“My whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.” -as told to Henri Nouwen
“The practice of a healer, therapist, teacher or any helping professional should be directed toward his or herself first, because if the helper is unhappy, he or she cannot help many people.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
I’m going to try to do one of the most difficult things writers do: try to communicate something extremely emotional without spiraling into sentimentality. Forgive me if I don’t succeed. Thanks to two “courses” I took this summer, I’ve undergone a professional and personal transformation, and have to tell you about it.
The University of Maryland Writing Project, which I’ve already alluded to and which was the inspiration for this blog, happened first. During this two week course I worked with five other teachers and three instructors to talk about teaching in general, and teaching writing in particular. Though we did share tips and activities in the form of “Teacher Inquiry Presentations” for our respective “teacher tool boxes,” the course served a much broader and more important purpose: it taught us to be reflective practitioners. I can’t overstate the importance of a teacher’s building reflection systematically into his/her daily work. You may know all the hot activities and all the high-tech bells and whistles, but without an open and reflexive mind, those practical tools will do you no good. As one of my colleagues told me, the Writing Project held a mirror up in front of her face; it did not tell her how to teach. It revealed her true teaching self. And how can you change without genuine self-awareness?
What the UMdWP provided for me mentally and intellectually, the Outward Bound trip gave me bodily, emotionally, spiritually. Outward Bound Baltimore/Philadelphia is lucky enough to receive funding that subsidizes week-long canoe trips for educators each summer. If you are an educator of any kind, you can sign up for this trip and pay only a $250 application fee; the rest of the tuition is waived. (Thank you, Maryland State Department of Education, and whichever other funding agencies make this possible!) What you get in return is a week of canoeing down the Potomac River, camping, three meals a day, and more profound lessons about life and education than a person could ever expect. In case you haven’t gathered, I’d recommend this trip to any teacher.
The UMdWP and the OB courses showed me that teaching and learning is personal, visceral, and emotional. We learn by doing. We learn when we are challenged, and when there is risk. We learn when our teachers are whole, self-actualized people. But as one of my OB instructors warned me, “When you’re on the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. When you’re on the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.” It’s true, I can’t explain how huge this has been. I’m sure you’d think it pretty silly if I told you that carrying a canoe up a hill was one of the greatest accomplishments of my life, or if I told you that I had a lightning bolt of a revelation one morning on the riverbank that the key to education is compassion. You’ll just have to trust me, and if you want to find your way to being a better person and teacher (these things are not so separate, after all), I hope you’ll seek out one of these experiences for yourself.