One of my friends is a very gifted teacher of Environmental Science at a Friend’s Quaker School here in the USA. She teaches at the high school level. She sent me her self-evaluation/reflection recently and I am in awe of what she has written and how she approaches her teaching. We met in graduate school in the early ’90’s (University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment) and have stayed in touch since. She is inspiring me with this current book that I’m drafting, the way she expressed some of her challenges and insights.
I asked her permission to post this up here. And she was fine with that. It’s a long yet beautifully wise read. If all teachers taught at this level of wisdom and compassion, it would be a different world.
(written by a Friends Quaker High School Teacher)
Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks – we will also find our path of authentic service in the world. True vocation joins self and service, as Frederick Buechner asserts when he defines vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”
A Vocation of Seasons – The Cycle of Teaching and Spiritual Growth
I love living in a climate with seasons – physically and metaphorically. The gifts that each season offers, the change in tempo, support growth and renewal in the natural world and in the spiritual realm. In my teaching life, I continually cycle through times – hours, days, weeks – of pure joy and episodes of darkness and despair. Not coincidentally, I experience these seasons in my spiritual life as well. I am learning that each season offers insight into my spiritual growth, and that my growth as a teacher resonates a oneness with my deepest spiritual growth. As I reflect on these intersections, I consider the seasons of this cycle: Reflection, Deep Listening, Awakening, and Connection. The reflection and deep listening of the quiet, internally-focused seasons prepare way for awakening and connection – the outward manifestations of inward musings. Eventually, as we grow and change, connection transforms to disconnection and I return to reflection to shift my perspective and sometimes my path.
My initial reaction to beginning this next level of teacher achievement was excitement. … I “had arrived.” It did not take much reflection, however, to recognize that that superficial response was centered in my ego, and my second reaction was something akin to dread. And another seasonal cycle began.
The dread I felt (and enacted) came from a feeling of not measuring up. I most definitely did not feel that I was conforming to the image of who I thought I ought to be as a higher-level candidate teacher. During the past two years, even as I engaged in the creative process, I also felt disheartened and unimaginative which prompted the response of isolating myself, professionally and spiritually. I had disengaged from the natural cycles of the heart – reflection, listening, awakening and connecting. I was merely reacting. The process of this level of teaching has called me to step out of that isolation, and to share my vulnerabilities and limitations. It has required that I reflect on my disconnection, listen deeply to my inner wisdom, awaken my gifts, and reconnect through relationships with colleagues and students.
The process of writing this reflection has mirrored my process of growth as a teacher. It is exactly when I feel the worst in my teaching that I need to reach out to my colleagues – particularly those who understand the deep meaning of my journey. It is exactly when I feel that I need a new “trick” to liven up the classroom that I need to sit still and listen and reflect. What I have come to understand deeply in the process of writing this reflection is that, for me, being a “good” teacher means that I am always striving to be expressing my authentic self.
In my early teaching years – beginning in the mid-80s and into the 90s, I thought good teaching was about going to the latest NSTA [National Science Teacher Association] conference, coming home with a bag of tricks, and entertaining my students to engage them in the process of science. Indeed, I had a lively classroom in which the kids were excited and engaged. I was instrumental in shifting a few 13-year old girls from disliking science to loving it – and I thought that was the epitome of good teaching. While I still feel that conveying and sometimes instilling passion for learning is central to my teaching, I also understand the roots of that passion better. For me, at this time in my career, my growth as a teacher is centered on being authentic.
When I came to Friends in 2006, I was excited about teaching environmental science and chemistry in this community. Within months, however, I found myself in front of my students saying, “I can see that you’re bored and I’m bored and that just doesn’t make sense since this is an area of learning about which I am completely passionate. Something needs to change here.” I guess that’s a little risky to acknowledge in front of students, but part of being authentic for me means being honest. Sometimes I verbalize that and sometimes I don’t. That day I spoke that truth because I wanted the young people in front of me to see that sometimes we follow a path and when we begin to recognize that the path is no longer serving a higher purpose we sometimes need to change course.
Changing course in an authentic way means that we must first reflect rather than simply react. We must consider where we are, where we want to head, and what the path between might be. If we simply take another path without considering why we make that choice, we are quite likely to become lost once again. So, that day I asked the students to do a +/-/∆ reflection, and using their insights as well as my own together we started on a new journey.
When I am utterly miserable and discontent in my teaching, I want to either run away or quit. It sometimes takes a tremendous amount of courage to reflect honestly – about both my gifts and my limitations. This fall, as I felt that nagging but inexpressible discontent in my teaching, I applied for another job as a “fix.” I was reacting and sought to jump from disconnection to renewal without the prerequisite reflection and deep listening required for authentic renewal. Fortunately I have been gifted with a co-journeyer with whom I entered this new teaching life at Friends. In her quiet demeanor, this Friend simply suggested that I reflect on, through writing and drawing, what it was about that position that drew me. She encouraged me to write about how I had come to this place. She encouraged me to sit with the discontent. I trusted her enough to follow her guidance; we all need colleagues that we trust to help us through the darker spaces in our teaching lives. It is difficult to sit in the place of not knowing, of feeling out-of-sorts or even downright discouraged. We want answers. We most certainly want to look like we know what we’re doing. Competence is an understood “ought” in this institution and the fears that accompany falling short of that often keep us from reflecting and changing course.
I know it is essential, however, for me to muster the courage to continually reflect on what I am doing and why am I doing it, and to be willing to change course when necessary. It is important as I seek to express my authentic self and it is an important model to make visible to my students. Like me, it is difficult for them to sit in the space where they must await the answers. Even as we may be actively searching, we are often simultaneously waiting. I needed my colleague, who understands and shares with me the spiritual nature of teaching, to gently encourage me to reflect on my discontent and lack of ability to articulate my discomfort, and that is also a role that I must play with my students. Gently encourage them to be in the place of not knowing, so that they can be sure that the answer upon which they happen is an authentic answer rather than just the first or the easiest answer.
It is from within these times of disquiet, discontent, and even sometimes despair that growth so often emerges. It is from here that I begin to see, as Parker Palmer expresses, “that the life I am living is not the same as the life that wants to live in me.” Perhaps it is a sign of maturity (or at least of middle age!) that I am learning that during the times when I am most discontent in my teaching, I need to lean into rather than run away from, what the unsettledness is bringing to bear.
In high school, Thoreau’s writing about his learning at Walden Pond spoke to me deeply. It is with the image of Walden Pond in mind that I think of the unsettledness – if I can sit still, if I can wait for the murkiness to settle to the bottom and become substance again, it is then that the pond can reflect the current truth. I say current because the surface of the pond only reflects what is above it and that is constantly changing. I know that if I ever say, “I have arrived,” as a teacher then I speak a falsehood. Indeed, it is the bi-polar nature of this occupation that keeps me honest. When something works brilliantly in one class, and falls on deaf ears in the very next hour, then it is easy for me to understand that the essence of my teaching is not in the content or even the delivery, but rather in the relationship. In understanding the authenticity of my own teaching, if I forget that the essence is in the relationship, then I have missed the point completely.
When I shifted gears after my first months of teaching at Friends, it was an opportunity to reflect. I recognized that I was trying to adapt to what I perceived (accurately or inaccurately) as the culture of teaching at Friends, or at least within my department. Passing no judgment on that, it was clear that what I was aspiring to simply did not fit my nature, nor my instincts as a teacher. As Palmer articulates in the quotation above, I was conforming to an “ought” rather than letting myself into my authentic selfhood. Not only was I unhappy in that space, but I was completely ineffective as a teacher. I am convinced that there is no one correct or effective pedagogy of teaching. My pedagogy is not one methodology, but rather the outcome of continual reflection on my practice. It evolves, it shifts, it responds. If I am true to my authentic self, and can honestly respond to my students from that place, then I have a chance (not a guarantee) of being a “good” teacher.
Reflection is intertwined with the practice of deep listening. I am learning to approach my teaching as a process of listening rather than an act of espousing. I feel that ultimately I need to be communing with the souls of my students as much as their minds. In that way, I find Palmer’s advice about one’s soul apropos in my classroom: “if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek” (7-8). While it can rarely be observed that the habitat of my classroom is “quiet” I do feel that it is the attitude with which I need to approach my teaching. I need to be quietly but actively listening and watching for the “precious wildness” of my students. Certainly not to tame it, but to help each of their authentic natures emerge and be nourished.
In the first half of my teaching life (by my best estimates) I listened only to my own “precious wildness.” I called that wildness passion. I knew that a vital part of my teaching was remaining passionate about learning, and I believed that teaching was partly about instilling my passion in my students. But I am coming to more deeply understand that I must listen for my students’ own passions. As I engage more with other teachers in their classrooms, it has been easier for me to observe that what excites the teacher is not necessarily what excites the student. While undoubtedly my students appreciate when I am passionate and animated more than when I am less connected, it is not fair for me to expect them to feel passionate about the same things which interest me. I am growing into a better understanding that what I am seeking to facilitate, as a teacher, is finding the intersections between the individual passions of my students and the conceptual essentials of my discipline.
In writing about passion, I decided to research the etymology of the word, and was rather surprised to learn that its original meaning was “to suffer, endure.” It was only much later that the connotation of “strong emotion, desire” emerged and later still that the association with “strong liking, enthusiasm” developed. This etymology tracks the deeper truth that our passion is not simply what excites us, but is rooted in that with which we have struggled and endured. For me, the essence of listening in my classroom is noticing where my students and I each meet our challenges and discord, because it is partly from facing our discontent that our passions are shaped. If I can discern the essence of the struggle and support my students in that, then I am much better able to help them make meaning of the content of my discipline in a way that is most useful for making meaning of their inner lives.
These interwoven threads of reflection and deep listening allow for awakening and connection. Through teaching science I can nurture the lives of my students; every student, whether they “like” science or not, can learn more about themselves in my classroom, individually as well as in community. I believe in this deeper truth about teaching, no matter what content or discipline I find myself within.
Awakening and Connection
Initially I attempted to write about awakening and connection as separate seasons in the teaching cycle. As I struggled to articulate these seasons, however, I recognized that awakening and connection are continually engaged in a dance with each other and simply cannot be separated.
The manifestation of the inner work of reflection and listening only begins with awakening. For me, this means discerning gifts and recognizing limitations – both in myself and in my students. Both of these realities are important in understanding what one has to offer. Teaching can be like a call and response in a worship service, albeit an unscripted one. We call to each other, we respond to each other, and together we find a way. Thus, the reflection and listening are critical for the awakening, and awakening and connection often happen simultaneously or in response to each other.
Innovation in my teaching comes from reflecting, listening to myself and my students, awakening their gifts and my own, and making connections with each other and what is before us.
This process was so beautifully illustrated for me during the Garbage session on our most recent professional day. We were simply given the instructions to “create something whole” out of what at first seemed to be unrelated parts. Is this not the essence of teaching and learning? That we hope for our students to make something whole from disconnected pieces? What if I could truly distill environmental science to a few essential elements? What if I then placed those core ideas in front of my students and allowed them to make something whole? Even entertaining this approach might be considered near heresy to some, but the idea not only intrigues me, I feel compelled to explore it further.
Many thoughts and emotions were awakened in me through the Garbage experience, perhaps the most profound being the recognition that too often I do not trust students to create their own meaning, or “whole.” Too often I guide their learning to a preconceived final destination. Truly, this may not be the best way for my students to learn, and likely it is not the best way for them to express their gifts.
During Garbage, no one in the room knew what the final outcome would be. Yet in the process of crafting the whole, everyone was free to share their talents in that creative process, and the learning was far deeper than any scripted outcome.
For me, this is the epitome of true learning – awakening gifts and making connections, creating something whole, together. On that day, I truly saw that it might be possible to distill my discipline to its most essential concepts and skills and then trust that learning will happen. Learning is not linear because growth is not linear. Our group did not make a plan in Garbage. Those who had an insight began their work first, while others watched and reflected. We were all active in our minds, whether or not our hands were engaged. And we trusted each other in that. As we watched and noticed a place where our talents were useful, we engaged our hands. We tested ideas … should the brace for the parachute go high up in the parachute or lower down? We placed the brace, let the parachute fall to the ground, moved the brace, let the chute fall again, adjusted, undid, recreated … and finally we dropped the “whole” out of the second story window of the school building. Honestly, we were all prepared to pick up the pieces, reassemble them, and try again. But our creation only lost an arm, so we stuck the arm back onto the body and congratulated ourselves on our success.
I learned important lessons in that exercise. I learned that we can enter the process of learning without knowing our destination. Indeed, perhaps the only time and place in our lives where we hold to the myth that the outcome of learning is known at the onset is in a classroom. I learned that engaging in a process that is open enough to allow each person to discern how their gifts are best employed is far more creative and productive than scripting how each person must demonstrate their understanding. I learned that for learners to connect most deeply with a process, trust is critical – trust of the process and trust of each other. I learned that learning must happen in a space that allows for trial and error; that allows time for something to emerge organically.
Awakening and connection also emerge from listening for opportunities. When I am able to talk with other teachers, particularly in cross-divisional and interdisciplinary venues, I am always able to make connections between what is happening in my classroom and what is happening in theirs and the interpersonal connection awakens my gifts. By paying attention, I have collaborated with teachers and students in pre-primary and Lower School with 9th grade science buddies, Helen Berkeley’s Food, Literature, and Identify course, and Amy Schmaljohn’s Peace, Non-violence, and Social Justice class. Again, the authenticity of my innovation comes not from new “tricks” but from listening and connecting and finding opportunities in relationships. I am continually seeking to have my content area connect in more meaningful ways with my students’ lives. If I do not truly believe that what I am teaching is meaningful for my students’ lives, then that is a good indication that it is not essential for me to be teaching it.
Thoughts on a New Cycle of Seasons
In her book, The Garden at Night, Mary Rose O’Reilley notes how little of her teaching has felt entirely authentic. She reflects how “a delicate discernment has to take place at the point where an individual’s inner guidance starts to chafe against institutional structure. To feel that point of friction is to be challenged to ponder our actions” (59-60).
I have so often let this friction in my own teaching life feed resentments about the confines of the institution of school. It has only been in recent years (even months) that I have begun to use the friction to light a fire in myself. I have realized that it is my own fear that has limited my teaching far more than any institutional structures. For sure, there are the confines of the schedule, the classroom walls, the disciplines – but if I let those define the limits of my creativity, I am not doing anyone any good. I need to free myself from the fear of stepping outside the bounds – of exploring “what if …” O’Reilley notes that most teachers have more freedom than they ever use (59) and this observation rings true for me as well.
This consideration that I have let my apprehension limit my teaching is the turning point upon which I begin a new cycle of teaching. When I reflect on my fears that limit my teaching, when that leads to awakening and connection, my teaching becomes more innovative.
When I was asked to teach Environmental Policy, a feeling of inadequacy arose in me. Not because I didn’t know about policy – it was a major part of my graduate school program, and I am fully capable of reading to inform myself. No, my fear came from the fact that I didn’t like policy – it didn’t interest me. I had to reflect on that fear in order to find a way to teach policy that could engage me as well as my students. While the course continues to evolve, I know that even as it exists now it has been effective because I have been able to literally bring food policy to the plates of the learners in my classroom, myself included. In taking women’s studies as an undergraduate and teaching it as a graduate student, I understand the truth that “the personal is political.” By engaging students in personal food challenges such as Eating Locally and the SNAP challenge, they can literally taste the effects of U.S. food policy. Students often comment that they love EPo (as the course has come to be known) because they’re learning things that really matter in their lives. What happens in Washington really does matter … and I was able to discover that for myself by confronting my own fears of disengagement.
In my second year of teaching at Friends, having witnessed my son’s special relationship with his pre-primary reading buddy, I became interested in the idea of exploring building the buddy tradition in the Upper School as well. My enthusiasm was immediately dampened upon confronting two perceived obstacles. One was the cultural belief that the Upper School curriculum was so chock full of content that there simply wasn’t time to engage in the “fluff” of relationship-building, or worse yet, playing! On the Lower School end, I met with the distrust that the Lower School teachers had about working with their Upper School colleagues. Their experience had been that they had to “tow the line” in many cross-divisional relationships. I soon realized that I wasn’t just embarking on a plan to develop buddy partnerships, but that I was engaging in healing and nurturing relationships between members of our community. I was apprehensive because I might fail – I might not be a trustworthy enough partner for my Lower School colleagues. After all, I had never done this before – I was just excited by the idea. Since my initial floundering, I have become more facile and confident in fostering cross-divisional relationships between students and teachers. I have been able to use buddy relationships as a way to reinforce what my students are learning by having them teach others what they have learned and mastered. I have nurtured relationships with my colleagues built on trust and mutual respect. Some of the comments from my collaborators this year are testimonies that it was worthwhile to step into my fears and try something new (to me). After a recent pair of lessons, a colleague in pre-primary commented,
… you should be impressed that my children learned so much with their buddies at the stream and had a basic understanding of what they were doing. You have obviously taught them and allowed them the freedom to investigate on their own so that they could model that for my children.
Today’s lesson [that you did] was so on their level. You asked super open ended questions, the visuals in the power point were simple but effective. The game was so visual and kinesthetic that the children really could understand how oxygen gets in or doesn’t get in the water. Your demonstration was a perfect one for my kids … you made science come alive for the kids.
… my children have benefitted from this partnership. … We really want to continue.
Next year I want to develop stronger curricular connections in the buddy relationships by working with the 4th grade teachers to develop meaningful content intersections in our shared lessons. Their essential questions – How does culture affect physical geography? How does physical geography affect culture? – overlap well with the environmental science curriculum and provide a strong foundation for developing meaningful relationships through shared lessons. I am also excited to collaborate with the 7th grade team as they focus on the economic, social, political, and environmental aspects of globalization. Finally, I am embracing my continued calling to allow my students to experience science rather than simply learn about it, by exploring and practicing inquiry in the classroom and supporting self-directed research in the 9th grade curriculum.
Teaching is my vocation in the very sense that Parker Palmer speaks of it. “Vocation … means a calling that I hear. … I must listen to my life telling me who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live – but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life” (4).
O’Reilley, Mary Rose. 2005. The Garden at Night: Burnout & Breakdown in the Teaching Life. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Palmer, Parker. 2000. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.