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.