Teaching as a Spiritual Endeavor

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 11.27.02 AMI’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.

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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.

Pete

Summer Renewal: The Exit Interview

The school year is winding down. Many of us are saying good-bye to our students, to our colleagues, and to another year in the classroom. For some, the year was long and difficult, for others it may have gone by in a blur. No matter what kind of experience we had during the year this is a perfect time for a reflective practice. Why not take a few minutes before you leave for the summer and do a personal exit interview

Here are some sample questions you might like to ask yourself:
On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the highest how would you rate your own performance for the year?

Purpose and Calling
Do you feel successful and proud, or just happy to have the year over?
Describe 3-5 of your most happy moments during the year.
What was it that made them stand out for you?
Did what you accomplished this year match your expectations?

Stress and Overwhelm
Describe 3-5 of the biggest challenges that you faced this year.
Describe how you responded to each of these challenges.
What kind of stress, if any, did these challenges create?
How did this stress manifest itself- professionally and/or personally?
Is the stress still with you?
Is there a more effective way to handle the stress and anxiety of these kinds of challenges?

Strengths and Gifts
Looking back on the school year, what would you say were your greatest personal characteristics and strengths?
If you were going to build on one these strengths for the next school year which would it be?
What practices can you create to help strengthen this area?

Areas for Growth
What were some of the personal characteristics/behaviors you think were holding you back from even greater levels of classroom effectiveness?
What practices can you create to help you address these characteristics?

Student Feedback
Think about your students for a moment.
Did they have anything to teach you this year?
If you think of them as a mirror, what did they reflect back to you about yourself and your teaching?
Was there a student that you particularly liked? What was it that drew you to them?
Was there a student that you particularly disliked? What was it about them that you disliked?
Is there anything about yourself that your feelings about these students reveal?
How would your students rate your performance on a scale of 1-10?
What would they list as your greatest personal strengths?
What would they say was the area in which you need to improve?

There’s no better time for professional (and personal) reflection then the waning days of a school year and no better place to do it than an empty classroom. The purpose of this reflection is not to beat yourself up. It’s not meant to be “I should have done this.” or “I shouldn’t have done that.” guilt trip. It’s simply meant to allow us to step back and look at the year and our performance with some perspective (a perspective that’s hard to maintain during the year). I suggest you write you answers in a journal. Come back to them over the summer and before the start of the new school year.

A few suggestions:
Look out for burnout. At some point we can let our purpose and calling drift into a job. It takes work to keep reminding ourselves of the special work we do with children.
Be on the look out for the effects of stress on our thinking, our health, and our family life.
Be specific about our strengths and weaknesses. We all have them. We can build on our strengths, we can learn to address our weaknesses.
Students offer us a wealth of information on our classroom effectiveness if we’re courageous enough to look at the cues and clues they provide.

The questions I’ve presented are just suggestions. Your heart knows what questions are right for you. If you’re quiet and allow your inner teacher to come forward, it’ll guide you in the right direction.

Good luck and have a great summer!

Pete

Soft Skills and Personal Development Are Key to Teaching Mastery

It should come as no surprise that great teaching has many components, and while schools are good at focusing their professional development efforts on the trainable aspects of teaching…knowledge and skills; the opportunities for us to focus on the more complex aspects of teaching…attitude, self-awareness, authenticity, and trust, are almost non-existent. These, and other personal attributes, are often referred to as ‘soft skills,’ inferring their lack of importance. However, extensive research (as well as our own experience) indicates that it’s our personality and presence that makes the greatest impact on learning in our classrooms. In essence, soft skills are ‘essential skills’, and our development as teachers challenges us to consider personal development as an important component of professional development; part of the path to professional mastery.

It’s who you are, your personality, your soft (essential) skills, that are the keys to teaching mastery; and it’s by bringing your best self to the classroom that you’ll experience the most success. Why? Because, by taking care of your own mind, body, and heart (your inner ‘self’), you’re also taking care of your students. After all, as Parker Palmer says,

“You teach who you are.”

I’ll be writing more about this in the coming weeks.

gratitude,

pete

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A New Focus

As you can see by the new header for the site, I’ll be changing the focus of the Ed Tech Journeys blog, from leadership and technology, to the teacher’s path.

At no time in my life has teaching been under such pressure. To me, teaching is more than a job, it’s been a calling. Education has always been about teaching the whole child, heart and mind. The great teachers and coaches I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life have always made me feel special, connected, and loved. They encouraged me, and nurtured me; as they’ve done with all their students.

But times have changed and we’re in the midst of downsizing the educational workforce, while adding the demands of high stakes testing, the Common Core Curriculum, new professional evaluation processes, more mainstreamed students, more paperwork, more angry parents, and more professional development with initiatives from anti-bullying to new technology. Stress levels are at an all-time high. Even the best teachers in the best schools are feeling the weight of an educational environment that is permeated by a culture of scarcity, a fear-based system of accountability, union demonizing, and teacher bashing. Add a growing number of students with emotional, language, and behavioral challenges and it isn’t hard to see why nearly 50 percent of teachers leave the field within their first five years.

We can do better. We can maintain teaching as a path with heart without abandoning academic standards. In fact, the research shows that it’s a teacher’s personal attributes, ’soft’ skills, and presence; not their IQ, that makes the greatest positive impact on student achievement. So, by focusing less time on the external elements of teaching, and more time on the inner life and well being of the teacher, we can create classrooms that produce academic success AND nurture our students’ personal growth and special gifts.

This blog will be the first of several endeavors I will launch to support teachers as they walk the path to mastery. If you’re one of those on the front lines feeling the pressure, hang in there. What you do matters! It’s important…and so are you!

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The Calling

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I’m back after several years of an amazing journey. Welcome my friends. I hope you are all prospering, and that you’re letting your gifts shine bright in this world. There are lot’s of changes coming to this blog, but I want to offer you an excerpt from my latest book, “A Path With Heart: The Inner Journey to Teaching Mastery.” I hope you enjoy it, and I hope we get to re-connect soon. With gratitude, Pete

The Calling

Consciously, or unconsciously, when you chose a career in teaching, you chose a ‘calling,’ a ‘path with heart;’ for teaching is an invitation to a world of possibility… for your students, and if you’re open to it, for yourself. Though it may sound grandiose, it’s no less true, that who you are, your personality and character, are at the root of good teaching; for teaching is about big things, not little. And it’s by turning your own promise into practice that you’re able to unlock the potential of your students, and make a difference in the world.

Human beings are born with hearts that yearn for meaning. We want our lives to count for something, and our daily work to provide us with a life, as well as living. The classic story of three stonecutters helps us see that the true impact of our work goes far beyond the day to day tasks that consume so much of our time and energy.

One day a traveler came across three stonecutters working in a quarry. Each one was chipping away at a block of stone. Curious, he asked the first stone cutter what he was doing. “What? Are you blind?” the stone cutter shouted, “Can’t you see, I’m cutting this stupid piece of stone.”

The man walked near the second stonecutter, who seemed a little happier and asked him the same question. The stonecutter replied, “I’m cutting this block of stone so that the mason can build a straight wall.”

Finally, he approached the third stonecutter, who seemed to be the happiest of the three, and asked him what he was doing. “I’m building a cathedral,” he replied with a smile.

Like the third stonecutter, knowing that the work you do can make a positive impact on a child’s life, and sometimes, through that child, on the world writ large, makes your personal sacrifice and toil worthwhile. As an educator, you have the opportunity to build cathedrals, not just chip stones.

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pete

Shutting Down the Machine

My last post elicited a passionate response from David Truss advocating that we do more to support young teachers, ANY teachers, for that matter, that take the risks that are involved in transforming teaching and learning.

The educational machine is powerful and it can be unforgiving. A teacher who ignores the status quo will soon learn about ‘institutional homeostasis’. It might come in the form of scorn from their colleagues, admonitions from supervisors and administrators, or in the form of parents complaining because they want the same experience for their children as they and their own parents had as students. My first year teaching I experienced two of the three on the list.

So, what will it take to transform teaching and learning? What will it take to shut down the pleasant hum of the machine that is so good at turning out 20th century students even though we’re entering the second decade of the 21st century?

Leaders with Courage and Commitment!

I think this clip from Norma Rae is both inspiring and informing. In it, her supervisor, security police, and the factory boss himself, try to intimidate her. She gets fired from the job she holds so dear.

Norma is leading from the front, by example. Pushed over the edge, she takes action. She steps forward with no assurance that anyone will stand with her. Norma Rae puts herself on the line.

She is all in!

Whenever I see Norma Rae’s face, and the faces of her co-workers, I see fear and hope co-mingled. It inspires me to take a stand for what I believe in! By stepping forward with all she had, Norma Rae eventually gives others the courage to follow her lead.

When we set about following our hearts and doing what we think is right; we hope that what we are doing works, that other people see that it works, and that everything turns out for the best. Sometimes things work out and, unfortunately, sometimes they do not. We don’t have to look further than the assassination of Martin Luther King to understand that.

Leaders, whether they lead from the classroom or the district office, need to understand that there are powerful forces aligned against change.

So, it is our blessing and our burden to have the seeds of leadership in each of us.

There is no tiptoeing around this thing. Those who truly desire a transformation of educational system will have to endure many of the same trials and tribulations as those who fought and fight for change in other domains. While educational change agents may not endure the physical pain that so many activists experience; it should come as no surprise that some will be intimidated, or refused tenure, or shunned by colleagues.

If we are going to shut down the momentum of the educational machine, if we are going to transform the factory floor, we will need to be “all in”.

Courage and Commitment!

pete

Can We Find Hope in Our Mission Statements?

Here are mission statements from 11 local school districts here in NYS. I’ve highlighted some of the more interesting value statements contained within them. When I look at these statements it strikes me that I rarely find an educator who doesn’t espouse most, if not all, of these wonderful ideals. The question is, “Why don’t our schools more closely reflect them? What happens between writing our missions and putting them into action? Why don’t we take our Mission statements more seriously? So many end up on our web pages and on the covers of district reports and plans, but bear no relation to the day-to-day reality of our schools. If these statements truly reflect our educational communities highest aspirations, what is it that seems to hold us back from making them reality?

Take a look…

The Sample1 Schools are the cornerstone of our community. Our mission is to prepare our students to be active, life-long learners who have the skills and confidence necessary to achieve their highest potential. We encourage our students to be curious, compassionate and strong in their ability to face challenges. We are committed to preparing our students to be reflective, adaptable citizens with an open world view. We aspire to instill integrity as a core value and to influence our students to be ethical and responsible members of society.

The mission of the Sample2 Schools is to educate all students for personal fulfillment and active and responsible engagement in a global community.

The mission of the Sample3 Schools is to create a community for learning, where students, parents and staff are joined in the pursuit of academic excellence and personal growth in a caring environment. We seek to develop each student’s full potential through a challenging curriculum, a diversified faculty, and a commitment to intellectual freedom. We will teach basic skills, foster creative and critical thinking, and provide a foundation for life-long learning. We will nourish our students’ emotional lives and guide their social development, instilling in them an appreciation of self-worth, of individual difference, and of global interdependence. We will help them learn how to manage freedom and to act ethically so that each may become a responsible, contributing member of society.

Sample4 School District graduates will develop into effective communicators, researchers and problem solvers, individuals who are independent learners and assume responsibility for their own learning and behavior.

The Mission of the Sample5 School District is to provide a high quality education whereby all students are empowered to reach their individual potential, respect and value themselves and others, and become life-long learners.

The Mission of the Sample6 School District is to create a challenging and supportive learning environment in which each student attains his or her highest potential for academic achievement, critical thinking and life-long learning. Our schools encourage the discovery and development of students’ individual strengths, skills and talents, and foster social and civic responsibility.

The mission of the Sample7 School System, acknowledging its richly complex history, is to produce responsible, self-sufficient citizens who possess the self-esteem, initiative, skills, and wisdom to continue individual growth, pursue knowledge, develop aesthetic sensibilities, and value cultural diversity by providing intellectually challenging educational programs that celebrate change but affirm tradition and promote excellence through an active partnership with the community, a comprehensive and responsive curriculum, and a dedicated and knowledgeable staff.

The Sample8 School District will be a model public school district, identified by its focus on the development of students of all abilities. Most of all, it will produce motivated and competent learners, capable of solving the intellectual, emotional, and ethical problems they encounter and of reaching their personal goals.

The Sample9 school community has high expectations and standards for all students. We challenge and inspire individuals to become creative and critical thinkers who make ethical choices. Our students will be able to work both independently and collaboratively to solve problems. They will become life-long learners and responsible citizens in a democratic society who are prepared for the demands of a highly technological and global community.

The mission of the Sample 10 Schools is to cultivate a positive and motivating instructional environment that encourages students to challenge themselves and that creates a genuine enthusiasm for learning. Encourage students to identify and to follow their passions.

The mission of the Sample11 School District, in partnership with the community, is to ensure that every student is capable of becoming a life-long learner who can thrive in a global environment as a self-reliant and socially responsible citizen. To realize this mission, our schools will provide an engaging, challenging, personalized program that supports each individual’s talents and potential, in a fiscally responsible manner.

Perhaps there is hope in these Mission statements. Maybe, just maybe, we can seize on them and use them as the levers of change. Perhaps enterprising leaders can start holding themselves accountable to the sentiments they embody. Maybe a courageous superintendent, principal, teacher, parent…or STUDENT can step out of the day-to-day routine and begin to implement some new and innovative ideas and when challenged by those defending the status quo, point to the Mission as a justification for change.

It would be one thing if we couldn’t agree on our Mission; that would be a disaster. But when most of us agree on where we want to go and what we want to do; AND we write it down AND adopt it publicly, there is hope. Having missions that espouse empowering the learner’s creativity, curiosity, initiative, and independence is not too bad. Having missions that promote lifelong learning, collaboration, integrity, the appreciation of self-worth, and appreciation of our differences is a nice foundation.

I know we are having trouble making these educational dreams real for our children; but as long as we have the capacity to dream, to envision a better world, there is hope…

…and in this New Year, I opt for hope!

pete