January 22, 2019—The winter solstice is a month past.  The earth is no longer at its maximum tilt away from the sun in the northern hemisphere.  As my backyard incrementally tilts toward the sun it slowly absorbs more heat as the season of winter leans toward spring and then on to the summer solstice.  Two periods of equal light and dark (equinox) and two periods of unequal light and dark (solstice) are key markers as the earth orbits the sun.  The natural world crosses four thresholds and passes through four doorways during the year in the process of integrating varying amounts of light and dark.  Parker Palmer encourages educators to look to the natural world for clues and metaphors for understanding the tilted-axis of the teacher’s identity as we journey around the gravitational pull, periods of light/dark, and the warming presence of our students.  The seasonal metaphor of thresholds and doorways offer, I think, an interesting way to understand the ebb and flow of teaching.

What are the doorways of my teaching?  What are the thresholds of your teaching?  Where are they inviting you and me to enter and experience the newness of our craft?  The first doorway that speaks to me is the threshold of my classroom.  I teach in different buildings and different rooms with different doors but the threshold experience is the same for my teacher heart.  It marks the boundary between the ordinary spaces of the university and sacred space of the classroom.  In the classroom we have, as a collected community of teacher and students, the opportunity to structure time and space in ways that preserve aspects of power and hierarchy or we can disrupt those elements.  Doors and thresholds are magical and powerful.  They are at their best symbols reminding everyone to enter the classroom with openness, vulnerability, and attentiveness to the other.  The more explicit I am with naming this threshold the easier it is to enter ready to consider new approaches to learning and to embrace opportunities to change perceptions of self and others.  Rituals are important when passing through doorways and crossing thresholds intended to facilitate transformation.  I mark this transition by reading a poem at the start of class.  A good poem allows time for everyone to settle into our shared space and to begin the task of education, change, and challenge.

A second teaching doorway is my office door.  Although not directly associated with traditional images of a classroom my office is an important feature of teaching and learning.  Sometimes the office-lessons are planned: mentoring sessions around doctoral research or office appointments with a student requesting modifications to a course assignment.  Other times my door stands wide open and the teaching moment is more organic and spontaneous.  Only when the conversation is sensitive is my door closed.  I try to pay attention to the fact that my office door is more than an institutional barrier between faculty professional life and student interests, wants, and needs. My office door is just a different kind of threshold that once crossed is an invitation to change and learn in the same way as the threshold into my classroom.  My plants, my books, and a small round table are meant to signal this transition for students, colleagues, and myself.  At the end of every week I take a moment, a regular ritual of practice, to honor this threshold as I close my door.

The real quality of doors and their metaphorical equivalent can make a difference in the crossing of thresholds along the journey of knowing.  Some doors are glass and others steel; some teaching is transparent and some is not.  What would it mean to teach as if you were separated from the rest of the world by a screen door?  Some classroom doors are unlocked and easy to pass through.  Others are locked and require a key or access code to enter as if only people with the official code are privy to the learning within.  Some educators find themselves teaching from behind the locked doors of fear, anxiety, and a sense of instructional inadequacy.  In these classrooms students may find it harder to step over the threshold of deep learning and into a space of intellectual transcendence.  What type of door are you when you are at your best as a teacher?  How about when nothing seems to be working and you feel ill-suited for the work of teaching?  When I’m at my least effective my door is bolted shut with only a small sliding panel for communication across the threshold.

Anne Hillman in her poem “We Look With Uncertainty” reminds me to remain humble in the face of successful moments of learning as my students cross the threshold into knowledge and knowing.  She writes: “We look with uncertainty… to a softer, more permeable aliveness which is every moment at the brink of death”.  The possibility for pedagogical uncertainty is always just over the threshold of my classroom instruction.  But as Hillman notes the possibility of a failed lesson is an invitation to aliveness and the movement through new and unexpected doorways; places where transformation exists on the other side.  Her response to this uncertainty contains good advice for me and other teachers: “We stand at a new doorway, awaiting that which comes…”  What are the new doorways in your teaching inviting you to cross the threshold to change?  Who or what is preventing or encouraging you to open a door and move into a new instructional room?

December 28, 2018—This time of year lots of emotional energy, thought, and treasure goes into thinking about, acquiring, wrapping, and presenting gifts to others.  At its worst gift-giving for me feels like a commodification of a deeply personal act of caring for others.  At its best gift-giving is a genuine and heartfelt expression of caring for others.  I can be a bit Grinchy this time of year because more often than not it feels like the worst aspects of gift-giving dominate over the more generative personal connections that gift giving can embody.  Buying and snagging the best deal seems to rule over the more holistic message of community, love, peace, and joy.  I have a pair of Grinch socks and a matching T-shirt to express my underlying distrust of programmed and planned gift-giving.  They are gifts from my family.  I think they were trying to be funny, but I’m not sure.  Below the humor there is a grain of truth.  I can be a bit Grinchy this time of year.

Luckily there are deeper meanings to gift-giving that I can latch onto beyond the commercial definition that I dislike.  No need for Grinch thinking or paraphernalia with these approaches to gift-giving. I am quite happy and joyously elfish when I think about and act on these more expansive meanings of gift-giving.  All seems right in my world when I give or receive gifts as heartfelt expressions of care and concern for someone else.  For these gifts, no purchase is necessary, just an open and genuine heart and sense of caring.

It is simply a precious and lovely gift to be in the presence of someone who is fully present to you.  A person who has taken the time to slow down and reflect on what makes you uniquely you and why those characteristics inspire love and appreciation for the other.  This level of attentive presence creates a sense of caring wrapped in the company of an open-hearted person who is taking the time to fully listen to you in a way that invites you into the abundance of your being.  And what a gift it is when that invitation to consider the fullness of your humanity yields a quality of selfhood that was overlooked or perhaps temporarily forgotten.  This is exactly what, I believe, the best teachers do. They gift their students with an active sense of presence that manifests itself as stillness and is enacted through the skill of deep listening.  Students can give a similar gift to teachers when they treat teachers less as an external authority figure and more like a fellow human being.  A person working hard every day, just like students, to be a better learner, educator, and person.  This is a form of gift giving that can be exchanged daily.  No special season or occasion is required for the gift exchange of attentive-presence.

I think Denise Levertov in her poem A Gift captures the ways that students gift teachers through the questions they ask.  She writes: “You are given the questions of others/as if they were answers/to all you ask. Yes, perhaps/this gift is your answer”.  The questions of students are much like the proverbial apple they leave on the corner of the teacher’s desk.  A lovingly selected gift, nestled between papers to grade, soup cans full of pencils, and handouts for the next lesson.  A well framed student-question, like an apple, stands out and invites the attention of the teacher.  Ideally, the teacher will recognize the gift and treat it with the respect and attentiveness it calls for.  Levertov employs the metaphor of a butterfly to capture the relationship between a teacher receiving the student’s question and the teacher’s response: “butterflies opening and closing themselves/in your cupped palms, trusting you not to injure/their scintillant fur, their dust”.  What a lovely image.  A student’s question as a part of the student, given with perhaps a tinge of vulnerability, trusting and hoping that the teacher will not injure the student through a careless act of inattentiveness or blatant bias.  A gift so precious that it needs to be treated like dust that can be easily blown away and lost in the dark corners of the classroom.  Gift giving of the self between teachers and students is risky business and it seems that more attention should be paid to the exchange.

There is another understanding of gift that I’d like to explore and consider.  Teaching is a calling, a deep sense of purpose that finds its genesis outside the teacher.  You cannot manufacture a calling.  You can’t stroll into a store and purchase a calling with a credit card, no matter the credit limit.  Students know the authentic teachers from the educators who are inauthentic in their pursuit of the identity of teacher.  A calling is a gift from somewhere outside the teacher; a divine spark of self-knowing.  It is a gift not a purchase.  The expression that it is better to give than to receive applies in a paradoxical way to this understanding of gift-giving.  A calling is a gift, something received, but its real worth is in the giving away of that gift to students.  In fact, it is my experience that the more I give away my gift the stronger it gets.  Without students I wouldn’t be able to refine my sense of calling and move closer to perfection.  An authentic gift is never completely depleted in the act of teaching, unless some aspect of the teaching context limits the teacher’s capacity to integrate their gift into the classroom or lesson.

On the social calendar this is the time of year to consider gift-giving.  It is well and good to slow down and think about the people in your life who have contributed to your growth.  This is especially true, I think, for the educators who are both called to teach and who gift that calling to their students.  For learners the question becomes, what kinds of gifts to give a teacher?  Among the presents and apples I’m hoping that some really good questions will be asked by students.  Inquiries to be held gently by the teacher because they have the capacity to invite the teacher more fully into their own identity.  What a gift a student gives a teacher.  And what a gift a teacher gives by listening with attentive presence to the student and their question.

 


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