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.


The K-12 Classroom Dojo

For the past 12 years I have maintained a practice in Aikido. We learn Aikido in a ‘dojo’ which means “place of the Way”. What would it look like if we structured each of our classrooms like a dojo?

Aikido is a Japanese martial art developed by Morihei Ueshiba as a synthesis of his martial studies, philosophy, and religious beliefs. Aikido is often translated as “the Way of unifying with life energy” or as “the Way of harmonious spirit”. Ueshiba’s goal was to create an art that practitioners could use to defend themselves while also protecting their attacker from injury.

First, there is a teacher, the sensei. Sensei is one who has demonstrated his mastery and continues to study and practice his subject. This is similar to the traditional teacher in our classrooms today.

The pedagogy is simple and direct. The teacher demonstrates a technique with a partner chosen from the students in the class. He generally chooses a senior student called a sempai. Sensei does not usually over explain the technique. He illustrates it by performing it with his partner. After a showing the move a few times, the students in the class begin practicing it.

Students of all ability levels take part in the same class. This is a throwback to the one- room classrooms of 19th century America. Senior students train with the newer students, and assist them in perfecting their technique. This is beneficial to both the new student and to the sempai, who by helping in this way, become more aware of the nuances of each technique themselves.

Sensei moves about the dojo, observing students at their practice. He may stop someone to show him how to improve a particular part of his move. He may provide encouragement to someone who has done something well. He may step in to work with someone individually, or to stop all the practice and re-teach the move, focusing on some point he feels the students are missing.

The key point here is that students are learning by doing. The amount of time sensei spends instructing in front of the class is minimal compared to the practice time of the students. All instruction from that point on is specific to the individual students and their needs.

Aikido training is structured for students to obtain mastery. What does this mean? There are basic techniques that are foundational and practiced nearly every day. No matter how basic the move may seem, there is always more to learn, and more to master. For example, a beginning student might be learning the footwork of the move, an intermediate student may be doing the same move but learning more about proper spacing, and a senior student may be focusing on feeling the energy of his attacker and maintaining a steady flow of movement and breath.

This is unlike our classrooms which focus on checklist type learning. “I took that already.” I already learned that.” This type of learning fades away into oblivion over the years, because it was never really ‘learned’, only memorized.

What about testing in the ‘Classroom Dojo”?

Sensei is always watching his students. When he feels one has reached a certain level of competency, he asks the student to ‘test’. When sensei asks someone to take a test it’s safe to say that they’ve already passed because he would never ask a student to test if they are not ready. Some students learn quickly and move through the ranks relatively fast; while other students move more slowly…always at their own pace. It doesn’t take long to realize that it is not helpful to compare oneself to others in the class.

The test itself is a chance to demonstrate the student’s level of mastery to the rest of the class. A student isn’t tested on what he knows; but on what he can “do”. Learning in a dojo is never about what one says, thinks, or believes; but it is more about what new actions one is able to take.

What if the ancient concept of the dojo were adapted to our educational system?

Could we find a way to group students that wasn’t solely based on age or ability level?

What would it take to create a culture of learning based on Mastery?
Is it possible to re-define learning from an abstract knowing to an ability to do something with what we know?
Could we create classrooms built on practice?
Might it be possible for students to learn from each other?
Could testing become a ritual meant to demonstrate what one has learned after one has already satisfied the teacher?

I’ve found my years in the dojo to be an incredible and affirmative teaching and learning experience. I still maintain a ‘beginner’s mind’ and do my best to stay on the road to mastery because it’s a lifelong journey. My hope is that every K-12 student find a classroom/dojo, and a teacher/sensei who can help bring subject matter to life and arouse their curiosity and passion. Done well, learning can be the adventure of a lifetime.


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.


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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.



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Learning from Our Students

She wiped away a torrent of tears from her eyes with a tissue that she withdrew from a black leather handbag with large looping handles. After taking a deep breath she looked at me with deeply hurt, red-rimmed eyes,

“Don’t let them do this to you, Pete!”

As she was finishing her sentence she stood abruptly and left the cubby hole that served as the teachers lounge, in this, the old Annex, of the middle school-high school.

Miss Blaine was a first year teacher and it was December. She was not going to come back after the holidays. I’d been asked to spend a week with her before she left in order to get a feel for her classes. The kids had really gotten to her. She had no control of the class. They had seen her cry, and although I’m sure each child was a wonderful soul individually; as a group, they had gotten a taste of “blood” and were mercilessly attacking their wounded teacher.

This was going to be my first teaching job. I was filled with all the confidence of a 22 year old. I convinced myself that what was happening to her had nothing to do with me. I was a big guy, a well-known star on my college basketball team and the third leading scorer in the school’s history. I had been proclaimed an outstanding student teacher. I was hot stuff. Little did I know that this would have no impact on the class, for they cared little about teacher resumes. It was all about teacher presence

It wasn’t long before I learned that kids have a special radar; a “clear vision”, that senses much more than the words that the teacher is speaking. This “clear vision” picks up on how grounded, confident, and present, their teacher appears. False confidence is sniffed out immediately. So, when I took the class as my own in January, I faced the same trials and tribulations as Miss Blaine, the beaten and defeated teacher that preceded me. My size didn’t intimidate them. My basketball stardom earned me no points. They couldn’t care less about my student teaching experience. They toyed with me.

Frankly, I deserved it. My first weeks in the classroom were all about me, not them. I wanted them to like me. I thought the way to win them over was to show them that I wasn’t like the older teachers. I was young and cool. I wasn’t into all the old rules. I wouldn’t say, “No” so often. They picked up on my neediness in that regard. They pressed to see how far they could go before I would enforce the rules and before I would begin to apply “old teacher” discipline and consequences. It was way too late when I did, and it was done amateurishly.

I wanted to teach them things I felt were interesting. I didn’t listen to hear what they thought was interesting. They were experts at taking things that I cared about and belittling them. After a time, I withdrew and held back the things about which I felt most deeply. I didn’t want to share anything important with them. They’d only trash it, and me in the process. Of course, I didn’t show my hurt the way the Mrs. Blaine had. There weren’t going to be any tears with me. I displayed my hurt feelings as anger. The angrier I got the more they sensed they were in control. It was one of the worst months in my life.

The classroom is a beautiful place to learn leadership. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, to paraphrase a famous lyric. Generally, adults are polite to people in authority who are poor leaders; not so with kids. They made my life miserable.

What did my classroom experience teach me about leadership?

  • It’s less about what you say, than who you are. A teacher and leader needs to have a grounded presence. He needs to be confident, open, and connected to those he seeks to teach/lead. If you pretend, they know it.
  • If all you care about is your own agenda, you will have difficulty winning the hearts and minds of those you teach and lead. Listen to them; learn what interests them, and weave this into a narrative that engages them. It’s really not about you. It is always about them. Be in service to them at all times.
  • It takes courage to teach and lead. You put yourself and the things you love and are passionate about into the public domain and discourse. It is that courage to be open and passionate, not cool and aloof that inspires others to come forth to share their own passions.

There are many, many lessons in leadership that my students taught me. This is not the time to describe them all.

Being a teacher and leader is a commitment to the path of the learner; a path that never ends.

It is a joy to walk it.


Advice for New Teachers

This week, tens of thousands of new teachers will be begin their careers. I wish them all well and offer some unsolicited advice.

You are an exemplar of what it is to be a learner. It takes courage to learn alongside your students. You do not have to be perfect. You do not have to know everything. In fact, if that’s the façade you put on, you will be doing your students a disservice. Never forget that you are the “living curriculum”. How you behave has more of a lasting impact than what you say.

Along the way you’ll meet all kinds of students. There will be shy ones like Kelly who can be crushed by criticism. You’ll meet students like Tim, who are outcasts, suffer greatly at home, and who need someone to believe in them. You’ll meet the Laird Bishops of the world, whose enthusiasm and curiosity can open new worlds for you. You’ll meet students who will put you in a place of honor that you may or may not deserve. Keep your eyes open, keep your mind open, keep you heart open.

Remember, that every student is unique and has a gift to offer. The behaviors, dress, and attitudes of some students can make this difficult to believe. Try to look beyond the exterior. Try to find that gift. When you find it, let them know about it. The teachers in my life that have made the most impact on my life were those that acknowledged my gifts and nurtured my confidence in them, and myself. The interesting thing about this is that it only takes a few moments of authentic individual attention to make a huge difference in the life of a student.

Teaching is about learning. You can teach all you want; but if the students aren’t learning, then look to yourself. What can YOU do differently? That’s not to say that students aren’t accountable for their own learning. They are.; but there’s a strange math that applies in this profession; you are 100% accountable for the success of your students and your students are 100% accountable for their own success.

Finally, reach out to your colleagues. Don’t suffer in isolation. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel. Teaching is a tough profession. Within five years, more than 50% of those who started teaching with you will have left the profession. Connect to the veterans who have experienced the gauntlet through which every beginning teacher must journey.

We need you. The children need you…

…all of you!

The complete you… body, mind, and soul.

It will take nothing less.

In gratitude and appreciation,


Teacher Dropouts: Why?

Teachers hold 3.8 million jobs in elementary and secondary U.S. public and private schools, representing approximately 4% of the total civilian workforce. (Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2006).

On average, a third of the newly hired teachers leave during their first three years; almost half leave during the first five years (National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future [NCTAF], 2003).

Here is a table representing how teachers who left the profession, compared various aspects of their current occupation with teaching.


What an eye opener!

Teachers who left the profession rated only two aspects of the teaching profession higher than their present non-teaching position:

1) Benefits 2) Job Security.

The biggest differences cited?

1) Autonomy or control over workload – (65.2% vs 13.7%)

2) Manageability of workload – (60.4% vs 13.5%)

3) General work conditions – (50.9% vs 4.3%)

4) Intellectual challenge – (51.8% vs 17.4%)

5) Opportunities for professional advancement – (53.9%vs 18.1%)

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to bad news….

Check out these disparities:

1) Professional prestige – (57.7% vs 15.8%)

2) Recognition and support from administrators – (46.8% vs 19.7%)

3) Opportunities for Professional Development – (41.7% vs 19.0%)

So, we have overloaded educators, with little autonomy, little opportunity for professional growth, poor working conditions, minimum intellectual challenge, poor support from administrators, and minimal professional development opportunities.

Is it any wonder why the system is failing so many of our kids?

It’s not just failing our children; it’s failing our educators, too.

“..in comparison to the high school student dropout rate, the teacher turnover rate over an equivalent four-year period is greater than the student population dropout rate.” Laird, DeBell, and Chapman (2006)

Will integrating technology into this environment make a real difference or do we need to transform the environment?