I looked around the room and I could feel the energy of the audience beginning to ebb. It was only an hour and a half into a full day session and desperation was beginning to creep into my voice. This was the kickoff of a six-month program for the entire administrative and supervisory staff of a school district. The content and the learning exercises were right on; it was me that was off.
I had been working towards letting the “teacher” come alive in me for many months. In my learning, that is translated into being in service to those I teach and remembering that it is always “about them”. It is embodying being student centered, always totally present to the opportunities that the learners were presenting and moving instantly into those openings when they appeared. It is “holding” the room with a constant, grounded energy to create a bond of trust, and the conditions for the group to relax and participate fully. Most importantly, every word and action of “teacher” was to come directly from the heart.
I knew what “teacher” demanded; but I was afraid. I was afraid even though I had the intellectual knowledge that the worst-case scenario was not “the end of the world”. I’d live. There would be other opportunities. That’s what my rational mind was saying. My body? Well, my body was sending the message, “Screw up and you’ll die!” When I choose to let stress like this get to me, my back stiffens and I get a pain just under my shoulder blade. It’s like my body is in the middle of a tug-of-war. On one side is my desire to move to a new way of doing things and on the other, my desire to keep things safe and familiar.
I was clinging to my old habits of teaching with the fear of a first time skydiver having a panic attack at the jump door of the plane. A crowbar wasn’t going to pry my fingers loose, if it meant jumping into the endless sky, high above the earth. I knew I wanted to teach differently, I had practiced for this; but at the critical moment, when I was supposed to act, I was too afraid to let go.
My energy was all over the place. It was high and electric one moment and missing the next. I was throwing out tidbits of information, not in service to group; but to establish my own credibility. After all, if they thought I knew my stuff, they might be more prone to like me. I had ignored more than one major opening they had given me because I was afraid that if I got off the agenda for the day, I would be lost later. So all of my practice and all of my learning was in jeopardy because of an irrational fear and lack of trust in my own ability to engage them fully without a script.
Fortunately, I knew that it might be this way for me the first time out. I brought, Tom, my teacher with me. He was my safety net. As I felt the group slowly drifting away from me, I knew I needed help. I looked over to my safety net. He sat upright and still giving me no indication that he was going to help me out of the predicament I had created for myself. I continued my floundering. When I felt the time was right, I called for a 15 minute break. Tom and I huddled.
Tom looked at me with a good natured smile; but with focused intensity, “Where are you teaching from?”
I answered immediately, “My head.”
He continued, “And your energy?”
“High up in my chest.”
He smiled, “Yes, and what did you miss?”
“They wanted to talk about purpose and I put them off because I have that scheduled for later.”
He continued his steady gaze, “Right. You were afraid to get off your script. I let you go, without intervening so you could feel this. It’s a lesson for you. So, what are you going to do?”
I responded in a panic, “I don’t know. I’m stuck. I haven’t done this enough. I don’t feel competent…”
He put his hand on his heart. It was a shorthand between us, “You know what to do.”
I took a deep breath. I felt my heart. My mind started to slow down.
“That’s better. You’re grounded now. Pete, you are a master at this. Do this from the heart.”
After the break, Tom stepped in to help me. The group began to come back; but I was still struggling. With Tom’s help we all made it to lunch. I knew I was being hypercritical of the morning’s work. It was good; but it was not anywhere near what I wanted for them or myself.
I took a walk through the school. The kids were going about their day, teachers were standing in the doors of their classrooms or talking to together in groups, the cafeteria was filled with joyful and noisy voices, the coaches were talking about the game coming up that afternoon, the staff in the main office were going about their business. I noticed details of the school; the lost and found box, the messy computer lab, the hand lettered posters, and the colorful student work hanging everywhere.
I love schools. I want to make them better; but I love them.
All I can say is that my walk through that middle school changed my life. I have no other way to explain it. When I came back to teach in the afternoon, all the fear had left me. I spoke from the heart. I fearlessly followed every opening for learning that they presented. I never thought of, or referred to my agenda. I was responding to them and not my script. My energy was unwavering. Tom and I worked together flawlessly, as equals. I was no longer the student learning a lesson; but the master trusting his experience. There was no “me” in this, only them. The day ended a fabulous success with applause, handshakes, and expressions of gratitude.
The group responded; not to the content; we had taught the content in the morning. They were thrilled, excited, and thankful because each of us had our “teachers’ hearts” awakened again. We believed again. We had experienced the excitement and joy of real learning again.
“This…is for teachers who have had good days and bad – and whose bad days bring the suffering that only comes from something one loves. It is for teachers who refuse to harden their hearts, because they love learners, learning, and the teaching life.”
-Parker J. Palmer
As I work to improve the practices of teachers, I will forever be more compassionate, for it takes courage to change. It takes courage to teach.