“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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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