May 20, 2019—In Part One of this two part blog-post I painted in broad brush strokes the features of teaching as a mystical experience.  A connection to a calling to teach.  As in the first post I will draw from the work of Dorothee Soelle and her book, The Silent Cry.  She is a theologian and therefore for her the Divine means all the diverse ways humans describe the source of all knowing and all being.  I think that for secularly inclined educators Divine could mean relationship to the source of knowing that is greater than self, which can be internal or external.  For example, curriculum, students, deep self-awareness, or subject matter. In Part Two I will focus in on the three core elements of the mystical experience (purification, illumination, and union) with a particular goal of showing how they might materialize in the life of the classroom.

Although perhaps not equivalent to the life-long journey of a mystic there is a strong similarity in the ways that teachers become more fully aware of their inner-calling and its pull toward instructional wholeness.  By calling I mean the deep inner drive of educators to teach.  An identity that once felt by the teacher is nearly impossible to not hear or abandon for other professional pursuits.  In the language of mysticism a calling is the Divine spark to teach within the heart of the educator.  Sometimes a calling is experienced while still a child and for others it emerges much later in life.  Regardless of when the initial call appears, the first step toward fully accessing that spark and allowing it to flame fully into pedagogical life is purification.  Soelle describes purification as “being emptied of cares, ideas, and purposes”.  Through this process teachers can rediscover a childlike sense of “wonderment” and “amazement” associated with the power of teaching.  For educators this entails letting go of preconceived ideas about teaching, learning to set aside fears, and developing techniques to calm inner turmoil and doubt.  One of the biggest challenges, according to Dan Lortie, to learning to teach is the “apprenticeship of observation” that accrues over time as the future-teacher moves from Kindergarten through high school graduation.  Each educator encountered along the K-12 journey infuses, for better or worse, images and inclinations of what a teacher is and does.  Unfortunately this overburden of layered identity can often smother the true-self of the teacher to be, the birth-right gift to heal through teaching.  The uncovering of identity requires the tools of amazement and wonderment to facilitate a state of “self-forgetfulness” of the old false-self of layered impressions and the embracing of “being here, being today, being now”.  Purification for educators wipes the slate clean of preconceived notions of teacher imposed from outside as well as the unrealistic inner expectations and assumptions of what a good teacher does.

Once some level of inner calmness and clarity of purpose is achieved and sustained the next step is illumination.  Key to illumination is “transformation” where “the light of the new reality may stream in and completely enlighten and change the soul”.  In my personal experience of learning to teach and through years of coaching teachers I equate the mystical illumination with the acceptance of one’s gifts as an educator.  This is far from an easy process.  It takes time, practice, and discipline so that the “light of the new reality may stream in” and change the teacher’s heart and craft. Teachers are, it seems by nature, hesitant to accept their skills as a gift. I for one, would rather not draw attention to my accomplishments.  I’m quick to dismiss educational successes as something common place with the phrase, “I’m not that special. That is just what teachers do”.   For the teachers who do experience some element of illumination at the heart of their craft, they begin to view their teaching skills as something coming from beyond themselves; a gift moving from deep inside which becomes visible in the form of their pedagogical choices.  In the language of mysticism the “Divine spark” or calling begins to glow and shine.  An illuminated educator becomes transformed as their pedagogy moves from ego-centric and external technical expertise to inner-wisdom that flows in a natural state of being.  They experience an “un-forming” or a sense of “letting go of our false desires”.  The taken for granted world view of educator as all powerful and all-knowing is turned on its head and instead openness, vulnerability, and wholeheartedness become the source of authority in the classroom.  As Parker Palmer notes: “technique is what a teacher uses until the real teacher arrives”.  An illuminated teacher is real and fully present to their gifts and the learning interests of their students.

The third step in the mystical journey according to Soelle is “union of the soul with God”.  The Flemish mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck, according to Soelle, defines union as the stage of “oneness of being itself”.  Educators approach this state of “oneness” when they are one with their gift, their calling to teach.  This is not a way of teaching that can be taught or mastered through technical expertise.  And it is not typically a constant state of being, it fluctuates in accordance with a range of contextual variables.  But at its best it feels like a union of one’s teaching with the spark of the calling to be an educator.  Some call this a state of “flow” where time seems to slow down, the space between teaching and learning collapses, and a feeling of unity between inner energy and outer practice becomes the norm.  In union there is no student, no teacher, no curriculum, just a unifying sense of integration and completeness which is often described as oneness with the subject matter.  This state of instructional bliss is experienced as a “healing” or “wholeness” where the small intellectual and ego deaths of traditional forms of teaching are transcended into life giving human flourishing.  The gifts of the teacher flow freely from their Divine calling into the classroom and are available to the hearts and minds of students.  Love for self, others, and text infuse the learning experience; the stifling elements of structure, accountability, and rigor vanish or are subsumed under something bigger for brief moments in time.

In my professional role as educator and sometimes mystic I see potential in using the stages of mysticism in the preparation and professional development of teachers.  My commitment to pursuing this framing is premised on two assumptions and one challenge, all three grounded in my personal and professional experience.  The first assumption is that all true teachers have within a Divine spark labeled “educator”.  I recognize that not everyone would agree with this point and that some educators would resist or hesitate at my use of theological language to describe this aspect of teaching. Two, given the right circumstances, rituals, and disciplined practice the Divine gift of teaching can be liberated and breathed fully into instructional brilliance.  The biggest challenge to the initiation and development of purification, illumination, and union are the norms of education which lean heavily away from the spiritual and toward structure, regimentation, and standardization.  My goal is to awaken, in a non-religious sense, teachers to the potential fullness of their calling to teach.  Mysticism for myself and others seems like a good walking companion in this task.

May 5, 2019—Educators love to create categories and frameworks for learning, as if learning is solely contingent on structure and form.  The modern field of education is so focused on standards that it is almost as if human learning never occurred before the formalization of curriculum. The wider history of education, however, shows that the traditionalist approach to teaching and learning is a recent focus of education.  Karen Armstrong argues in her book The Case for God that as early as 50,000 years ago people used cave paintings and sophisticated ritual to usher young people into adulthood and full participation in the life of the tribe.  In antiquity, Greek, Roman, and Jewish communities organized learning around preparation for entry into religious communities, participation in civic life, or general intellectual enrichment.   And throughout the history of curriculum in America there were educators who argued for and actively sought to elevate holistic notions of knowing and organization of curriculum.  More recently, Parker Palmer in his well-known text Courage to Teach brings attention to the fact that: “We teach who we are”. By this he means that the inner life of the teacher has to be taken into account for any serious conversation about teaching to occur.  To not address, for instance, feelings of fear or abundance, as aspects of the inner life of educators is to risk pedagogical disaster.  Students know when a teacher is inauthentic and not showing the fullness of their humanity and if the teacher is holding back why should the learner fully invest in the learning process?

The challenge for holistic educators is less about knowing the inner-life exists but rather more about developing a language to describe this orientation to teaching.  Unlike the traditionalist model which attends to concrete phenomena like lesson plans, instructional strategies, and performance indicators anchored in observable behaviors, the inner-life of educators is less tangible and difficult to observe directly.  But as Abraham Heschel argues just because something is ineffable doesn’t mean it can’t be understood: “The ineffable, then, is a synonym for hidden meaning rather than for the absence of mean­ing”.  A case in point is Dorothee Soelle’s text, The Silent Cry (2001) in which she provides a detailed analysis of mystical experiences where the inner-life of the person finds unity with Divine Love. In quoting Jan Van Ruysbroeck, Soelle makes a good case for the connection between the inner life of teachers and their outer performance: “Self-knowledge teaches us whence we come, where we are and whither we go”.  In other words, as Palmer states: “We teach who we are” and the stronger the sense of self-knowledge the more effective and authentic teaching becomes.

Beyond this broad argument connecting the outer performance of teachers to the condition of their inner-life, Soelle provides specific language and markers that are useful for anyone interested in deepening their spiritual formation as an educator.  She begins by first arguing that all people are capable of mystical experiences, connections to and with something greater than self.  As she notes, her goal is to “democratize the mystical experience” so that all people, not just the pious few, can access the wisdom of Divine Love.  Soelle is a theologian and therefore for her the Divine means all the diverse ways humans describe God.  I think that for secularly inclined educators Divine could mean something greater than self.  I’m thinking here particularly of subject matter, the great historical narrative of an academic discipline, or a deep dedication to a student, anything that goes beyond the expected which results in personal or academic transcendence.  Furthermore, she claims that “the trivialization of life is perhaps the strongest antimystical force among us”.  For educators “trivialization” comes in the form of teacher-proof curriculum that overly structures and constrains the instructional life of educators.  For Soelle, a good way to resist the “trivialization of life” is to embrace the mystical experience which all people are capable of achieving.  For me this raises the question, what might viewing education through mysticism add to our understanding of effective forms of teaching?

According to Soelle there are two types of mystics, individuals who advocate the virtues of pure mystical experience and mystics who are more interested in teaching about the process of preparing for the mystical encounter with Divine Love.  This later group she calls the “mystagogues” who by their nature teach about the mysteries of the mystical experience.  The work of the mystagogue is tricky because mysticism by definition involves developing a relationship with something, Love, that can’t be defined, described, or delineated.  Yet the Divine can be experienced and the mystagogues have developed rituals and practices that prepare a person for the mystical experience.  The same categorization of knowing seems true for educators who experience the inner-life of teaching.  There are teacher educators who argue that the inner-life of educators can only be experienced, not taught. And there are educators who believe that it is possible to formalize the process of connecting teachers to Divine educational energies.

I belong to the latter group.  I can’t and would never want to craft a mystical experience for educators, but I can facilitate the conditions for the likelihood of a mystical experience to occur.  By mystical I mean the ability of educators to move beyond purely technical approaches to teaching; to embrace those aspects of teaching that are ineffable, transcendent, and bound to something greater than self.  I long ago claimed, or better yet have been claimed by, the identity of educator.  Teaching is the unique spark of the Divine that glows most fervently in my heart.  It is my gift, my calling, and my passion.  I have also come to realize that my deepest experiences with Love while teaching fall into the category of mysticism.  Given my mystical tendencies and mystagogical orientation to curriculum I’m frequently looking for and inclined toward models or descriptions of teaching that are organized around the acquisition of knowledge that anchor the teaching process in some notion of mystery.  Dorothee Soelle describes several key elements of the mystical experience that I think can be repurposed to the mystagogical task of structuring a learning curriculum for teachers that attends to the mystical aspects of their teaching; their inner-life.  The three stages of mysticism, “purification, illumination, and union”, presented by Soelle provide guideposts for speaking about the mystical preparation of teachers.

In my next blog-post I will define these three stages and provide personal and professional examples of what they might look like in the daily practice of educators.  In the meantime I invite you think about the ways that you experience teaching as a form of mystery, perhaps most clearly in those moments of awe and wonder in the classroom.

Feb 26, 2019—I was recently thinking about embodied teaching.  The source of my reflection is the theology course I’m taking.  The class readings describe the diverse ways that Spirit, ritual practices, and professional calling are best understood as embodied, not rational, experiences and orientations to truth.  As I thought about the application of embodiness to teaching it became clear to me that an element of good teaching is an embodied, not rational, practice.  In support of this claim I generated the following list of expressions and concepts that resonate with a bodily form of knowing in teaching: wholehearted, embracing change, feel for the work, heart-felt, wounded, heartbroken, gut feeling, and presence.  This short list, I’m sure, only scratches the surface.  I suspect you will have additional terms for teaching that are equally embodied.

Embodiedness as a distinguishing characteristic of teaching provides unique answers to the philosophical questions about knowing (epistemology) and being (ontology) in education.  Embodied teaching, in contrast to Western ways of knowing and being, involves feeling, emotions, and intuition.  The embodied educator trusts the full range of their inner sense making tools while also recognizing the limitations and pitfalls of blindly following subjective perceptions and understandings.  Embodied educators have no choice but to teach through the wisdom of their bodies.  They have no choice because that is who they are at the level of their instructional core; embodiedness is their being.  To act otherwise is to teach out of a sense of falsehood and inauthenticity that students will sense and respond to in kind.  Students will learn from their teacher how to hide their true self.  To understand teaching as a calling is to acknowledge gifts and talents embodied in unique ways for each teacher.

Laura Rendon in her book Sentipensante summarizes the contrast between embodiness and rationalism in this way.  Instead of embracing the Cartesian world view of “I think therefore I am” she argues for a more holistic framing of teaching as “I belong therefore I am”.  Belonging in both the sense of being part of a group of others (external embodiment) and attentiveness to one’s inner life (internal embodiment).  To truly belong to a group is to be recognized as a distinct person inhabiting a particular body. To belong internally is to know your moods, emotions, gifts, shadows, and the places in your body where you hold pain or experience joy.  I can tell, for instance, when I’m more or less in my body as a teacher.  The more I feel grounded and centered, rooted into the classroom space, the more I am energized and connected to the content and to my students.  I’m alive and flourishing in the instructional space.

bell hooks, another educator concerned about embodied teaching, speaks of educators who are weary.  They carry around a sense of disconnection from themselves, their students, and their content knowledge.  Her antidote to this deep sense of professional weariness is attentiveness to spiritual energy and wellness.  It is from these deep sources of passion that good teaching flows through the hands of the teacher and into the hearts of students.  For both Rendon and hooks the move toward teaching as an embodied practice means dropping the metaphor of student as object and embracing the understanding of student as subject; a body of unique qualities and characteristics.  Additionally, teacher as subject can meet student as subject in an embodied emancipatory-relationship of mutual respect, appreciation, and empathy.

In concrete terms, embodied teaching can take a variety of forms and styles. Here are a few examples that come to mind.  I once observed an apprentice teacher who was a master at greeting students at the door of the classroom.  The ritual practice of greeting was more than a handshake, fist bump, or loving pat on the back.  The bodily presence of the teacher met the bodily presence, in all its forms, of the students entering the classroom.  The chemistry of teacher true-self welcoming student true-self set the stage for engaged learning.  One of my consistent embodied practices is having students complete name cards during the first class session.  At the end of class I collect the cards and pass them out at the start of the next class period.  This practice provides me an opportunity to walk around the class and greet each student.  I often follow up on an email or check to see how a project is going.  My embodied presence invites the embodied presence of my students to show up.  In another example, materials in some classrooms are passed out by the teacher with care and concern.  Thus the students see the importance of respect for the learning process.  In other classrooms materials are passed out haphazardly or even worse tossed onto the desks of students.  In the second example the embodied practice of disrespect for curriculum conveys an implicit message of disrespect to students about the value of knowing and becoming educated.

Rapport with students is a common indicator in most teacher observation tools.  In many cases this is measured and met through the frequency and quality of greetings, expressions of interest in students and their home life, or demonstrating belief in a student’s capacity to learn. These are important and necessary steps but only the early stages of rapport.  An embodied teacher understands rapport as an opportunity to meet each student as a fully complete human being, with all the strengths and struggles that being human entails.  The challenge lies in measuring this quality of teaching since it is often individual to each teacher.  But that should not stop educators from developing language, metaphors, and descriptors for embodied teaching.  How do you know—feel—when you are more or less in your body while teaching.  What does it feel like when you shift from your rational teaching mind to a sense of intuition?

 

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

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

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

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

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

There was a school that I used to visit as an itinerant assistant language teacher in rural Japan.  It was a small elementary school, and each year the entering first grade class got smaller.  I loved my days there.  The students had an enthusiasm for learning that pervaded the school.  Even on days that I did not get to visit, I usually drove past on my way to other schools.  It set beside one of the main roads that ran through a series of valleys.  Between the road and the school was a field where the students could often be seen checking on the crops they were growing.  Nestled behind the school, away from the road, was a sports field and a pool that backed up against a heavily wooded hillside, and I have many memories of playing catch with the students and enjoying the pool on hot summer days.

Inside the school, everything was wooden, with sliding doors that led from a central gathering area into each of the classrooms.  Everyone ate lunch together in the central gathering area, and the students took great joy in serving the food and cleaning up the area at the end of lunch.  Tucked in a nook off of the central gathering area was a library with not so many books and a globe.

The school served a small farming community.  The community showed up for school events and the school showed up for community events.  I once ran a 2 kilometer race with the third grade class in a suit and dress shoes because I showed up not knowing it was race day.  A third grader gave me a rock he found on the road as a prize for my efforts.  That same third grader held my hand as he excitedly led me to the opening of a new shrine building that had just been completed in the village.  To celebrate, the folks who had completed the building stood upon its roof and threw mochi out to the waiting kids.  Mochi is a kind of crushed rice.  One of the mochi thrown that day hit a student in the nose, and he cried as the school nurse helped to stop his nosebleed.  We all returned happily to the school at the end of the ceremony, with one student in particular telling a story of adventure to everyone who would listen.  The story was about being hit in the nose by mochi.

One day during rice planting season, we took a field trip up into the wooded hills behind the school.  We walked back into a small rice field.  The farmer leading the field trip told the class that this field was different.  It was like the fields of the past.  It had never been connected to the modern irrigation system.  Then, the farmer showed us the medaka that were swimming in the water pooled around the nascent rice plants.  Medaka are small black fish that used to teem in the rice fields of yesteryear.  The medaka have largely disappeared from rice fields irrigated with modern methods.  Their absence doesn’t affect the rice harvest in any noticeable way.  At least not to the person buying rice at the store.  The modern methods are efficient and stable.

This past summer, I was in Japan staying at my wife’s family’s home.  We took our dog for a walk most days, and on some days we followed a narrow street that led down a hill and under the freeway, opening out onto a large flat valley of rice fields.  Narrow cement trenches carried water between the fields and ran along the side of the roads.  One day we were out in this expanse of rice when my older daughter suddenly pointed to the irrigation channel.  The water was crisp and clear and devoid of living things, except for one little medaka swimming against the current.  My daughter found it and she was delighted.  For that matter, I was delighted and so was my wife.  As for my younger daughter, she was asleep in the stroller and my dog’s interest was directed onwards continuing our walk.

On a different day, my family and I drove along the road that ran by the small elementary school where I first learned about medaka.  Its windows were boarded up, and I heard from a friend that the school had been consolidated into another school up the road.

 

Author’s Notes

I read often throughout the school year in search of what it means to be a teacher.  This year, I’ve been reading Martin Buber’s I and Thou, a playful book that leaves more to the imagination of its reader than it explains.  In his book, Martin Buber reflects on how we can make sense of our lives by stepping just far enough away to see through the entangled relationships in which we are held, but not so far away as to let those relationships become unrecoverable.

For me, the single medaka swimming in a concrete irrigation channel brings a sense to medaka in general that may not have come into being for me if medaka were commonplace.  In the boarded up windows of the school where I used to teach, it strikes me that I remember everything joyful so easily.  It is only now when driving to school in Denver with the anxiety of what seems to be a million competing demands on my attention that I realize that I felt the same way when I was a younger teacher teaching in Japan.  Somehow all this helps me take joy in my memory of my daughter’s discovery of the medaka, and this in turn lets me see past the relationships I am currently entangled within so I can appreciate them fully.

It seems like the time of year for that kind of reflection.  The meaning of most educational experiences comes into being through the relationships in which I’ve been held, and those same relationships can blind me to what that meaning might be until the experience is long committed to the past.  I believe one aspect, one important aspect, of education is to raise the importance of the relationships that hold us while those relationships are still in place.

About Our Guest Blogger

Robert Evans currently serves as the Senior Team Lead of Special Education at Farrell B. Howell.  He entered education 14 years ago as an outdoor educator, and has followed his interest in education through various roles.  One of his favorite educational roles was when he served as a school bus driver in Minnesota. This role allowed him a glimpse into how children learn from each other about what they consider truly important.

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.

“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.

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 17th, 2018—Invoking winter may seem like an odd place to start an essay on summer but that is where I’m going to start.  Using winter as a metaphor; what were your most challenging moments as a teacher?  When do you feel least connected to your calling?  How would you describe the days when it feels like the warmth of connection to your content, your students, and your personal integrity as a teacher is just a distant memory?  Now that you are thinking of the winter of your teaching I invite you to consider what aspects of summer do you roll around in with joy?  Remembering winter has a way of naming and attending to the elements of summer you are most attracted to.  To be clear what I’m proposing is that all teachers experience both winters and summers in their teaching.  In fact most teachers spend more time in winter than in the summer of their teaching because most teachers are overly critical of their teaching.  This is why in the midst of the season of summer it can be helpful to reflect on and incorporate into your teacher being the metaphorical elements of summer that are experienced as abundance and fruition.

I have experienced a prolonged winter in my teaching and leadership this past year.  I felt more off my game than on it far too many times.  But now that summer is here and I’m finding great reward in paying close attention to the fruits of my winter-labor and acknowledging my willingness to teach and lead with fidelity despite the potential for institutional-frostbite. Summer provides me the opportunity to let go of old fears, self-imposed limitations, unproductive feelings, to breathe deeply, take note of my successes, and begin living into the next season of my professional journey.  It feels empowering to teach from a sense of summer agency and boundless potential, instead of holding my teacher self in the isolating constraints of winter.

One poem that guides my summer reflections is Marge Piercy’s, Seven of Pentacles.  The following line is particularly rich with connections between the working life of a professional and the rewards of gardening: “for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.”  I hear in her words an invitation to consciously tend to the work, the winter struggles, because that is what teachers do.  And I also hear Piercy’s reminder of the importance of taking time to gather in the benefits of work well-done; winter and summer are partners not antagonists in the work I do. This is particularly the case in education where the norm is to focus, almost exclusively, on what is ineffective, below standard, or inconsistent with reform protocols.  But as Piercy suggests it is equally valuable and worthy to ask; what are you hoping to harvest this summer from the long season of tending to your work?  Who are the beneficiaries of the excess production from your labor?

I find that stories of teaching are helpful at centering my inner teacher/leader on a learning I need to incorporate into my teaching. Let me offer a story that combines winter and summer themes in new ways with direct application to my personal and professional journey.  One recent summer I was riding a bus to the airport and as we approached the terminal the bus driver pointed out a 26 foot tall, 7 ton statue of the Egyptian god Anubis. The statue was advertisement for the King Tut exhibit coming to my local museum that summer.  As we drove past Anubis, standing quietly at attention and gazing toward the terminal, the driver commented how odd it seemed to pick the god of death as the symbol for the exhibit. And that it seemed even more ironic and puzzling to install Anubis outside an airport terminal where the success of summer vacations was contingent on safe departures and return flights.

I had to agree with the bus driver that the statue was an intriguing visual paradox. Anubis (the guardian of the portal of death) facing the airport terminal (the portal to fun, sun, and vacations); metaphorical images of winter and summer in tension.  Symbolically the statue of Anubis was very compelling, standing with grace and power, staff in hand, patiently waiting for the earth to tilt away from the sun and toward winter, his season of death.  I remember Anubis less as a threatening presence ready to overturn the natural order of things, a well-deserved summer vacation.  Instead, he represented an affirmation of the precious but transient qualities of summer.  Anubis was my wise and attentive advisor reminding me to fully live the gifts of summer, to not squander the blessings.  I’m confident that if I use the fullness of summer’s rest and renewal I know that I will be moving in professional directions that are consistent with the gifts of my inner teacher/leader.  And I also know that if I get too complacent in the drowsy, fulfilling nature of summer and forget to take stock of my learnings, I can always drive to the airport where Anubis will remind me of the importance of gleaning all of my summer harvest.  Because as Mary Oliver writes in her poem The Summer Day:  “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?  Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  What are you planning on doing with your one wild and precious summer?

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.

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?


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