I am a teacher at heart, and there are moments in the classroom when I can hardly hold the joy. When my students and I discover uncharted territory to explore, when the pathway out of a thicket opens up before us, when our experience is illumined by the lightning-life of the mind –then teaching is the finest work I know.
But at other moments, the classroom is so lifeless or painful or confused — and I am so powerless to do anything about it — that my claim to be a teacher seems a transparent sham.
The tangles of teaching have three important sources. The first two are commonplace, but the third, and most fundamental, is rarely given its due. First, the subjects we teach are as large and complex as life, so our knowledge of them is always flawed and partial. No matter how we devote ourselves to reading and research, teaching requires a command of content that always eludes our grasp. Second, the students we teach are larger than life and even more complex. To see them clearly and see them whole, and respond to them wisely in the moment, requires a fusion of Freud and Solomon that few of us achieve.
If students and subjects accounted for all the complexities of teaching, our standard ways of coping would do –keep up with our fields as best as we can, and learn enough techniques to stay ahead of the student psyche. But there is another reason for these complexities; we teach who we are. Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse.
As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together. The entanglements I experience in the classroom are often no more or less than the convolutions of my inner life. Viewed from this angle, teaching holds a mirror to the soul. If I am willing to look in that mirror, and not run from what I see, I have a chance to gain self-knowledge — and knowing myself is as crucial to good teaching as knowing my students and my subject.
In fact, knowing my students and my subject depends heavily on self-knowledge. When I do not know myself, I cannot know who my students are. I will see them through a glass darkly, in the shadows of my unexamined life — and when I cannot see them clearly I cannot teach them well. When I do not know myself, I cannot know my subject – not at the deepest levels of embodied, personal meaning. I will know it only abstractly, from a distance, a congeries of concepts as far removed from the world as I am from personal truth.
We need to open a new frontier in our exploration of good teaching: the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. To chart that landscape fully, three important paths must be taken — intellectual, emotional, and spiritual – and none can be ignored. Reduce teaching to intellect and it becomes a cold abstraction; reduce it to emotions and it becomes narcissistic; reduce it to the spiritual and it loses its anchor to the world. Intellect, emotion, and spirit depend on each other for wholeness. They are interwoven in the human self and in education at its best, and we need to interweave them in our pedagogical discourse as well. By intellectual l mean the way we think about teaching and learning — the form and content of our concepts of how people know and learn, of the nature of our students and our subjects. By emotional l mean the way we and our students feel as we teach and learn — feelings that can either enlarge or diminish the exchange between us. By spiritual I mean the diverse ways we answer the heart’s longing to be connected with the largeness of life – a longing that animates love and work, especially the work called teaching.
INSTITUTIONS AND THE HUMAN HEART
My concern for the “inner landscape” of teaching may seem indulgent, even irrelevant, at a time when many teachers are struggling simply to survive. Wouldn’t it be more practical, I am sometimes asked, to offer tips, tricks, and techniques for staying alive in the classroom, things that ordinary teachers can use in everyday life?
l have worked with countless teachers, and many of them have confirmed my own experience: as important as methods may be, the most practical thing we can achieve in any kind of work is insight into, what is happening inside us as we do it. The more familiar we are with our inner terrain, the more sure-footed our teaching — and living -becomes. I have heard that in the training of therapists, which involves much practical technique, there is a saying: “Technique is what you use until the therapist arrives.” Good methods can help a therapist find a way into the client’s dilemma, but good therapy does not begin until the real-life therapist joins with the real life of the client.
Technique is what teachers use until the real teacher arrives, and we need to find as many ways as possible to help that teacher show up. But if we want to develop the identity and integrity that good teaching requires, we must do something alien to academic culture: we must talk to each other about our inner lives – risky stuff in a profession that fears the personal and seeks safety in the technical, the distant, the abstract.
I was reminded of that fear recently as I listened to a group of faculty argue about what to do when students share personal experiences in class – experiences that are related to the themes of the course, but that some professors regard as “more suited to a therapy session than to a college classroom.”
lf we stopped lobbing pedagogical points at each other and spoke about who we are as teachers, a remarkable thing might happen: identity and integrity might grow within us and among us, instead of hardening as they do when we defend our fixed positions from the foxholes of the pedagogy wars.
Taking the conversation of colleagues into the deep places where we might grow in self-knowledge for the sake of our professional practice will not be an easy, or popular, task. But it is a task that leaders of every educational institution must take up if they wish to strengthen their institution’s capacity to pursue the educational mission. How can ‘schools educate students if they fail to support the teacher’s inner life? To educate is to guide students on an inner journey toward more truthful ways of Seeing and being in the world. How can schools perform their mission without encouraging the guides to scout out that inner terrain?
As this century of objectification and manipulation by technique draws to a close, we are experiencing an exhaustion of institutional resourcefulness at the very time when the problems that our institutions must address grow deeper and more demanding. 21st-century education must open up a new frontier in teaching and learning — the frontier of the teacher’s inner life.
Our task is to create enough safe spaces and trusting relationships within the academic workplace- hedged about by appropriate structural protections – that more of us will be able to tell the truth about our own struggles and joys as teachers in ways that befriend the soul and give it room to grow. Not all spaces can be safe, not all relationships trustworthy, but we can surely develop more of them than we now have so that an increase of honesty and healing can happen within us and among us – for our own sake, the sake of our teaching, and the sake of our students.
Honesty and healing sometimes happen quite simply, thanks to the alchemical powers of the human soul. We do not discuss techniques for “fear management,” if such exist. Instead, we meet as fellow travelers and offer encouragement to each other in this demanding but deeply rewarding journey across the inner landscape of education — calling each other back to the identity and integrity that animate all good work, not least the work called teaching.