A few days ago, a powerful writer, Vanessa Martir, set a call into the world. After doing so herself for a year, she called upon others to engaged in writing a personal essay a week for 52 weeks. #52essays2017 Over the year, I have been following what she has written, her daring as she works on her memoir and other writing projects, and I’ve found myself thinking that perhaps I, too, have something to say, about my life and views, some of them being radical, I suppose. Actually, most recently, in talking about a colleague who describes himself as a radical educator, my husband actually said that I, too, am radical in my work. Coming from someone who in his Tinder profile – yes, we are a Tinder couple – described himself as an anarchist engineer, I took it as high praise. Shouldn’t we all be more radical and free?
A little about myself, for those not in the know: I’m originally from Philadephia, though I’ve nearly lived in other parts of the world longer than I ever lived at home. Penn State, then Teachers College Columbia University, then UNC-Chapel Hill for studies and life and growth, then a year in Vegas and three in Germany, and now going on six in the Bay Area. This year, turning 36, I’ll have spent half of my life away from home, but home is always where it is.
I’m a poet, educator, and scholar, or at least, my website says that I am. When it comes down to it, I identify as a community worker. Much of what I do comes down to that. I’m the daughter of a social worker and a counselor. I am interested in people, relationships, stories.
I imagine that I would like to focus this first essay, and perhaps some to come, more on what I have been saying about the spiritual and energetic work of education.
Cue New Age music.
I work with future teachers now and have for the past six years. I didn’t leave the secondary classroom, because I was burnt out. I applied for the position I have out of curiosity, thinking that, even should I receive a job offer, I would continue as a teacher of secondary students for at least another 15+ years. I loved working with young people, families, and other teachers. When I got the job at Saint Mary’s College of California, though, I had a number of things happening in my life: a stateside partner, an ailing grandmother (who was an important caretaker for me as a child), my own desire to have children, and a hope to do more in writing and publishing. In addition, I saw it as a rare opportunity to talk about spirituality and a holistic human experience while also being an educator.
You see, as a public school educator, spirituality or religion is generally a topic of the mind but not the soul or heart. There are paragraphs on Islamic influence on letters and numbers or a chapter on the Crusades or other religious wars. There may be some exploration of the debates between evolutionism or creationism. If students mention their faith traditions, there is generally no follow-up question … or maybe it leads to a project on the diversity of faiths within the classroom and community. It’s a project not a soul-searching and deepening of one’s own mission and purpose.
At a religious institution, particularly a Lasallian institution, where an atheist can be as much of a Lasallian as a Catholic (though the founder, Saint John Baptist De La Salle was definitely Catholic and is the patron saint of teachers, actually), I knew that I could talk about spirituality and education.
One of the ways that I introduce myself to my students is to tell them that I believe in an afterlife. I believe that my work as an educator and a teacher educator is sacred work. I never want, in my freedom from body, to be devastated by meeting the spirit of a young person who might share the story that they were hurt by a teacher I trained. I take my work very seriously, that its impact will be felt in this life and ripple out far beyond it, in this material space and a spiritual space. Perhaps that ascribes too much power to me as an individual, but much could be served by thinking of our small ripples and our short lives as part of a larger, much much larger story.
I believe that in the classroom we are engaged in spiritual and energetic work. When I was a classroom teacher, even when I was starting the day at 7am and dragged myself from my bed to arrive at school (Vegas classes started earlier), when the students arrived, I was energetic. In my classroom, there were up to 40 young people, with all of their hopes and dreams, aspirations and interactional buzz. It would only make sense to pick up in that kind of environment. I suppose that is a sign of an empath, but I think this teacher’s response to the energy of young people and ability to adapt when that energy is off is a skill that can be learned. Young people do this all the time when they adapt to the behavior and energy of adults; shouldn’t we as adults continue to practice that skill? In the classroom, there is a constant ebb and flow of energy. Sensing it and responding to it requires an intimacy in kinship.
I write the word, “intimacy”, sensitively as it has multiple meanings. What I intend here is a familiarity and closeness of observation and knowledge of the student, teaching and learning as a process, and community support of youth as an ongoing and interactional process. When I think of intimacy, I am thinking of the teacher’s work as community worker, stitcher of various resources, ways of knowing, and supports to support (not impede or mold into one’s own image) the flourishing of youth.
Energy is connected, for me, to the work of spirit. We feel that charge when we are moved by the spirit in a church setting or just in walking about our daily lives. I was actually thinking recently about how, in Catholic school as a child, we were taught a particular hierarchy: put God first, then family, and then everything else. As a Lasallian, there’s a particular prayer used to start classes, “Let us remember that we are in the holy presence of God.” I think about that a great deal. If I believe that, if I am reminded to look for the holy presence of the divine in my teaching and in the learning of students, then I do not need the heirarchy. The divine is already in everything that I do as a community worker. In the confusion of my students, I am reminded that I am in the presence of the divine that calls us all to reach towards understanding together; in student misbehaviors in the classroom, I am reminded to look for the underlying positive intent, the desire for communion and connection in our teaching and learning, which is itself sacred work; and in even in a student shutdown from the classroom, I am reminded that no one is an island, that our work together is to build a bridge of understanding and this, too, is sacred work.
What effect might it have for us as teachers to think of our work as energetic and spiritual? What effect might it have for students? And what might it be to have open discussions of a holistic pedagogy rooted in humanization and conscientizao (to reference Freire)?
These are some ideas that I’ll explore in the coming months, along with the complexities of technology, reviews of books and series (I’m up on the shows), projects in the works, maybe some gardening/home projects.
Week 1 down.