How do you know if you’re making a difference that matters?

This is the year that everything seems to matter— and yet no one knows if what they do day-to-day matters very much at all. It’s certainly the paradox of our time and especially for teachers. I think it’s important to reflect on our everyday practice and put into question our views about the purpose of education and how we engage young people.

Jacob Needleman writes about an all too typical experience:

“There they were, about fifteen boys and girls, there I was—talking, talking, talking. I couldn’t stop talking. Hands started waving in the air and I finally called on one of the students. But no sooner did she start to bring her question out that I steamrolled over it with an answer that left her absolutely no room for further questioning. I went on talking, amusingly, animatedly bringing in Plato’s cave here, the Upanishads there… Time flew by. The bell rang and suddenly the class was over. That was it, that was all. As the students cheerfully filed past me and I smiled to each of them, exchanging a few informal remarks, I began to realize in my gut what had happened. To be precise: nothing.”

This fiasco, as Needleman called it, propelled him to engage in deep reflection and eventually to take on a high school class in San Francisco after years of teaching at the college level. Later he writes, “My task is to engage that part of them that needs to achieve while calling gently to the part that dreams of Truth.”

Needleman designs his philosophy class around enduring questions that he categorizes as “real, gut-level questions of life that often students are not free to address in educational institutions.” Questions such as:

Why are we here?

Why are we given more advanced brains than other animals?

Is taking another human life ever justified?

What is a human being?

What can we hope for?

Who am I?

What is love?

While I read Needleman’s words in a thin book I found on a cluttered shelf at Strand bookstore (Schools with Spirit: Nurturing the Inner Lives of Children and Teachers, edited by Linda Lantieri) I inhale and exhale deeply. I am inspired and reassured. It is so easy to question.

This is a message to all my fellow writers, philosophers and teachers out there who feel deeply about the quality and character of life. What matters is your willingness to inquire within and to find the magic that transforms the outer world through honest, everyday practice. It is keeping humanity at the center of all things.

Sometimes we are stuck in a place where we have to ask: How do I break through this robotic stance? How do I metamorphose this lifeless, sterile, empty space, this institutionalized public space into a personalized, soul-searching, heartbreaking, life-altering space where the spark of curiosity dances through us continuously?

It is easy to get bullied or brow beaten especially considering the real challenges of teaching and learning. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that examining, exploring, honoring, nurturing the quality of our character, our souls, the core of our human existence is somehow someone else’s job or not so important.

Mathematics, science, ELA and technology are important, but not so much if we do not have the capacity to use knowledge in an ethical and mindful way so that we better our world, ensure we are working for peace. Without an investment in the soul work of teaching every day, in nurturing a sense of belonging, purpose, meaning, and value for all life– we may be accidentally contributing to the self-destructive, violent, and hateful behavior we see tormenting our nation.

Setting the Tone After Charlottesville

There is a candle light vigil in Charlottesville now. Instead of violence and the obscenity of a rare vitriolic war dance reminiscent of our tribal past, there are hundreds of human beings standing together holding tiny flames of light, side by side in peace, standing for peace, quietly and gently, taking a stand for love, for brotherhood, for unity, for everything that keeps us together. If you haven’t yet, watch the video clip and narrow your eyelids. It will appear to be a sea of moving lights, angels, stars or spirits. This is the vision that keeps us waking up in the morning and sending off our fragile children to public schools in neighborhoods across the country where they will be in the vulnerable care of other human beings that are not family at all, but who have chosen a life of service.

Why can’t we start every morning with a candle light vigil, like the one we see in Charlottesville tonight?

I have been thinking deeply about how we should respond to hate in our schools. What do our children need and what do we need for ourselves, as teachers and school leaders, in order to provide safe, nurturing spaces for children and young adults to learn and grow with a sense of moral clarity and shared responsibility for our planet.

I have come up with only one answer. Respond with love, love first and last, always love. But what does that mean in schools and communities when we are focused on instruction and our minds are fragmented and divided, thinking professionally and like academics on the one hand and on the other, navigating the strong undercurrent of our social, emotional and spiritual selves; bombarded with thoughts, images, sensations of fear, rage, confusion, guilt, sorrow, despair and disgust? We have been so over-exposed to hate in the form of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, homophobia, the idolization of wealth and so on, that we are challenged with settling our hearts and minds.

What would happen if we stood together every morning as One to remind ourselves of the deep regard we have for life, our deeply threaded lives, our peace, our shared community? Like taking the time to honor the crossing guard who takes special care as she ushers our children safely from one side of the street to the other. Or the school nurse who creates a nook in her office to heal an unexpected tummy ache, or the dean who chooses to practice a restorative justice technique by listening first instead of adding more harm to harm by yelling. What would happen if we chose to stand together at the start of every school day with a candle light vigil, like the one we see in Charlottesville tonight?

We’d look around and realize just how much we entrust our lives and our children’s lives to strangers every day, strangers who have been adorned (by some magical twist of fate) with a variety of colorful wardrobes— some black, some white, some brown, some olive, some old, some new, some gay. We’d see how some of our divine costumes cover our heads and others hang down, below our buttocks low. We’d see how we are all dressed up in some way or another as Christians, atheists, Muslims, Jews, or Yogi. Perhaps we’d realize that strangely, we have all been expertly designed just a little too tall or too short, or big boned or lanky, male, female or “I’m not sure yet, really.”

So, it really is a miracle that with such a wide variety of garments covering our true souls, that we still choose to send our children out into schools, into the hands of all these uniquely adorned strangers, who we hope will embrace them with warm, loving and capable arms. These are the strangers we rely on to drive the bus safely, open the doors gracefully, sweep and mop the floors daily, read to children, teach them literature, music and social studies, remove pesticides from their fruit, wipe their tables clean, pick up their lost jackets, carefully lay out scissors and crayons, fill out the litany of healthcare forms, write letters of reference, organize a much deserved after school party.

What would happen if we could no longer entrust our children to all these uniquely costumed strangers who make up the fabric of our schools and society? What if, out of hate, fear or frustration—we began to assume, by default, that our children, some children perhaps, would most likely be mistreated or misplaced?

We can refuse to engage with the practice of hate. We can choose to channel our energy into creating loving, kind spaces overflowing with the social, emotional, spiritual and intellectual practice of love and authentic relationships. We can settle our minds and our hearts around a common ground, one rooted in shared responsibility, a reverence for all human life and community.

Every thought that is hate, say, “No.” and gently push it away.

Every word that is hate, gently and kindly say, “No.” And then consider how to replace it. Choose the words you want to fully integrate into your thought space and the thought space of the children and adults in your midst. This does not mean you need to bury your head in the sand when someone speaks hateful things, it means to be mindful of the impact of that speech on your thought space and know when it is time to walk away and, then, how will you replenish your thinking well?

Disentangle yourself from toxic relationships and teams that do not infuse your work and your spirit with love, inspiration, goodness, peace and well-being. If you cannot transform them, walk away.

Be mindful of your energy. Every action we take, every investment of our time and energy must be strategically determined. What do we value? Is this a loving action, for yourself and for others? How does this activity better our school, our community? How am I, how are we working for the benefit of our common good? If you are not sure— stay still and quiet and wait.

How would our schools and communities change if we started every morning with a candle vigil, like the one we see in Charlottesville tonight? What would it say to the world about who we really are, about the nature of our spirit and our belief in our ability to create an egalitarian society?

Set the tone and the rest will follow.

 

In the End the True Nature of Teaching Will Prevail

Teaching and learning is art. The role of the artist is to reveal the essence of reality so that we are moved into compassion for ourselves and the world. So we can respond with kindness and humanity, to grow and flourish, to love each other and experience the effortlessness of unbound beauty, the type of effortless beauty found in a Spring bloom.

This has been a socially, emotionally and spiritually tumultuous year for all of us. Not too long ago I remember thinking and hearing that if this president or that, became president—“I am leaving the country!” Alas, this president, or that became president and most of us are still here. For some, this “morning after” is marked by an effervescent glow while for others, we find ourselves stripped naked and bare, each of our flaws and imperfections magnified by a blinding fluorescent light.

How will these social and political changes impact our teaching and learning craftsmanship? How long will it take for our eyes to adjust before we begin to see things more objectively, more clearly— not seeped in a morning after glow or stark naked shame?

I have felt sadness for the many losses and disappointments experienced over the course of this year. Yet, on some days, I am filled with gratitude. Especially during this month of June that marks the end of a year for teachers. Put the past to rest and the anticipation of starting again. I suspect that you are experiencing similar emotions because even though we are all unique individuals, we are together in this shared-reality, these months of social upheaval. Together we have witnessed a grand clearing out, the removal of clutter and garbage that has allowed us to scratch past the fine lens of complacency and superficiality. We are feeling the aftereffects of what happens when toxins are released into our blood stream, similar to what you might feel after a deep tissue massage: the pain and the soreness and all you want is Ibuprofen and green tea.

Donald Pfaff tells us that we are naturally good, that we are biologically wired for altruism. I want to believe him. Especially now when I encounter more news about war than peace and I find people filled with rage rather than gentle kindness. He writes:

“For too long it has become common wisdom that human nature is essentially selfish. We are taught that our instincts are somehow designed by nature to promote ourselves, and that these ‘animal’ selves must be tamed to fit into civilization…. The human brain is actually programmed to make us care for others. Many of our basic drives, reactions and skills are more products of nature than nurture. The innate biology of the human brain [in fact] compels us to be kind. That is, we are wired for good will.” [1]

If you decide to read Pfaff’s book, you will discover his very intriguing “Altruistic Brain Theory” which can be summed up this way:

For a person to act altruistically, they must picture the person who will be the target of this altruistic act in such a way that the image of the person blurs with that of one’s self, which provides the basis for treating the other like oneself.

A brilliant and critical theory for teachers to consider right now, as we engage in the last stage of cleaning out cubbies, saying goodbye, letting go of the past and anticipating a new beginning. Why? Because now is the time, when we are no longer gripped by the fear of unfamiliar shadows and are ready to find peace and acceptance for who we really are. Now, we can narrow in on what we need to do to move into alignment with our magnificent, altruistic nature.

I for one, make a commitment to engage in a mindful inquiry this summer about altruism. I will reflect on this question every time I interact with another human being:

Does the image of the person in front of me blur with the image of myself?  

Then I will ask, why or why not?

What are the barriers, filters and/or mindsets that prevent us from being able to picture or visualize a person, as being like oneself?

Recently, I was invited to contribute to a column on race and implicit bias and I thought deeply about how personally responsible we should feel for the injustices we witness in schools and in society when there are so many complex factors at play such as widening income inequality, segregated schools and communities, a national narrative that breeds intolerance for immigrants, Muslims, poor people and so on. Implicit bias exists, however we need to understand that our minds are so fragile and conditioned by the prevailing narratives of our time. Our nature may be altruistic, but how often do we act in alignment with our true nature? What gets in the way of truth?

Teaching is an act of love. It is revelation. It is the total nurture of the mind, body and spirit of humanity. It is a craft to be taken on with compassion. As I discuss in my forthcoming book, the majority of teachers go into the teaching profession for altruistic reasons. It is a calling for most.

This June, I hope that as you make sense of this socially, emotionally and spiritually challenging year, that you do not stray too far from your purpose. Rest up. Then visualize yet another iteration of yourself; a self that is One and in the same image as all other human beings, because tomorrow we will come together again.

We are still here and there is much work to be done.

____________________

[1] Pfaff, Donald W. (2015) The Altruistic Brain: How We Are Naturally Good. Oxford University Press, 2015

Finding Balance & Space

There are four different spaces that make up the canvas of our lives:

  • personal, when we are alone;
  • interpersonal when we are in relationship with another;
  • community when we are part of a group with a shared purpose;
  • spiritual which can exist within each of the other three spaces or all of them combined.

On the coldest day of the year, or so it felt to me, I ventured into the warm and beautiful Kadampa Meditation Center in New York City, a spiritual space and refuge for those of us who wish to explore Buddhism and meditation. As part of my ongoing commitment to the practice of conscientious engagement, my purpose is always twofold: to experience and to study the phenomena of that experience. This is in a nutshell the nature and nurture of my own consciousness, as well as the pathway I have chosen to better understand how to develop consciousness in the world.

Unlike my other posts, this one will be brief. I wanted to take a moment to quickly share what I learned on my visit, which included approximately forty minutes of guided meditation in a room with about fifteen participants.

The first thing that was revealed to me was just how important it is that we engage in all four spaces that make up our human experience if we are to experience wholeness and well-being—in other words, balance.

Second, this experience revealed the enormous impact of how we design our spaces, via architecture or process structures such as when we design a school building or even a learning experience divided into modules, protocols and time.

Each detail of a space (the external and the internal elements) communicates value of purpose. For example, if we work in a place where the only common area is the size of a cubicle, what does that say about how our company culture values interpersonal relationships? Similarly, if we omit access to one of the four spaces entirely (as we often do in education) then how are we to experience holism and well-being? An example of this is designing a school entirely centered on personalized learning at the expense of community building. Or, creating schools in which no space is allotted for teachers and students to explore philosophy, ethics, the nature of our existence or the spiritual dimensions of consciousness and its impact on cognition.

There was something very beautiful and uplifting about sitting in meditation with other human beings as compared to sitting alone in my living room. Not to mention the open, simplicity of the architecture of the space, the room was large and spacious, with crystal clear windows and natural light and we were not cramped on top of each other. The voice of the instructor was soothing sending energetic frequencies into the space, and I knew we also transmitted energy to one another in our meditation. The space transcended the space itself.

I need to do this, I thought. And more often. I also left wanting to share these insights with my education colleagues who spend so much time cramming teachers into tight spaces teaching from curriculum and instruction designs that lack careful attention to the mind-body-spirit balance and the three spaces we need to communicate a value for the whole person. All of this refers to education spaces that meet the needs of the whole child. No wonder we we struggle with innovating the public education!

As such, I decided this experience deserves greater exploration. Some of the questions I will be thinking about over the next week are:

  • Do all four spaces require an equal amount of time for well-being? Is this the same for each person, or does it vary?
  • What is the difference between experiencing spirit alone as compared to being in a group?
  • Are we optimizing our energy/learning/well-being when we engage in experiences that integrate all four spaces or domains?
  • How has modern day living and technology coopted our access to space and what has been the impact on our consciousness?

 

Obama’s Safe Space

Aisha Harris of Slate wrote President Obama was in the zone when he delivered the eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney on Friday in Charleston, South Carolina. She also said the speech gave her hope in seeing real, actual progress. Obama’s eulogy had an equally profound impact on me. His preacher style cadence transported me to the sixties and the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. When he spoke about how God works in mysterious ways, I flashed back to that first time I heard Obama speak in 2004. It was the year I read Jonathan Kozol’s book, The Shame of the Nation flying home from Seattle to New York after a long week coaching. Whatever zone Obama was in, it must have had a quantum effect because while I listened to him speak, I was time traveling. I have no doubt Obama’s speech resonated in the same way with thousands across the globe, possibly hitting a level of intensity that can only be a quantum leap in our collective consciousness.  Is it possible for anyone to tap into that kind of zone that will translate into the change we want to see when it comes to equity?

Poor people, people of color and human beings who have been targets of hate and oppression live off this kind of hope. One of the reasons Obama was voted into presidency was because he threaded hope into his campaigning. Everyday hope is deciding to engage with the world in spite of the odds or the daunting statistics. It means keep moving forward in the face of failure or the humiliation of ignorance or discrimination inflicted upon us daily. Hope has the power to get us through it. It is predicated on faith and faith is about the power of the spirit to manifest dreams into reality. It is no coincidence that Obama’s speech resonated hope. And it was not just because he spoke about grace, forgiveness and healing. It was because he also dared to speak about our dark truth without shaming.
There is indeed a zone that Obama tapped into and we need more of it. He found himself there because of the unique ‘safe’ space he was in. And I’m not referring to the church, either because we know churches are not necessarily safe spaces. I’m referring to the space that is created when several factors converge. It is like a pathway for authenticity and engagement and we watched it happen not only to his audience but it happened to himself, in front of us. As an educator who facilitates and observes tons of presentations, I’ve always been fascinated by how some people have a profound impact on others while others seem to miss the mark entirely. Over the twenty years presenting to children and adults, I’ve come to learn that there are three essential factors that are guaranteed to move an experience into the zone, that is—to have a conscientious, authentically engaged learning experience that has real potential to ignite change.
Factor  #1. Reference our common knowledge or a collective truth. The fact is, even in a diverse world, we are all connected and together we have access to knowledge and universal understandings that we hold as truth. Sometimes this can be unmistakable moments in history but other times it’s about acknowledging the enduring universal truths that underlie all human experience such as raising a family, forgiveness, grace or love.
Factor  #2. Acknowledge how we are entangled with some people more than others and therefore understand what it means to identify with or share a common purpose. While we are all connected, we are also bound together to some by a set of circumstances, whether it is family, work, a neighborhood, a school, religious affiliation or identity. These are the groups we engage with more intimately and we are charged with the group to move ahead a shared purpose. How we manage relationships in these groups determine the outcomes.  
Factor  #3. Overtly acknowledge power and power relationships and how power shapes our society. Power relationships played out through status, racial hierarchies, class or other shape how we behave in the world and how others see us. By overtly recognizing power, people are more likely to heal from oppressive conditions and take a step towards meliorism.
Dr. Jeff Duncun-Andrade, critical educator and professor of education goes around the country saying he is a hope dealer. He knows of that great moment in teaching when we transmit hope to people. But hope alone is not enough to have the long lasting impact on our collective consciousness. If we look back over Obama’s presidency with impact on social change in mind we see how selling hope alone did not do it. It was his ability to harness our universal truths, demonstrate compassion and understanding for entangled groups and finally, for acknowledging the role power and oppression plays in society. How can we teach people to engage with each other in this way? Is there a way to develop more safe spaces that open each and every one of us to the potential of the zone?

Schools ought to be safe spaces. Education is our pathway to knowledge and innovation. As a teacher educator, I want to know how can I get teachers to live in that critical zone?  They need to know the entire purpose of their job is to inspire students to speak, write and create art that vibrates at a quantum energetic level with the power to impact the world. Teachers need safe spaces with which to dismantle false notions of teaching and learning, false notions of the purpose of education. They need to ask themselves: how can we cultivate the freedom of the mind and spirit so that we can create equitable and sustainable societies?
In my experience, there are few safe spaces in education today. Conscientious educators are persecuted daily. There is always a Dylan Roof amongst us. Knowing this, we have to ask ourselves how are we creating schools that are in the service of truth?  Is it not the true function of education to cultivate in you intelligence? And what is intelligence but the capacity to think freely, without fear, without formula, so that you begin to discover for yourself what is real, what is true?[1]

Our witnessing of Obama’s light shine out from this safe space was a historical moment. It was a demonstration of what we can do when we are in the zone. Now, each of us has to consider how to build safe spaces all around us, so that we can take hope one step further than just hope.



[1]Krishnamurti (1964) Think on These Things. Harper Perennial