Professional excellence and personal quest

A fundamental question I have is, How can I integrate a quest for professional excellence with a quest for self-knowledge?

I’m aware that without a consistent approach to self-reflection, I’m prone to overlooking nuances of my interactions with students that are as highly relevant to their academic success as the strategies I use to guide their understanding. My experience is that many educators and the public at large perceive the creation of a homogenous, standards-based, quantitative system of evaluating students’ academic competency as being synonymous with teaching that is equitable and non-biased. I disagree.

I have realized that a failure to fully examine my biases (such as those related to social and cultural norms, and definitions of what constitutes a good life after education) may result in classroom experiences that deny my students from developing a “healthy ethnic identity and self-concept” (Tyrone C. Howard). Therefore, I posit that teaching that is predicated on technical excellence is unlikely to be equitable much less non-biased.

This is a personal and painful realization for several reasons:

  • I am the progeny of interracial parents,
  • I have long imagined myself “blind” to what anthropologist Edward T. Hall referred to as “the cultural iceberg” aspects of identity,
  • My teaching career developed almost entirely in the area of teaching English to speakers of other languages (which naturally has lent itself to teaching students who are quite different from myself and each other).

At the outset of my career in education I was asked to write a highly professional yet deeply personal philosophy of teaching. I approached the task with the best intentions of avoiding forced assimilation of the English language and American culture on my students, and with every intention of fostering a highly experiential and inquiry based learning environment. More than eight years into my career I realize that no matter how carefully I crafted those guidelines I wrote them as a pre-service teacher without benefit of the self-inquiry I undoubtedly needed to conduct before putting pen to paper.

This leads me to ask myself, am I a “good” teacher? I’ve won awards and have been selected for educator opportunities that many other teachers haven’t been offered. But those details don’t interest me as an indicator of my suitability as much as the questions I’m currently raising and the answers I’m seeking about myself as a human who is also a teacher. Steven Emmanuel suggests, “…good teachers employ techniques and methods that preserve the essential openness of the learning space, while giving it a vital focus. They resist the temptation to close that space in the interest of achieving some predetermined learning outcome. The temptation to close that space can be quite strong though. As it is often viewed by fear, uncertainty, and risk that uncertainty entails. Technique can very easily become the sort of thing we hide behind. Or it may become a subtle form of control that eliminates the element of risk even as it purports to be done for the sake of the students. –(Steven Emmanuel, The Mindful Teacher,) (emphasis added)

I propose that this “subtle form of control” goes beyond my desire to avoid risk in order to save face, and extends to questions that arose following an eight-day educator’s retreat last summer based on Krishnamurti’s “Education and the Significance of Life.” Since the retreat I have been wondering if I am overly reliant on “good” technique, and if this is a form of oppression because it insists on mastery of a model outcome that I can evaluate equitably by a well-crafted rubric? How much of my good (i.e. professional) technique is bad for students because it robs them of their own ways of knowing?

When educators are trained to gauge their effectiveness on student performance data, ultimately that links successful teaching to a rubric of properly planned and properly executed learning strategies that are imposed on students. In the current state of teacher evaluation, the responsibility of asking why I teach and how I teach becomes dangerously obsolete in the professional landscape. I say dangerously because when I fail to observe and analyze my teacher-self, I realize this lack of self-knowledge creates and preserves dangerous systemic oppressions that extend beyond a student’s classroom experience and follows students into the various roles they will assume in society (be it career, higher education, theology, family, philosophy, art).

Racism, prejudice, oppression, and the violence that thrives on a highly competitive framework permeates U.S. society despite a multitude of religious teachings and civil rights legislation that purport to thwart these behaviors. Meanwhile, with very few exceptions, everyone in the U.S. passes through the portal of elementary and secondary education. Consequently what happens in classrooms potentially impacts the life of every member of society. Yet we don’t ask of our teachers that they practice self-reflection as a means to breaking these cycles. Instead, teachers learn that professional excellence is equated with technical excellence that can be measured competitively by student outcomes.   How thoroughly do I need to understand my self and my teacher-self if I ever hope – however briefly – “to see who it is that is acting?” (Thomas Merton)

While my inquiry is based largely on personal experience and observations, I would hope that the outcome of my efforts would lend itself to being of value to other educators. More importantly, my experiences of self-reflection often enable me to interact more openly with my students and other educators. And ultimately, every personal interaction is where I can choose to risk being open to what that moment has to teach me.

Thanks for reading!