Sunday, December 8, 2013

if the helper is unhappy, he or she cannot help many people

From her essay Engaged Pedagogy in bell hooks' Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, emphases mine:
"In his work Thich Nhat Hanh always speaks of the teacher as a healer. Like Freire, his approach to knowledge called on students to be active participants, to link awareness with practice. Whereas Freire was primarily concerned with the mind, Thich Nhat Hanh offered a way to thinking about pedagogy which emphasized wholeness, a union of mind, body, and spirit. His focus on a holistic approach to learning and spiritual practice enabled me to overcome years of socialization that had taught me to believe a classroom was diminished if students and professors regarded one another as "whole" human beings, striving not just for knowledge in books, but knowledge about how to live in the world...
That means that teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students. Thich Nhat Hanh emphasized that "the practice of a healer, therapist, teacher or any helping professional should be directed toward his or herself first, because if the helper is unhappy, he or she cannot help many people." In the United States it is rare that anyone talks about teachers in university settings as healers. And it is even more rare to hear anyone suggest that teachers have any responsibility to be self-actualized individuals...
Indeed, the objectification of the teacher within bourgeois educational structures seemed to denigrate notions of wholeness and uphold the idea of a mind/body split, one that promotes and supports compartmentalization... The idea of the intellectual question for a union of mind, body, and spirit had been replaced with notions that being smart meant that one was inherently emotionally unstable and that the best in oneself emerged in one's academic work... There was fear that the conditions of that self would interfere with the teaching process."
I'm not yet sure what I make of this, but a part of me is screaming "yes!" I work with a lot of educators, particularly novice teachers, who are unhappy because they feel as though they can't do enough, or because the challenges they're struggling against seem insurmountable. I was one of these novice teachers, and sometimes still tumble into being one of these educators, because gosh: poverty, racism, oppression, anger, and fear are pretty significant challenges for young people who are smart and hardworking and accustomed to being successful because they're smart and hardworking-- or because they've never tackled anything quite so daunting.

Perhaps it's the psychology major in me, or the introspective navel-gazer, but I've always wanted to add one more piece to the elements of knowing your content and knowing your students (I've also seen/heard this described as knowing your content, knowing your students, and knowing how to teach your content to your students): know yourself. I'm certain this isn't a new idea (citations welcome!), and yet it's so often overlooked. The closest I've seen our organization come is in professional development around Marshall Ganz's story of self, although even that feels like an (important) act of organizing and motivating others by explaining who you are and why you do the work you do, rather than an ongoing journey of becoming yourself. Perhaps we're afraid to live in the ambiguity and uncertainty of never quite knowing because we mistakenly assume that we cannot teach others-- or cannot establish credibility/authority, particularly this early in our careers-- if we don't have it all figured out.

But I think our students, especially teenagers who are wrestling with difficult questions of identity and belonging and values and future within the context of poverty, racism, oppression, anger, and fear, need adults in their lives who are willing to engage in those questions, and who are willing to model themselves that the journey doesn't (and probably shouldn't) stop at the end of one's adolescence. And doing that as a teacher requires much more intentionality and much more humility and much more of all sorts of other things than just knowing mathematics, knowing a group of students, or even knowing how to communicate mathematics to students/how to set up conditions where mathematics is inspiring to students.

Tell me what you make of this passage-- I feel like I've got more to say but need your help in processing further :)

Also, now I want to go back and reread Thich Nhat Hanh through an educator's lens.


  1. I think this is valid. The healing metaphor is appropriate because we always talk about diagnosing each student's needs, and I also think our ability to deliver difficult messages re: learning to our students is analogous to bedside manners, having a huge impact on how the message is received and how our students respond to it.

    The separation of the self from our craft is a false one. It's something I am working actively on addressing over time. One of the most powerful messages I took from Klingenstein a few summers back was that kids are learning from our self as soon as we step into the classroom, before the lesson begins and after the lesson ends. They learn from how we handle failure, how we handle embarrassment, how we communicate the things we are so not good at. They also learn when we over-react to situations or react negatively. The burden of modeling desired behavior is therefore constantly upon us as educators, which is far more difficult than planning decent lessons.

    PoCC/SDLC which I just returned from has a powerful model that supports this need to consider adult's development of identity. Each day the chaperones go to their own workshops and meet their own role models, while the kids do the same. We're all along a spectrum of development and learning. For example, how can we expect our kids to stand up against micro-aggression from their peers, if we don't model it by standing up to/educating our colleagues and supervisors when they act inappropriately towards us and exhibit signs of micro-aggression?

    My two cents, hope it goes through this time and doesn't get lost in the Blogger jaws. :)

  2. Echos with everything I understand about the teaching process. However, I see it slightly differently: that being a good teacher means being an 'expert learner', which encompasses learning about yourself and the process of living as much as subject-based foci.

  3. Wow, Grace. Amazing insights. This touches on so many things I believe in. I need some "individual think time," but I wanted to raise my hand and say I am in for this conversation.

    - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  4. Thanks for your comments! You've made me think a few things already, particularly in connection with a poem a friend sent me about goodness, and further reflecting on the work we do with values-based leadership development (which is described, at least internally, as "a regular inquiry into the mindsets, beliefs, and feelings that guide our actions"). This work often focuses on leadership-- what does it mean to be a leader, what does it mean for YOU to be a leader, how will you lead, who will you lead/with, etc.-- and one thing I struggle with is that in practice (contrary to the theory/intention behind it), it can feel like professional development geared toward helping our teachers achieve a particular archetype of leadership: one that, as someone who doesn't like to stand in the front of the room or wave the flag or even believe I'm generally right, feels uncomfortable to me. It feels like the teacher is leading the charge, and investing students in his/her vision and values, and assuming the students don't have much to offer except labor and hopefully enthusiasm.

    But, as I think Mimi and Peps are saying, being a teacher means constantly reflecting on who we are as people, how we aspire to be as people, and the learning process it takes to work toward that. This feels like leading by example in the truest sense: modeling what it's like to be an engaged, thoughtful, responsible-- and yet flawed and imperfect-- human being, so that students can see what is possible to become. I imagine and hope that this is particularly powerful when students' previous experiences with school haven't given them much faith in the adult world as one where they can belong and grow and be surrounded by others who are also working towards goodness.

    And this makes the content seem almost incidental, no?

    Looking forward to continuing this conversation :)