If you can’t run, walk… (include full quote)
-Rev. Dr. MLK Jr.
Are you reading this because you want inspiration? I’m writing it for much more than that. I want you to feel so challenged by what it asks of you that you are awakened from the safety of sleep at night. You deserve to carry with you that same unnerving voice that called me to write it. This happens to me when I have been living inharmoniously with a truth that has been too obvious for far too long. It chews on my soul until I can no longer ignore the pain. It whispers, “there are bigger questions; seek them and be bold enough to ask”. I have chosen to be bold, and paid for a profound, liberating adventure with a lot of short-term personal tumultuousness. Why?
I believe that we can use conversations to conspire with the people around us to act more meaningfully more often. I think our lives require deep reflection, commitment to self and community, and courage to take the daily right actions that will breathe life into our dreams. Everyone deserves the dignity of realizing their own potential; and straight through the heart of loving, well-organized communities is the only path to that kind of success. Nobody does it alone; they do it in community. I want to build that community.
[Short story – uninspiring workplace]
Long story short, I knew it wasn’t the place for me, but I kept working there. My personal life had been challenging and traumatic for years, and keeping that job was one of many things I did to give myself the illusion of control. My students were wonderful – they were engaged and full of the incredible stories of the journeys that had brought them to our classroom. We bonded over our common experiences and I listened stunned to a great many I hope I’ll never live through. I was passionate about teaching, as I have always been; it fills me with energy to know its possible for us to reach into one another’s minds and collaboratively build concepts or spark a fire that burns down ill-conceived beliefs.
If you’re content with only the knowledge and techniques you acquired in grad school, I’d like to propose that there are methods far more seditious you could be utilizing in the classroom. When you find yourself teaching the same literature, telling the same tired stories, and sourcing your inspiration from that same old movie you think is a stand-in for life; fear not: there’s soulful work that can completely reawaken you. If nine days out of ten you are not totally ecstatic to get to class so that you can conspire with your students to conceive the future, let’s get started on getting us all there now!
Together, we’re going to learn the art of structuring around student need a curriculum that fosters the organic development of student-teacher and student-student relationships built on mutual trust and respect, common aims, and profuse courage. This will be much more than teaching, or rather exactly what our art was always meant to be: radical commitment, deep imagination, and exhilarating exploration.
We are mapping this curriculum over long-accepted theories in pedagogy, psychology, and linguistics. By tracing theory, we will better understand the fundamentals of human growth and well-being and how we might go about the alchemy of a balanced learning experience. But we’ll go far beyond discussing those basic scientific principles. You see, graphing the world is nice and all, but we are here to bend it! And to do so, we will need not only raw intellect, but the ongoing development of emotional intelligence and an openness to orphic, dangerous creativity.
From the outset we ought to accept that we are ill-equipped to deal with the vicissitudes of life; that’s why we recognize them as such. Otherwise, they’d be just like waking up to a rainy day and finding a hair in your omelette – big deal – get an umbrella, and for God’s sake, don’t waste all those eggs and fresh vegetables. The truth is that life has so much more in store for us than we are ever prepared for, and so we are constantly playing catch up on how to handle it.
Who can help us? Our family members, best friends, neighbors, and community members, if only we are wise and brave enough to let them. Our students are some of the closest people we know, and somehow we engage with them as if we have answers and are working off a well-known script. Stop teaching, start showing your students how to figure out some of the same things that you don’t know either. Show them process, not answers. And be vulnerable – it matters.
19 (and counting) years of language acquisition instruction, in both Spanish and English, have provided me with ample experience to assert what I do here. In those short 19 years, my students and I have have helped each other negotiate contracts, engineer for Fortune 20 conglomerates, fortify NATO alliances, earn raises and promotions, leave abusive relationships, access college, get married, raise children, forge and sever religious ties, lose weight, lose children, lose country, and somehow find a way to come to terms and thrive alongside challenges to everything we thought we knew. Life is inescapably traumatic and beautiful, and we all need the skills, the wisdom, and the courage to handle it.
Come on – let’s learn how to speak life deeply!
I had been teaching with an organization for five years and had taken on leadership roles in a marketing campaign and in the teacher’s union. The union work was fulfilling insofar as it gave me the opportunity to represent my fellow co-workers, to push for much needed living wage adjustments and generally advocate a more sensible work environment for our colleagues. Opposition was fierce and disrespectful, and thus the negotiating process was demoralizing. We ended a multi-year negotiation with no contract, irreconcilable bottom lines, and a lot of animosity.
Our marketing campaign was a microcosm of the larger organizational and management dysfunction that had plagued us as long as I had been there (and a lot longer according to stories from longtime employees). It was run on our end by a somewhat competent C-level executive who lacked vision and was subordinate to an executive director who ruled by fear and drudgery. I had petitioned for funding to launch an Instagram account and was barely able to do so. In years-old archives on my hard drives live my early attempts at a creative approach to branding. There are countless (well, maybe 50 or so) posts that never made it into public view; blame creative differences.
It takes courage to question ourselves because we ultimately confront our conscience, that moral, values-based branch of the soul that lies always within us yet never lies to us. It is not entirely us, and not at all under our control. We can ignore this independent co-traveler for some time at the risk of great peril. But the soul is savvier than the cerebrum and will lash out and destroy any ill-conceived plans we have, no matter how long we’ve been plotting along.
More than that, I am convinced that we all seek meaning and action. I believe
What it takes
When I’m teaching well, I’m preparing myself beforehand not only to structure the sequence and array of activities but also to publicly confront my own ignorance on a given topic. To be a vibrant teacher, I am continuously trying to discover knowledge and perspectives I’ve been missing. If it looks a little messy, it is. Students are a great wealth of information and together are exponentially more intelligent than the person tasked with teaching them.
Utilizing complex, collaborative processes
Methods that invite collaboration through complex processes will elicit diverse and emergent results. They are unpredictable and will always surprise. This keeps the learning fresh for the teacher, which has an effect on the energy of the students. When I used to take courses, I loved nothing more than when our Psychology instructor told us that she had no idea what the results would be or where our conversations would take us. This lit me up and was the only buy-in I needed to go home afterwards and work on the skills I was lacking during the discussions.
On my way back to the dorms, after my Spanish and Political Science classes at Elon University, I often recited portions of the arguments students had with each other and with our professors. These were the most exciting parts of class and drove everyone involved to dig deeper into our understanding to try to formulate statements that were uniquely ours. We watched our professors squirm whenever they were brought to the precipice of their well-trodden knowledge. This was reassuring to undergraduates who didn’t have everything figured out. It let us know that thinking on the fly is necessary as a learned professional, and that it’s impossible to have imagined every hypothetical scenario. That sound silly to write now, but as young learners, we lived in awe of the best of our intellectual mentors. And those exercises pushed them to do their homework outside of class. They would often return the following class with a stronger set of axioms or better logic, perhaps discovering a piece of reality that hadn’t entered the original discussion. Their example convinced us of the importance of doing our homework. Our best teachers never beg or even ask their students to do homework; they simply assign it to learners who are hungry to prepare for the next round.
Cognitive dissonance: I am not a native Spanish speaker, yet I believe that exposure to native speakers has the potential to be the richest connection a language learner can have. What do I make of that? Well, here’s the conversation I have with myself:
-Am I, alone, enough for my students?
-No, egomaniac-Nathan, you never have been.
-Should I give up teaching because I’m not enough for my students?
-No, quitter-Nathan, you just need to become something else.
-I cannot become anything other than what I am.
-This is not entirely true, failed-existentialist-Nathan.
-So, then what do I do?
-Conduct. You are insufficient trying to be the source. Become a conductor.