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.
Why 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.
How 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 Madison365.org. This article originally appeared on Madison365.com on October 25, 2017 and is reprinted with permission.