I am a teacher. Wow, right now after 20 years of working with children and youth in various capacities it feels really weird to say that. Does that mean I am not a teacher? I prefer to say that I am a co-learner; wonder is the teacher. Yes, I am a co-learner with students in the classroom.
I’ve spent my days with students from high school to preschool. I imagine my students with me in a canoe out on the waters of life, paddling along together in the boat of classroom and community that we have crafted to hold us through the times of wonder and also the inevitable times of hardship we’ll meet together over the school year.
These days I am still a classroom teacher and I’ve grown. These days my heart has been called to attend not only to students, but to our fellowship of educators as well. I see us all of us out there in our little boats - little boats, and these days, big waves. And I’m compelled to call us together, to “raft up”, as we used to say when teaching at an alternative school expedition style on the Colorado River. Why do I call us to gather our little boats together? I wish I could say simply say to point out some kind of natural wonder, to discuss plans to break for lunch, or simply to lay down the paddles and drift awhile - coming into that simple presence of togetherness, leaning back and watching the birds make circles in the clear blue sky above our heads. But these days we at Design to Connect, LLC are often called to signal educators to raft up because the waters are too big for one little boat and we need to come together in formation to weather the storm, gather our resources, and meet each others eyes.
In doing so, we raise the paddles of our hardworking canoes out of the often stormy waters of the ocean we call school and turn to one another, breathing deep, softening the eyes and leaning in so we can hear each other’s words before they are carried off by the winds of a thousand expectations, assessments, clubs, trainings and meetings.
Here is the fine print.
The (true) day in a life of a teacher. Get my own kids up and ready for their carpool to school. Get to my school barely on time for before school to begin. Park. Walk around my assigned area of campus searching for objects of danger (our school is in an area where the opioid crisis has hit hard and we need to keep the area safe for the children). Greet before school children and welcome them, help them settle in and have breakfast. Schools starts. Talk to parents, talk to school counselor, respond to emails, report attendance, lead circle time, note students emergent needs, teach lessons, use “talking gnome” to work through student conflict, struggle internally with balance of freedom and discipline, get kids to specials sort of on time, and realize I haven’t drank any water in 4 hours. Excuse myself during music class for a drink of water. Return to pick kids up from music. Talk to music teacher about misbehaviors that happened during music class while I was away. Talk to children. Lesson on zones of regulation. Lunch, (meaning conversations with parents). Planning break (meaning IEP meeting). Afternoon lessons. Starting to loose focus. Haven’t eaten lunch. End of school day. Time for after school meetings. Will be be active shooter training? Data and assessment meeting? Go home. Family time. Kids in bed. Plan for next school day.
The lifting of the paddles and the gathering in circle, the turning in, this is a radical act.
It goes against (almost) everything we’ve been taught by the expectations of the system, which is keep going, and if possible faster in which case, if your school has one, you might win the coveted teacher of the year parking space. As the poet David Whyte says, it seems that an organizational belief has emerged that “the answer to complexity is velocity”. As if there is safety in the going and the doing. Who has time to stop anyway, what will happen during the hour and a half in which paddles are up? Might we drift off course? What will be left undone? (so much to do)
And here we find the choppy waters of burnout - the state in which we have nothing left to give and yet we keep paddling anyway, often shifting the heart of our canoe away from the meaning and fulfilling possibility of our work, and forcing our trajectory toward a destination no longer aligned with our moral compass. Here, out of relationship, we paddle out of sync with the strokes of the of our students, our colleagues, and even ourselves.
This results in all kinds of things - a list myself and my co-facilitator reviewed just last week with circles of teachers, school psychologists, behavior specialists, and support staff in South Carolina Schools. Burnout, compassion fatigue, empathic distress, moral wounding. And the fallout that results from these conditions. Not good for educators. Not good for students. Yes, that sounds negative. But if the truth is that half of all teachers leave the profession in the first five years, can we turn away, putting on a smiling face (and if it’s Friday - blue jeans)? Just saying. And how many kids would keep going to school each day themselves, if they didn’t have to?
And yet, there is wonder to be found. There are alive hearts to greet. There is beauty.
In the midst of the profound difficulties in which our students and educators find themselves there is also profound dedication and profound courage. And profoundly loving hearts that are breaking open. They are breaking open as things are going wrong, and that’s not all bad.
So this is where myself and fellow Mindful Schools grad, Jelena Popovic, headed into classrooms, faculty meetings, conference rooms, and virtual meeting spaces. Off we went to laugh, tell stories, play, sometimes cry, and always breathe with other vibrant, whole hearted beings, beings. Beings - educators - who are fully alive, but who are often struggling. We went with our experience (my teaching, Jelena’s work as a - now ex - school psychologist) and the courage and presence developed by the years of mindfulness practice we’d been guided through by our teachers, supported in by our cohorts of practitioners, and cultivated by daily individual practice.
So, why this work?
We gather into circle to listen. To learn. To be in presence. To look at the waters around us, to orient the heart of the canoe toward vitality, health and wellbeing, and to place the blades of our paddles into the water together, with strength, tenderness, humility and determination. Oh, and humor.
Even though things seem to be going wrong, are going wrong, this work is honoring the breaking open of our beautiful hearts by seeing what is right fall in to those cracks in our dear hearts. And what falls in? Compassion. Care. A fierce commitment to truth. Companionship. Devotion. Authenticity. Wonder. Tenderness. Vulnerability. And the presence to show up again and again with the tender beings we call our students. With the tender beings we call our colleagues. With the tender beings we call ourselves.
To be educators.
And still make it home with presence enough for our own children, pets, nature walks, dinner time, pack lunches, and ourselves. There might even be time enough to lay down and watch those birds circle overhead afterall.
So how does this happen? It happens in community, supporting one another's practice, each of us in this experience of life, of education, rafting up with one another from time to time before we paddle on.