“Each day is a journey, and the journey itself, home.” Basho
I was fortunate to go through my undergraduate education program in the mid-eighties at UNH, where professors such as Thomas Newkirk and Donald Graves set the tone for a program that embraced the "messiness" of teaching and encouraged students to explore rather than dial in their teaching philosophy. During my time there I found educational theorists who spoke for me: Carl Rogers, Nancie Atwell, John Dewey, Nel Noddings. All of this work added to the important understanding that teaching was an imprecise profession, not to be reduced to technique. Unfortunately, I only remained teaching in the regular classroom for five years, during which I barreled headlong with my youthful enthusiasm and care for my students, not really aware of what I didn’t know and not looking for it either. I did not get a chance to settle in and really look at the practice of teaching and learning as it played out in my own classroom. Now, 20 years later I feel like a beginner who now is acutely aware of how much she doesn’t know. Over the years I have kept up on learning theory, brain development science, educational initiatives such as Appreciative Inquiry and others, but I have not had the opportunity to really study myself in action. Now through a strong mindfulness practice and maturity, I can see, a little too clearly, the areas in which I am deficient, and even areas I just dare not to look too closely. Tremmel's article gives me the courage and inspiration to approach this practicum with nonjudgemental awareness and compassionate curiosity—not just in the moments I observe but in dealing with the flaws and inconsistencies I discover.
I will begin with part of Tremmel’s conclusion:
To become reflective and mindful practitioners, we need to learn to become aware of the workings of our own minds and, simultaneously, to let go of involvement in our thoughts and feelings while plunging ourselves, mind, body, into the center of teaching and learning. This is no easy task (456)
Given how difficult it is to face our flaws in our daily life with people we love and trust, it is no wonder that educators seek research and techniques to drive their teaching practice. We are faced everyday with students who sometimes make sport of finding our flaws and spoiling our plans. To then be asked to go back and take a long hard look at our teaching is completely counter-intuitive to our basic human need for support in an already challenging profession. For this reason, I believe it would be anti-ethical to engage teachers in reflective practices without grounding teachers first in basic mindfulness principles of nonjudgmental, compassionate awareness. “Anti-ethical” is a strong word, but It is purposeful. We are, in general, a “self-improvement” culture, where the majority of people feel that they are not enough, who are engaged in some form of aggressive self improvement plan. In order for reflective practices to succeed and create real learning for educators, a great deal of time needs to be spent balancing that default “aggressive” approach to reflection with an open compassionate stance. John O’Donohue wrote in his book Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom:
It is far more creative to work with the idea of mindfulness rather than with the idea of will. Too often people try to change their lives by using the will as a kind of hammer to beat their life into proper shape. The intellect identifies the goal of the program, and the will accordingly forces the life into that shape. This way of approaching the sacredness of one’s own presence is externalistic and violent. It brings you falsely outside your own self and you can spend years lost in the wilderness of your own mechanical, spiritual programmes. You can perish in a famine of your own making.
O’Donohue’s words are meant for people looking to improve themselves spiritually, but they can be easily applied to teachers. His last sentence may sound too dramatic, but there is truth in it. A teacher mechanically following the scripts of the latest research-based initiative will eventually experience such a “famine.” Short term the script provides a much needed relief from the risky nature of authentic engagement, reflection and creativity, but long term it is depleting rather than enlivening.
Schon argues that single-minded attachment to this positivistic view is the cause for the curious and destructive tendency in Western education to separate the authorities and the sources of knowledge from knowledgeable practice. This tendency leads to the mistaken notions that knowledge gained by scientific research and represented in abstract technical formulations is the only legitimate knowledge available to inform and shape practice. This technical form of knowledge does not provide sufficient basis for practitioners' actions, especially when they are acting in the "swampy lowland where situations are confusing 'messes' incapable of technical solutions (435)."
There is a relief in relying on the “experts” outside of our classroom to inform what we do inside the classroom, but there is a reason our teaching feels empty and mechanical when we try to use it every day. It does not provide “sufficient basis for practitioners actions.”
Prepared and grounded through a basic mindfulness practice, teachers could step into the reflective practices having dropped the need for “solutions”. Tremmel writes: “In Schon's terms, it is exactly this desire for solutions that hinders efforts to establish reflective practice (437).” Once engaged, teachers can more quickly glean the awareness and insights from their observations and reflections. And then as Tremmel says, we can “respond artistically to what we are doing and … bring our insights from that to bear on what is it we do not know (437).”
As there can be joy in meditation when we are finally able to experience equanimity in the face of seeming disparate experiences and feelings, so can the teacher feel joy in seeing the many paradoxes that are revealed through the reflective process. Tremmel writes:
At the heart of this notion of reflective practice is neither prescribed solutions nor certainty, but action and paradox. Schon's notion of action focuses attention on the artistry of the practitioner in the present moment, simultaneously doing and learning and coming to know (438).
Tremmel writes, “In order to move forward, [practitioners] must move into the center of the learning situation, into the center of their own doubts (438).” I posit that learning how to “be” in the center of our own doubts would be a slow and important first step before even beginning the reflective process. Tremmel says it well in the concluding section of his essay:
Indeed, sometimes as I read, the nagging suspicion grows that what really drives us forward is still the persistent hope that somewhere "out there" is THE answer, THE formula, THE technology, THE research technique that will solve all of our problems and meet our needs. Until we are seriously and equally willing to look within, I am afraid we will see little beyond what we actually have already seen. Looking within is part of preparing ourselves for—and actually engaging in—reflective and mindful practice (455).
O'Donohue, J., (1997) Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic wisdom. HarperCollins Books: New York, NY
Tremmel, R., (1993) "Zen and the art of reflective practice in teacher education." Harvard educational review 63.4: 434-459.