Ode to Dewey: Powers, Prophecy and Dignity of Teaching

I believe that this educational process has two sides – one psychological and one sociological; and that neither can be subordinated to the other or neglected without evil results following.

Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed, 1897

The last few days have been dreadful— a real deep freeze. Not only has the weather been unbearably cold, but our boiler collapsed on New Year’s Eve leaving my family without heat and carbon dioxide scares for three days. On the third morning, I lay paralyzed with madness. I was cocooned in an old blue sleeping bag, several layers of fleece and wool covered feet. In that moment I thought, I’m losing my mind. Trust in my existence waned. I sank deep into my sofa and considered what happens to our body, mind, spirit when outer conditions become increasingly challenging?

My eyes land on the portable heater we borrowed. The steady hum muffles my brain. It didn’t help that I had seen the Mountain Between Us and The Zookeeper’s Wife over the holiday. Everything felt like it could spiral out of control in a minute. What happens when outer conditions become increasingly challenging, arduous and pained? What happens to us when the world fails us, when society fails us— as it happened for the millions of Jews, Poles, Slavs during World War II, the African slaves for over three hundred years, for the Puerto Ricans after the hurricane?

It’s only been three days and I’m feeling bi-polar. I am tight lipped, sullen and defensive. Then suddenly, I’m running outside with a surge of energy and gratitude for life. I log onto the internet. Diane Ravitch posted Dewey’s Pedagogic Creed on her website. I want to read it, to feed my intellect, but I can’t. I’m too cold and lethargic. I decide it makes better sense to drive my daughter to school. I can do this, I think.

I am driving her to school and a yellow bus suddenly stops holding us hostage in the middle of a narrow block. Usually I’d feel agitated, but I’m warm so I relax and observe the scene. Shortly, a mother appears out of the house ushering two children. She zips a coat, tinkers with a hat, hugs, kisses and onto the school bus, one by one they go. There are four cars behind me. The longer we wait, the more I become breathless, the more I surrender to this image— the love and devotion for our children and their education has the power to stop a stream of traffic. It is in an instant a lesson on how our inner world can dictate social consciousness.

I am zooming down the West Side highway. My high school age daughter snoozes in the back seat and I am filled with gratitude for her life, my freedom, her school. The dead boiler and the cold feels temporary and insignificant suddenly. I think about the day to day life of a teacher and school leader who choose a life of service. They build learning communities for children and families who may be experiencing hardship and challenges caused by cracks and gaps in society. We hear stories of fires, natural disasters, trauma. We imagine or know intimately the life of a refugee where suffering and displacement are prolonged. Homelessness, family illness, separations, poverty. So many of us come to school as part-time survivors. How should we approach teaching and learning when our outer conditions appear to be increasingly challenging? How might we design learning communities that are conscientious, that are responsive to the frailty of our society, structures and political arrangements that often fail us miserably? How can we institutionalize our universal love and devotion for the inner and outer lives of all of our children?

When I get back home, I am ready for Dewey’s Pedagogic Creed.

I highlight and bold so many beautiful lines. I interrogate his thinking. Then, I close my lap top and think, what is the best way to share my day’s important discoveries.

I believe that every teacher should realize the dignity of his calling; that he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of proper social order and the securing of the right social growth.

       Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed, 1897

 

Where Do Important Lessons Begin and End?

“The pressures of inequality and of wanting to keep up are not confined to a small minority who are poor.”

~Wilkinson & Pickett, The Spirit Level, 2010

“While preparing for a presentation, I start a conversation with the custodial worker assigned to our room. He tells me that my type of work is important, but no matter how much we try to perfect the school and the teacher, nothing will change until we realize that a perfect school in the middle of an impoverished ghetto can never amount to anything. I look up from my neat binder and pile of handouts. The African American man leans over with a squint in his left eye and asks, “What message are we giving a child when we invest in the school but neglect his parents and his community?” I think about this for a long time and I am transformed.” 

~Ríos, Teacher Agency for Equity, 2017

Two important events have happened that carry important lessons.

Lesson #1

My fish got sick. His name is Mr. Anderson. Mr. Anderson is a Betta. Betta’s are very lively and friendly. Since I bought him, I’ve had him in a very small tank that seemed to suit his needs. But with the change of season he started withering. His usual energetic self was now laying at the bottom of the tank. He was lethargic and often buried his head under rocks. Since the weather changed, I decided to add a small heater but it didn’t make a difference. He ate less and less and within days, I began to worry Mr. Anderson wouldn’t make it.

When my son came home for the weekend, he pointed out that Mr. Anderson was depressed. Depressed, I asked? Depressed, he repeated. Maybe you should change his environment, he said while he read up on Bettas on his phone. And you need to talk to him too, Mom. Bettas live alone but they need company.

I bought Mr. Anderson a larger, more vibrant home. I added a filter and some colorful rocks. We all made a special effort to talk to him a lot. Mr. Anderson has not been happier! He swims and darts around all day. His eating habits have improved and he dances for me when I am near enough to see.

While watching Mr. Anderson jiggle his beautiful red polka-dotted body, a feeling of profound appreciation and warmth swept over me. Call me sappy but I felt like he was channeling love, gratitude and the spirit of God to me.

I learned that even a small, loner fish like Mr. Anderson can have needs. I learned that mood is important and moods are tied to our environment. We all need a good space and change. I am reminded of a post I wrote a few years ago called, Mindfulness for Poor People—on the power of space and how often We are forced to stay small to accommodate.

Mr. Anderson gave me permission to acknowledge the causes of my own suffering. I too had been feeling sick and lethargic. I was trying to fix it but doing the wrong things. By being mindful of Mr. Anderson and my environment, I knew what I needed to recharge my spirit.

I have grown out of this space and I am ready for change.

Lesson #2

Last week my daughter texted me to say she was in a shelter. A shelter? I texted back. Yea, she replied, there’s been a shooting. Oh, so that’s what they call lockdown at Stuyvesant, I thought. I marveled once again at the power of language.

I instinctively knew my daughter was safe but I wondered about her inner world—was she scared, disillusioned, saddened by the incident? I ran to my computer to get the news. The first update I got was from Twitter, my new ‘go-to.’ Within minutes more tweets were posted with information and photos. It was already being labeled a terror attack.

I slipped into the world of cyber space. Simultaneously, I sent numerous texts to my daughter and husband coordinating their escape from lower Manhattan. Forty minutes passed before I looked up from the screen and my eyes landed on the black bat I had put up for Halloween. Below it was a large bowl of Costco candy. That’s when it hit me. Another holiday tradition usurped by violence, stress, anxiety.

It wasn’t until eight o’clock that I left the house to get my daughter and husband at the train. They crawled into the car with dark circles under their eyes. They were flushed over with that withered, sour smell of the subway.

The next day we decided to keep our daughter home from school. I told her it was important to take time to pause and reflect. I recommended she rest and say a prayer for the dead. She looked at me sideways.

Not surprisingly, her fortress of a school opened ‘business as usual.’ Teachers, administrators and school leaders courageously opened their doors, taught a full day and led. A part of me envied how easy it was for them to just carry on. But then I realized— isn’t that what we keep doing— over and over again? We just keep carrying on?

I learned that violence, stress and anxiety are real, heavy shared universal human experiences. How fast we can absorb, process and digest the daily dose of violence, stress and anxiety is still considered an individual’s mental health problem. We talk about the negative effects of cortisol and trauma on kids and learning. Teachers and school leaders absorb the same chemicals and it results in chronic low trust, depression, poor health and random, peculiar, anti-social behaviors we often see in our schools and communities.

I learned there are no borders, labels, nor identities that can individually claim the type of violence, stress, anxiety we are experiencing as a society. We are one, big, ravaging sponge-like organism, with little fires sprouting out from all over our limbs. Whether you are home alone or in company, whether you reside at the middle or on the top, or even if you’re dead in the roots your soul screeching and squirming—we are all One.

 

Offering Refuge

In my last post I spoke about the importance of Setting the Tone after an event like Charlottesville. Pubic acts of hate can divide and distract us from our work in building coalitions across race, religion and class; from creating loving, equitable and holistic learning environments for all children. I encouraged readers to refuse to engage in hate and instead, practice Conscientious Engagement— which can look like a daily morning ritual or whole school assembly where we gather together and communicate the importance of shared responsibility and a reverence for all human life. Only through everyday practice can we renew and cement our commitment to our true purpose in education.

Since then, a catastrophic flood devastated Houston. Shortly following, Trump rescinding DACA terrorized thousands of young people across the country. Today, we watch hurricane Irma as it wreaks havoc across the Caribbean towards Florida. This week, I was in Chicago and like some rare form of schizophrenia our professional conversations were punctuated with human conversations about politics, race, class and the relentless question: What can I do? How can I make a difference that matters?

I’ve noticed that people who feel safe (because of race, gender, privilege, circumstances of geography) are also anxious and uneasy. This is because of association, confusion, guilt, fear and wonderings like—should I take responsibility? Some are questioning their identity, searching for the right language or a sign that ensures them that they are not failing as a human being. Others, who are feeling less fortunate are asking questions too, albeit with a different kind of urgency. Anger, pain, sleeplessness, suffering. We are not well. We are not at peace. We are not feeling safe at all, are we?

During my morning meditation today, I felt so calm and safe that I started thinking about the importance of Refuge.

Refuge means safety, protection, shelter. It can be physical safety, like providing shelter to someone who is trying to escape a heavy storm. It can mean safety from the brutality of an abusive family or a national regime. It can also mean social, emotional and spiritual safety like when we find refuge in a genuine embrace.

When I think about refuge I think about Edwin Ng who I interviewed for my book. He had already been thinking about this topic long before me. In his article, Making Refuge: ‘Mindfulness’ and ‘Happiness’ are Distractions from our Moral Responsibility he surfaces some important points that influence my thinking as I consider moving from mindfulness to action. He writes:

“By refuge, I am trying to invite collective mindfulness about a certain promise that hosts a basic fact of our lives. The choicelessness of vulnerability comes to all of us. We don’t choose vulnerability, but we can decide how to respond. The co-inhabitants of this precarious world must invite from and gift to one another conditions of safety to grow and thrive as communities and habitats. Without this promise of caring responsiveness, how could we possibly encounter refuge, create space for refuge, or even understand what refuge is?”

What does it mean to offer Refuge at a time when it’s easy to feel insecure, unsafe, paralyzed or despairing? What does it mean to offer refuge in schools and learning organizations knowing that feeling safe is a basic human need?

Here are some beginning suggestions for the practice of Refuge as part of our work for Conscientious Engagement:

  1. Provide a safe, accessible space for rest and tranquility.
  2. Bear witness, keep company.
  3. Ensure a person’s value by standing up for their growth and well-being.
  4. Relieve them of a burden by paying, giving away or forgiving.
  5. Share information that will open new doors and windows.
  6. Welcome with open arms, patiently, carefully and unconditionally.

I imagine this will be a growing list that we can all work on.