Teaching from the Inside Out
From an interview with first-grade teacher Maura McNiff
by Lisa Sankowski
It’s a Monday morning in Maura McNiff’s first-grade classroom. As her students come in and take off their coats and boots, they greet each other and quickly find a place in the circle on the rug. Maura welcomes everyone back, and they go around and share something from the weekend or something they are looking forward to. Then it’s time for Quiet Circle.
Today one of the children, Matti, begins the circle by turning over the rain stick and asking everyone to think about “helping.” Children are invited to think about the idea of helping and what that means to them. Matti picks up the special stone, holds it, and then passes it along to the next person. The stone is held uniquely by each child. One boy holds it briefly to his head then passes it on. Each child takes a defined moment with the stone to think. The circle continues in silence until everyone has had a chance to hold the stone. Then Matti turns over the rain stick to signal that Quiet Circle is over.
Maura introduced “Quiet Circle” to her students after an experience she had in a Courage to Teach retreat. She explains, “One of my most powerful experiences with Courage to Teach, one that I’ve taken back with me to the classroom in very direct ways, is the exploration of ‘birthright gifts.’ That weekend we brought a picture of ourselves when we were children. We did some journaling and talking in small groups about, “Who is that person? Is that person still part of you?” It really got me thinking about how I was as a child, and about the continuity between that child and who I still am today. What I began to recognize is that even as a child, I liked quiet and solitude and that there was a structure built into my day that I could count on to give me that. I went to parochial school, and usually in the morning we would go to mass. I liked to go to because it was twenty minutes of protected space. Nobody would talk to me. I could just be there. And I do so remember growing up and having that time to just sit there in the morning and sort things out. That retreat weekend really brought me back to my experience as a child and reminded me how important it was for me to have structures in place that gave me time to reflect. This got me thinking about my own students. How could I provide them with protected space to think and to be? Quiet Circle has evolved as a structure where we sit in silence in community. Being able to be in silence in community is a powerful thing.
Maura is a talented, deeply dedicated first-grade teacher with over twenty years of experience in education. She first learned about Courage to Teach when the mother of one of her students gave her Parker Palmer’s book, saying, “I thought of you when I saw this.” Maura was curious. “What was is about this book that made her think of me?” she wondered. So Maura read it over February vacation. “It got me really excited,” she said, “…excited thinking about my practice of teaching.”
As Maura recalls, “A while later, I got a newsletter from a program I work with that said they were going to sponsor an eight-weekend Courage to Teach retreat over the next two years. They were inviting teachers to apply. I immediately went to the information session they had—I remember it so well, it happened to be the day of the Columbine shootings. It was good to be with the people who gathered together that day, but afterwards, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to do it or not. I think on the very last day that the applications were due, I sent mine in.
“Something was pulling me. It was a risk and a big commitment of time, and Courage to Teach didn’t offer the promised outcomes we’ve come to expect from typical professional development. I couldn’t say I was going to come back able to run a workshop, or to evaluate a child better, or with some product. But when I was accepted, I was so happy, and luckily, my principal was someone who trusted my judgment and trusted me. I remember after the first weekend retreat, he asked me, ‘How did it go?’ I mumbled something and rambled on a bit. And then I said, ‘Well, I‘m not even sure I understand what it is, but I know it’s really important work that I’m doing.’ He was the kind of person who understood that just because you can’t label things with the standard words, that doesn’t prevent them from being significant. He trusted that I would eventually be able to articulate it. This has proven true. Courage to Teach has been very important work for me and for my teaching, and what it continues to mean is in constant evolution.
“Eventually that same principal would tell me that he really saw a change in me as a teacher over time, as a result of Courage to Teach. I seemed happier to him, and more settled, and he might have even said ‘calmer’—not in as much turmoil as I once was. I knew this was obvious to me, but it didn’t occur to me that it would be something others would recognize.
“I think that the turmoil had to do with impatience. I was judgmental and externalized a lot of the things that I was impatient with. I became more tolerant because I became less focused on looking at the performance of others and more focused on looking at myself. That was a huge understanding I had, thanks to Courage to Teach. Teaching is about you. And that’s where all change, all effectiveness emanates from—you. That was a huge, huge understanding for me, because in the beginning I was at the, ‘Well, if we could just fix that’ stage. ‘If she’d just put in five more hours a week instead of leaving at 3:00, or if he would just recognize this, or that, or the other thing, we could have a much better meeting, or if she were better organized…’—you know, blah, blah, blah. When in fact, that’s not how it really works. The reality of a lot of things hasn’t changed. What’s happened in education in the last few years has been discouraging. But what has changed for the better is my recognition of the sphere of influence I have in my work and of the importance of being present, really present, to the kids.”
Maura and twenty-four fellow teachers participated in the Courage to Teach retreat series facilitated by Pamela Seigle and Chip Wood in 1999-2001 at Wellesley College. When asked what still stands out for her when she looks back on that experience, Maura talks about the deepening of her understanding of the idea that “we teach who we are.”
As Maura describes it, “Courage to Teach helped me to approach my teaching from the inside out. Even in my work with kids in math or in writing, I work really hard not to be from the outside in. By that I mean, I can’t begin by thinking, ‘What are the MCAS pressures? What are the standards pressures?’ I have to do it from the inside out and say, ‘Okay, what do kids at the age of six and seven need?’ and bring it there. I can meet the standards, but I can’t start from out there. I have to start from in here. I know six and seven year olds. I know the kind of stories they want to tell. I know the kind of math that will engage them. I know the difference between doing it from outside, where I’m imposing things on kids, versus being present and listening to what kids understand, and then moving them to the next level. There’s so much pressure for kids to achieve that kids are getting turned inside out. If I don’t pay attention to what makes sense, if I don’t really listen to myself and to them, then I become another source of pressure for those kids. I just become the taskmaster.
“I also gained a better understanding of what I need to stay connected and excited about teaching. With all the pressures on teachers, it’s so easy to lose that. At one Courage retreat, we looked at what gives us energy and joy, at what sucks the joy out of our work, and at what renews us. I had never really thought about that before. I started to look at my day, my teaching day, and at the things I absolutely loved doing with the kids, when I felt that ‘flow’ thing happening. Why can’t I increase those? There are some things that I do have control over. If my favorite time is reading a book with the kids, then boy, I’m going to make sure that that’s something that I put in there. Because I recognized that on those days when we don’t share a good story, I don’t feel like I’ve connected with the kids over something really wonderful, and literature is a wonderful way to be with kids.”
Maura credits Courage to Teach with enhancing her ability to be present to her colleagues as well. Maura considers the experience of Clearness Committees particularly significant in building this muscle. “Participating in Clearness Committees has been powerful for me—the experience of giving each other the space and time, and of asking open and honest questions, that allow someone to do the work of discernment on his or her own, but also in community. That experience has had a powerful effect on my professional relationships and interactions. I’m more aware of the kinds of questions I ask and comments I make when I’m really present. And I’m more aware when I’m not open, when I’m not asking honest questions. One of the big pieces for me with the Courage work goes back to that whole concept that change is what you create within yourself. I take time now to appreciate when another person is sharing a moment of honesty with me. It’s incredible to have somebody be able to be honest with you. And so when I can really be present to that, that’s when there’s a real sense of reverence in interactions. That happens with children, and it happens with adults.
“So that’s why when the going gets rough, I say, “Okay, Maura, you’re going to work more at having those one-on-one moments with your colleagues.’ This is the way you can create community, a safe and trusting community—by the ways in which you interact with people. That is a change in me, in how I see things, but I also know that that change brings about other changes. I’ve experienced for myself that when someone gives me an opportunity to be held in great trust, then I feel honored, and so that changes me.”