Balancing faithfulness and effectiveness in teaching

Something’s amiss. Something I haven’t been able to name. Maybe I wasn’t prepared enough? Maybe I was overly prepared? Maybe I projected the glow of proficiency my students exhibited at the end of last year onto the beginning of this year? Maybe I’m still experiencing the challenge of re-entry from the educator’s retreat I attended in July? Whatever the cause, our class didn’t gel in the first two evenings in the way I’d imagined or in the way I remember classes doing so in the past.  Maybe my memory is faulty? Whatever happened or didn’t happen I just don’t feel confident about how the week wrapped up.

It would be easy to surmise that with such a variety of students, cultures, and languages in our classroom that this has something to do with the students. I don’t think that’s the case. I am fairly certain it has something to do with me. And as I get ready to dive into next week’s lesson planning, I’m uncertain about what direction I should take to get us on track. (Ugh, did I just write that…”on track”…)

Admittedly, I took a risk this year on the first two nights of class. Typically I have a tight reign on the structure of the first two nights (okay, the entire year).   Usually in the first two nights we cover all the “rules.” We practice certain rules like calling in absences, asking for help, and classroom expectations. Mid-year last year I regrouped my students and asked them to create their own classroom norms and students expectations. It worked beautifully. So this year, I wanted students to work together to create their own norms from the first week. Maybe it was too much too soon? I feel myself fighting the urge to gather last year’s lesson plans and resume my old way of doing things – use all the classroom management tricks and teaching strategies I’ve come to rely on. I’m at a crossroads…am I underestimating my students’ abilities to pull together and define our classroom using their current English language skills? Or am I putting them in a situation doomed for frustration (theirs and mine)?

Additionally, I feel caught between the pressure of my department lead to start using the textbook tomorrow night, rather than taking two additional nights this week to get to know my students as individuals before diving into the text book.  I want the extra time to have them write goals.  I want the extra time to learn what motivates them and what they bring to the classroom.  How can I possibly create effective lesson plans if I don’t know my students and their goals for learning English?

Do students have more to lose or more to gain by postponing textbook conversations and grammar lessons?   Either way, Sunday is the day I set aside to do my weekly lesson planning, and today is Sunday. I have to make a decision that I suspect many other teachers face – do I gravitate toward faithfulness to what I think is in my student’s best interest as individuals or do I go for effectiveness of covering as much of the text as possible before the first school-wide assessment? The clock is ticking on my Sunday planning time. I need some inspiration. I find a YouTube of Parker Palmer’s eighteen-minute speech on education

“Our heroes take on impossible jobs and stay with them for the long haul because they live by a standard that trumps ‘effectiveness’. The name of that standard…is faithfulness…faithfulness to offering your gifts to whatever needs are within your reach.

The tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness the smaller the tasks we’ll take on, because they are the only ones that get short-term results. Public education is a tragic example. [Some]…no longer care about educating [students], a big job that’s never done. We care…about getting [students] to pass tests with measurable results. And we care about that whether or not…they measure anything that matters. In the process, we’re crushing the spirits of a lot of good teachers and vulnerable [students]. Care about being effective, of course, but care even more about being faithful, as countless teachers do—faithful to your calling, and to the true needs of those entrusted to your care.” (emphasis added)  Parker Palmer

Okay.  I don’t know that I’m a “hero.”  But maybe I can find a happy medium between being faithful to the scope and sequence I’ve set for our first semester, and effectively applying the scope and sequence set by my department lead.   I look to the writings of Maxine Green for a little more inspiration before tackling exactly how I plan to satisfy both:

“If the teacher agrees to submerge himself into the system, if he consents to being defined by others’ views of what he is supposed to be, he gives up his freedom to see, to understand, and to signify for himself. If he is immersed and impermeable, he can hardly stir others to define themselves as individuals. If, on the other hand, he is willing …to create a new perspective on what he has habitually considered, real, his teaching may become the project of a person vitally open to his students and the world…He will be continuously engaged in interpreting a reality forever new; he will feel more alive than he ever has before.” (Maxine Green, Teacher as Stranger: Educational Philosophy for the Modern Age)

In the end, I opt for designing Monday night’s lesson around learning stations where students can complete a variety of text-based activities and a variety of more personal activities like goal setting. Each station will place learning in the lap of my students – which is key to mastering language.  The product of each station will provide me with information about each student as an individual, and I’ll gather more clues specific to their reading and listening levels as I observe how they work in small groups to solve a variety of problems and tasks related to the textbook. I do feel that I’ve reached a compromise that will enable me to be faithful to what I see as a necessary step in serving my students – getting to know them as people — and effectively balancing the requirements of the scope and sequence set by my department lead.

The educational task, in the moral domain, as in others is to find out how to enable individuals to choose authentically and intelligently for themselves. It involves learning how to equip them with the conceptual tools, the self-respect, and the opportunities to choose – in specific circumstances – how to do what they consider right.” (emphases added)  Maxine Green, Teacher as Stranger: Educational Philosophy for the Modern Age

That is to say, the goal of education is for a teacher to model within the learning environment what she hopes her individual students will leave the learning environment with —  the knowledge to evaluate situations effectively and make choices that are both faithful to herself and choices that positively effect the whole.

Thanks for reading!




My class roster finally arrived and tomorrow morning classes begin. Twenty-four students, twelve countries, eight languages. As if these cultural and linguistic differences aren’t enough, the educational experiences of my students range from 3 years of education to 19 years of education in their home countries. Variances in English reading and listening proficiencies vary widely for each student, let alone how these proficiencies vary across the spectrum of our class. Everyone has his or her own reason for wanting or needing to learn English, and those may be as much a mystery to some of my students as they are to me at this point in time.

As I pore over my previous year’s lesson plans, I realize I’ve experienced some sort of shift this summer that I can’t name. My highly strategic lesson plans feel overwhelming despite that they have been as precisely crafted as any consistent baking recipe.   Actually my colleagues often look to me for my creativity, organization, differentiation, and timing skills both in terms of planning and delivery. My teaching gets results – as evidenced by the scores students garner on assessments. Yet I’m re-imagining the elements of planning and classroom delivery this year – only I don’t feel that my new interpretations have exactly taken shape despite the urgency I feel to be fully prepared for tomorrow. I’m not talking about the nervousness of those first few years of teaching. I don’t feel nervous about teaching, but I do feel something different about teaching.

I don’t doubt that I care as much as I ever have about my students, my teaching, and our classroom – in fact, I’m ashamed to admit that I may care more deeply about my students as individuals than in any previous year. Maybe that’s where this unexpected and unnamed disquiet is coming from.   At a theoretical level I’ve long been aware that different learning styles and cultural influences impact everyone in the classroom.  But maybe I’ve grown more cognizant this year of how it is that each student brings this host of factors (personality, preference, culture, and proficiency to name a few) with them, and how these orbit around them, and impact learning. And I’m more mindful that I have a host of influences orbiting inside and around me, too.

That word – learning – jumps out at me as I read what I’ve just written. I think that’s part of it…last year I began to think more about what students leave my classroom knowing as opposed to what they simply learned. I can teach you, and you can learn what I teach you. But how do I facilitate learning so that it becomes knowing?  Obviously my quest for understanding the distinction will continue this year.

I’m embarrassed to admit that in years past I’ve approached teaching mostly (if not exclusively) from the perspective of getting students to speak English; this year I want to learn from my students what I need to change in order to interact meaningfully with individuals who don’t yet communicate comfortably in English. This is a subtle shift as it’s written, but it’s a major shift in my approach to both planning and delivery. No wonder I’m feeling at a loss! To this point, I’ve considered myself to be fairly perceptive to people and the environment around me. And while I realize students are attending class specifically to improve their English language skills, the shift I’m trying to make within myself is an important one. What can I change about my self as a person and as a teacher this year that will facilitate and preserve a student’s ways of knowing?

For a little over two years I’ve been learning different forms of yoga. Prior to this, anything I thought I knew about yoga was based on what I’d learned from DVDs in the privacy of my own home. I now realize the DVDs limited me to a very technical experience of yoga (come to think of it, much like learning classroom strategies may have limited my thoughts on teaching and learning). Attending yoga classes in a studio has enabled me to experience the essence of yoga.

Besides becoming slightly more limber I’ve learned several valuable things in yoga class. One of the most influential is that if I could emulate one “style” of teaching in my English language classroom, it would be the calm, reassuring, and supportive approach the vast majority of my yoga teachers exude.  They inspire me to give every moment my best attempt without any expectation of what I should learn from that attempt.   Most of my teachers regularly quote the great, BK Iyengar at the start of class. I’m following suit here with a quote that speaks to the direction I’m trying to stretch my classroom practice.  When asked about his approach to teaching such a wide variety of students, BK Iyengar said, “I consider the grossest of the gross and finest of the fine students as equals.” (emphasis added)

In U.S. academic education a lot of lip service is paid to concepts of equity in the classroom. I’m a great advocate for equity in the classroom – I wouldn’t teach if I weren’t. But equity cannot come about merely by being an expert technician in a teaching method or teaching strategy.   And these days “differentiation” is what is being promoted as the great equalizer. “Differentiation” – huge buzzword and an even bigger money-making concept for publishers and education presenters. When I Googled “define differentiation in education” I received no less than 33,700,000 hits! The top definition indicates that differentiated instruction is how a teacher satisfies a variety of student needs in one of three ways:

  • modify what is being taught to a student,
  • modify how something is being taught to a student, or
  • modify how students demonstrate what they’ve [been taught].

With permission for use from Nancy Footner, this photo is the best representation of what actually lies at the heart of differentiation:


Photo used with permission, courtesy of Nancy Footner Friendship Yoga

No doubt your eyes eventually landed on the man in the orange t-shirt because you assume he’s “the best” student in the class. Or you might be thinking he’s the student who’s “doing it right”. Actually, a yoga teacher would tell you that each student is demonstrating mastery of the pose. Each student is stretching the left side body to the extent he is able based on a host of things we can’t know from the picture (or possibly even in yoga class). We don’t know what’s going on inside each student – physically or emotionally. The props or supports you see don’t mean anything in terms of mastery of the objective – they are just that, supports that enable every student to express his unique mastery of the pose. Which is … to stretch, develop, learn, and honor himself.

I suspect this year I will be “differentiating” in my classroom as much for myself as for my students. I will stretch myself as a teacher and as a learner. I will find ways of bringing the elements of self-awareness that I learn on my yoga mat into my classroom by being just as reflective of my teacher practice. I will change because my students change me for the better.

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” ― Leo Tolstoy

Thanks for reading!


Beginning Again

This week begins the process of administering English language screener and placement tests to several hundred adult students in the adult ed program where I teach evening classes. Adults from eighteen to sixty-plus years old experience embarrassment and anxiety as they struggle to perform tasks they might do without effort in their first language. Some students arrive for the assessment not knowing enough English to ask for help with writing their name and address on the enrollment card. Despite best efforts to place students into groups of similar English proficiencies, classes of up to 30 students per teacher become largely multi-level classrooms.

This is also the time of year when I perform my annual review of what teaching means to me and what it looks like in my classroom. A requirement of my post-bac in TESOL from Seattle University was for each person in our cohort to draft a personal and original statement representing his or her professional guidelines for teaching. We were given several days to create them, with the expectation that at our final session we would read them aloud to the entire class. The day arrived and each of us listened intently – bearing witness as it were – to our individual ideas of what was most essential to our newly formed commitments to being great teachers. It was a powerful way to integrate all we’d learned, and all we hoped to accomplish.

I remember our instructor encouraging us to keep our guidelines someplace safe so we could review them at the beginning of every school year.   Yet she cautioned that what we’d written at this time – the start of our careers – most likely represented our loftiest ideals about teaching. She shared that as she progressed in her career, she continued to modify and adapt her guidelines to be more realistic. I think of her advice every time I read my personal teaching guidelines because I actually do read them every year – often more than once a year. And every year I’ve ignored the last part of her advice! In the nine years that have passed since drafting my guidelines, I have resisted refused to edit them precisely because they are idealistic. I refuse to edit my personal teaching guidelines because if I compromise, I will lose the authenticity of who I am as a teacher and as a person.

This is the first year that I’ve questioned whether my obstinacy is a good thing. Are my ideals outdated or underdeveloped? Or do they reveal something that I can count on for a sense of direction under the mountains of consumer-driven teaching methods, strategies, techniques, and fads that are pitched to me on a daily basis?

For example, just this weekend I received a Fall 2015 catalog from an education publisher that focuses solely on “Resources for Gifted, Advanced, and Special Needs Learners”. The catalog contains no less than 362 different “teaching and learning tools from the advanced learning experts!”  This is an example of how my professional guidelines anchor me – they represent for me what I hold in my mind’s eye as my best self on my best day in my best moments. My professional guidelines were written long before I was constricted by words like differentiation, assessments, rubrics, performance calculations, sub-groups, super-sub groups, and classrooms that are data-driven.

So yes, I hold fast to my professional teacher guidelines specifically because I wrote them at a stage in my development when my perspectives were highly idealistic, even simplistic. I intend to do everything within my power to offer students opportunities to learn, and to do so in ways that are authentic and empowering.

Above all, my professional guidelines are highly personal. And after re-reading them this year, I realize that because I still wouldn’t change a single word that I still care just as deeply about teaching and learning as the day I wrote them. More specifically, I care deeply about teaching and learning well. And I’m not afraid to care deeply despite the frustration and the exhaustion of doing it in a system that would more often prefer I do it by the numbers or by someone else’s strategies rather than authentically.

From William Ayers book, To Teach

“The rewards of teaching are neither ostentatious nor obvious – they are often internal, invisible, and of the moment. But paradoxically they can be deeper, more lasting, and less illusory than the cut of your clothes or the size of your home…There is a particularly powerful satisfaction in caring in a time of carelessness, and of thinking for yourself in a time of thoughtlessness.” (emphasis added) (Ayers, page 2)

“The teacher must find ways to choose and to act in a shifting, uncertain world. She must find ways to take responsibility for her teaching without guarantees. This, we shall see, requires a teacher to be wide-awake and fully present in her teaching; it requires a kind of heroism in the classroom.” (Ayers, p 21)

“This in no way implies a lack of concern for academic rigor or excellence, or for teaching basic skills, but it does mean that skills are taught, for example as a result of concern for the person…to choose teaching is to choose to enable the choices of others…it is easy to dismiss talk of ethical action as romantic, foolish, or even quaint…The problems we face today are not essentially technical or materials problems; they are, at the heart, moral problems.” (Ayers, p 23-24)

  • This year I will review my professional guidelines more frequently throughout the year and reflect on them in whole or in part.
  • This year I will read the whole of Ayers’ book, To Teach.
  • And this year, through the process of self-reflection I commit to being “wide-awake.”

Thanks for reading!


Rediscovering my learner-voice and my story of learning

Hardly a day has gone by since attending the Krishnamurti summer educator’s retreat in Ojai, California, that I don’t anticipate how the experience will factor into my work with students, or recognize how it’s already impacting my work with educators. As I write this post, two weeks remain before students return to class. But teacher training and work with colleagues has already begun.

One of my fellow retreatants sent an email reminder of homework given to us by our facilitator, Dr. Gopal Krishnamurthy.  At the closing session he asked us to complete the following:

If learning is __________ then teaching is ___________.

If learning happens __________ then teaching happens _________.

In my current environment this means _______________.

Here’s how I fill in the blanks:

If learning is to be transformational then teaching is a continual cycle of inquiry and self-reflection.

If learning happens through self-reflection then teaching happens when I honor multiple ways of knowing.

In my current environment this means I will listen and watch for more opportunities to “take myself out of the way”, so to speak. I will know I’m practicing this when I step back, remain silent, listen with intention, and allow students or teacher-professionals to explore a concept and express understanding in ways I might not have conceived of or “planned for”.

An unexpected result for me from the Krishnamurti retreat has been a resurgence of my inclination toward ways of knowing rooted in intuition, contemplation, and self-reflection – all of which factored heavily into my Master’s thesis about ways of knowing. When I first arrived at Creighton University I took to the study of mystics and spirituality like a duck takes to water. But at some point after graduation, I couldn’t get past the sign-posts used by even the mystics I loved the most. I came to a point where it didn’t matter whether I was encountering Christian symbols, Buddhist symbols, Jewish imagery, or Sufi metaphors…the very use of any one word or concept concretized the communication in such a way that I couldn’t get past any negative notions I connected to a particular vernacular (i.e. God, Christ, the Buddha, Lord). Without realizing it and for various reasons, I had come to the Krishnamurti retreat having thrown the baby (a mystical learning style and intuitive way of understanding the world) out with the bathwater (religious symbolism).

So I’m surprised to find myself at home after the retreat, digging out my Thomas Merton books, re-reading Buddhist sutras, and pondering Rumi with renewed interest. Why now? After seven days devoted to the intense study of one of Krishnamurti’s most essential writings, Learning and the Significance of Life (which is filled with exhortations against organized religion among other things). Why has the California retreat led me back to a path and way of understanding the world that I was certain I’d left behind – outgrown, if you will. Am I Krishnamurti flunky? (Is that theoretically possible?)

Partway through the retreat I found it impossible to ignore the connections I was making to Krishnaurti’s thoughts and those of Cistercian monk and writer, Thomas Merton.[1] Merton’s essay “Learning to Live” was the basis on which my entire thesis rested. “The least of the work of learning is done in classrooms…whatever you do, every act, however small, can teach you everything – provided you see who it is that is acting.” (Merton, p 366-367)

Whereas Krishnamurti seems to have eschewed religious (and spiritual) influences, Merton chose to study, appreciate, and integrate perspectives from traditions far beyond his Catholic interpretations specifically to expand his ways of knowing. This allowed Merton to understand “the wisdom of the human family.” (Cunningham, p 6) Merton didn’t abandon himself as I had, but rather he seemed to find himself through an inquiry of monastics and mystics in vastly different contexts.

Or was Krishnamurti not quite as sterile as I thought? In the course of writing this post, I stumbled upon this YouTube of Krishnamurti entitled What is a Spiritual Life?  in which Krishnamurti gives a nod toward “monks” as not religious.

But do I need to give up Krishnamurti for Merton, or vice versa? Can I deepen my understanding of the world around me by embracing both? And more importantly, what concepts from each can I practically apply to broaden the scope of my work in public education?  Short answer – no I don’t, yes I can, and let me explain how I plan to do it.

I love the way the Universe works! Since returning from California, a colleague in Kansas City shared a deeply meaningful and practical article about critical teacher reflection. Authored by Tyrone C. Howard, Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Ingredients for Critical Teacher Reflection provides a rich discussion supporting contemplation and self-reflection as practical and necessary to the craft of teaching and learning. I highly recommend reading it in full text. Paste this link into your browser to access it:

For Howard, “The term critical reflection attempts to look at reflection within moral, political, and ethical contexts of teaching.” (Howard, p 197) Merton sought to unite “head and heart, philosophy and contemplation” (Cunningham, p 6) in his writing and in his mentoring of novitiates. And in the two I see that “transformation of mind and heart is the issue…” (Cunningham, p 7).   Krishnamurti also recognizes that without self-reflection little may change in the relationship between teachers and students, “By being fully aware of ourselves in all our relationships we shall begin to discover those confusions and limitations within us of which we are now ignorant; and in being aware of them, we shall understand and so dissolve them. Without this awareness and the self-knowledge which it brings, any reform in education or in other fields will only lead to further antagonism and misery.” (Krishnamurti, p 85)

Returning to the practical approach that Howard describes as, “The willingness on the part of teacher educators to share their own lived experiences, expose their own human frailties, and reflect on their ever-evolving identities within a community of diverse individuals”, he offers suggestions on “how to translate critical reflection into culturally relevant teaching.” (Howard, p 200).

For example, this summer’s retreat has given me an opportunity to reconsider aspects of certain tools I use, like rubrics. At present I find them useful and valid within the context of my environment primarily because I create rubrics to keep myself accountable for ensuring equity when evaluating student work. However, I can also appreciate the necessity for examining whether a specific rubric might end up being more limiting than equity-building if it restricts the expression of knowledge to a stringent model that I have created from my worldview or limited understanding of the content. This is particularly challenging given that I work with students from a vast number of cultures and a variety of languages in an education system that demands knowledge be expressed in only one language (English) to be valid!

This year I am committed to exploring some of Howard’s questions along with many of my own. Howard’s suggestions for reflective questioning include:

  • How frequently do I differentiate instruction?
  • Do scoring rubrics give inherent advantages for certain ways of knowing and expression?
  • Do I allow culturally based differences in language, speech, reading, and writing to shape my perceptions about students’ cognitive ability? (p 200)

In addition to a commitment to answer these questions, I will add a commitment to:

  • Reflect on my current practices in order to understand the difference between instructing, educating, training, and teaching.
  • Incorporate less conceptual knowledge into my practice and increase experiential ways of knowing.
  • Unite head (pedagogy), heart (empathy), philosophy (inquiry and ethics), and contemplation (critical reflection and deep listening) in my teaching practice, and integrate them into the learning atmosphere I offer students and colleagues.

In my search for practical examples of self-reflection as teacher practice, I stumbled on a recent example posted by a former professor of mine, Dr. Andria Stokes at Avila University. In a post on her blog for the Center for Transformational Learning, she applies self-reflection to her role as a student advisor:

“I had to ask myself if my advisees were taught from the beginning to build their learning and social experience at our university, or did I simply share the “required classes” within the time structure that was offered? After a lot of thought, I believe I attempted to accomplish the use of discussion and questioning during advising, but what I did not have was [anything] created by the student to show their thinking during our sessions. What I had was a bank of notes I took to show I covered the needed content.

AHA!  As a faculty member, my job during advising should help the student create a draft of his or her story of learning, make intentional edits along the way, and support each student in creating his or her own voice as a learner at our university.” (emphasis added) — Dr. Andria Stokes

It’s my hope that through a contemplative, self-reflective practice which includes writing my “story of learning”, that I will better support students and fellow teacher-practitioners this year in finding their learner-voices.

Thanks for reading!

[1] You can find Merton’s essay “Learning to Live” in the anthology Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master: – The Essential Writings edited by Lawrence C Cunningham.

Use what you know

I pursued my current position as an ELL Instructional Specialist (English Language Learner) because I wanted to share and refine my ideas about best practices in teaching English language learners. While my first love is working directly with students, I also derive a deep sense of satisfaction from supporting educators in the development of their teaching practice.

Sometimes I encounter teachers who seem to have lost their sense of direction. This isn’t an accusation. It’s purely an observation substantiated by what I’ve experienced at certain times in my own teaching practice, and derived from what I sense when working alongside teachers in their classrooms or in professional development sessions.

In the process of learning more about how education policy is created and how the many layers of bureaucracy impact what I teach and how I teach it, I sometimes feel disempowered to actually provide students with the opportunity to learn. I question myself. Which in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. But the insistence that I use off-the-shelf, standardized tools often obfuscates rather than clarifies if what I know to be true of my students is more or less accurate than what an off-the-shelf curriculum or assessment indicates should be true of all students.

It’s not uncommon for teachers to approach me in pursuit of the perfect strategy, the quickest or most sure-fire way to catch students up to grade level, or the best way to interpret the results of a standardized assessment. They start with a question that seems innocent enough, What do I do…?

Other times I encounter teachers who are attending a professional development session because it’s required. The question varies only slightly in the tone of exasperation it carries, Now what do I need to do…?

This year my response to either question is going to be, “Use what you know.” At first blush, use what you know may sound like a non-answer.

I heard the phrase while attending a yoga class. The yoga teacher modeled the postures we were going to practice, then invited us to arrive at the postures in ways that adapted to our individual bodies. She would follow each demonstration with the phrase, “Use what you know.” There was something very freeing about being told to draw on my inner resources and my understanding to arrive at the destination.

Similarly, the intention of my classroom instruction is to empower students to draw on experience and inner resources in order to learn. Ultimately I desire for them to be in control of their learning.

I’ve realized that my intention for working with students mirrors what I want to convey to my colleagues as well. Specifically my goal is to empower students and colleagues not only to use what they know but to trust what they know.

Learning to use what we know protects us from the complacency that comes from being told how to do everything. Teaching others to trust what they know encourages creativity and broadens the scope of possible solutions. Ultimately, by framing a learning experience this way I empower myself and others to turn learning into knowing.

Thanks for reading!