June 8th, 2018—Marge Piercy concludes her poem “Seven of Pentacles” with an acknowledgement to endings and the rewards for work done well: “Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen: reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.  This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always, for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.”  As another year of teaching and learning draws to a close, from pre-school to higher education, it seems appropriate to take a moment and lean into the educational wisdom of Marge Piercy.  What might she mean for a teacher to live as if they liked themselves?  How does it make sense to both live a life you haven’t achieved while also continuing to grow and connect?  And finally, what is the harvest of your teaching?

I find her line, “live as if you liked yourself…” one of the most challenging aspects of teaching.  To teach as if I like myself is not an approach to education that I typically turn to in celebration at the end of the year.  Instead I’m quick to disregard my instructional successes during the year as products of luck or students who are overly kind.  In contrast I’m quick to accept criticism, even minor forms of critical feedback, as accurate and an indication of my instructional inadequacies; the real harvest of my year of teaching. To teach as if I liked myself is a real challenge.  It is far easier to dislike myself when I struggle pedagogically. Yet Piercy invites me to see the world of the classroom differently and live into the challenges of teaching “as if” all is well.  Not denying the pain that exists but also including in my thoughts what I’m capable of achieving.  The mission is to see teaching through an asset instead of a deficit lens.  For instance, I recently coached a novice teacher, who was completing a year of teaching, about the challenges of turning the call to teach into an affirmation of true-ability.  To help with this transformation I encouraged this teacher to extend to themselves a healthy dose of self-grace in recognition that learning to teach is a truly difficult endeavor.  To reflect back over the year and fully own all they accomplished.

Teaching as if you like yourself, especially in moments of struggle, is an act of self-grace that acknowledges it is easier to dislike your teaching than it is to embrace pedagogical success.  I know for myself that too much self-grace has two downsides (1) it can lead to an overly grandiose sense of instructional success (a form of instructional amnesia to what really happened in the classroom), and (2) it turns the gift of reflection inward to the exclusion of the interests and external perspective of students, colleagues, or other professionals.  Marge Piercy reminds me that a good way to integrate the shadow of self-grace—live as if you liked yourself—is to combine instructional egoism with the counter force of being present to others: “reach out, keeping reaching out, keep bringing in”. It is not enough to stand in the glow of self-congratulation for teaching well done this year.  There is also the necessity of connecting with others and becoming part of a larger community.  When I’m engaged in deep and honest pedagogical-relationships with students and colleagues I create the possibility that they will check my overly extravagant use of self-grace. They help me, at the end of the year, to honestly listen to the criticism and advice in ways that can truly improve my teaching.

The combined potency of self-grace, which calms the wounds of instructional struggle, and external accountability to community will effectively frame the rewards of teaching well done.  As Piercy observes: “after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.” For teachers the harvest time is now at the end of the instructional year.  After a long season of teaching, conflict management, community building, curriculum development, caring for others, advocating for students, and grading papers it is time to take stock of the instructional harvest.  To own the professional accomplishments and areas of academic and emotional growth that were carefully facilitated for students.  These are real accomplishments, more than the product of happenstance and good luck.  For teachers the harvest comes at the start of summer not the fall as it does for farmers and backyard gardeners.  What is the harvest of your season of teaching?  Who has changed emotionally or intellectually because of your care and attentiveness?  Who is the student you never gave up on?  How has your teacher-heart been renewed through the connections you made, even in the midst of self-doubt?  Where are you endings this year leading you instructionally and personally?

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.


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