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.

March 9th, 2018—How is it decided which teaching practices fall into the category of accepted (orthodoxy) and which instructional moves are considered beyond the norm of approved beliefs (heresy)?  How does it come to pass that certain approaches to teaching are considered orthodoxy and receive the wax-imprint of official approval while other strategies are labeled heresy and can result in excommunication from a teaching community?  How might educators decode which aspects of instructional authenticity and integrity—hallmarks of the inner life—may conflict with external standards, protocols, and measures of teaching success?  What does it mean for a teacher to walk the line between instructional orthodoxy and heresy in a way that is attentive to both professional standards and personal identity and integrity?

Let’s begin with a definition of terms.  Orthodoxy means right beliefs and heresy in its broadest form is anything counter to orthodoxy and often translated as other teaching.  What is interesting about this distinction is that heresy does not mean wrong or incorrect beliefs but rather different from the accepted canons or in the case of education different from the sanctioned beliefs about teaching.  Of course many acts of teaching are wrong, for instance mean-spirited discipline or teaching that disregards the impact of culture or language on learning.  These pedagogical moves are wrong because they harm, deny, or diminish the humanity of the learner.  But I think the educational establishment does a disservice to teaching when it confuses wrong or harmful actions with orthodoxy in the sense that orthodoxy is a set of beliefs or values established by an external body or authority.  We need to be careful, as professionals, to separate different teaching (heresy) from harmful.

Perhaps the terms orthodoxy and heresy seem out of place when applied to teaching since they are historically associated with communities of faith.  But in antiquity, philosophy and theology were nearly indistinguishable and teaching was the primary profession for conveying truth and knowledge to students, converts, and community members.  I find the language of orthodoxy and heresy helpful in that it offers a new way to think about the conflicts that sometimes arise between the inner-call to serve learners and the external requirements of governing and accrediting authorities by decentering the typical language of teaching (competencies and indicators).  It also seems that orthodoxy captures the ways that particular teaching beliefs and practices become entrenched-normalized as well as describing the emotional and physical consequences for educators who are considered instructional heretics when they resist or call into question the established orthodoxy.

The power of orthodoxy is directly proportional to the power of the external authority promoting correct beliefs.  Power rightly applied can be a productive force for change but power wrongly applied can stifle innovation and change.  The language of orthodoxy and heresy speaks to the influence of institutional power on a teacher’s sense of self-worth and instructional effectiveness.  For instance, the high rate of teacher attrition can, in part, be tied to school cultures and leadership that directly and indirectly conform teachers to a narrow set of instructional moves and beliefs.  Teachers who feel discredited or undervalued are more likely to leave than teachers who are valued for the instructional gifts they bring to the classroom.

As a profession we would do well, it seems, to encourage more instructional heretics in the sense of encouraging teachers who have well-reasoned positions counter to the orthodoxy to speak their truth. Educators know that effective teachers understand that students approach learning in a variety of approaches and that viewing the classroom as an instructional monoculture is problematic and less effective.  If diversity and cultural responsiveness is good for learners, it makes sense that the same logic should be applied to teaching; the greater the diversity of teaching perspectives the more prepared a community of educators will be able to respond to unique educational challenges.  And one way to encourage diversity is to create spaces and opportunities for the inner-life of the teacher to flourish; that aspect of the teaching self that is unique and particular to each teacher.

The physicist Neils Bohr who had a significant influence on the development of quantum physics once observed: “The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.”  Bohr is pointing to a self-evident truth about the known world.  Paradox or the simultaneous existence of two opposing forces or perspectives is more common than typically understood.  In education several examples come to mind: student/teacher, freedom/structure, or subject/object.  I would like to propose that orthodoxy and heresy are more like Bohr’s understanding of two opposing profound truths than his description of fact and falsehood where one is right and the other is wrong.  Good teaching is not about uncritically following the established beliefs of the profession but rather good teaching is a combination of the outer-norms of the profession (best practices) and the inner-life of the teacher (deep practices) premised on the wisdom of the call to teach.

February 23rd, 2018—The inner-life of the teacher is a lot like an iceberg, which is to argue that the bulk of an iceberg rests below the water line, unseen, but essential to the life of the berg.  The ice bobbing above the water line, the outer domain of teaching, is the most recognizable, the most easily described, and most likely to capture the attention of an observer.  Parker Palmer in “Courage to Teach” synthesizes teaching into four questions: what is being taught (content); how is it being taught (pedagogy); why is it being taught (philosophy); and who is the self that teaches (calling).  Palmer argues that the first two (what and how) are frequently considered within the realm of education.  The second two (why and who) are rarely examined in detail, especially the last question; who is the self that teaches.

An iceberg exists both above and below the water line.  So too does teaching in its entirety consist of both the technical outer tasks as well as the inner more ineffable and intangible elements of teaching.  By technical I mean consisting of concrete instructional moves and curriculum design that can be described as “best-practices”.  The teaching literature is rampant with articles and books collecting, sorting, and categorizing the most effective instructional moves.  These are valuable resources for how to teach.  I think of best practices as technical, rational, and residing in the “head” of the teacher.  By inner and ineffable, I mean consisting of the intangible, vocational, and requiring discernment rather than quick action; hence they are best described as “deep-practices”.  Because of their less tangible nature and close affiliation with the call to teach I tend to think of the why and who as more closely associated with the “heart” of the teacher. The head and the heart, best and deep practices, are best conceptualized and treated as a unified whole. Best-practices become dispassionate instructional moves without the deep-practices that provide a sense of buoyancy, passion and energy to the practices of teaching; deep-practices can easily become explosively-chaotic instinctual moves without the guiding structure of best-practices.

Most teacher evaluation or coaching frameworks target the what and how in the iceberg metaphor, those components above the water line that are more easily seen, described, and measured. The lower two elements of why and who receive, it seems, less attention in part because they are less tangible, making them harder to measure with data-driven metrics and thus more difficult to fold into coaching conversations. The teaching as iceberg metaphor is helpful in another way.  A wise captain gives an iceberg a wide berth not so much for what is seen but for the mass of the berg hidden deep under the water that can easily slice open the hull of the ship.  The deeper elements of the berg deserve as much if not more attention than the gleaming pinnacles rising above the waves.  When teachers lose track of the deeper callings behind their teaching they can easily slide into practices that are devoid of heart and spirit.  Their best instructional intentions and practices can become shipwrecked on the deeper social-emotional shoals of teaching.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately, even more than usual, about the question; who is the self that teaches?  How should we go about describing the heart of the teaching self?  Are there ways to more accurately describe the teaching heart for coaching and professional development purposes?  My recent reflections on these questions are informed by my course work in the field of Theology which describes the soul, in a spiritual sense, as three elements: base impulses, emotions, and spirit. Soul, in a more secular sense the heart, is one way of describing the inner-life of teachers out of which deep-practices emerge to inform the day to day best-practices of teaching. As such, the concepts of base impulses, emotions, and spirit seem to provide a road map for describing the teacher’s heart with greater accuracy and care.

The base impulses of the teacher-heart consist of rather blunt and undifferentiated instructional instincts.  They are, at their best, the driving energy behind deep-practices.  Marge Piercy in her poem “To Be of Use” speaks to the more positive aspects of the base impulses in teaching when she writes: “I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart, who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience, who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward, who do what has to be done, again and again.” The image of a patient and persistent ox or water buffalo is an apt image for the base impulses of teacher-heart which silently and with great fidelity pulls the educator deeper into the mystery of teaching.

Emotions, on the other hand, are less patient and often explosive in their appearance and instructional impact.  They can emerge spontaneously as joy, anger, frustration, excitement, or laughter; raw markers pointing toward what the teacher-heart cares deeply about.  Emotions are useful short-term tools guiding the educator toward a point of integration between extremes such as joy/frustration, excitement/disappointment, or clarity/confusion.  In the poem “The Angels and Furies” May Sarton uses the metaphor of dancing to describe the role of emotions in professional behavior: “Have you not wounded yourself and battered those you love by sudden motions of evil.  Have you not surprised yourself sometimes by sudden motions or intimations of goodness.  The angels, the furies are never far away while we dance, we dance, trying to keep a balance to be perfectly human.” The ballerina, the image of calm perfection and explosive energy in Sarton’s poem speaks to the emotional elements at the heart of good teaching.

Spirit rounds out the teacher-heart trinity of teaching and is the root of authenticity, fidelity, and presence.  Students are drawn to teachers who are spirit-filled and are one with the classroom, the content, and their students.  Teachers with refined understandings of their spirit are called to the profession; they are joyfully in relationship to something greater than self.  John O’Donohue in his poem “For a Mother” speaks of the ways that a teacher’s spirit brings life to the classroom in forms of learning possibility, that like a child, explore out into the far corners of the classroom: “Like some primeval moon, your soul brightens the tides of essence that flow to your child.”

What does it mean to be full and whole as a teacher? It means recognizing the aspects of teaching, the teacher-heart, that rest below the waterline; the demarcation between the seen and unseen.  It means attending to the teacher’s heart as base impulses, emotions, and spirit.

January 26th, 2018 — “What is your secret?”  A question the Prince of Lu asks Khing the master carver in the Woodcarver, a poem written by the Taoist philosopher and poet Chuang Tzu.  Just moments before the question, Khing presented the Prince with a bell stand of such beauty and well-crafted form that everyone, including the Prince, thinks the bell stand must be the work of supernatural forces.  Khing, like a master teacher, senses that the Prince is asking the wrong question.  Yet the Prince is still the Prince and it is better to answer the Prince than question his authority. So Khing answers in a straightforward but provocative way by stating that he has no secret and that he is just a simple woodcarver.  But Khing pushes deeper into the Prince’s question beyond its surface characteristics.  He offers the Prince and everyone listening a lesson on where craft-knowledge comes from.  In the subtle moves of skilled educator, Khing inverts the power structure of ruler/servant and educates the Prince on how to act with integrity and fidelity to professional calling.  Khing outlines in detail his preparation before carving the bell stand. His message is that a skilled craftsperson, ruler, or teacher has to do more than just “show up” in response to the command of a person in power.  Instead, Khing argues that to be fully present to the task of carving requires deep and intentional preparation.  The woodcarver drives home his point by stating that his preparation was so complete that he forget about the Prince and his royal court: “After seven days I had forgotten my body with all its limbs. By this time all thought of your Highness and of the court had faded away. All that might distract me from the work had vanished. I was collected in the single thought of the bell stand.

The question now becomes, what might the Woodcarver and the Prince of Lu offer anyone interested in practicing the art of good teaching?  Khing I suspect would answer: nothing and everything.  There is no secret, no overt connection, rather just the wisdom of intentionally attending to ways that one’s calling to teach informs practice.  Khing articulates a curriculum for accessing the deep secrets of teaching.  The first step is humility, a recognition that accepting the vocational call to teach means recognizing that what others see as the work of the spirits is actually a birthright gift made plain in the daily practices of the classroom.  Yes, good teaching involves technique and years of practice but it also has an innate quality that requires humble acceptance, not ego-driven posturing and proclamations of greatness.

The next lesson is the example Khing sets around the importance of preparing for the work of teaching.  The formula seems rather straight forward in its articulation but complex in its implementation; the quality of teaching is directly proportional to the quality of the personal and spiritual preparation that went into the act of teaching.  I wonder sometimes, as Khing invites me to ponder, what shape my teaching would take if in the process of preparation I forgot my lessons (my instructional body) with all its limbs of lesson plans, activities, learning outcomes, texts, and assessments? I don’t have 7 days to prepare to teach because I have too many other responsibilities.  But I can make time to slow down, disconnect, set aside external distractions and reach toward an instructional state of being where I’m collected in the single thought of teaching. Even three deep breaths before leaving my office can help.

The final element of Khing’s method as he states is: “Then I went to the forest to see the trees in their own natural state. When the right tree appeared before my eyes, the bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt. All I had to do was to put forth my hand and begin.”  When I’m prepared to the best of my ability, emotionally and spiritually, then and only then do I go to the classroom to see my students where all I have to do is put forth my hand and begin the act of teaching.  Simple enough in concept, but hard to consistently practice.  More than once I’ve cut corners in my preparation, because I’m just too busy, and I find that my lessons are rough and awkward.  A little forced and lacking the smooth transition more characteristic of a hand extend in welcome between two long-time acquaintances.  It is clear to anyone with a sharp eye for quality that my teaching is not the work of the spirits but rather the flailings of an ill-prepared novice.

What is your secret?  How would you answer the Prince of Lu?  What does it feel like to willfully lose track of all the elements that go into the craft knowledge of teaching? Where do you go to find the students in their own natural state?

January 5th, 2018—Efficiency might seem like an unusual way to start a conversation about “joy” in teaching but that is where I’m going to start.  Efficiency is a complicated concept when applied to the field of education, and I believe it could benefit from an expansion beyond narrowly defined metrics of teacher standards and effectiveness to include the less well-articulated but equally important pedagogical elements like joy.  To be clear, most teachers strive for greater efficiency in the areas of lesson planning, grading, or distributing learning materials to students.  Less energy dedicated to these tasks means more time connecting with students, facilitating learning, or thinking up new strategies to teach content knowledge. But efficiency can also be problematic because it can become too deterministic of learning trajectories or a means to the end of increased performance on standardized assessments. Yet, teachers know that the best learning takes place in the presence of struggle and false starts; unknown and unanticipated ends.  Sometimes educators need to take risks in their teaching and lead students into uncharted spaces before realizing how to best teach a lesson, a concept, or understanding.  This kind of deep learning is hard to standardize or turn into means/end pedagogical moves.

But perhaps an even bigger concern with efficiency is its potential to limit joy in teaching.  As an educator I often fall into the trap of focusing too narrowly on the efficient completion of tasks.  My choices are often driven by the assumption that if I just take one more minute or hour to complete necessary educational chores I’ll be able to enjoy the good-stuff of teaching; the stuff of my calling to teach. The goal of finding ways to efficiently knock off my to-do-list becomes an end it itself.  It is sustained by the hope that if I slog my way through the tasks I can return to the joy of teaching guilt-free of institutional responsibilities. Unfortunately, I find that despite my best efforts, that the more I do the more there is to do and the more I become mired in negative emotions of resentment, frustration, and disappointment.  Joy at best becomes a precious commodity that is postponed or circumscribed to moments of face-to-face interaction with students.

Joy, it turns out, is more than a secondary emotion; it is an essential element of effective teaching because it connects the day-to-day nature of the work with the more ineffable quality of social-emotional wellness. The clinical psychologist and author Mary Pipher cautions educators like me who become distracted by the lure of efficiency language that: “We all underestimate our need for joy. If we are not careful, we live as if our schedules are our lives. We cross one thing after another off the list. At the end of the day, we have completed our chores, but we haven’t necessarily been present for our own experiences.”  Pipher suggests that experiencing “joy” is just as important to the work of teaching as the completion of tasks.  In fact, she seems to argue that joy is more than just a good idea or virtue to strive for, it is essential to the emotional health of teachers.  And healthy teachers are better teachers in that they are more efficient at facilitating learning because they have more energy, clearer focus, and greater capacity to navigate ambiguity.

The field of positive psychology and emotions posits that humans have a tendency, emerging out of our long evolutionary history, to attend to negative emotions because they often pointed toward life-threatening situations and experiences that we should avoid.  This runs true to my experience of coaching teachers as well as my lived experience of teaching. It is easier to focus on what went wrong (negative emotion) that what went right in a teaching moment. It is easier to focus on the negative emotion of slogging through tasks efficiently than to be mindful of the joy in teaching. In a further insight from positive psychology, professionals who experience high levels of joy in their work are more resilient, creative, playful, willing to risk, and experience a deepened a sense of emotional wellbeing.  Joy, it seems, can enhance efficiency through creativity and flexibility instead of attention to fixed procedures and deterministic outcomes.  But joy takes effort and attention; as an emotion it doesn’t come as naturally to human consciousness as negative emotions.  Joy is a social phenomenon, a collected understanding that expands through human to human interactions and as it spreads socially, joy becomes an antidote to negative emotions and increases social cohesion.

If efficiency is a goal in education, then one way to accomplish it is through greater attention to joy.  And to be attentive to joy means more face-to-face conversations between teachers about what matters most to their teacher heart.  This seems contradictory to the current educational language of efficiency because how can taking time to talk to other teachers about our shared vocational commitments increase productivity?  The simple truth is that joy is counter to efficiency if efficiency in education is defined in terms of technocratic and standardized metrics of performance. Joy is communal not individual, hard to measure, and emerges out of deep callings to teach instead of imposed on teachers my external sources of authority. Instead of putting joy on a high shelf to pulled out only in rare pedagogical moments imagine what conversations on teaching would be like if joy was a regular part of data-driven instruction, standardized performance indicators, assessment rubrics, and teacher accountability?  I think that both the goals of more effective teaching and teacher wellness/retention would be enhanced.

December 11th, 2017—Why should the activity of giving thanks be confined to one day?  What about a season of Thanksgiving?  Why confine gratitude for others, your calling, the Earth, to one day during the year? Thanksgiving is many things to many people– it is known as a time to gather with family and friends to express thanks for the gift of deep relationships.  To gather with colleagues and honor a shared sense of professional calling.  Even to sit silently and express to the universe an appreciation for the experience of being alive.  In the field of education there are many aspects of teaching that are thankless and are so onerous that being grateful is beyond the realm of possibility.  The must do activities that have little intrinsic reward constitute the work of teaching.  But every teacher knows that teaching at its best is more than a to do list of life-draining tasks. Most of the time, good teaching is filled with many life-renewing experiences that deserve special treatment, to be named and to be thanked. Giving gratitude for the work of teaching can be a daily practice.

There is good reason to practice gratitude, to think of it as something more than just Thanksgiving Day.  For instance, the research is clear that the act of gratitude for physicians can reduce the symptoms of burnout by bringing joy into their work. The Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) offers this rationale for incorporating gratitude into the practice of medicine:

“Gratitude can add joy and meaning to their work. It can strengthen doctors’ social ties and commitment to generous helping and compassion, and help to meet their psychological needs for autonomy, competence and connectedness.

To add to the CMAJ report, Dr. Dike Drummond makes an argument for the physical, psychological, and social benefits of gratitude including: stronger immune systems, less bothered by aches and pains, better sleep, positive emotions, more optimism and happiness, more compassionate, more forgiving, and less lonely.

But what about teachers? What is the role of gratitude in their professional life?  With so many instructional and curricular constraints and the nearly constant criticism of teachers, what is there to be grateful for?  My short list includes: students who help me refine the elements of my teaching center—my calling, colleagues who help me see when I’m right and who are willing to challenge me when I’m wrong, a teaching context that allows for a degree of curricular and pedagogical freedom, and unexpected moments when the classroom dissolves away to reveal the mystery of learning.

Many of the best educators I know have rituals, practices, and traditions that anchor their teaching. Do you have any gratitude rituals?  Are there any regular activities that you engage in around giving thanks when teaching?  I know teachers who keep a gratitude journal, use a gratitude app on their phone, write notes to students thanking them for showing up every day, or welcome students to class with expressions of gratitude.  My favorite example of a gratitude practice occurs at the end of the day when a teacher, just before falling asleep, names three things that happened during the day that are worthy of thanks.  This simple practice can bring joy, contentment, increased feelings of connectedness, and better sleep to a teacher.

I’ve been paying attention to my gratitude practices lately, some I knew about (thanking students for asking deep questions) and other rituals that I was less aware of.  For instance, I now realize that at the end of the week, after I’ve straightened up my office, after I’ve checked to make sure I’m taking the right work home to be prepared for Monday, after I’ve watered by plants, I do one last thing.  I pause for just a moment before closing my door and I thank my office for all the big and small acts of teaching it facilitated during the week.  I picture the ways my office, as sacred instructional space, enabled me to bring forward the fullness of my calling to teach.  I think the poet Mary Oliver has it right when she states: “Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed.”  How are you blessed where you stand today as a teacher?  What act of teaching today deserves your gratitude?

December 1st, 2017—“How do you see yourself changing the world?”  My friend Mark and I were enjoying a pint and conversation one evening.  Spending time with Mark is a blessing as he often brings me new insights and perspectives on the world.  He shares stories about managing retirement accounts and I tell him stories of teaching.  We both love riding bikes so we have that in common.  Mark was telling me that five years ago he started asking his clients, “How do you see yourself changing the world?”  This question has obvious practical application as he manages his client’s investments toward an end goal.  But the wisdom of his question goes even deeper.  As his clients untangle their answer to his question Mark learns something about their inner-drivers and motivations.  With this understanding he can both honor his fiduciary obligation to provide responsible investment recommendations and he invites his client to see their investment choices within a larger context.  “How do you see yourself changing the world?

As Mark told his story my teacher heart felt the kind of lifting that tells me that I need to pay attention to the strange alchemy of relationship, storytelling, personal-integrity, and mystery that was unfolding.  I wondered how I would answer the question as a professor and teacher educator; “Paul, how do you see yourself changing the teaching world?”  By disposition and academic training I tend to initially lean into the bigness of the question. I contemplate macro-themes of change like: equity, social-justice, transcendence, and the fullness of what it means to be human.  These are worthy ways to change the world and they should rest deep within the instructional motivations of a teacher.  But there is so much more to the question Mark asks: “How do you see yourself changing the world?”

As his story unfolded Mark described a painting hanging on his office wall.  His dad was the artist.  The image is a pond in the late evening light, someplace in the northeast.  The surface is mirror smooth except for a trout rising and the concentric ripples echoing out toward the distant shoreline. I know this kind of place. I’ve spent many days in and around northeast ponds.  They are magical like so many places in nature.  To catch their wisdom I need to sit quietly and let the ineffable speak.  With his dad’s painting in my mind’s eye and his question rattling around in my psyche, my teacher-heart lurched even deeper into a place of meaning and understanding.  Sure the bigness of teaching matters; we teach in context (race, class, gender, politics, and history).  To discount these elements does grave injustice to student learning and the gifts of teaching.  The pond exists only in relationship to the shoreline, the trees reflected on its surface, the loon calling from a hidden cove, and the ethereal nature of the sky.  Yet in the midst of the bigness a single solitary trout rises as it is called to do by the deep wisdom of its species—a wisdom universal to all trout—a wisdom passed down generation to generation by trout in response to the particularities of this particular pond.

Two elements of this metaphor resonate with my teacher heart.  One, to initiate change I must rise from the deep and safe places of my teaching—the world of water that I know well—and break the surface of the pond.  I must be willing to venture into a less secure and somewhat alien environment; every trout realizes at a minimum, through reflex, that the world beyond the surface of the pond is deadly.  And every trout understands through eons of evolution that food and survival exist just on and slightly above the surface of the divided worlds.  I think this is an insightful description of when I’m at my best as a teacher.  I’m willing to leave the comfort of my tried and true curriculum and instructional strategies and rise toward the surface disturbances that call me toward risk, uncertainty, danger, and the potential for sustaining rewards; toward learning.

The second element of the rising trout that speaks to my understanding of change in teaching are the ripples working their way toward the shoreline.  The little waves disturb the quiet surface of the pond as they migrate outward from the original impulse of the trout to rise; to risk the unknown.  As much as context in teaching matters what may ultimately be of greater importance are the micro-waves of disturbance created by my smaller and more intimate teaching acts. The little things matter: saying hello to students as they enter the classroom, listening to the ways my students struggle with content, breathing deeply before I engage a student in conversation, and trusting my instructional instincts. “How do you see yourself changing the world?”  I see myself changing the world of teaching, or more pointedly the lives of my students, through little acts of instructional integrity.  The ripples that spread out across the surface of my teaching with intentional energy that ultimately changes the shoreline, the macro-conditions of teaching.  Sure this is a long and slow process, outcomes I will likely never see, and I must always work to change the context, but these micro-actions are well within my ability to rise and engage.  “How do you see yourself changing the world?


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