No One Puts Baby in the Corner

I miss the wander of my words, skipping about with no particular direction other than the flow of my curiosity. I miss forgetting you are there, that my blog is nothing more than secrets written down on the page and accidentally, the covers of my diary are fallen open, under my bed. I miss my innocence and now when I watch my children, lovely and delicious they, I wonder if it’s too late for me. Is it too late? Is it too late to go back to that carefree world when I didn’t know, when I wasn’t tired of looking, when life was still a romantic quest?

I’ve been spending a lot of time alone.  As a result, I’ve begun to re-evaluate my sense of purpose and well-being. What I want, don’t want— that sort of thing. I’ve always considered myself a self-directed person, engaged enough to keep my engine going, even while running on empty. My tendency is to read to fill up time. I research for pleasure, as you know, education is a never ending riddle. I look for opportunities and I exercise. Yet, these last few weeks have been different. I’ve taken pause. I’ve been sitting for longer periods of time doing nothing.  Instead of burying my head in a book, I look around.  I walk slower and drive slower.  I do a little small talk, but not much, but more than usual. With a parent in the school yard, a stranger on line, that sort of thing. I’m outside, again. Outside of normal life.  
As a result, I’ve begun to unravel.
And I’ve started dreaming more.
Things have begun moving around and so I’ve decided to take some stuff and put them in boxes.  I’ve got a lot of clutter but I’m lazy and don’t want to spend all of my time cleaning and organizing. I feel like there’s something greater I need to put my energy to, like— I don’t know. Something bigger, that’s all.
I’ve been feeling like I don’t want to be a rat in this city. If you pick your head up long enough, you’ll begin to see how much human beings are robotized in New York City. Of course, this could be what I observe in the subway and we all know that the subway is in itself a wayward soul, but the truth remains—you have to be thick to live here.  And a little crazy.  I just feel that it’s easy to get lost and lose a sense of purpose when you’re a rat in the city.
What is my purpose and why is it so important?  Are some people lucky enough to have a strong sense of purpose while others spend a lifetime looking for one?  Is it something to have and hold, static like a possession or is it changing and organic and open to a total remodeling?
I’ve always been curious about the nature of purpose because purpose is the drive behind agency and agency is what makes human beings do amazing things in a lifetime. I’ve been working on a book that has a lot to say about purpose and agency: having it, losing it, nurturing it, teaching it.  It is in actuality one of the most fundamental themes of our existence.
Purpose is what gives us the courage and the patience to go from day to day. Purpose is what pushes us to make long term investments in a project or in other people. It also embodies every important topic that is meaningful for us as human beings but especially for educators.
I am reminded of the time when I sat with three students after school. Each of them had a learning disability that I knew very little about.  I was just getting to know them. In fact, I was amazed at how every time we had a conversation, I realized just how much I didn’t know about them, how they perceived the world and how they processed information. Every interaction was peeling away a layer.  It was a tutoring session and we were discussing the weekly vocabulary words.  I was also trying to explain what nouns were, specifically abstract nouns like the noun: love. One of the girls asked me to explain the word ‘abstract’ and I found myself fumbling over my words like a clown.  Generally speaking, I’m pretty articulate so the experience of trying to explain the concept of abstract to eleven year olds was disarming and revealing. We laughed a lot, as you can imagine.
On my way home that evening I thought about the complexity of language and how difficult it is to teach with the right amount of care and attention to nuance. I also realized how much power I had over the minds of those children.  I had been given the important task of framing the world with words.  Whose vision of the world would I share?  Our conversation about nouns was riddled with choice and I could teach them mechanically or I could teach them with the magic of a heightened awareness.
What I want to point out is how difficult it is to talk about purpose because it is an abstraction.  It is a social and personal construct and we as unique individuals, can fill the word with meaning using a variety of different life tones and depending on how we experience it at an intimate level.  Nonetheless, I wonder if we can come to some sort of agreement about the nature of purpose?
What is purpose?  And why is it important to consider if you are an educator? Can you share your thoughts?

Finding the Spirited Educator

I’ve been very fortunate to have observed many educators over the last two decades so I know there are all types of teachers.  Some act like kings or queens and can transform any classroom into their royal thrown. Others talk like politicians, mesmerized by the sound and cadence of their voice, captivating their audience (however small).  I’ve seen quite a few authoritarian types who cut the crap out of a room with a steel yard stick and a lethal stare. I’ve seen how soft, round grandparent types can scoop up pencils and paper as if they were jelly beans.  I’ve watched how the meek ones (who may or may not part their hair to the side) nod their heads like mattress springs and I’ve seen others who sport tattoos, old jeans, three tiered earrings, platform shoes or spandex.

Regardless of this array of entertaining personalities, I can honestly say that after all these years observing educators, there’s only one thing that distinguishes one teacher from another and that is spirit.  What is this thing called spirit and is it something that we can nurture in developing teachers?
This is what comes to mind when I think about spirited educators:

  • A spirited educator strategically and purposefully crafts moments in which they reveal truth about themselves to their students.
  • A spirited educator understands teaching as an act of humility and power at the same time.
  • A spirited educator finds ways to transcend the material plane in order to create a safe space here on earth.
  • A spirited educator knows that we belong to the WWW (world wide web) of souls and that each individual is both a conduit and a receptor for energy, love and knowledge.

I believe we don’t pay enough attention to this very important topic in the teaching profession— that is the spiritual nature of teaching and learning and its role in the evolution of human development.  I started exploring this topic several years ago with Dr. Talwar but so much has changed that I think it’s worth revisiting.
I had the opportunity to observe a training the other day and the content was very simple and straightforward, so much so that I was a little bored. Yet, there was one point in the session that struck a chord. The trainer told the participants that it was important to recognize and celebrate each other and towards that aim, she asked that each participant tell someone in the room something they appreciated about someone else. I had seen this type of activity before and as an observer taking notes, I wanted to see if people would move around and if someone would be left out.  Shortly after the instructions were laid out and a low buzz filled the room, the trainer came over to me and held out her hand.  I was surprised that she included me. Holding my hand, she told me how thankful she was that I had shared a personal story with her when we first met because it made her feel less alone in the world.  She said, “You reminded me that we all experience bad days and it was so important for me to hear that at that moment. I really identified with you.”  While she spoke, I felt energy move through us and I have to tell you, I am one of those people that generally shy away from this sort of thing because I believe something as personal as gratitude should be organic and not contrived—but the experience happened onto me and I melted— literally the tension in my muscles disappeared. I was graced with that woman’s presence.  It was only a moment, it must have lasted less than a minute.
As it turned out, it was one of only two moments in a whole day that I had experienced something worthwhile.
Earlier, I had gotten pulled over by a police officer for talking on my cell phone while driving.  I had been lost for over an hour and was extremely late to my meeting. I called the office and the support staff was feeding me directions.  By the time the policeman got to my window, I burst out in tears.  I had been on the road for over two hours fighting traffic, a three car accident and a shitty GPS system!  Now, I was facing a whopping ticket and well, I broke.  The police officer peered into the window and I started telling him between sobs that I was lost and late and exhausted and I needed to be at a school and so on and so forth and he waited while I let the tide rip. Honestly, I couldn’t do anything but babble.  When there was a pause he asked why I hadn’t used my speaker and I said I didn’t have a speaker and I pointed to my directions and the GPS and repeated over and over again how I was desperate.  The man looked perturbed.  He stood back and took a long pause and it was in that moment I noticed his heavy eyes. Then something strange happened. A part of me stepped out of myself and I watched us there, in the middle of a four lane intersection, on a nameless street, at the center of distressed urban city, me wiping spit and snot onto my sleeve and he in a navy blue uniform with a decision to make about how to use his power.  In that floaty moment, I just knew everything was going be fine and he was going to send me on my way.  And I was right.  He gave me directions and said, “Ma’am, you’re only four blocks away. You’re going to be alright now.”
Two acts of humanity altered my reality and each happened in under a minute.  Two total teachable minutes out of a whole day!  They taught me compassion and the power of the spirit to break out of the mundane roles that entrap us into believing we are separate.
We can and must transcend the material world and connect with each other, to see past the obvious so that we can make our earthly space a little less hostile.  And we, yes, we can and must practice and build this into our agenda— that being a spirited educator does not have to be organic; it can be practiced and nurtured and encouraged.  If done with purpose and honesty, the impact will be real.
Teachers and teacher educators are vulnerable every day.  We are like sacrificial lambs who offer ourselves up to children and adults for the purpose of growth and development. Many of us suffer from the social, emotional and spiritual impact of concurrent reforms that make our jobs less and less humane, less and less creative, less and less joyful.  Many of us are scared  of speaking up or out against programs and policies that don’t seem to have the best interest of children at heart but in our silence, our spirit suffers.  How are we implicated in this crisis?  We ask ourselves.  What can we do about it when we are in need of a job?  How can we hold on to the meaning and purpose behind our everyday tasks when we are getting so much pressure and feeling confused? There are so many contradictions and incongruences that we have to stop and take notice of how this impacts our overall well-being.
I want us to think about what it takes to be a ‘spirited educator’ today and how we can find the strength and courage in ourselves to walk along this path.

The Perennial Bowel Movement

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.”
~ Karl Marx
The “back to the basics” movement is here, again. Doesn’t this remind you of the 1980s? In response to the overall dissatisfaction with the programs popularized in the 60s, declining test scores and disruptive classrooms[1], Ronald Reagan called us to action.  A Nation at Risk warned, “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”[2]

Not surprisingly, immigration policies and the civil rights movement of the 60’s had dramatically changed the face of America’s schools so the conversation of mediocrity pivoted around how we should respond to racial and ethnic diversity.[3]Kenneth Clark’s study on youth in Harlem pointed to the fact that blacks were systematically deprived of a good education and he cautioned that “unless firm steps were taken immediately, the public school system in the urban North would become predominantly a segregated system…a school system of low academic standards, providing a second-class education for under classed children.”[4]
Although Reagan’s education platform promised that “all children, regardless of race or class or economic status [would get] a fair chance,”[5]corporate America and the military would benefit the most from the Reagan administration. Reagan’s budget cuts resulted in mass unemployment and millions of children entered the ranks of the officially declared “poor.” Within a short period of time, a quarter of the nation’s children—twelve million—were living in poverty.[6]

Following A Nation at Risk, there was a rush to design reform programs that could “fix” low performing public schools. The report asserted that lax academic standards were correlated with lax behavioral standards and that neither should be ignored. The general consensus was to get ‘back to the basics,’ which meant to focus on math and reading instruction, teach children to follow directions[7]and establish a common core curriculum that would ‘level’ the playing field. It was in the 1980’s, when E.D. Hirsch, Jr. first coined the term “core knowledge.” After the release of his bestselling book, Cultural Literacy, he established The Core Knowledge Foundation that teaches how disadvantaged children can succeed if they have access to the same knowledge as children from privileged settings. Throughout the following decade, academics debated the question: How much power does a school really have when educating children living in poverty?
None of this sounds very different than today, does it?
Yet, this time we’ve upped the ante. Fueled by a push-back political landscape and a highly publicized 1% ‘takes all’ economy, politicians on both sides of the aisle are anxious to mitigate the swell of the angry poor concentrated in big cities. They know it will take some time to move from reforming schools to reforming the entire system. How else can they completely appropriate public school funding?
Keep the proletariat dizzy.  
Have you ever run on a treadmill?  It’s exhausting but you don’t get very far do you?  You stay because your mind is focused on the calories you’re burning.  Parents are running hard on lots of individual treadmills called, ‘Choice.’ Much of their experience can be exemplified by ‘the lottery’ and other deceptive admissions devices that lead most parents nowhere fast.  Teachers meanwhile are running too, working that front line dodging the bullets, jumping through Danielson hoops. In the background, an epic recording plays over and over assuring folks that capitalism is what makes this country great. The broadcast is muffled and staticy but tireless. “Choice grows competition, competition improves quality, quality makes consumers happy and business is the backbone of the American dream.” In between each pause, we auto-insert a plea for patience.
Teachers who remember our history are considered difficult because they see patterns. Like little connect the dots puzzles, they share in the cafeteria or in the halls. Consequently, veterans and their union meetings are neatly disposed of.  Some teachers are blatantly ignored like the elderly. Others are picked on incessantly or kicked out onto the streets like unwanted guests at a party.  They’re replaced by the new teacher, churned out and distributed, heroic jugglers of the new regime. They can handle disgruntled parents with one hand and pander to those with the money with the other— blindfolded! Add the new Common Core to the mix, vast complex units of study doled out like blocks of welfare cheese and we’ve successfully spun half the country’s schools & school districts into a tizzy.  This is the dizziness around us.  This is what distracts people. And it fuels fear. 
Is our greatness not so great after all?  Like getting caught in the flush of some great big white toilet bowl, we’re flailing our arms and kicking but it’s swirling too fast. The current is strong and all I can think about is what are we going to do with all this shit?

*This post was reprinted at Truthout. 

[1]Thomas, JW (1980). Agency and achievement: self-management & self-regard. Review of Educational Research
[2]Ravitch,D (2000) Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform. Touchstone
[4]Clark, K.B (1965) Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power. Harper & Row
[5]Ravitch, D (2000) Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform. Touchstone
[6]Zinn, H (2005) A People’s History of the United States, Harper Perennial Modern Classics
[7]Thomas, JW (1980). Agency and achievement: self-management & self-regard. Review of Educational Research