Monthly Archives: October 2017

Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: October 20, 2017


October 11th of last week was Oregon’s official teacher in-service day. In our school district, the day is unofficial, in that it’s no longer a paid work day. Somehow during negotiations that took place more than a decade ago now, the paid in-service day was bargained away in exchange for some other mysterious but beneficial thing. We still have the day off, but my sense is that most of the teachers in my school, and in my district, are not in-servicing themselves. It’s a three-day weekend, for crying out loud.

I got my haircut on teacher in-service day. And I shopped for new music.

But here I am, a week later, at Islandwood on Bainbridge Island with the Center for Courage and Renewal, on retreat for four days, taking two professional leave days and soul-sacrificing an entire weekend, officially in-servicing myself in the mysterious ways of what has come to be called by all its practitioners: Courage Work.

The work, inspired by the writer Parker J. Palmer and his book The Courage to Teach, began as a program for the professional and personal renewal of teachers. Over the last 15 years or so, the philosophies and strategies of that work have expanded exponentially and now include other professional groups: people in leadership roles, clergy, mental health professionals, health care professionals, etc.

So, I have joined 33 strangers here on this island, 29 participants and a leadership team of 4 facilitators, coming from all over the country, from Canada and from England, to delve deeper into this practice and to begin exploring the idea and possibility of moving into this work on a professional level. The Gateway Retreat, as this one is named, is designed specifically for people who have some significant experience already with Courage Work and who are thinking about a training program to become facilitators. That would be me. I am one of those people.

It is notoriously difficult to quickly describe to someone what it is exactly that we do here. For teachers, it’s not about classroom practice (but it could be), it’s not about raising test scores (but it could be), it’s not about curriculum development (but it could be), it’s not about professional relationships (but it could be). You get the picture. For a participant at a retreat of this kind, it is ABOUT whatever you need it to be about. Right now, you’re not thinking about teaching, instead, you’ve just put one of your parents in a nursing home; or you’re going through a divorce; or you’re choosing a subject for your next painting; or you find yourself unable to paint at all. Your life stuff becomes central—because your life stuff cannot help but influence and color and shape your profession and your work in that profession. Primarily, this retreat is about YOU and the way in which your identity intersects with your life’s work: the coming together of soul and role. Yes, we’re doing soul work. Sssshh. It’s a solitary endeavor—but here it absolutely requires community. We’re not all off gazing at our shoes. We are looking into mirrors. We are listening deeply. We are creating what is called Circles of Trust.

And the result? The magic word here is discernment. I find swirling around this work a number of other magic words as well: Clarity. Consciousness. Integrity. Authenticity. Silence. Storytelling. Solitude. Community. Paradox. And concerning these last three, my favorite and to me the most important paradox of Courage Work: that only in community can we find true solitude—but it has to be a community that values and nurtures that solitude, that welcomes and invites the soul. Most of our communities don’t do this. They need to. They must. So much depends upon it. This, I’ve found, again and again since I first came to it in 2000, is a good place to start.

We were thinking about the word SOUL this morning, and reflecting on Parker Palmer’s metaphor that the soul is like a wild animal: it’s strong, it’s mysterious, it’s resourceful, its orientation is always toward survival—but if you want to see it, you don’t run through the forest shouting. You’ve got to be quiet. You’ve got to be respectful. And in one of these moments, two deer came right up to the windows of our meeting place. They were massive and beautiful and they looked into our windows to say hey, and then they were gone.

We ask a lot of open, honest questions of ourselves and others. As of this writing, we’re only half way through the retreat, but here’s a sampling:

  • What are you listening for in your life right now?
  • What, if anything, do you need to let go of?
  • What signs of renewal do you see in your life?
  • What’s the difference between an ego story and a soul story? What’s a story from your life you can tell in two ways—as a story of ego and as a story of soul?
  • After reading from John Lewis’ Walking in the Wind: What is your experience in a societal storm among those most like you and across lines of difference?
  • What’s it like for you standing inside of a tragic gap, that distance between what is possible and what is a reality?

We reflect, in writing or in silence. We make art. We read poems together—not to study, as one would do in an English class, but to explore as what we call “a third thing”—some kind of language event (usually a poem but not always) that serves as a springboard for personal inquiry or reflection on the kinds of questions like those above. It’s a medium or a visiting voice between facilitator and community, a third thing, a tool to elicit deep inquiry from deep places. This is no place for a formalist critic, an English teacher habit that I find easy to jettison in this space.

While in session, we don’t talk to each other. We don’t discuss. There’s no give-or-take, back-and-forth. The impulse to argue or connect or add to or comment on is in perpetual check. Instead, we speak into the circle and listen carefully. In this way, it is unlike the kind of talk we do everywhere else in the world and especially in academics. In this way, each voice has a space, each voice is heard, each voice is welcome. And silences are intentional and weighty, never uncomfortable.

Saturday, we will prepare for Clearness Committees, a central component of a Courage Retreat in which five or six individuals help a single individual toward discernment on a problem or issue by doing nothing but asking honest, open questions for a full two and a half hours. A potentially life/mind altering experience and gift for both the individual with the issue and the people lucky enough to be able to share this deeply in someone else’s soul story.

This, in a nutshell, has been an attempt to describe what it is exactly that we do here.

Here are my central questions for this weekend:

How can I bring this back into my school community?

Is this truly my calling now?

And to answer your lingering question (perhaps) about how this work is possible for a room full of strangers, I call your attention to exhibits A and B: The touchstones of The Circle of Trust and The Five Habits of Heart. Good night and take care.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: October 11, 2017

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Panic at the Disco, I Mean, Schoolhouse

The year is cooking right along, cooking so vigorously along, in fact, that this is only my second entry in this new series I’m calling a Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year. Yes, the year is cooking right along, interrupted briefly on only two occasions and constantly punctuated by a third. We took a brief respite for an hour and a half a couple of weeks ago for a bomb threat evacuation, today, we administered the PSAT to all our sophomores, and this fall, we have experienced the phenomena of a missing English teacher. The three events are unrelated, but worth noting together in this moment because . . . well, because I’m finding an opportunity to breathe and reflect just now for the first time in more than a month, and because these three items bubble to the surface of my teacher brain first, followed closely by the grading and planning I still need to do for tomorrow.

Yeah, we had a bomb threat. At first, we thought it was a false alarm, having done a lock-down/lock-out drill the day before and having already experienced the obligatory monthly fire drill, but as they evacuated us, told us to keep moving away from the building almost all the way up the hill to the road, and then redirected us back around the school and into the grandstands at the football field around the police vehicles already in the lot, we realized that this was no accident and it was no drill. It started to rain. We were outside for about an hour in the rain. A few kids were rattled by the experience, but not many. Teachers and administrators seemed pretty chill. They pumped music into the grandstands inspiring a spontaneous dance party while we waited. It appeared that most kids were having a great time not being in their classes. And from the photos it looks like teachers were none the worse for wear either. Turns out, no bomb. No danger. We all piled back inside the schoolhouse to resume the teaching and learning. On that same day, I acquired a gift to my classroom:

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The Harvard Classics, Five-Foot Shelf of Books, all 50 volumes, pristinely preserved and well cared for, late edition, circa 1965. Now I have Cicero, Plato, Pliny the Elder, The Imitation of Christ, and the complete poems of Robert Burns in my classroom library! Now that’s da bomb. Sorry. Couldn’t help myself. There has been no news in the last couple of weeks about whether or not they caught the prankster, not the one who gifted me the books but the one who called in the bomb threat that precipitated the arrival of my books.

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These Teachers Are Also Freaked Out

Today, things came to a screeching halt one more time as we administered the PSAT to every sophomore in our school who was brave enough to show up. Most of them were brave enough, I’d say. In the group of 25 I helped to proctor, only 3 were absent. Last year on this day or a day or two before, some fool accidentally delivered test booklets too early, thus, breaking the rules of the test, thus, getting the entire school suspended or prohibited from administering the test. I wrote a poem about that last year. We redeemed ourselves this year, though, as no rules were broken and it appears the testing went off without a hitch. I am aware of no hitches.

Standardized tests. I hate them. Generally speaking, I’m against them, but as I am a kind of “arm of the state,” I must play along, and I play along so far as to encourage kids to attend, and I say, to those for whom these kinds of things matter, that the more opportunities they get to take the practice (studies show), the better they will do when the real one comes around: hence, the state of Oregon spending $$$$$$$ to make sure all sophomores in the state get this opportunity. It’s kind of an icky feeling, but at least I’m not lying.

And finally, at the end of an English Department meeting held in the very last hour of the day to talk about course options for seniors who currently, as it appears to most of us, lack options, we long at last had a conversation about an elephant that’s been in the room with us from the very first day of our teacher preparation week before the first day of school. One of our colleagues had gone missing.

No, he’s not a missing person, per se; he was not a victim of foul play; he just didn’t show up for work. Most of us know practically nothing except for that there was some kind of conflict that needed resolution. Almost completely in the dark, we were. We do know that finally, after a long month of a substitute and then a week and a half of a substitute for the substitute, our admin team was finally able to hire a new English teacher. She will join us on Monday and there will be much rejoicing. But at the end of this meeting, one of my dear, esteemed colleagues said, Can we have some closure here about this disappearing teacher? And so we spontaneously had some closure. We vented. We celebrated. We shared a memory or two, some fond, some not so much. We realized how much history we shared with this guy and with each other. There was some love in the room. We promised to have a drink later as a goodbye ritual for our teacher colleague who has disappeared. What a long, strange trip it’s been: month two of an English teacher’s penultimate year.

 

 

 

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