Tag Archives: Teacher Renewal

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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Filed under Culture, Education, Self Reflection, Teaching

The Power of Retreat

St. Mary's College, Moraga, California

St. Mary’s College, Moraga, California

The truth of the matter is I didn’t read a single word of Moby Dick. I remain today on the same page I was on a week ago. Thanks to the generosity and kindness of my wife and son, I have been on retreat for a week at St. Mary’s College in Moraga for the Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference, to write, to learn from and listen to and play with the best writing community my world has ever known, and, with some extra time left over, to read Moby Dick.  Only the last thing on this list got absolutely no attention.  I’ve forgiven myself already, mostly because the rewards of these other items were so immensely bountiful, and so I want to spend some words today reflecting about the power of this thing I’ve been able to do, the power of a thing from which everybody could probably benefit no matter what their work or vocation, the power of retreat.

Retreat: a quiet or secluded place in which one can rest and relax.  Well, yes, sort of.  But this sounds kind of like a vacation to me–only one that strives to avoid the usual hustle and bustle of tourism or the kind of camping trip that is chock-full of activity.  My sense of retreat has to do with a certain amount of quiet or seclusion, yes, and a level of rest and relaxation, yes–but a rest and relaxation that comes with work that one truly desires to do, work of the soul or heart or mind, creative work, work that sustains rather than exhausts.

I know of two such  retreat experiences in my life.  They have become for me pivotal, profound, powerful touchstones, helping to revitalize my work and my mind, providing inspiration for my creative output and the heart to pursue with humor and courage the more mundane aspects of life, domesticity, and gainful employment.

The first of these is the annual Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference.  Every summer, thirty to forty individuals who have graduated at some point in time from (I think) the oldest low residency MFA program for creative writing in the country, descend upon the campus of St. Mary’s in Moraga, of Mt. Holyoke in Amherst, or of Warren Wilson in Swannanoa, to recreate in a week’s time only the best aspects of their experience at Warren Wilson, jettisoning any and all of those parts of the program that made them anxious, tentative, or afraid.  What results is a veritable love fest (mostly platonic) between a huge diversity of individuals who have these things in common: they burn for the word, they revel in the art of poetry or fiction, and they benefit mightily by geeking out on all of this surrounded by a great number of highly talented, extremely generous, immensely forgiving, and supportive fellow writers.

We teach each other cool things we’ve learned about craft; we explore writing questions we don’t have the answers to; we turn each other on to new and old writers; we read each other’s work closely, honestly, kindly; we listen to each other read each night and applaud with wild abandon; we hole up in a dorm room or a library carrel or an outside porch somewhere and write for hours at a stretch; we buy each other’s books; we sing sometimes or drum on chairs; and finally, without fail, we dance.  No conference is complete without dancing.  And to say something about the unique gift of this experience, it is about the only place on the planet where you will see this writer dancing. And I do dance. Wildly.  At the alumni conference I retreat inside my fiction writer brain for a week’s time in a community that is intent upon supporting this nutty endeavor for each of its members, in whatever shape or form it takes. And I made no progress in Moby Dick because I was retreating in the way I most needed to retreat, and apparently, as it turns out, this did not include Melville’s novel.  I wrote and I wrote and I wrote.  And I danced.

My second pivotal, profound, and powerful retreat experience is my continuing participation in a teacher-renewal, formation-work program called The Courage To Teach, inspired by the work of educator-philosopher-Quaker-writer Parker Palmer.  It’s a totally different thing, a thing during which there is next to no dancing, but a thing that does for my teaching soul what the alumni conference does for my writing soul. I believe that this retreat work has made it possible for me to be continuously engaged in and rewarded by teaching and has been a key antidote to burnout.  Impossible to describe effectively in a paragraph, the Courage To  Teach work eschews talk about what teachers do and instead focuses completely on who they are, recognizing that each teacher, each individual for that matter, has inside of them sufficient wisdom to answer all their deepest questions, to solve all their most difficult problems in work and in life; they only require a community whose job it is to help the individual listen to that inner teacher.  In a very intentional way, we write, we read poems, we draw pictures, we invite silence, we meditate, we walk and talk, all toward the goal of helping each individual to know and trust themselves better.  No one ever tries to fix you or give you advice. While having almost nothing to do with classroom strategy and practice, it has been the most profoundly influential “staff development” experience I have ever had.  Life changing and career saving.

These are my retreats.  I find retreat also whenever I have an opportunity to be by myself for a time to write, whether it be at home or over a short couple of days in a cabin or a tent somewhere, but in both the cases I’ve described above, a community exists in which the solitude of the artist is honored and supported; these experiences exemplify the paradox described by Parker Palmer in The Courage To Teach, his pivotal exploration of the teaching vocation: “My inward and invisible sense of identity becomes known, even to me, only as it manifests itself in encounters with external and visible ‘otherness.'” This is the wonder and the gift of these kinds of retreat for me.

What does it for you?  How will you carve out of your life time for retreat?  And what might be the cost if you don’t?  Ultimately, it’s a kind of selfishness that I encourage.  Making yourself whole will send waves of positivity outward and benefit every one and every organization touched by your life.

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Filed under Education, Literature, Poetry, Self Reflection, Writing and Reading