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The Inner Life of Boys and Men

My father turned eighty-three last April. Having had a stroke six years prior, he’d been in steady physical decline, progressing more rapidly within the year leading to his birthday. I’d notice him walk a little slower and his ability to communicate was slipping from his grasp. He could only speak in simple terms and by evening grew weary of formulating words. His handwriting shaky, he would ask me to address envelopes for him. Much time was spent in his chair in front of the television and he’d frequently drift to sleep during the day.

While visiting my dad over his birthday, I went to one of the parks along the St. Lawrence River, a man’s meticulous movements caught my eye. The metal detector in his hand swept across brown grass searching for coins, keys, or other trinkets lost through winter. His rhythmic sweeping would occasionally register static in his headphones and using a kind of garden knife he’d unearth the metallic material: items both mundane and profound. I was riveted by his methodical persistence, he seemed to me in meditation. Watching him, I considered The Inner Lives of Boys and Men, a Circle of Trust I was preparing to co-lead for Courage & Renewal facilitators the following month. I wondered if this man’s work was his socially acceptable way to be immersed in a contemplative life.

Pause, Unplug and Explore Your Life’s Big Questions
Courage to Lead for Young Leaders & Activists

Applications Due Feb 16

Next retreat begins
May 3-5, 2018
in Nova Scotia, Canada

In my twenties, I lived in Northern Ontario, a very rural and hardscrabble part of Canada. I grew to know a man who worked at a failing uranium mine scheduled to close, leaving him searching for employment in a very depressed area. He partially sustained his family
of seven through hunting. Though he loved the act of tracking deer and moose beneath the rustle of autumn foliage, he hated to kill. I’ve since met other hunters who have expressed a similar disdain for killing. Hunting has become an excuse for their inner life’s longing, to be immersed in the solitude of nature.

A paramedic has described to me that he “puts on an iron skin” to protect himself from the horrors of what he might encounter in his job. In his field, there is little tolerance for showing one’s emotional self, and he’ll often forget to remove this armor after work.

I recall silent car rides with my father and how rare it would be that we’d have a conversation deeper than weather reports. Perhaps we both lacked the skills and vulnerability to communicate authentically with each other. In the rare moments where we did dive a little deeper, the few words he’d offer were often profound.

How are men finding ways to tap into the solitude and community necessary for them to have a rich inner life? How are they finding courageous ways to express their true and full emotional selves in spite of the enormous social pressures and toxic masculinity, that still say this is not okay? Vulnerability, fragility, and a rich inner life are
not words often associated with the culture of men and boys.

During The Inner Lives of Boys and Men, many in the circle shared deeply about their own experiences as men, or the men and boys in their lives. As we explored the Script of Masculinity—those social expectations that define what it means to be a man—we recognized the complexity of masculinity in the 21st century: there is not just one way to be a man, rather a plethora of masculinities and ways that men show up in the world.

Despite a slow cultural shift towards a more compassionate and healthy masculinity, there is an entrenched story that continues to show itself too frequently in ways that are damaging, painful, and literally death dealing. As this archaic embodiment of masculinity hangs on, it denies emotions, except for anger and humour. It encourages violence and aggression as a means to solve problems and it discourages the skills necessary to allow boys and men to share their vulnerabilities with others. In Canada, four out of five deaths by suicide are committed by men, approximately 3,000 a year, or the equivalent of seven Boeing 777s crashing.

Parker J. Palmer writes, “Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our own suffering. Sometimes we visit violence upon others, as if causing them pain would mitigate our own.” It is often this separation of men and boys from their inner lives, that brings suffering to them, their partners, their families, and the communities that surround them.

Though it is common for men to gather, they are not often provided with opportunities, permission, or the skills to connect meaningfully and explore their inner lives. In creating Circles of Trust for men and boys, we create spaces for bravery, where sharing one’s inner truth is witnessed with compassion by other males. These rare moments in a man’s life are opportunities for emotional release, without judgment, and a chance to listen deeply to their own and each other’s pain and joy.

What I have witnessed is that men and boys, starved of genuine connections, have a voracious appetite for these explorations and to be seen in their wholeness. I have frequently heard from men, of all ages, that a circle like this was the first time they’d been able to share their story as men, with other men. These opportunities to share true
self, require courage, trust and fortitude. Unfortunately, men and boys connecting authentically with themselves and each other is still counter cultural.

My father died this past summer. The day we made the decision to move him to the palliative care unit, I found him in a rare moment of mental clarity. Looking deeply into his eyes and summoning my own courage, I told him what was happening, and that soon he would die. He’d completely lost his speech by now and so only raised his eyebrows in response.

Numerous men who worked in the plant he managed for thirty years, showed up at his deathbed and the funeral, and easily shared what a tremendous mentor he’d been in their lives. Still, other men expressed that for a son to lose his father was the greatest loss. Though I was at odds with many of my father’s traditional expressions of masculinity, he was my first and most consistent male role model. As a young man in my twenties, when I journeyed to search for and uncover my own inner life, without fail my father would pick me up or drop me at airports, train stations and bus depots. In these moments of
departure or arrival, he would always hug me and tell me he loved me.

Brian Braganza is a Courage & Renewal Facilitator and experiential educator specializing in vocational counselling, sustainability education, masculinity, and youth engagement. He works with a wide diversity of youth and young adults to live into their vocational call and have meaningful roles and voices in their communities. Brian delivers experiential programs for men and boys, which builds their abilities to connect authentically and live into their wholeness and co-designed T.O.N.E., Therapy Outside Normal Environments, a unique men’s therapeutic project. He lives in a straw-bale home he built on an old farm near Bridgewater, Nova Scotia. Brian is also a wilderness traveler, poet and songwriter. If you’d like to get notified of future retreats on The Inner Life of Men and Boys, send an email to Brian.



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How will you measure your courage this year?

How will you measure this year in your life?

In the truths you discover? How about love? Or courage?

Let’s make this a whole year of courage — and then some!


It takes 10,000 hours, they say,
to become a virtuoso.
10,000 hours of scales,
of drills, of stretching
toward the details of a dream.
10,000 hours of honing
the muscles to their
finest fibers, until mastery
becomes a native language,
engraved below thinking,
instinctive as your own
heart’s rhythm.
10,000 hours.
Which explains why my hand
finds yours so perfectly,
interlacing so exactly,
even in sleep.

Lynn Ungar, from “Bread and Other Miracles

We’re human beings ’round the clock, 525,600 minutes a year. The “Seasons of Love” song and this poem feel like blessings for the new year. It’s as if they say, “May it be possible to speak our heart’s language, even in our sleep. May we trust in ourselves and each other to love well, despite all that’s hard.”

Who and what can you count on this year?

What really counts in your life?

How might you count on your courage?

This year, we invite you to explore ideas and practices that can fortify and sustain you for your wholehearted work in the world. On February 6th we will launch our new book, The Courage Way: Leading and Living with Integrity. Stay tuned and get ready to kick off your own conversations about things that matter — like courage, true self, trust, and community.

Warmest regards,


Shelly Francis
Marketing & Communications Director
and author of The Courage Way

Courage & Renewal programs are a place to learn practices that connect you to your inner wisdom and to other people, fortifying your heart for real life and leadership.

mail iconToday’s blog is a mirror of our monthly Words of EnCOURAGEment e-newsletter. If you’re not a subscriber yet, sign up so you don’t miss anything!


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Finding Tempo Giusto

I’m what you would call a typical morning person. My energy peaks before noon. For night-owls, this behavior is a total mystery. I’m equally in awe of those who are able to have intellectual conversations after 9 o’clock pm. I prefer watching the sun rise. Ideas flow easily pre-dawn, and I treasure the spaciousness of uninterrupted time when most people are still sleeping.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a new trend: my body is wanting more rest. The sun is rising later too. At first, I resisted this idea. I’m a morning person after all! I need that time for sipping coffee and puttering to begin my day. I feel rushed without it. When I open my eyes, the message is clear. Go back to sleep. I feel a tension, as I also hear: There’s so much to do! The end of the year is coming!  Holidays are here! You’re wasting time.

The universe delivered an unexpected gift this week in the form of an email from a past workshop participant. Dr. Paul Richards, the Superintendent of the American School of Dubai wrote, “What’s next? We are intrigued by the concept of tempo giusto, that everything has its optimal speed (fast, moderate, or slow). What should be slow about schooling? We believe: thinking, learning, feedback, planning, visioning, reading and writing.” Wow!  I love this idea!

Not only is tempo giusto a musical term meaning ‘exact time’ but also an expression that rolls easily off the tongue in Italian. Of course, the Italians have a phrase that defines optimal time. In Italy, most of the country takes a break in the middle of the day to eat and rest. Slowing down is part of the culture. Children return home from school mid-day to have lunch with their families. People pause. A tempo giusto.

Paul’s email had me wondering. Is there a natural rhythm to all things? Are humans the only species that place artificial constraints on time, interrupting a natural flow? Aside from sleeping longer, what is my body telling me about pacing? I know I’d like to pass quickly through pain and anxiety. I’d prefer for my daughter’s temper tantrums to run their course without lingering. On the other hand, could we please slow things down when she is writing a letter to the tooth fairy?

In our dominant culture, I feel a quickening upon us. I expect instant feedback to social media posts. I send and receive emails at all times of day, even on the weekends. I’m actually eating at my desk right now, as I write this.

Certainly, there are things that remind me of my own time if I’m open to seeing them. Geese flying overhead. Reading a poem. Listening to a babbling brook. These are not static acts, they all involve movement and they all have their own pace. Otherwise, the goose would cease to be in formation, the poem wouldn’t be understood, and the river would either overflow or dry up.

As we approach the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, I’m paying attention to time. I’m sleeping in with a little less guilt, and I’m gaining awareness that while busy-ness has become a badge of honor in our society, I can still look to the goose, the poem, and the brook, for gentle reminders of my own tempo giusto.

Tara Reynolds – aside from being an early riser – finds joy in being near the ocean, walking in the woods during a snowstorm, and snuggling under the covers while reading books with her daughter, Nadia. She is a Courage & Renewal Facilitator and a Co-Founder of WholeHeart

Consider exploring your own inner knowing and timing: January 25-28, 2018 for a Circle of Trust Retreat: Rekindling the Light Within with Tara and Holly.  

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The Courage to Be Vulnerable Comes from Community

When I first applied to attend the Courage to Lead for Young Leaders and Activists retreat, I had also just learned that I was selected from thousands of applicants to speak at TedX Toronto 2017.  Although I was passionate and knowledgable about my topic, I was a bit nervous. The Young Leaders retreat gave me new Courage and clarity to show up fully—not just on stage but in my work since.

Courage to Lead for Young Leaders and Activists was a life-changing retreat for me. There I was able to see in the facilitators the type of leader I wanted to become.  They led our group with such grace and humility that I felt safe and engaged from the moment I attended the first session.

This retreat allowed me to connect with other young leaders across North America as we embarked on a meaningful, intentional, spiritual journey together.  We will forever have a bond with one another.

Pause, Unplug and Explore Your Life’s Big Questions
Courage to Lead for Young Leaders & Activists

Applications Due Feb 16

Next retreat begins
May 3-5, 2018
in Nova Scotia, Canada

Connecting to my inner teacher was something I only read about until this retreat.  At the Courage to Lead retreat I was able to connect to the depths of my soul which allowed me to get some much need clarity on what lies ahead in my future.

If you are someone looking to connect with others and yourself on a deeper level I highly recommend this retreat. Change your lens, change your life.

Nastassia Subban has been an elementary and secondary school teacher with the Toronto District School Board for 11 years, teaching Contemporary Studies, Physical Education, and History. Recently, she has been seconded to the Faculty of Education at York University, where she is currently a Course Director for teacher candidates. With a passion for social justice, education, and equity, Subban was selected to be a curriculum writer and reviewer for Africentric pilot curriculums for Ontario Secondary School courses. Moreover, she was a founding member of the non-profit organization, Educators for Social Change, which ran a successful young female mentorship program for students across the GTA. Subban’s years of experience working as a teacher, along with her passion for helping and guiding others, inspires her to explore the untouched topic on teaching and vulnerability. She spoke at TedX Toronto 2017.

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What grounds you in hope?

Unknowingly, we plow the dust of stars,
blown about us by the wind, and drink the
universe in a glass of rain.
~Ihab Hassan

I’ve always found Solstice times to be deeply grounding. Something about placing ourselves in the larger universe of ongoing cycles of change and renewal helps me put my own life and challenges in perspective.

For some the days are growing longer and for others shorter; for those who are ready to let go of the doldrums of winter there is the promise of new life and for those at the height of summer there is the reminder that there is also beauty in darkness. I find it fascinating that something so predictable can still feel miraculous.

At a recent conference I attended I heard this sage comment: “Both faith and fear require belief in something you can’t see: pick one.”

When I get lost in the daily reminders of hate, ignorance, violence and greed, the fear takes hold. Grounding myself in the universe’s deep assurance of renewal and rebirth liberates me to see the kindness in everyday acts, the persistence of resistance against divisions, the inspiration of creativity in many forms.

We are but a speck of dust in time and place, and yet each of us contains the majesty and miracle of life itself.
What grounds you in hope at this time of year?

In faith and in courage,

Terasa Cooley
Executive Director

P.S. Courage & Renewal programs offer places and practices that help us show up with courage in hard times.

mail iconToday’s blog is a mirror of our monthly Words of EnCOURAGEment e-newsletter. If you’re not a subscriber yet, sign up so you don’t miss anything!


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Coming Soon to Bookstores Near You!

I’m excited to announce that our next book from the Center for Courage & Renewal is being printed now and shipping to bookstores in a few weeks! The Courage Way: Leading and Living with Integrity is a guide to leadership that shows how to access and draw upon courage in all that you do.

How do we equip and sustain ourselves to adapt and thrive in a world that feels so volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous? Having more courage might seem like an obvious answer, but it’s not always clear how to find and sustain the kind of courage you need on any given day.

Based on interviews with more than 120 people, The Courage Way illustrates how leaders have overcome personal and professional challenges and strengthened their organizations by applying the principles and practices of Courage & Renewal.

Check out the special website we created to spread the word about our new book. We will be adding reader resources, stories, and downloads.

Be Part of Our “Street Team!

  1. Get a sneak peek and share the sample chapter, including the Foreword by Parker J. Palmer.
  2. Share your favorite book quotes on social media.
  3.  Pre-order the book or ask your favorite local bookstore to stock it.

The book’s launch date is Tuesday, February 6th!  Stay tuned for more news as the date approaches.


To live into the future means to leap into the unknown, and this requires a degree of courage for which there is no immediate precedent and which few people realize.
—Rollo May

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Fired Up About Social Justice and Self-Care in Community

What gets me fired up is how to better connect individual wellbeing, awareness, and self-care with community wellbeing, especially through methods that address and reverse social injustice. I greatly wanted to connect with other leaders who are interested in mobilizing these shared efforts. That’s why I applied to attend the Courage to Lead for Young Leaders and Activists retreat.

In this retreat, I was hoping to find a sacred space to get curious about, lean into, and discover some things about the tensions I was facing in my work and as a mother of two kids under five. I hoped I might walk away with a few more tools, perspectives, or introspective insights that might aid me back in the day-to-day roles I have in leadership, activism, and education. I was hoping to connect to like-minded peers who were investing in rejoining soul and role, especially in the work of social change. Finally, I hoped to find some rest, renewal, and rejuvenation to carry me through a very intense year.

I have been to—and also led—many retreats, but the Courage to Lead for Young Leaders and Activists turned out to be like no other. The whole experience was distinctive in so many ways. The rhythm of the daily agenda was slowed down to a pace that allowed us to become fully present to each focus of the day. Usually training, conference, or retreat agendas are so packed that you feel exhausted and not fully “complete” with each activity by the time you have to move on or the day is done. In this space, we had the time we needed to really dive into and be with the topics and people with a spaciousness that invited heart openings to occur.

Pause, Unplug and Explore Your Life’s Big Questions
Courage to Lead for Young Leaders & Activists

Next retreat begins
March 15-17, 2018
near Baltimore, MD

It was also clear the facilitators were well trained and experienced: their gentle touch and role modeling of what they asked of us made me feel safe and inspired. Their use of poetry and other mediums to invite us into different segments of the day brought us into another way of thinking and being that prompted creative thought, metaphors, and other imaginative ways to view ourselves and the “problem” at hand.

The unique approach of the Circle of Trust – listening, asking open and honest questions, meditating, and accessing the genuine within—made possible a different way of navigating the themes we engaged. The clearness committee was one of the most intense and most profound things I’ve participated in a very long time. I will never forget it.

Participating in this retreat immediately changed how I engaged with others in my life, professionally and personally. I was so deeply moved by the work we did that I couldn’t stop thinking about it and reflecting on how I could tangibly bring it into all of my daily interactions. Soon after I got home, I went into the mountains and wrote in my journal about the concrete actions I wanted to take – how to better reflect on and connect with my genuine voice within to navigate the challenges I face in my work and to negotiate conflicts.

I was able then to enter into a space with one of my employees where I could not only deeply listen to and care for the challenges she was facing, but also make myself more open and vulnerable with her than perhaps ever before, and was unafraid to share with her my own challenges, regrets, and hopes for how to strengthen our relationship. The effect was immediate and profound and has completely shifted our relationship and overall dynamics in our office.

I greatly appreciate the space the Courage to Lead retreat fostered for the insights to emerge that I needed to make both intimate shifts within and tangible shifts with others. I gained more than I could have ever imagined from the Courage to Lead program and feel gratitude from the depths of my heart and soul.

Tessa Hicks Peterson is Assistant Vice President for Community Engagement and Associate Professor of Urban Studies at Pitzer College, USA. For the last twenty years she has facilitated trainings and taught classes on anti-bias education, social justice, and community engagement. She is also the author of the newly released book, Student Development and Social Justice: Critical Learning, Radical Healing, and Community EngagementeBook and Hardcover Purchasing here!

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Bridging the Gap Between Immigrant Farmworkers and University Students

We are fortunate to have an Inner Life of Teaching & Leadership cohort at Cornell University, a circle of trust that meets monthly for faculty and staff. We have two cohorts at any one time – one year-long experience for new applicants and another into which participants can flow after that first year.

Mary Jo Dudley is the Director of the Cornell Farmworker Program. She has repeated many of our Inner Life of Teaching & Leadership experiences with students engaged in the program, and we recently got together to talk about how she weaves Circle of Trust principles and practices into her work. Here are Mary Jo’s words about the intersection between farmworkers and university students – and the ways in which the Circle of Trust Touchstones have been vital in forming a bridge.

~Marcia Eames-Sheavly, Courage & Renewal Facilitator


Many themes and challenges occur in the lives of the immigrant farmworker: imagine the challenge of not speaking English in a culture in which that is the dominant language; having a decreased ability to communicate with your employer as a result; being undocumented with heavy anti-immigrant sentiment and high risk of deportation; heavy debt and experiencing the anxiety of having to work many hours because everything one owns (homes, animals, land) were put up as collateral for the debt they incurred to come here, pushing oneself to earn enough to repay that debt or one will leave worse off when they came. And on it goes.

This creates an environment in which people try to remain in the shadows in every aspect of their life. And this has its own personal cost: people talk about starting to feel as if they are criminals, doing something wrong, must remain a secret, because if it came to light there would be repercussions.

So how do you help students to switch gears from their chemistry exams to listening to a low-literacy non-English speaker articulate their story and their hopes for the future?

Our work at Cornell is framed within the context of addressing the needs of farmworkers and their families.  A critical piece of that is having conversations with  and interviewing farmworkers one-on-one to understand their personal stories. We draw from these commonalities to inform materials developed to meet their critical needs. Farmworkers often note, “Why not just ask us what we think?” And so, we do.

The Cornell student body is smart and energetic, and students want to make a difference. And, they have ideas and preconceptions of who the farmworkers are. To create a baseline where we are starting from active listening – listening to what people say – I find that this is a challenge for all of us, not just students. Challenge: how do you teach students active listening?

I have begun to use the poetry from our Inner Life circles to ground the class before we begin. It changes the pace, from running from one thing to another, sinking us into a time of reflection to understand what it is we plan to do.

We work in teams but the students themselves have different perspectives and viewpoints, so to create a team, we must ask what are our points of agreement, our baseline? These are often individuals with different life experiences and different lenses. How do we create respectful communication? The Touchstones are so helpful for making and articulating points of agreement so we can call upon them when we slip out of them. This puts the emphasis on the touchstones – not pointing fingers at one another.

I recently had an experience of taking students to a detention center, so they can see what it looks like to be detained to await deportation. Students have different backgrounds – for example, one student was raised in an explicitly peaceful context and another came from a law enforcement family. The former felt the organization and the rules made the student terribly uncomfortable and for the latter – it was actually comforting and familiar. Another came from a setting with family members in concentration camps so you can imagine how that confinement raised huge personal issues.

How do you work with this, all these different lenses, how does this frame our work? In the face of all these tensions, how do we hold a respectful conversation with the leaders taking us through the detention center? How do we navigate this when we come with a different lens, and it might be in opposition?

I find the principles, practices, touchstones, stories and poetry to be immeasurably useful for exploring and articulating viewpoints, navigating these tensions. We are constantly turning to wonder. We hold the tensions. We learn to be here now.

Mary Jo DudleyMary Jo Dudley is the Director of the Cornell Farmworker Program at Cornell University, dedicated to improving the living and working conditions of farmworkers and their families through research, education and extension. Mary Jo was selected for the 2012 White House Champions of Change Cesar Chavez Legacy award. In 2015 she was awarded the George D. Levy Engaged Teaching and Research Award at Cornell University.

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Finding the Wisdom to Survive Despite Sorrows

And it happens again. And it happens again. And just when we think it cannot possibly happen here, or here, or here, it happens again.

Here in America, our crisis with guns and violence has so many complicated aspects to it, all of which are worthy of exploration. But for now, I just want to sit with this question:

Where do we find courage, hope, and renewal in the face of the unimaginable?

The voices and images from the church shooting in Texas took me straight back to another major shooting that happened in a church in 2008: in a UU church in Knoxville, Tennessee. The circumstances were eerily similar: an enraged ex-husband taking his anger out on the faithful innocents. When he charged into the church with his guns and bullets a children’s choir was singing the song from Annie: “The sun will come out, tomorrow…” And, in the face of that horror, it felt like it would never come out again.

There is no easy prescription for what it takes to step into the next day with any sense of hope. Especially with evidence of the human capacity for violence bombarding us almost every day.

I do know what helped the folks in Tennessee get through: the love shown to them by their community.

Not just the members of their own church, but people from all faiths and walks of life coming together to offer comfort. It is just this capacity of people to set aside their differences that ultimately signals the dawn that will come the next day.

To shorten a poem that is well-worth reading in its entirety: “A Vision” by Wendell Berry:

If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow-growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it,
the abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its possibility.

Where do you find courage, hope and renewal each day?

In faith and in courage,

Terasa Cooley
Executive Director

P.S. Courage & Renewal programs offer places and practices that help us show up with courage in hard times.

mail iconToday’s blog is a mirror of our monthly Words of EnCOURAGEment e-newsletter. If you’re not a subscriber yet, sign up so you don’t miss anything!

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Faithfulness To Our Profession as Teachers

Veteran teacher Mika Oriedo and Madison Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham

I know the universe is always trying to tell me something. Call it what you like, but I pay attention. I listen for the words, the signs, the signals.

And right now, the world around me is reminding me that there are powerful reasons why we teach, that teaching requires a continual search to understand oneself, and that we need ways to renew and sustain ourselves in the most important profession there is.

The Pedagogy of Teacher ActivismWhy we teach
It all started with something I read recently, a book called The Pedagogy of Teacher Activism by Keith Catone.

I was immediately taken by the title of this book. In it, the author presents, through rich portraiture, the lived experience of four teachers—all from different cultural backgrounds. While quite different, what these teachers have in common is that they view teaching as more than just a set of technical skills, but as a way to “pursue education for freedom, justice and liberation.” They use the classroom to create safe and empowering spaces for youth, to help students grapple with real issues from multiple perspectives, and to teach students to be critical thinkers and change makers.

These teachers also take their activism beyond the classroom. Whether through their union or other professional networks, they seek community with other like-minded teachers who are committed to social justice and change.

As Catone puts it, “For teacher activists, pedagogy is articulated through a commitment to education as a practice of freedom and possibility and the creation of a new just world.”

This book reminded me why I became a teacher, who I was (and still am) as an educator, and how I view the teaching profession. Teaching is a form of activism.

How we grow
Since reading the book, I’ve found myself in multiple conversations with some of our most experienced, and I would term “activist” teachers. We have talked about not just why we teach, but how we grow.

Catone writes, “The personal nature of this work makes the pedagogy of teacher activists an ‘engaged pedagogy’ through which teacher activists are ‘committed to a process of self-actualization’ that promotes their own well-being as a precursor to ‘teach in a manner that empowers students.’”

This idea is so important. Unlike other professions, powerful teaching depends upon our willingness to do the inside-out work necessary to understand our own identities and to self-actualize. That means that teachers need safe spaces too.

I spent an amazing day with a veteran teacher, Mika Oriedo, earlier this month (pictured above). He joined me as “superintendent for a day” and shadowed me for a typical day on the job. He is a nearly 20 year veteran of teaching who went to school in Madison, married a Madison teacher, and whose children attend Madison schools. He left his profession as an attorney because he heeded the call to become an educator. He is one of the most vibrant, engaging teachers I’ve ever met. And his curiosity and desire for change stretches far beyond the classroom.

When I asked for his advice, he told me that in this work, the most important thing is building strong and trusting relationships. Teachers need safe and empowering spaces to reflect personally and professionally. They need leaders and principals who lead from the heart, who communicate well, who are present, and express care and concern openly. He said, “A little can go a long way.” That’s because the work we do is inherently emotional. In order to make things better for the children, we are continually evolving who we are as human beings.

The Courage to Teach 20th Anniversary EditionHow we sustain
To bring it all home, a couple of weeks ago, I had coffee with Parker Palmer, the renowned author of “The Courage to Teach” who happens to live in Madison. His book, one of many he has authored, was originally published 20 years ago, shortly after I started teaching. I remember reading it as a new teacher and feeling inspired by it. I brought my original copy — 20 years it has been sitting on my bookshelf — to be signed by Parker at our meeting.

We met at a coffee shop near my office and sat at an outside table. He was warm, relaxed, present, and curious. He was quick to laugh. He shared with me his life’s journey. He asked about mine. We talked about teaching, aging, and writing. When I asked him for advice, instead, he asked me great questions. What is bringing you the most satisfaction? What is giving you the most hesitation?

For me, the most memorable part of our discussion was focused on how to measure personal success in teaching. We are all rightfully striving for better results for children. With that dedication comes, not the risk of failure because failure is part of life, but the risk of continually feeling like a failure.

In a society obsessed with measurement and individual achievement, the pressure can be overwhelming. If not managed, it can drive you out of the profession altogether and prevent others from entering it in the first place.

Parker suggested that beyond the test scores and formal evaluations, not instead, there must be another, higher goal. He wondered if “faithfulness” might be a better measure — a measure that fuels us and sustains us. How do we know when we wake up each morning and go to bed each night that we’ve been faithful to the vocation we have chosen?

Catone agrees that there must be something more. He writes, “The opportunity for renewal is important and powerful. It reconnects the pedagogy of teacher activism to the procreative project of teaching and serves as a reminder that teaching is an act of creation stemming from the uneasy apprehension that things are not as they should be.”

So, this is what I have to offer the teachers. Stay faithful and define what that means for you.

Know that when I go to bed each night and wake up each morning, my personal test, the one that will help me keep going, is the extent to which I have remained faithful to my roots as an activist educator who works relentlessly to create safe and empowering spaces for teachers and children so that they can change the world.

Jennifer Cheatham is the superintendent of Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin.  She writes a frequent column at  This article originally appeared on on October 25, 2017 and is reprinted with permission.

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