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The more I teach and read about teaching, the less I seem to know about the topic. Three books I read in 2012 about teaching taught me quite a lot…and left me with many, many more questions…

In Teaching with Your Mouth Shut, Finkle invites us to recall our most significant learning experiences. Only one of the

Teaching with Your Mouth Shut

Teaching with Your Mouth Shut

three I recalled happened in a classroom, which supported his point – most of our learning happens outside the classroom. Finkle contends “good teaching is the creation of those circumstances that lead to significant learning in others.” This focus takes the sage off the stage and brings learners front and center.  In his model of teaching, learning occurs by first engaging students with problems to solve and then through the process of mutual inquiry and discussion.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and I applied his advice about teaching in the classroom by reducing lecture time and providing students with case studies to contemplate, research, and discuss. After two semesters of experimenting with this in three different classes, I came to the conclusion that the majority of my students do not particularly appreciate this form of learning. Some do (mostly honors students), but most expect the structure and predictability of classroom lectures along with the opportunity lectures afford to tune out and covertly text under the desk.

Ultimately, I was left with more questions than answers from Finkel’s advice about teaching: How do I meet the needs of such a wide array of learners? Should we give students what they want or what we think they need? Can I strike an effective balance between the two? Is the Socratic method of teaching still relevant in this era of edutainment? Why do students write such horrible things in their course evaluations? Is it because I am a horrible teacher? How good are students at evaluating what they have learned? When should I practice “tough love” and when should I show compassion? And when is that tough love and compassion the exact same thing? What in the world are we even measuring with course evaluations — my teaching ability? Student perceptions? Teacher popularity?

…and just as I was having this existential crisis in my teacher’s heart, two more books came along to guide me through it:

Push by Sapphire

Push by Sapphire

 Push is the debute novel by Sapphire, on which the movie Precious is based. I have yet to see the movie, but I experienced the story via audiobook. The audio version was a good one —  I enjoyed listening to the music and rhythm of the dialect.  The story itself was one of the most disturbing I have come across. In the words of Precious, the main character,

“I don’t know what “realism” mean but I do know what REALITY is and it’s a mutherfucker, lemme tell you.”

And boy, did she. Precious’ reality was a bleak place of incest/rape, abuse, ignorance, and disability. It is definitely not a tale for the faint of heart. There was all sorts of darkness in her story that I did not want to face. There was also a small, but persistent ray of light: the power of compassion and education to propel us through the abyss. It was a much needed reminder.

The Courage to Teach

The Courage to Teach

And finally, Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach found me and forced me to break out the journal and take notes. Palmer’s writing is masterful. He illuminates a wide range of subjects – social constructivism, empiricism, epistemology, genetics, spirituality – with simple and beautiful language. He confirms that:

“Good education teaches students to become both producers of knowledge and discerning consumers of what other people claim to know.”

He writes of the importance of conflict in teaching and of holding open spaces where we can grapple with paradoxical tensions.  In this space of turmoil – in this tension of opposites there is:

“a power that wants to pull [the] heart open to something larger than itself.”

And “suffering is neither to be avoided nor merely to be survived, but must be actively embraced for the way it expands our own hearts.” He writes of pulling both teachers and students from center stage and putting “great things” at the center, then teaching and learning those great things from a place of humility.

“We experience humility not because we have fought and lost but because humility is the only lens through which great things can be seen – and once we have seen them, humility is the only posture possible.”

I cannot say enough about how good this book was.  I will definitely be reading all of his works in the coming year.

So as this year winds down and a new one begins, I resolve to embrace my teacher’s heart crisis and learn what I can from this “great thing.”

Iris, Memphis Botanical Gardens

To be free to be happy and fruitful can only be attained through sacrifice of many common, but overestimated things.

–Robert Henry

~~*~~

It is morning lecture, and I have momentarily tuned out Yogi Hari. The dawning sun has reminded me of our sunrise meditation earlier in the week and I have drifted back to the memory…

A pink-orange haze spreads across the horizon as the sun struggles to break the night’s hold. The black ocean gleams with quicksilver waves that roil and churn before erupting in sporadic grey crests. Warm air pushed by the sea breeze sends tendrils of wind-damp hair to lift and tangle in my face. Cool, wet sand crunches underfoot.  A large creature – more shadow than seabird – glides by overhead…

“Do not be attached to results.”

Yogi Hari’s words penetrate my beachy reverie and snap me back to the present. He has my full attention now.

In my “real” life of non-ashram, non-coastal living I inhabit a world dominated by results.  The importance of quantifying results has been drilled into my head through all levels of my training – student, researcher, professor, and clinician. In fact, I was recently told by a professional mentor, “It doesn’t matter how hard you try. It matters what results you produce.”

Best efforts don’t count; results do.  Introduction, Methods, Results, Conclusions – that is the natural order of things.  Across the grid — standardized tests, student evaluations, experiments, treatments, diagnostic evaluations, the department’s reviews — results matter. Results of the GRE determine whether you get into graduate school. School funding is based on student test results. Careers rise or fall depending on these outcomes.  Clients pay for results, not your intentions.

Yogi Hari talks on, “….the great Masters inspire us to focus all our attention on performing our duty selflessly without constantly being obsessed with the results.”

I am confounded. How can duty be detached from results? If results are so important, how can I possibly avoid obsessing over them?   And besides all that, what’s wrong with obsessing?  I’m really good at it.

Letting go, renunciation, nonattachment- the practice goes by the term vairagya in the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali.  Sacrifice. There is a negative connotation about that word, especially in a culture that suggests you need more, not less.  And nonattachment?  Isn’t attachment a healthy thing? Aren’t we supposed to be doing all sorts of connecting?

Oh, so much to learn, Little Grasshopper!

The last year of my life has been a study in letting go.  Some sacrifices were made silently. Other sacrifices, like releasing my inner carnivore, were made publically and deliberately.  Giving up meat was a change that alternately annoyed and mystified me as well as some of the people around me.  I’ve blogged a lot about the experience as a way to stay committed to the decision and as a way to try to explain a lot of it to myself.  I recognize now the dietary change was largely a symbolic gesture.  I gave up something I could see, taste, touch, smell, and hear — a life that my body literally consumed – as a daily physical reminder of the numerous intangible sacrifices that remained ahead on a more personal level.

There is always something to grasp at – money, love, youth, relationships, knowledge, control, anger, happiness, social status, safety, beliefs, results.  None of these things define one’s essence. Still, there can be a feeling of loss when your hold on them is released.  And even the feeling of loss can be something to hang on to in the choppy seas of uncertainty. But loss is just another feeling.  Feelings come; they go. The tide rolls in and out. You can flail and reach for the flotsam and jetsam or take a deep breath, relax and roll on a bit lighter to the destination.

Tadasana (aka Mountain Pose) has become a staple balance pose in my practice.  Here’s how you do it:

Stand there.

TADA!!(sana)

That’s really all there is to it.

If you want more directions – balance your weight on both feet, engage thighs, tuck your tailbone just a hair, and stand there chest proud and chin parallel to the floor.

It’s that simple. Witness the balance and strength you have standing on your own two feet. Then you can go apply that little lesson to life when you step off the mat.

Beyond the Mountain, there are all sorts of poses to practice to learn more about balance.

Vision can be a helpful tool to acquire balance initially.  If you want to go that route, choose a focal point.  That woman in front of you attempting her own one-legged balancing act probably isn’t the best target.  Find a fixed spot to center your gaze.

If you’re feeling really adventurous, close your eyes and you’ll learn that vision is not necessary for balance. Your body is full of subtle built-in mechanisms to keep you upright.  Inside the ear is a universe furled. It monitors balance entirely without your direction.

You can also find balance inside your breath. Steady breath; steady mind; steady body. Let your breath be your focal point. Focus on it as if your life depends on it. Because, of course, it does.

 

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