I recently published an article entitled “Teaching in Good Faith: Towards a Framework for Defining the Deep Supports that Grow and Retain First-Year Teachers.” The article drew from my dissertation research and examined the ways in which first year teachers taught and lived in harmony with their reasons for becoming educators. Little did I know how soon after publishing that article that I’d be called upon to live out its central message.

Great writers and speakers urge you to follow your heart regardless of the cost. In Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer (2000) describes his journey to founding the Center for Courage and Renewal. On that path he followed byways and detours that led him, circuitously, to realizing his purpose.

Cheryl Strayed (2011) conjures the “fathomless bird of truth” who sings to you, and flutters violently if you step off your path. She says, “it is our work, our job, the most important gig of all: to make a place that belongs to us, a structure composed of our own moral code. Not the code that only echoes imposed cultural values, but the one that tells us on a visceral level what to do.”

I can think of countless others who encourage us to “follow our heart” and “fulfill our purpose.” I think I even saw these words on a tea bag recently.

However, these great, wise, compassionate poets (and well-meaning tea bags) seem to have one thing in common: they’re telling us to follow our hearts from the safe bank on the other side of a teeming river. They describe, in retrospect, the fear and courage it takes to “make a structure composed of our own moral code, “ and to live a life in harmony with their purpose and deepest desires. But the message is muffled somehow, wreathed in the certainty of a happy ending. We know it worked out for them. We can relax in the message, understanding that it took them somewhere alive and transcendent and fully their own.

I am writing to you from the first few steps into the river, the other bank all but invisible, and I can tell you it is a raw place of fear and courage. I think this, a message from the midst of transition, is an important perspective and one we rarely bring forth. This is the defatalized success story, poised in that moment of uncertainty where I’ve left the safe space of the known and look ahead to a yawning unknown, trusting fully to myself to find the right path.

What happened (is happening) is this: a change in leadership at my work caused my role to shift into something that looks, feels, and tastes anathema to my reasons for stepping into education. While listening to the new leadership outlining their vision and the part they need me to play in that vision, and I felt a tug at my insides. I dismissed it at first but it grew more insistent. My bird of truth was awake, agitated, and letting me know it.

My first thought was, “maybe I can just grind this out for another year while I find something else.” My next thought was, “maybe I can find something else sooner so I’ll have an excuse to leave.” This seemed reasonable, so I looked around at other institutions, other “safe” jobs that I could jump to, that I thought of as a, “just for now” option, a stepping stone to solid ground.

But I’m done with stepping stones, I realized. I don’t want another “sort of” fit. I am unwilling to compromise on this, the way I choose to be in the world. I would read job descriptions and think, “I could maybe do that. It’s got to be better than the role they have for me here.” But the whole time I knew that “better than what I have now” is a far, far cry from the joy, expansion, meaningful challenges, and aliveness that accompanies following my heart. I also knew that I knew that, and in knowing I couldn’t pretend otherwise. According to Jean-Paul Sartre (1966), someone acting in bad faith is either denying her true nature or deceiving herself about her true nature. If I stayed put or traded out for some tepid version of my intentions, I’d be doing both of those things he warns against.

So I leapt. In a wildly irresponsible or courageous (depending on your stance) move, I, with no backup plan, told the leadership that the impact I want to have on education is divergent from the role they’ve outlined for me. I would be resigning.

And so I write to you now from that first, headlong splash into the river. I’d like to tell you that I stand steadfast and resolute, striding with purpose and fearlessness in the direction of my dreams, but the truth is I spend some days caroming from crippling anxiety to heady exhilaration, from calm, serene stillness to feverish busyness. I didn’t jump in knowing I had the strength to get to the other side; I jumped in hoping I’d develop the strength as I went.

The move, however (perhaps because of its invitation to court fear), has been extremely generative. I want to share some of the textures and realizations that have surfaced so far for me:

 

An Act of Creation

I’ve found that, far from being an act of willfulness or destruction, the decision to leave my job has played out as an act of creation.

In defining that which is not right for me, I came hard up against the question, “what is right for me?” Where, in the words of Frederick Buechner (1973), is the place where my deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet? In answering that question I have begun to build a vision for my life that responds, honestly, gently, and without judgment, to both my strengths and my limitations.  In so doing I’ve learned more about who I am at my core, which has been invaluable at guiding me in all other aspects of my life. Answering the question “what is right for me” is a lifelong process that cannot and should not be rushed. I know that whatever is next may be another step in the evolution of my identity, but with equal certainty I know there will be no final arrival.

This understanding has helped me cultivate more comfort with ambiguity and a delight in the process of becoming. I realize also, in a flash of paradox so confusing it can only be truth, that who I am now is as fully whole and unbroken as the me who will exist in ten years, and the me who existed ten years ago. I am not some unfinished product on my way toward completion, but a whole person in the process of deepening my own self-awareness and acceptance.

 

Barriers are Straw Men

I recently engaged in a meditation practice that, for two weeks, asked me to become aware of self-defeating thought patterns. These would sound like, “I could never do that because…” or, “I’ll never be ____ enough for…” I was shocked at the number of times per day that thoughts like this would pop up in my head. I was even more shocked to realize how these thoughts drove my daily existence until I was living by dictums of fear, constraint, and a perception of safety.

These defeating thoughts will work differently on every person, but for me, when weighed against a life of empowerment, fulfillment, and joy, they began falling like so many straw men. I worried about practical things- money, health insurance, retirement, if I was doing right by my cat. I even fretted about losing my phone plan (this last fuselage was, perhaps, the most desperate effort of my subconscious to gain back control of my brain). But, while recognizing the importance of these needs (phone plan notwithstanding) I trusted that if I stepped toward my purpose the logistics would be easier to work out than my ingrained thought patterns wanted me to believe. So far, they have been. Shockingly so.

 

Staying Still

I have not been idle, but I have also been fighting the urge to immerse myself in logistics, details, job applications, and following every possibility that makes itself known to me. I know that, in my fear, I am in danger of scrabbling around in “worst case scenario” logistics to the point where I lose sight of why I got myself into this glorious mess in the first place. I didn’t launch myself here to end up right back where I was, and I am coming to understand the importance of setting aside swaths of time to reflect, read, write, contemplate, process, and simply be.

In these quiet moments I’m discovering that the world will powerfully reflect my path if I let it. The threads I’ve followed that would have been disastrous petered out and never gained traction in my life. Instead of railing against this, I’ve counseled myself to relinquish attachment to any one thing and listen for what is surfacing. These are sometimes subtle, sometimes unrecognizable, and if I wasn’t sitting in stillness and openness I would miss their signs. I believe this practice of stillness will be important, not just for this transition but for the rest of my life. If I believe that I am always in the process of becoming, then these invitations will be continual and lifelong.

 

Making Art of Your Life

When working with teachers I ask, “are you creating a space that is fully unique? Are you doing that which only you could do?” This, I believe, is what elevates teaching to art.

Recently I’ve been asking myself these same questions. Each time I make a decision from the deepest part of me I can see myself reflected in the world. In learning to recognize my own unique voice I suddenly become more visible to myself beyond the world of right and wrong and the flimsy, constructed identities I’ve lived by.  In taking this leap toward fulfillment and purpose, I am allowing myself to emerge and slowly, through patience, love, stillness, and time, I am resolving into myself.

REFERENCES

Buechner, F. (1973). Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Palmer, P. (2000). Let your life speak: Listening for the voice of vocation. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Sartre, J. P. (1966). Being and nothingness (H. E. Barnes, Trans.). New York, NY: Washington Square Press.

Strayed, C. (2011). We are Here to Build the House. The Rumpus. Retrieved from https://therumpus.net/2011/01/dear-sugar-the-rumpus-advice-column-62/

About Our Guest Blogger

Dr. Kate Newburgh is a writer and consultant with over a decade of experience in education. She began her career as a New York City Teaching Fellow in the Bronx, NY. Since then she’s held diverse roles in the field including Educational Researcher, Academic Affairs Director for a national non-profit, and Curriculum Specialist and Instructional Coach for Eagle County Schools, CO. She received her Ph.D in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Denver and works with schools and businesses to develop transformative practices and human-centered organizational cultures that foster renewal and growth. Learn more at www.deeppractices.com.

December 7th 2018—For many years I have experienced what I increasingly see as a moral dilemma.  It leads me to ask the question should I keep teaching and preparing new teachers or should I leave the profession.  This question has recently engaged my heart with increased vigor. Perhaps I’m on the edge of “moral-injury” as I’ve defined in previous posts.  I wonder if the tension between my ideal notions of preparing teachers and what I experience during the actual practice of teaching new teachers is leading me to make decisions that bend and distort my moral compass.  This may be the case, but as I reflect on my situation I don’t think my dilemma rises to that level of concern.  I continue to find ways to act with integrity and fidelity to my call to teach.  It doesn’t feel like my moral compass is non-functional and unreliable.  I still have a strong sense of my personal and pedagogical True North.  This assertion and confidence in my inner-teacher may perhaps seem odd given that I started this essay with the statement that I wonder if I should continue to teach or not.

I believe that what has been and is currently going on in my heart is a conflict between my love of teaching and the reality of what new teachers face as they enter the profession.  In particular I wonder if it is morally justifiable to feed my passion to teach—my inner calling—while at the same time knowing the high rate of early career burnout.  I know all too well the harsh meaning behind the statistic that 50% of new teachers leave in 5 years. In under-resourced and underserved schools the attrition rate rises to 50% in 3 years.  In real terms this means that half of my students will leave the profession and their calling to influence the life trajectory of their students.  Hovering above this shocking statistic are the real faces and caring hearts that I know all too well; the students in my classes.

It is equally clear to me that not all preservice teachers should become teachers.  I consider it a good and virtuous responsibility to determine if the profession of teaching is a good fit for every student I teach.  Low ratings on observations and poor academic performance suggest a lack of fit. It is good for the profession and good for the K-12 students experiencing a lack of teaching passion or ineffective pedagogy when I encourage my low performing students to seek other professions more consistent with their gifts. Yet the lack of fit as a rational for leaving the profession is not the reason for the early departure of many of my students.  They leave the profession for other reasons which are often more traumatic.  The origin of their challenge is remaining true to their calling within a system and social context that is more concerned with performance indicators than the love of teaching.  The social-emotional stress associated with testing, accountability, teacher-proof curriculum, and standards-based assessment can sometimes reach such an extreme that the only reasonable choice is to leave.  Teachers in this circumstance are broken-hearted and disillusioned.  How can a profession they love and care for treat them so poorly?

At the core of my moral dilemma is the question should I really continue to prepare young teachers for a profession that I know is often antithetical to all they hold dear?  Should I continue to encourage teachers to enter the profession when I know that for many of them they will experience an instructional and relational environment that crushes their spirit and leaves them broken hearted?  How long can I remain complicit with a system that tends to chew up new educators, even ones that show promise and are effective at igniting young minds?  As I’ve leaned into these questions I find myself encountering a number of sticking points. The first is rather practical and straightforward; how will I earn a living and pay my bills?  Although an important consideration, the transactional factors of my work are not compelling reasons to remain in the profession.  There are many other ways to earn a living.  A more deeply rooted reason for remaining in the role of teacher is that education is my professional calling.  It is the best way to interact with my gifts with integrity and fidelity.  Edna St. Vincent Millay captures the deeply spiritual feeling I encounter while teaching when she writes: “World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!” When I’m at my best as a teacher I get close enough to the richness of the learning moment and the sweet enticing engagement of my students, a moment of instructional bliss.  If I quit as a way to resolve the dilemma, I risk dishonoring my calling and cutting myself off from opportunities to become enlivened by the great mystery of education.  To be placed in relationship to something greater than self, as a fulcrum for personal and professional growth, is a gift of great value.

Perhaps my next observation is informed too much by ego and an inflated sense of my self-worth as a teacher.  If I quit who will teach my students the lessons and learnings they need to know about and experience while on the path toward effective instruction and professional self-worth?  My argument is that my ability to wrestle with moral questions and to express an openness to the broken-hearted world of what is compared to what should be provides me with unique insights.  It is within the wisdom of how to navigate the in-between spaces, what Parker Palmer calls the “tragic gap”, that students can find ways to thrive in their early years of teaching.  Instead of trying to collapse the poles of what is and what should be, Palmer argues for finding a place of productive tension between the two elements in a way that honors both perspectives.  By its definition good teaching exists at the dynamic interface between what is and what ought to be.  Who is better placed to teach about ways to respond to broken-heartedness and disillusionment in life-giving ways than someone who regularly experiences these emotions, integrates the two poles, and continues to love teaching?

There are two things I know, (1) I’m far from resolving my dilemma and (2) the tension around quitting or continuing to teach is increasing with intensity in apparent correlation with the lack of professional respect my students face as they enter the field of teaching.  So far I continue to see personal value and receive affirmation from my students in my role as coach and mentor to a greater extent than the less positive view I hold of myself as someone unconcerned about the fate of my students and who is willing to continue receiving a paycheck instead of resigning in protest.  In some sense I’m glad this moral dilemma is a regular meditation for me.  It helps, I believe, to keep me fairly honest about my motivations and intentions as an educator. My True North actually becomes stronger and more trustworthy the more I question its calibration.  It is this sense of personal honesty that contributes to my authenticity as an educator, a sense of inner trustworthiness that manifests itself in my outer forms of teaching.

“I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self-indulgence. Caring for myself is an act of survival.” Audre Lorde

Committed educators are aware that teaching in America’s public schools is a demanding and frequently unappreciated profession. Yet, it is a profession that when it is focused on fulfilling the needs of all students, it is life transforming for the student and the educator, which can in turn can create social justice. Further, students’ lives demonstrate the most productive results when teachers actively and intentionally address their mindset regarding personal privilege or socioeconomic class differences, work to create equitable classrooms and schools, and implement culturally responsive-culturally sustaining practices (Delpit, 2012; Hammonds, 2015; Irvine, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 2014; Ware, 2006).

The demands on educators are exacerbated by a public consciousness that perceives the demanding and highly impactful work of educators as having low status and deserving of low wages. The field of education often demonstrates that work driven by a moral commitment to the success of children and adults is not valued and those who perform the work are therefore, not valuable.

Working to ignore the noise of a society that does not appreciate the worth of hard and heart driven work and to remain committed to the needs of all students is stressful. Further, stress is increased by the requests, demands, and requirements occurring within schools that are driven by well-intended programs and policies that do not deliver the intended impact of insuring students’ academic and social emotional needs are met. Yet, teachers operate within and in-opposition to these daily struggles and demands to find solace in the smile of a child, the joyful demonstration of learning, and the successful completion of a lesson, course, grade level, or graduation.

To be sure, attaining the pivotal goal of education by demonstrating academic achievement with minoritized students when addressing privilege, equity, and implementing culturally responsive practices within systems of oppression is not an easily attainable success that naturally contains challenges and stress. The multiple demands of the noble duty of teaching can lead to benign or intentional self-neglect which in turn leads to un-managed stress.

As an educator who has experienced these challenges and supported educators who faced these challenges, I have experienced intentional and benign neglect of my wellbeing which lead to my creation of a body of work on self-care.

Self-care is a part of the popular lexicon that has encouraged many people to be aware of their needs and improve their stress management and wellbeing through a variety of means. Self-care experiences can be free and/or expensive and create life-long changes or temporary relief of the challenges of being an educator. To be sure, self-care is a significant strategy for all people who experience the stressors of daily life. However, it was through my experiences and research that I realized many self-care strategies are often temporary fixes for unaddressed stress and create temporary bursts of oxytocin which do not prevent occurrences of neglect that I have identified as radical self-care.

Radical self-care (Ware, 2016) occurs when inconsistent self-care, and the long-term neglect of health, fitness, or stress management lead to a health, physical, or emotional, crisis. This crisis can be demonstrated as an inability to fulfill personal or professional responsibilities or to simply function. The crash, no matter how it manifests, requires the person to implement radical self-care to overcome exhaustion. Think of the image of a depleted phone battery, the battery with the red line indicates the phone is not available for use because it is exhausted. When we reach that point of exhaustion, our personal reconnection to a power source or stress release is required. Like a phone, a brief recharge will make us functional (radical self-care intervention), but for extended use, we need to be completely recharged (active self-care).

To avoid the need for radical self-care (Ware, 2016), I propose that educators use temporary self-care strategies such as massages only as complementary strategies to a life of consistent active self-care. The specific types of active self-care strategy are personal and specific to the needs of each educator. Using reflective practice suggested in the culturally responsive education literature, (Cadray cited in Irvine, 2002) each educator must consider their individual needs to enhance their wellbeing, such as nutrition, hydration, caring relationships, exercise, sleep, relaxation, or extended periods of being unplugged from their electronic devices. Each one of those strategies offer well documented improvements to an educator’s health, wellbeing, and productivity (Amen, D. & Amen, T. 2015). Further, an educator engaged in active self-care increases their productivity and enhanced decision-making processes.

I propose that one of the challenges in creating equitable schools and culturally responsive education is a void of school communities that promote and engage in active self-care. Demands on the time of educators contribute to the neglect of self-care. Too many educators work to the point of exhaustion and make critical decisions while in crisis mode fueled by the release of cortisol and a hijacked amygdala (Glasser, 2014; Hammonds, 2015). This stress naturally prevents a critical analysis of systemic oppression for minoritized communities of students and the implementation of equitable learning conditions. Additionally, these stress-based decisions may destroy the critical element of trust in educator and student relationships (Glasser, 2014; Hammonds, 2015; Ware, 2006).

For educators to meet students’ needs and be the change agents that the current conditions of education demand, educators should start with examining their active self-care practices and determine the strategies they need to implement with consistently to be healthy and productive through out the school year. Many educators return from a summer break relaxed with many health strategies in place. Unfortunately, many educators do not maintain these practices and by midyear need a radical self-care intervention (Ware, 2016).

Educators are overwhelmed with the demands on their time, energy, and money. The premise of radical self-care (Ware, 2016) is not to make one more impossible demand on educators. Instead, it is the acknowledgement that the health and wellbeing of teachers is a priority in creating equitable and culturally responsive-culturally sustaining schools. A focus on active self-care of teachers can contribute to the creation of academically successful, culturally competent, and socio-politically conscious students (Ladson-Billings, 2014).

 

REFERENCES

Amen, D. & Amen, T. (2016). The Brain Warrior’s Way. New York: New American Library

Cadray, J. cited in Irvine, J., Armento, B. (2002). Culturally Responsive Teaching: Lesson Planning for Elementary and Middle Schools. McGraw Hill. New York, NY

Depit, L. (2012). Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children. NY: The New Press

Glasser, J. (2014). Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results. NY: Bibiomotion, Inc

Hammonds, Z. (2015). Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin.

Irvine, J. 2002. Culturally Responsive Teaching: Lesson Planning for Elementary and Middle Schools. NY: McGraw Hill

Ladson-Billings, G. (2014). Culturally Relevant Pedagogy 2.0: a.k.a. the Remix. Harvard Educational Review. 84(1) 74-83

Ware, F. (2016, October 25). Radical Self-Care, Elements of a culturally responsive practice. Live performance in Scholars Unlimited Training, Denver.

Ware, F. (2006). Warm Demander Pedagogy: Culturally Responsive Teaching That Supports a Culture of Achievement for African American Students. Urban Education 41(4) 427-456

About Our Guest Blogger

Franita Ware, Ph.D. is the author of the classic article, Warm Demander Pedagogy: Culturally Responsive Teaching That Supports a Culture of Achievement for African American Teachers. She is a Program Manager with the Culture Equity and Leadership Team of Denver Public Schools and a former Adjunct Professor with the Morgridge College of Education. She is currently writing a manuscript on effective warm demander and culturally sustaining teachers in contemporary public schools.

November 2nd, 2018—I have learned much about teaching by seeking out information and ideas from outside the field of education.  The teaching literature is certainly rich with new ways to approach teaching.  It is pushing forward, as it should, important themes of inclusiveness, equity, social emotional learning, empowering the voices of teachers/students, and best practices associated with learning that serves all students.  This internal dialogue, what is working and what is not is important and necessary work.  But any community that listens only to its own practitioners and researchers is a community that risks the danger of talking only to itself.  The mirror of education speak can become too sharply focused on the educators, researchers, policy makers, and parents who are looking intently into the polished glass of educational reform.

To be clear, self-reflection around theory and practice is an important skill for the profession of education and its educators.  Without the ability to gaze self-critically into the heart of educational practice the risk of self-delusion is high.  And if educators are careless, unexamined practices can precipitate unintended forms of teaching that can disempower and disenfranchise students in already under resourced and under-served schools.  For instance, teachers who teach in ways consistent with the ways they were taught should wonder if they are fully and genuinely responsive to the learning needs of their students.  Are they truly being effective for all learners if they don’t stop and periodically test their teaching assumptions with a few key questions?  For example, is my lived-experience really the same as the lived-experience of my students and therefore is it fair and reasonable to expect my students to think and behave like I do?  When I measure success in ways that matches the ways I was successful as a student, which of my learners is likely to struggle with my assessments?  When the social and cultural mismatch between teachers and students is amplified by the lack of self-critical analysis the damage to student learning can be amplified.  We know this in the field of education because the critical lens was turned inward to catch missteps that ran counter to the goal of educating all learners.  Internal reflection around best practices is a good thing.

Yet as I noted at the start of this essay there is much I have learned about teaching by straying from the field of education.  I’m currently pursuing a MA degree in Theological Studies from the Iliff School of Theology because I want to develop new ideas, new theories, and new language to speak about my philosophy of education which contains elements of transcendence and calling.  These themes are more fully developed in the field of theology than the discipline of education.  My anthropology of humanness needed more expansive language then typically found in education, which feels inadequate to my goal of creating classroom spaces that reach toward becoming fully awake to the wholeness of what it means to be human.  By entering the field of theology my descriptive vocabulary has increased.  I can now talk about education with words and concepts like mystagogue, sacred space, mysticism, inner eyes and ears, indwelling, spiritual awakening, and ritual.

Another field I turn to when broadening my understanding of effective forms of teaching is ecology/biology.  The natural world has always been a robust touch point for me when I search for new ways to see teaching with fresh eyes. The poet John Moffitt writes: “To look at any thing,/ If you would know that thing,/ You must look at it long:/ To look at this green and say,/ “I have seen spring in these/ Woods,” will not do – you must/ Be the thing you see:” The message for me is plain.  To really know my students, which is the gateway to effective teaching, I must take the time to get to know my students.  I must learn their moods, their vocabulary of learning, their hidden pain which they guard, and their passion to learn.  I find that this type of decentered-teaching works best when I step away from my ego, my institutional role, and move outside my narrow pedagogical interests to adopt new ways of seeing and talking about learning.

Ornithology, the study of birds, is also a non-teaching favorite of mine.  I find it is rich with metaphors and images of good practice as long as I can look beyond the language and technical descriptions to the deeper meaning.  I was recently watching a PBS show Autumnwatch New England.  One of the guests was David Allen Sibley, arguably one of the premier birders and illustrators in the world.  He made this remarkable statement when describing the process of writing and painting a field guide on birds: “A drawing is a picture of our understanding. If you don’t understand something you can’t draw it.”  And in a YouTube video on his drawing process, David states: “Every sketch that I do I discover something new.  I get to know the bird better.  It forces me to look at all the different aspects, the proportions, the shapes, the curves, the tones, and really understand all that.  There is no better way to get to know a bird than to draw it”.  Sibley’s insight on sketching and illustrating birds is a form of wisdom I can apply immediately to my teaching.  He reminds me that it is important, if not essential, to combine the precision of science with the illumination of art. There is a science or structure to my teaching anchored in proven teaching techniques.  But of equal importance is the art of teaching, which comes, as Sibley suggests from the process of intentionally watching and sketching the intricacies of my students, their ineffable qualities.  The more I turn outward and away from the taken for granted language of education and my own views of education, the more I’m likely to discover new ways to pursue my goal of student-transcendence of self and content.

If a drawing is a form of understanding as Sibley argues, how well can you sketch your students?  Without seeing them in front of you how precise is your drawing? Do you truly understand in the depth of your teacher heart and psyche what their form is?  What are the qualities and characteristics that separate and unify your students, one from the other?  Maybe it is time to sharpen your pencils and head out into the field, sketch book in hand, to do some close observation.  I know I haven’t done enough of that kind of teaching, the act of deep-observation, lately. It is time, I feel, to do some field work.  To get out and do some sketching.

October 19th, 2018—Frederick Buechner famously described a professional calling as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”.  Most teachers when asked why they teach will provide an answer similar to Buechner’s definition of calling.  They feel most alive and in synch with their “deep gladness” when they help learners fulfill their “deep hunger” to understand the world.  Teachers who are called to the profession find it difficult to quit and if they do they often find themselves either back in the classroom or working in an allied profession.  It is common in teacher education programs to hear students talk about leaving successful careers in non-teaching professions because they were bored or knew deep within their heart that they were not following their passion.  They resisted the call to teach for many years until they just couldn’t resist anymore.  It was time to start over, embrace the call, take up their “deep gladness” and follow the passion to teach.  In short, a teacher with a calling to serve the learning needs of students is responding to some deep inner gift or spiritual pull to teach.  Linda Alston in her book Why We Teach explains her experience with trying to resist the call to be a teacher: “we must return because the call resonates in a place within us, and we must answer, Yes!

Because calling is rooted in a deep inner feeling that is more spiritual than practical it often contains an element of idealism.  A longing to serve that is hard to quantify and validate through objective measures more commonly found in teacher accountability rubrics.  Educators teach with the hope of bringing a better world into existence through the kind of teaching that connects their “deep gladness with the world’s deep hunger”.  But these connections can be fleeting and unpredictable. As Alston notes, “the day that we don’t go back might well be the day that we miss the miracle of a child making a connection, saying something funny or profound, creating a work of art, and giving our lives meaning and purpose”. Joy in the miraculous and humorous is a significant component to the identity and idealism that is associated with teaching. Teachers know a lot about the joy of directing their teaching gifts toward learning, the drawing out of knowledge from a student. And in times of stress or uncertainty, joy can provide the needed energy to thrive during the challenges of teacher preparation and the high stakes environment of early career teaching.

As much as idealism and joy are powerful forces for educators they also have their down side.  What happens when the passion of idealism meets the cold hard facts of industrial models of schooling? What happens when the flames of idealism flicker out and instead a teacher succumbs to the reality of bench mark assessments, data sets, instructional rubrics, disinterested learners, and standardized assessments?  What happens when disenchantment overshadows joy?  Is the miraculous transformation of a learner still worth noticing and celebrating if the teacher is cynical, embittered, or burnt-in? In times like this the centering and reassuring power of calling can seem far away and elusive.  Joy and role-certainty is replaced with a sense of vocational amnesia.  “I’m a teacher” is replaced with “who am I?” and “why am I here?”  These are dangerous questions for a teacher to ask.  The Mayo Clinic defines medical amnesia as “the loss of memories, such as facts, information and experiences” that can follow severe illness, head trauma, or psychological distress.  Teaching amnesia is a loss of identity and classroom presence, a realization that you no longer know who you are and why you are teaching.  You find it a challenge to answer “Yes” to the call to teach and without that sense of “deep gladness” you are less effective at meeting the “deep hunger” of your students.

Like medical amnesia, teaching amnesia is the result of instructional/institutional trauma or distress.  For instance, the long and protracted sense that no one in your school cares about whether or not you show up in the morning.  Your colleagues or school leadership cannot accurately describe your educational gifts.  Or perhaps the sudden realization that what matters most to society is not your passion for content knowledge but rather your ability to produce high test scores and move “bubble students” to the next level of proficiency.  Vocational amnesia is a consequence of the industrialization and commodification of the craft of teaching, art and ambiguity is replaced with the siren’s call of certainty through a technocratic model of efficiency.

How can teachers heal from vocational amnesia and return to a life-giving state of instructional wellness?  As Alston notes the call never goes away but what does change is the teacher’s ability to hear the call and answer “yes!’. If at its core amnesia is characterized by a state of forgetfulness and memory loss it can be helpful to remember the reasons for entering the profession of teaching in the first place.  A good and trusted colleague or instructional team can provide the necessary reminders about a teacher’s calling.  They can remind a teacher with vocational amnesia of students they helped, differences they made in school culture, or name the teaching gifts that confirm their respected status as a team member.  Mindfulness practices that calm the inner dialogue about inadequacy and encourage a more open stance to the teaching landscape can also help.  Three deep breaths or a gratitude journal can widen the technocratic instructional blinders to encourage a more wholehearted orientation to teaching.  Poetry and wisdom stories of loss can remind a teacher’s languishing heart that remaining in a constant state of instructional joy is a myth and that out of suffering and battered idealism can emerge a renewed spirit.  Taking time to remember the feelings and emotions of that initial call to teach is another remedy for vocational amnesia. The next time you are feeling disconnected from the call, answer this question and share it with a colleague; what three words immediately come to mind when you think back to when you first considered the profession of teaching?

October 5th, 2018—In my previous post I drew comparisons between the moral injury that physicians and teachers experience because of the choices they face when treating patients or educating learners.  Both professions, it seems, experience moral injury as a result of limited professional freedom in response to institutional imperatives that generate goals focused on efficiency, numerics, prescribed treatment/teaching protocols, and economic bottom lines.  The repeated exposure to decision making that threatens moral or professional values can, as Diane Silver (2011) writes, leave “a deep soul wound that pierces a person’s identity, sense of morality and relationship to society.”  Moral injury was first used to describe soldiers returning from war where life and death decisions are made that often cut across a soldier’s morals, values, or beliefs.  Although the experiences of teachers are not analogous to that of soldiers on the battlefield there are still many comparable elements that resonate with the descriptions and costs of moral injury.

The counseling literature addresses the question of how to begin repairing moral injury through a process called “moral repair” or “soul repair.”  Soul repair is an apt descriptor for the healing that many teachers are seeking in response to the professional pain they experience.  Soul repair fits because teaching is a profession anchored in “calling”; a tight relationship between the inner commitments of a teacher and external conventions of the profession. Most teachers dedicate time, talent, and treasure to the education of learners because of a sense of moral drive or longing to serve others.  And it is broken heartedness—a separation from calling—that underscores the moral injury when in order to retain their job they are asked to reduce students to data on a spreadsheet.  Although this shift in seeing students as objects is momentary and can reveal negative-instructional trends that should be addressed, the repeated diminishment of students over an extended period of time can result in a moral rupture.  A teacher can, as Parker Palmer notes, find themselves in a state of “divided-self” where the inner calling to teach becomes separate from the external role.  This is remarkably similar to the consequences of moral injury described in the newsletter Good Therapy: “A moral injury can also be described as a sort of disconnect between one’s self and second self, where the second self is the part of the person that develops in the face of combat or a situation requiring a difficult decision.  Moral injury confuses the two selves…” (2016).

Depending on the depth or nature of a teacher’s moral injury the elements of soul repair can include individually-focused practices like mindfulness, meditation, or the modulation of emotions through training in social-emotional learning (SEL).  These are everyday approaches to stress reduction that any teacher can initiate during breaks in the day, practice as part of a curriculum aimed at teaching students mindfulness, or during an instructional breather when students are engaged in self-directed learning.  Taking three deep breaths is a simple way to restore some healing to a bruised or wounded heart.  Another easy practice is the keeping of a gratitude journal.  The goal is to write two or three things that made you laugh, smile, or feel connected to someone else during the day.  By their very nature these strategies are designed to bring teachers back into relationship with their inner-wisdom; the deep center of quietness out of which their moral integrity emerges.

Sometimes the moral violation cuts deeply into the soul of the teacher and the healing process—the return to moral integrity—entails more extensive work and repair.  Let me provide an example that will suggest a process by which a community of educators can work toward a shared sense of wellbeing.  Throughout this description I will draw on strategies pioneered and practiced in the therapeutic care of soldiers recovering from moral injury.

I regularly host conversations with educators with the explicit purpose of helping them reconnect their inner call to teach with the external imperatives of their institutional life.  These teachers, in varying ways and times, are experiencing some aspect of moral injury.  They are thirsting for reconnection and the integration of their two-selves. In soul repair the first step toward wholeness is responding to the internal cry of the heart as it reaches out for support and reintegration.  These teachers, knowingly or not, are following the guidance of The Moral Injury Project at Syracuse University to never approach the process of soul repair alone but rather to seek out “community for a shared process of healing.”  In the field of education the ubiquitous Professional Learning Community (PLC) could be a readymade community for healing the heart of educators.  Of course, not all PLCs have the requisite level of relational trust, listening skills, and communication to successfully follow the conventions of soul repair.  If this is the case then alternative sites for gathering in community should be explored.

In keeping with the soul repair literature we always begin our time together with ritual.  This typically means welcoming participants and establishing norms which create a container where participants are: invited—not required—to share their story; encouraged to avoid fixing or saving each other; expected to show up completely with all their challenges and gifts; focused on deep-listening to the teaching heart of their colleagues; and bounded by a commitment to confidentiality (what is shared in the meeting stays in the meeting).  Prior to our gathering I email a poem and reflection questions to participants.  The purpose is to invite the soul to “engage” the material in a way consistent with the slow and deliberate approach the heart uses to construct knowledge. I recently sent Galway Kinnell’s Saint Francis and Sow to a group because the images in his poem invite me to remember that effective teaching stems as much from “self-blessing” as it does from technique.  The power of poetry, as Emily Dickinson, notes comes from its ability to “tell the truth but tell it slant.”  The Moral Injury Project advocates the use of “artistic and literary formats for public engagement” because they invite “listening and witnessing” to the divided heart.  Healing language for the teacher heart is metaphor, imagery, and analogy.  In high school I learned to take poems apart, to analyze for meaning and the poet’s word choice.  In soul repair the goal is to let the poem speak to your wholeness, to let the poem interpret you.

My goal with a community of brokenhearted educators is not to achieve the measurable metrics of industrial teaching.  Instead I’m offering a brief respite from the divided life.  The longer term goal of soul repair is self-forgiveness, spiritual healing, restoring notions of self-worth, and the restoration of wholeness.  Kinnell seeks a similar outcome when he writes: “for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;/ though sometimes it is necessary/ to reteach a thing its loveliness…” Imagine if you will an educational setting where the measure of success is the depth to which the “reteaching of loveliness” is achieved.

September 14th, 2018—It is a well-known fact that teachers are leaving the profession at increasingly higher rates.  50% of teachers leave the profession in 5 years and in urban or rural schools the rate can be as high as 50% in three years.  Burnout is the current explanation for this phenomena.  There are, it seems, a lot of good reasons to accept this account.  It is challenging to keep the tender flame of calling burning when the fierce storms of testing, accountability, and low-social status are blowing hard.  Most teachers value data, assessments, and information that guides their instruction.  The best teachers are not anti-testing and accountability.  They know that data can provide a true-sense of how well their teaching is impacting learning.  But the daily grind of doing your best with little or no recognition or acknowledgement of improving student learning can wear the spirit of the teacher down; wellbeing becomes a concern.  Burnout happens when the idealism of serving the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual needs of students drifts to the background in the face of institutional imperatives that are narrowly focused on standards and performance indicators.

Burnout is an occupational hazard of teaching, but there may be a more complex undercurrent to burnout that is worth considering.  The struggle to retain deep meaning and purpose is a phenomena wider than teachers. Other members of the “helping professions” also experience it.  Physicians, for instance, find that the institutional demands, structures, and narrowly defined performance indicators they experience daily tend to divide their professional identity in two.  Their inner calling to heal begins to separate from the outer requirements of the profession. Doctors, like teachers, are increasingly practicing medicine in professional settings that are less concerned with their wellbeing (humanity) and more attentive to efficiency metrics, bottom lines driven by prescribed daily contact hours, pay for performance, and pre-determined treatment protocols.  A recent article in STAT on physician burnout by Simon Talbot, M.D. and Wendy Dean, M.D. (2018) makes the argument that doctors are suffering less from burnout and more from “moral injury” because of the health care system.  Most doctors, like teachers, support accountability and value the link between performance, effectiveness, and patient satisfaction.  What they resist, like their teacher counterparts, is the commodification of their identity and numeric narrowing of the profession.

I think the argument Talbot and Dean make for shifting the language away from burnout, which can seem rather deterministic, to moral injury is worth considering as a more accurate descriptor for teachers as well.  The first concern they raise is that burnout, for physicians, “suggests a failure of resourcefulness and resilience”.  How can this be, they ask, given the strain and stress associated with the long-years of medical training?  Resourcefulness and resilience, it seems, are baked into the professional education of doctors.  When it comes to teachers the financial, emotional, and relational demands of learning to teach may not be as severe or demanding as medical school.  Yet, the year of student teaching followed by the first three-years of teaching, by all account, is pretty intense and challenging.  Resilience, self-determination, and resourcefulness are important skills that all successful early-career teachers have mastered.

From a critique of resourcefulness and resilience they move to a more troubling description of the work of physicians: “Physicians on the front lines of health care today are sometimes described as going to battle. The moral injury of health care is not the offense of killing another human in the context of war. It is being unable to provide high-quality care and healing in the context of health care. Continually being caught between the Hippocratic Oath, a decade of training, and the realities of making a profit from people at their sickest and most vulnerable is an untenable and unreasonable demand.” Moral injury was first used when describing the emotional and psychological costs of a soldiers’ actions in war which often violated their deeply held beliefs and values about life.  In the world of medicine, moral injury describes the impact of the gap between who physicians want to be because of training or calling to heal and what is required by the current system.  It is defined by journalist Diane Silver as “a deep soul wound that pierces a person’s identity, sense of morality, and relationship to society.” The strain of constantly struggling to serve the needs of patients can have profound impact on the psyche of physicians.  As Talbot and Dean note: “Navigating an ethical path among such intensely competing drivers is emotionally and morally exhausting.”

The metaphor of going to battle is not as farfetched for teachers as it might seem. The cover of the September 9th, 2018 issue of The New York Times Magazine boldly claims: “Teachers just want to teach but the classroom has become a battleground”.  The influential book on the history of teaching in America by Dana Goldstein (2015) is titled, “Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession”. Alfred North Whitehead in Aims of Education described the outcomes of an education that stunts the enjoyment of the learner as “soul murder”.  And now policy makers and pundits are pushing to arm teachers in their classrooms. Teachers regularly face choices that cut against their training and moral instincts to care for students and facilitate learning.  For instance, when a teacher makes a pedagogical choice that doesn’t really address a particular student’s learning needs but it does fit the assessment rubric they are being evaluated by.  The battlefield metaphor of teaching, it seems, has a certain resonance with the profession.  Like physicians, the concern for teachers is less the need to navigate these choices, that is what professionals do, it is part of the work.  The concern is that the cumulative effect of the persistent feeling of moral exhaustion, like the repeated moral exhaustion of a soldier in war, leads to a condition where physicians and teachers can “stay—wounded, disengaged, and increasingly hopeless.”

Maybe it is time in education to shift from the soft language of burnout to the starker but perhaps more accurate description of moral injury to describe the experiences and choices teachers face in schools.  What if a teacher or school were rated equally on the ability of the system to help teachers sustain their moral integrity—consistent with their calling and training—with the same vigor that well-crafted external metrics of success are held?

August 31st, 2018—Summer is coming to a close and students from Kindergarten through graduate school are heading back to classrooms to continue their educational journey.  How they experience the classroom will directly impact the depth and complexity of their learning.  In learning spaces where rules, protocols, and prescribed curriculum is the norm, students are likely to approach learning as a transaction.  They adapt their intellectual and personal behavior to align with teacher notions of “right actions and right thinking” in exchange for a good grade. In such classrooms the emphasis is on behavior rather than learning.  When the course is finished—the grade is given—and there is little need to retain the knowledge.  In contrast are the classrooms that strive for “moreness” where students and teachers “…go beyond what we were and are and become something different, somehow new” (Dwayne Huebner). In this classroom, knowledge as commodity is abandoned in favor of holistic understandings of wisdom as transcendent, mysterious, and transformational.  The language and experiences of spirituality replace the technocratic, product, and procedural definitions of learning.  Learning as “moreness” favors a trajectory toward newness for teacher, student, and text.  The classroom is alive with the possibility of change and growth for all.

How might a teacher go about creating such a classroom? What are the markers of the classroom as sacred space where teacher and students participate in shared activity that transforms the content and personal understandings into “moreness” that invites educator and learners together to “become something different, somehow new?” The idea of sacred spaces—a place where the extraordinary occurs—has been a part of the human experience for ages.  Long before the advent of written language and the spiritual codices that followed, the understandings and learnings associated with sacred spaces found expression through art on cave walls.  Sacred spaces are most commonly associated with places of and experiences with a connection to a power greater than human knowing.  The language and practices of sacred spaces as learning spaces is rich with possibility when applied to classrooms striving for an experience of “moreness.”

One of the early stages of sacred space formation is shifting power dynamics away from the dichotomy of me and you (teacher/student) and towards an overt recognition of being in relationship to something greater than either of us.  The separation of individual selves becomes unified—not homogenized—around a shared experience of awe, exploration, and reverence.  It is an easy leap to envision curriculum as something greater than both the student and teacher, therefore worthy of a kind of relationship characterized by reverence, awe, and mysticism.  Parker Palmer invites educators to ask, what is this “great thing” in the curriculum toward which we are willing to dedicate our life-energy in the service of understanding; even while knowing that our knowledge will always be tentative and transient?  When the choices of curriculum (texts and experiences) are influenced by transcendence (moreness) rather than goals (transaction), educators move toward classrooms as sacred spaces.  Curriculum is no longer static knowledge to be mastered.  Instead it becomes a doorway to newness—a passage that has always been present—but now students and teacher alike have the refined ability to see the doorway.  What was once illusive and perceived as separate from the learning space is now transparent and available to all.

The second aspect of classrooms that lean toward sacred space are the forms of pedagogy that invite learners into a transformational relationship with self, others, and the curriculum.  In the field of education it is known that certain forms of teaching confine and constrain learners.  For instance, an overemphasis on lecture elevates teacher knowledge over learner agency.  In contrast, there are ways to teach that empower learners to own their intellectual and personal growth.  For example, assessments that encourage students to choose the best form of expression to demonstrate mastery of the content as well as reflections on ways that the content has “changed” the learner.  Consistent with sacred spaces a good pedagogical question for educators to ponder is, what are the rituals, practices, and traditions in my classroom?  Do they open up or close off student agency toward learning, sense of self as transcendent, or shift the lens of power away from individuals to something greater than self? How does the history of our shared time together as learner and teacher infuse the classroom with the sense that we are experiencing sacred space—a different form of education—where we take off our metaphorical shoes?  The rituals, practices, and traditions of classrooms as sacred space can be as simple as beginning every class session with a minute of stillness to allow everyone to transition into the learning space.  Or as intricate as assessments that invite learners into deep reflection on changed behavior toward others, expanded intellectual understandings, or a more nuanced sense of self in the world.

My tepid orientation toward structure and instructional authority are not meant as a call for elimination; structure, authority, and instructional intentions are a necessary element of any well run classroom.  But I do think it matters toward what end formality serves; transaction or transcendence?  And when teachers work toward sacred space in their classroom a third quality, beyond curriculum and pedagogy, mystery is a helpful guide to instructional choices.  Do the rituals, practices, and traditions create more or less opportunity to experience and learn from ambiguity, spontaneity, and the unexpected when the candle of knowledge burns brightly for a student?  Learning as transcendence is mysterious.  It can be a permanent feature of the classroom when students expect a moment of stillness as they settle in.  And at the same time transcendence is illusive, temporary, and can feel mysteriously absent from the learning space. This means that during any particular instructional moment one student can experience transcendence while another sees only content to master.  Structure helps with transcendence but the spirit of learning is too illusive, mystical, and mercurial to yield to a programed appearance.

Curriculum, pedagogy, and mystery are the hallmarks of classrooms as sacred space.  How might you change one of these elements to achieve a greater sense of transcendence in your classroom?

Image courtesy Planeta Incognito

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.

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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