The Call of the Wild

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 12.21.44 PMI was born and blessed, as are each of us, with a natural curiosity. There was a great wildness in it. As a child I’d see a shaft of sunlight illuminating a world of dust and delicate objects floating in air and I’d stop whatever I was doing and begin to explore this tiny universe. It was magical. I was called to learn. Curiosity was my birthright. It was in my DNA. It’s in yours.

My natural curiosity was like a wild animal and it hunted where it needed to in order to satisfy its deep hunger. As a child, I awakened each day with an insatiable appetite to explore, to discover, to learn. In my early years I was a voracious “wolf of learning”.  I believe deep in our DNA there’s a relationship between curiosity, learning and survival. We might call it “the burning relevance of an empty stomach”, because in past millennia our ancestors needed to be voracious learners in order to survive.
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Over the centuries, learning has become institutionalized. Vast school systems and local and national curricula are now the norm. And as these institutions have grown, they’ve pushed aside much of the wildness of our natural curiosity. Looking back I realize that as I worked my way through the educational system I became more tame and more timid. I can see now that in many ways I was being domesticated. I was no longer a “wolf of learning”.

How did this happen? To start with I had virtually no control over my education and whatever natural curiosity I had was replaced by a structured and scripted curriculum. I was rewarded for following directions and doing what I was told and reprimanded if I let my curiosity wander too far from the prescribed lesson. I was chewing on someone else’s agenda and not mine so I simply worked in “compliance mode”, putting forth minimum effort. Fear of retribution and bad grades become my prime motivators, not the excitement of discovery and learning.

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 12.26.02 PMThus I became a ward of a system that trained me to expect to learn without going on the hunt. Like a domesticated pet I was offered bland processed learning, laid out in prescribed amounts, at certain times of the day. A pre-set curriculum guide that had little to do with me, my interests, my needs, or my gifts, decided what I was fed, how much, and when. I rarely experienced learning by my own wits, my natural curiosity, or even the magic of serendipity. I was no longer the wolf who’d gorge on learning and fight over the scraps until my belly was full.

I became so domesticated that I would’ve rebelled if asked to use the natural gifts for learning with which I was born. It would have been like releasing a pet house dog into the wilderness…the odds of survival would’ve been small, and within hours I’d have been back in front of the door begging to have my master serve dinner to me in a dish.

Now, rediscovering my own power, wildness, curiosity, and love of learning is my lifetime pursuit.

For the sake of our students,

may each of us find our own ways to foster the wildness and thrill of learning…

…and answer the “call of the wild”.

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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

Secret Conversations

images-8Our classrooms are full of secrets. We have ours and our students have theirs. In each of our hearts there are dreams, quiet yearnings, silent fears…and always there are whispered doubts. Great teachers cultivate hearts warm and strong enough to hear these secret conversations, both our students and our own.

Eduardo is pulled out of class by his teacher, Rebecca, because he’s disrupting the class. In the hallway he breaks down crying and says through his tears, “I hate people making fun of me! People are always making fun of me. They say I’m fat, and maybe I am but that doesn’t give them the right to tease me all the time!”

Rebecca hadn’t noticed the teasing and felt awful. Eduardo had hidden his suffering well, for he always seemed confident and fun loving. The fact that he trusted Rebecca enough to let her know what was really going on and how much pain he was in was startling to her.

If it weren’t for Eduardo’s breakdown in the hallway Rebecca might have gone on disciplining him without ever understanding what was underlying his behavior. Because Eduardo trusted her enough to confide in her, Rebecca discovered that he was sensitive about his weight and had become the target of bullies. No matter how brave a face he put on, school had become unbearable for him. Armed with this new information she was able to take steps to curtail the bullying and make her classroom a more safe environment for all her students.

When you take the time to actually listen, with humility to what people have to say, it’s amazing what you can learn. Especially if the people who are doing the talking also happen to be children.” – Greg Mortensen

If we ignore the unspoken conversations that are taking place in our classrooms they will fester and stand as impediments to trust, relationships, and learning. As we work to build trust, and our relationship with the class grows, we’ll find more opportunities to bring these unspoken issues to the surface, for we know that they won’t go away on their own.

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Students yearn to be heard and understood, even those that are too shy or disengaged to speak. Listening to what is being communicated by their words, their tone, even their silence, is an important element of understanding the “person”.

The most basic of all human needs is to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.  – Nichols and Stevens

Pete

Getting Out of the Way and Blending

The experienced practitioner of Aikido learns to blend with his attacker. Physically, it involves getting out of the way, then ‘blending’ or ‘shadowing’ (looking in the same direction as your attacker for a moment), while feeling the energy, power, and momentum that they’re bringing to the situation.

Blending allows us to move without direct conflict. We don’t overreact and add ‘fuel to the fire’, but use only the energy and power required for the situation, and nothing more. No one gets hurt. Once again, when we’re in the classroom, ‘blending’ isn’t a physical move, but a psychological one.

Several years ago, I watched in awe as a veteran principal blended with a disgruntled teacher who had been challenging some of the ideas being discussed during his school’s staff development program. The teacher was clearly frustrated, and eventually blurted out angrily,

“I’d like permission to leave. This program is stupid and it’s not relevant. I’d rather go back to my classroom and do some lesson planning.”

The presenter reacted as if he’d been punched in the stomach, and the entire staff looked stunned. The principal, who was sitting in the back of the room, broke the ensuing silence and spoke in a measured and sincere manner,

“We’re not asking for you to adopt every idea that’s being presented in the program. But why not give it till the lunch break and see if there might be a few things that you can use to help you?”

The teacher protested, “I’ve got better things to do with my time.”

The principal continued to blend, “You’ve already brought a lot to the program by challenging some of the ideas (the presenter) has brought forth. I think you surfaced a few thoughts that some in the group may have been thinking about, but weren’t willing to verbalize. We need people like you, with different points of view, to be active and vocal so that the learning here is real. The worst thing that could happen is we leave this session and have the real discussion and questions relegated to complaints in the teachers’ room.”

The principal sat quietly looking at the angry teacher, who was surprised by the principal’s openness. His face began to soften and the moment opened in possibility.

The teacher nodded his head, “If you think it will help, I’ll give it a try.”

The veteran principal smiled warmly, “It will. Thanks.”

I’d never seen a ‘blend’ done so well anywhere outside of an Aikido dojo.

The principal was clearly a master teacher.

pete

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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

Ed Tech Journeys Status

Below, find an excerpt from a chapter of one of my writing projects, “Zen and the Art of Teaching”. “My First Day” takes place in January of 1974. I offer this brief look at the beginning of my teaching career to my daughter Kate who will be student teaching this Fall, and to all aspiring educators who will someday step forward to lead their students on the incredible journey of learning.

If you enter the profession realizing that you are not just teaching a subject; but you are also teaching students; if you can grasp that you have as much to learn as your students do; if you can persevere through days like my first day, which was pretty much a blueprint for the rest of my horrible first year…

…then you will have taken the first, and maybe the most difficult, step on the path to professional mastery. There will be many lessons to learn as you progress through your career; but remember, you are not alone; many of us have shared your pain. If you open to self-reflection and learning; things will get  better.

My First Day

From “Zen and the Art of Teaching”

Pete Reilly

I remember vividly the forest of adolescent hands in the air, waving urgently at me, trying to get my attention during my first day in the classroom. It was mid-year and they had completely routed the young, female teacher who had preceded me. She had quit over the Christmas break.

I stood looking out at the class, pleased to be in charge, pleased to be in the front of the room, with all the authority. I called on one particularly harmless looking kid with jet-black hair that swung down to cover one eye and the side of his face.

He smiled nicely and asked, “Can I go to the bathroom?”

I knew this was a ruse. “No.” I replied.

“But I really have to go!” he said plaintively, clearly playing to his audience of peers.

“No” I repeated. “You had time to go between classes.” I was no fool. I knew the rules.

“But I Mrs. Rogers kept us after for a few minutes and my locker was stuck. I didn’t have time to go!”

I remained tough, “Not my problem. Just hold it for the rest of class!”

The class was clearly happy and entertained. I was not savvy enough to see that the longer this conversation went on, the more foolish I looked.

“Well, I have to go and I don’t think I can make it to the end of class!”

Now, how the Hell did I get myself into this, I thought to myself. There were giggles in the back of the class. This seemingly harmless student now pressed his advantage, effortlessly making an ass out of me.

“I have to go number one!”

Outright laughter from the class. I didn’t like being laughed at, “I said No, that’s enough! I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

I moved to call on one of the other hands that were waving to get my attention. I had gotten myself in a bit of a mess and it was time to get out; only I wasn’t really in control.

“Well if I go in my pants, then it’ll be your fault. You’re the one that’s gonna have to explain it to the Principal and my mother!”

Was it possible that I was making a mistake? What if he really did have to go? There truly wasn’t much time between classes. Why would he be so persistent about this if it wasn’t a real issue for him? Was it worth taking the risk with this student? This bathroom pass thing really was a bunch of bull anyway. There was silence in the classroom as I pondered Solomon-like in the front of the class. And then I broke down and blurted out in an exasperated tone,

“Okay! Go to the bathroom; but hurry up and get back here! No stopping anywhere.”

There, I had shown magnanimity and mercy, even though I didn’t have to. I looked into the face of my nemesis (what I could see of it) and I knew immediately I had been had. He had a vicious grin on his face, not the thankful look of one who had been saved from an embarrassing accident in class. He stood up, looked at the class victoriously, almost as if saying,

“Piece of cake! Too easy! We’re going to feed this guy to the dogs!”

He sauntered to the classroom door, opened it, and just before exiting smiled and waved to the class; who, for just a moment, were embarrassed for me. The door slammed shut behind him; a final insulting flourish.

I stood there breathless. I was aware that I had just been shown up, and humiliated, in front of the entire class. I gulped hard. Suddenly, a dozen hands shot up. The owner of one of the hands didn’t wait to be called on and shouted out,

“Can I go to the bathroom, too? I have to go! Real bad!”

Order had broken down. “Quiet! I shouted.

I was clearly frustrated. “No one else is going to the bathroom!”

“Why not? You let Tim go! How come he got to go and I can’t? I was in Mrs. Roger’s class too, and I got out late, too! It’s not fair!”

“Fairness has nothing to do with it! You’re supposed to go to the bathroom between classes, not during classes!” I spoke with all the authority I could muster.

“Well, I can’t help it if I have to go! My body doesn’t work on a bell schedule! When I need to go, I need to go!”

Actually, I had to hand it to this kid; he had a good point. “You didn’t have your hand up to go before I let Tim go. You can hold it.”

He shook his head, “Yeah, I guess I can hold it; but only for about 10 minutes or so. I ain’t gonna make it to the end of class. I know it.”

“That’s too bad!” I replied.

“Well you gotta explain to Mr. Ellis, (the Principal) why you let Tim go; but you made me stay and pee my pants!”

“No, problem! I’ll do that.” I said angrily.

“Yes, problem.” he replied. “You’ve got a double standard. Some kids can…”

“Stop it!” I shouted.

“I can’t help it. I gotta go!”

“I said, No. I mean, No!”

“Why? Why are you mad at me? I didn’t do anything. All I asked for was to…”

Suddenly, I cracked, “Go! Go! Get out of here! Hurry up!”

He jumped out of his seat and quickly left the room without any of the antics that Tim had displayed. I was definitely out played, out gunned, out smarted; and for the rest of the year I would pay the price.

Another student shouted out, “Can I go to my locker?”

Another, “What’s for lunch today?”

I felt like a surge of water swirling around the shiny porcelain before being swept down the toilet bowl. This may have been the high point of my first year of teaching. It got far worse, as the class continued to entertain themselves by torturing me, the way a cat toys with its prey, before killing it.

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