlier this summer I attended a conference at Goshen College titled; The Heart of Higher Education: Living Between What Is and What Could Be.  The gathering was hosted by a team of Courage to Teach facilitators committed to advancing the work of Parker Palmer in higher education communities. The 80 participants were invited by the organizers to consider: “how their inner lives and outer work are connected; how to bring their gifts and skills to what they do; and how to fully engage in the purposes of higher education while pondering the gap between what is and what could be.”  These are worthy principles for a conference and even more compelling questions for educators to consider.  I find the last question particularly worthwhile in my work.  It invites me to pay attention to both my role as a professor (the institutional expectations and protocols) and my calling to teach (the ways my heart takes a non-linear approach to classroom practices).  Imagine, what teaching and learning might look like if these three questions were just as important, when considering a teacher’s promotion and tenure, as the traditional measures of success: quantitative assessments of publications, teaching evaluations, and amount of service? I think about these questions on a regular basis, it is how my teacher heart is wired.  I find elements of my inner-life of teaching just as valid and reliable as my outer metrics of effective instruction.  I’m at my best when my inner and outer lives are held in productive tension; neither holds complete sway over the other.

I found it affirming that I’m not the only higher education faculty experiencing similar feelings.  The 80 conference participants suggest that I’m part of a wider community willing to explore that space between “what is and what could be” in support of human-flourishing in classrooms.  As I reflected on the conference I was struck by how closely the professional life and challenges of educators on college campuses mirrors the work of physicians.  For the last four years I’ve lead monthly wellness conversations with doctors and learned a lot about how they would, fully engage in the purposes of health care while pondering the gap between what is and what could be.  I think it is important to raise the following comparisons to bring attention to the fact that teachers are not alone in the challenges they experience when attempting to integrate both the head and heart.

  • Both small campuses and hospitals are closing or merging into bigger competitors;
  • Both professions are constricted by external standards, accountability, efficiency metrics, and pay for performance;
  • Both educators and physicians feel that there is not enough time in the day to breathe and engage in self-care because of the intensity and pace of the work; and
  • Both professions are experiencing high rates of attrition, burn out, and loss of faith in the core calling of the profession to enhance learner or patient health.

Many of the educators and doctors I know feel that the heart of their work is often denied or curtailed access to the classroom or examination room.  In some cases, to the point of atrophy and potential arrest.  In hospitals a “code blue” immediately rallies a team of skilled doctors and nurses to rush to the aid of a patient experiencing life-threatening cardiac arrest.  Maybe it is time to institute a similar code and system-wide response when a member of the helping professions (educators, physicians, faith leaders, social workers, counselors/therapists, etc.) experiences the equivalent of a professional faltering of their professional heart and calling.

It is common knowledge that prevention is the first line of response in medicine.  And I think prevention is also the first line of response when addressing the stress that can result when the heart and head of the educator are in competition with each other.  Why wait for burnout and cynicism to set in before attending to and reducing the symptoms?

The season of summer is upon us.  A perfect antidote to stress.  As you move deeper into the months of June-August I encourage you to lean into the gifts of summer, whenever and wherever possible.  This can be easier to say than do.  Another comparison between educators and doctors is that when a patient or student requires immediate attention and a healing touch, most teachers and physicians will interrupt time off to help out.

To fully receive the benefits of rest and renewal is a discipline.  It takes practice and attentiveness to one’s self-care, ultimately to better serve the needs of others under your professional care. The best vacations are attentive to your unique needs and interests; a time away just for you.  Slow down.  Spend time with family and friends.  Go swimming.  Soak in the warmth.  Just be present to yourself and your needs.  This doesn’t have to be month long vacation, a little here and a little there adds up.  Take a walk, with intention, around the block or neighborhood.  A well planned day or two-hours that is grounded in your “wholeness” can be just as renewing as a longer period of time where the needs of others are also present.  I like to pick up a pair of binoculars and scan my backyard for birds.  A few minutes and I’m no longer thinking of work.

Another strategy is naming and seeking out the delights of summer. Those experiences that bring joy to your heart and a smile to your face.  For me, peaches fall squarely into the category of delights, especially Palisade, Colorado peaches.  Here are a couple of stanzas from a favorite poem about peaches that brings me closer to that summer delight.  A simple act with deep potential to renew the heart.  The poem is From Blossomsby Li-Young Lee.  He writes:

O, to take what we love inside,

    to carry within us an orchard, to eat

    not only the skin, but the shade,

    not only the sugar, but the days, to hold

    the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into   

    the round jubilance of peach.

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.

Find your summer bliss and delight and plunge fully into it. Your heart will appreciate the gift.

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.


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