May 3, 2021 – Why do you read? Do you read for content, pleasure, or obligation? Maybe reading isn’t your thing. I read a lot. It is part of my job. I read articles and books for general knowledge or as possible texts for the classes I teach. I read academic papers and dissertations. In many ways I read for a living. Regardless of what I’m reading I’m frequently on the lookout for words or phrases that speak to my inner-teacher. I’ve noticed over the years that more times than not, the best and most enduring wisdom comes from non-teaching sources. I’m particularly enthralled by the ways that poetry, that never mentions teaching, learning, books or assessments, offers insights that often escaped me in all the articles, books and dissertations I’ve read. There is a time and place for academic reading and writing. It is an important way of describing the world and seeing into the complexity of teaching and learning. But I increasingly find the teaching world is much bigger than all the pages on education I read.

The singer and songwriter, David Byrne, when asked about the meaning of music responded, “I wouldn’t be surprised if poetry—poetry in the broadest sense, in the sense of a world filled with metaphor, rhyme, and recurring patterns, shapes, and designs—is how the world works. The world isn’t logical, it’s a song.” Such wisdom, I think, for effective teaching. I sense that a similar truth lies deep within the memory of teaching and learning when released from the industrial, rational and systematized form it currently inhabits. To paraphrase Byrne, education isn’t logical, it is melody, rhythm; the melody of individual voices, uniquely engaged in the common pursuit of living more fully in the world. Education is a song, both literally and metaphorically. I love listening to the ways a class comes together over time; the song unfolds along with their learning, exploring and expanding notions of truth. Experiencing learning and teaching as music, poetry and rhyme invites for a wider range of dialects (language, thinking and seeing). This, I believe, creates more space for marginalized students and voices to emerge.

Another example of teaching wisdom from non-education sources occurred recently when I was reading, Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Her writing is an inviting blend of her Indigenous knowing, scientific training, natural history and story of lived experience. A melody and rhythm that often sounds like poetry to me because it is expansive and imaginative. Her book is her song of right living, always in the making. As I read, I find myself continuously invited to consider the ways I might teach anew. Kimmerer is a Professor of Environmental Biology, plants are her deep interest and passion. She argues that the green world is a gift to the human world, but a gift that is rarely fully appreciated by the Western-scientific mind: “Plant blindness and its relative, species loneliness, impedes the recognition of the green world as a garden of gifts. The cycle flows from attention, to gift, to gratitude, to reciprocity. It starts with seeing” (p. xii).

I often speak about teaching as a gift; a gift I offer my students as well as a gift I encourage my students to give away. The word gift flows out of mind and heart as water flows from a spring. But my understanding, as I reflect on Kimmerer’s words, is shallow and more instrumental than I would like to admit. In short, I sometimes teach from a place of “instructional blindness and its relative, student loneliness”. I haven’t fully grasped and internalized what it means to teach from a gift orientation instead of treating education as a commodity. Kimmerer’s description of gift as a “cycle [that] flows from attention, to gift, to gratitude, to reciprocity” is stunning and instructive for me. She is speaking of plants, but I hear words of wisdom for my teaching. At its best, education is a cycle with particular elements that blend and flow like a multi-vocal song. The word that grabs my attention is “reciprocity”. It raises all kinds of personal and instructional questions, questions that don’t require answers but rather questions to live into. To me, in the context of the cycle of gifting, answers feel like a dam that hinders or prevents the free flow of the gift. It creates a sort of blindness and transactional quality that limits the possibility for imagination and the unexpected.

Reciprocity is contingent on relationships. Certainly, the most obvious relationship is between teacher and learner. But the question is why? Why is that relationship the first place I go when there are other relationships to consider? For instance, external relationships with colleagues, text, or the social context of the world; and internal relationships with my calling, heart and soul. I suspect that the teacher/learner relationship rises to my attention because that is the relationship must evident in the literature; and it is most evident in the literature because it is most amenable to the questions of science. The outer dimensions of teaching are more susceptible to measurement than the internal relationships of self and the inner-life. The outer and technical are important but so too is the ineffable. Those mysterious elements of teaching that are always just on the edge of knowing, but not fully knowable. Kimmerer’s quote ends with the reminder/charge that the cycle, “starts with seeing”. Starting, not for the purpose of working toward the end of the cycle but seeing as continuous starting.

Which word in the gift cycle speaks to you? Where are your blind spots that foster a sense of loneliness for self and others in your teaching? Who or what can help you see into and beyond that loneliness, to invite you into instructional relationships that are life giving? What might it mean to envision the classroom as a “garden of gifts” waiting to offer wisdom of healing for you, your students and the world? Do you really see your students? Do they really see you? Where might you find wisdom on teaching in non-education sources?

April 2, 2021 – I’m blessed with the guidance and wisdom of many teachers and mentors. I have my colleagues, friends and institutional leaders who offer advice. The shelves in my office are crammed with books, each holding a different key to the puzzle of effective teaching. My students are always a good source of wisdom and counsel on how to teach more effectively and with greater integrity. All I need do is listen and not discount their feedback or inflate my ego with their complementsBut my most faithful and oldest teacher is nature. When I go for a walk the bigness of the natural world helps unravel my questions and problems. I often find wisdom in the ways that nature responds to challenge and creates opportunities for growth. For instance, life is both fragile and tenacious. This is a good reminder to me that the learning relationships I seek with students are fragile (easily broken) and tenacious (can weather through tough times and challenges). 

Nature’s wisdom and its application to teaching has been on my mind lately, or more accurately it has been on my heart. The last few days the wind has been blowing with a persistent fierceness. I can hear it moving across the landscape, gathering speed, before it whips through the trees outside my window. It sounds like the shingles on the roof will be torn free at any moment. Nature teaches me that sometimes the best way to handle the wind of change is to get out in it and feel the fullness of its power. So that is what I did. I walked the high hills near my house. A treeless landscape where the wind is free to flow over and through the ravines, ridges and particularities of the land. It fills all of existence. It fills my very being with its energy and passion 

Strange thing about wind. It is both a physical and spiritual phenomenon. Many, Eastern, Indigenous and Western wisdom traditions speak of wind as the creative force of the gods, divine beings and eternal ones. In these stories, wind can be as gentle as the breath of life and as violent as storms stirring the waters of the earth in preparation for that which is yet to be born. The winds of my teaching life are also like this. They can be creative and destructive, containing both physical and spiritual dimensions. 

As I walked, I reflected on the relationship between wind and teaching; both as an element of creation and a force for change. I was reminded of Cornel West’s description of “prophetic pragmatism” as a unique American philosophy for both acting as an agent of change while living into the perpetual and destructive nature of racism. Prophet in the sense of being a voice of radial social critique of inequalities and dehumanizing structures. Teachers can be prophetic winds speaking truth to power, creating spaces where marginalized learners experience humanizing forms of pedagogyTeachers can enact a form of tough love directed toward the betterment of schooling as an institution. The poet Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer in her poem “Home” describes this form of love in this way; icomes crashing in / like western wind, breaking branches / and rearranging the yard, as if to say / it is here to change everything”. Yet prophetic-love is also pragmatic. It is a form of wisdom that realizes the struggle for freedom is elongated and complicated requiring a long-view and the capacity to adjust. It is a learning tradition that relishes in personal struggle, always leaning forward in gentle and persistent provocation to challenge systems of power and privilege.  

As I walked, I noticed that at times the wind was to my back. I was a participant in the process of change. Dust and rocks dislodged by my feet scoured the trailside, changing the ground with each step. Such is often the case when I take an activist role to help sustain change in schools or in my classroom. But when I turned a corner in the trail, the wind and I were now face to face. If I wasn’t careful, I was pushed off balance and found myself stumbling along on unsure feet. For teachers as prophets they are sometimes part of the winds of change. And at times they must face into the winds of institutional normalcy that are often set against their will toward freedom and liberty. West’s invitation toward “prophetic pragmatism is particularly relevant in these moments. Sailors know that by setting their sails at 22 degrees to a squall they can tack into the wind and move toward, not away, from their destination. Pragmatism is a form of strategic tacking in response to the winds that push toward the status quo and maintenance of power and privilege in schools and classrooms.  

My last reflection on walking into and with the wind is that it is hard work. I arrived home feeling refreshed, blown clean, but also slightly disoriented. My body still remembered all the ways it had swayed, stumbled and sought out firm footing. Even standing still I was still in motion. The question I now held was how to remain strong and resilient while practicing “prophetic pragmatism” in my teaching? Success in teaching, as practiced in Western-industrial societies, is often measured and calibrated according to external standards. Many teachers “measure up” to these metrics but the cost can be high in terms of their heart’s longing and burnout. The teacher as prophet is walking a path that never ends and thus the future is not theirs. I find an element of comfort in this truth. My success as an agent of change cannot be measured and catalogued as some fixed goal to achieve, but it can be witnessed in the day to day actions I take to create life-giving instructional spaces. Additionally, knowing that the trail of freedom and justice is long and winding reminds me of the importance of resting and participating in self-care. Being a prophet of a future that is not my own means that I can rest without guilt, renewing my heart and spirit for those times when the wind is in my face. But rest is not retreat or complacency. I must always remember that even in a restful state my body, my heart, my soul knows its true purpose is to keep dancing with the winds of change.   

January 21, 2021—A colleague recently told the story of a hiking trip that offered a compelling insight into the power of story to reveal truths about teaching. He and his son were following a trail as it wound its way along a tree-lined creek. The path was well traveled and the soil around the trees was worn away and many of the roots were polished by passing feet. The son stopped and said, “Dad, what do you see?” My colleague was unprepared for the question and found himself somewhat overwhelmed by the beauty of their surroundings. In the silence, his son replied, “Dad, look at the trail right in front of us and embrace the metaphor. Roots become steps.” After hearing this story, I too was invited into silence and left with some good questions to ponder about the craft of teaching. The most obvious for me is, what are my roots? What is the source of my calling to teach and serve others? How can I better envision my roots as steps to something more? Can I name the ways they hold me stable against to the storms of professional responsibilities that drain me and tax my soul? Roots as both steps toward places that are difficult to attain and an anchoring in times of trouble.

There is another aspect to this story that I find both troubling and insightful. Roots, it seems, assist forward progress only after they have been exposed and polished by the scuffing of boots. A long history of transformation from hidden and embraced by the forest duff to uncovered and longing for an old companion. Exposed roots have the appearance of loneliness and reaching for the past. This is a harsh image and it rings true. I’m invited to consider both the ways my roots have been exposed and polished over the years by the passing of students, and the how they are a reflection on what I’m still longing to accomplish. Exposure through use seems the operative message when it comes to roots. They anchor me to the essence of my work as an educator and become more useful with experience. Marge Piercy captures the tragedy of instructional roots not used, gifts that are set aside and preserved. In her poem “To Be of Use” she writes: “Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums / but you know they were made to be used. / The pitcher cries for water to carry / and a person for work that is real.” As my colleague’s son noted, “roots become steps”. How might your roots, your core commitments to serving others, invite you to step into new terrain? What does it mean to know that effective teaching means the wearing away of protective coverings and the polishing of one’s roots?

As I was reflecting on “roots become steps”, I was reminded of a second story about steps. My son and I were climbing a peak in Colorado this summer. He is in his early 20s and I’m in my early 60s. So naturally, he walks faster than me. As I lagged several minutes behind on a steep slope, I noticed that every place I wanted to step I saw that he had already stepped there. As I worked my way up to where he waited, the pattern continued. Without intention, I was stepping where he stepped. When I finally caught up with him, I said, “I noticed something really interesting. Every place I wanted to step; you had already stepped there. I find that fascinating”. With little hesitation, he replied, “well of course dad. I have been following you around the mountains for almost 20 years. You taught me how to walk and climb. Where to step. What to avoid. No wonder you step where I stepped.”

As we continued to climb, I thought of the obviousness of his observation and the implications for teaching and learning. Who are my mentors, the ones who taught me where to step when designing and implementing effective teaching? Who is following me up the long slope of learning to teach? What am I teaching them by my actions, choices of where to step or not step?

I remember finishing graduate school and accepting my first academic position. What stands out, in part, was answering questions from students related to research design and methodology. The words fell out of my mouth, even though I wasn’t sure where they came from. They sounded right and were well reasoned. But in many ways, they weren’t my words. They were the words of the faculty who taught me where to step as a researcher. Even today, many years later, I occasionally speak with their words, old steps, trusted steps. At times I hear my students expressing ideas or sharing insights that came from me. Steps I had modeled for them. Step here, not there, watch out for that stumbling block. Their imitation is both affirming of my ability to teach and it reminds me of the importance of acting with fidelity to my mentoring role.

An interesting thing about the metaphor of roots and steps is the way I can learn to walk into new places, experience new ways of teaching. As the first story in this essay argues, “roots become steps”. To be true to my roots, I’m compelled to clarify their true essence. To clear away the detritus and false notions of who I am, and with vulnerability reveal the steps for myself and my students as we find our way into the future. The second story reminds me to pay attention to the ways I model teaching and navigating collegial interactions. Where I step is likely to be where my students learn to step. And as I tire and lose steam, I will follow in my student’s footsteps. This is already happening as I co-teach and co-write with current and past graduate students. My students teach me new ways to navigate the challenges of education. I will learn to step in new ways, read new texts, and consider the world of teaching and learning through new perspectives. I invite you to consider that your “roots become steps” and guard your mentoring well as you may one day follow in the steps of those following behind you.

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