I’ve been thinking lately about how work in general, but especially teaching, is a spiritual endeavor. Not spiritual in a religious sense but in the context of satisfying the human desire to connect to something larger than ourselves, to live lives that mean something, and to do work that reflects our dreams, values and beliefs.
No doubt, that for some, work is just that, ‘work’. It’s simply a way to make living and pay the bills. But for many of us who spend the most productive part of our day and the most productive part of our lives at work, our profession is a crucible in which ‘who we are’ and ‘what we believe in’ is made public and tested. It’s through our work that we encounter challenges that bring us to the frontiers of our knowledge, experience, values and beliefs. It’s in the workplace that we face a variety of difficult choices and must take action, or refrain from it, having only our own ‘soma’, (mind, body, and spirit) to guide us. It’s in this unfamiliar place, in the midst of an unfamiliar crisis or challenge, an unscripted moment of truth, and left without a roadmap, that we find out who we really are, not who we think we are. Spiritual, no?
If we’re open to viewing work both as a professional and spiritual experience we can use it as a mirror that reflects back to us what the external world, in our case our students, experience when they interact with us. They reflect back to us our best qualities and our gifts, as well as the places where we don’t quite live up to our own values and beliefs.
An example that’s seared into my memory from the early part of my own career is an incident with Kelly, a quiet and earnest young seventh grader. I had corrected 125 essays over the weekend and after handing them back to my students was stopping at each desk to point out an item or two that I thought stood out in their essay. I arrived at Kelly’s desk and quickly began pointing out her tendency to write in sentence fragments and run-ons. My finger was on her paper pointing to one of her errors when suddenly a teardrop splattered on the page near my finger smearing the blue ink. Before I realized what was going on another fell, and then another. I stood up and though Kelly’s head was down her entire body was heaving in silent sobs.
It struck me like a thunderbolt that Kelly had written about the death of her pet dog. Obviously it was very emotional for her and yet I hadn’t stopped to acknowledge it. I was too concerned with my own agenda and my own focus on sentence mechanics to even give her a pat on the back. Any show of humanity or connection would have done the trick, but I was rushing. I wasn’t thinking of her as a real human being with real feelings, but simply dealing with her role...student. I use this example because I had a belief at the time that every student had a unique gift within them, and that every child had great value and should be treated that way. It was crystal clear to me that there was a huge gulf between what I believed and how I had been acting. Kelly’s tears mirrored back to me my own hypocrisy.
Yes, this was certainly a professional issue, but it was also a spiritual one. I vowed never to have something like this happen again. But how would I go about opening my heart in such a way that I would begin seeing my students as people, not just extras in the movie of my life? How would I learn to slow down, be present in the moment, and stay connected to my values and beliefs? The answers to these questions lay in my spiritual growth not in any textbook.
Over the years, as my new narrative, “work as a spiritual endeavor”, took hold within me; I profited professionally as well as personally. The better person I became, the better teacher I became…and it worked the other way too…the better teacher, the better person.
So, it may be that our definition of what it is to be a professional is in need of a major upgrade and that professional development and personal development are often two sides of the same coin. We can try to compartmentalize our ‘real self’ from our ‘teaching self’, but the truth is we have only one self. It can’t help but show up in our teaching.
If we’re open to it our students can be important partners in our personal and professional growth, and since we teach who we are, they also reap the benefits of our inner journey. It seems like heresy to say it, but the teaching profession is a great place to perfect our spirit.