Imagine wearing a “Teaching Coat” that tells the story of who you are, one that challenges you to draw out the best of yourself and clarify your own vision of authentic leadership.
This is the idea behind The Teaching Coats Project, and it came to me while reading Parker Palmer’s book, The Courage to Teach.
My first three years as a new teacher were a dream—an all consuming, wonderful dream!
I loved every day using my creativity in service to others. It was so fun to work with children and help them achieve their goals. During this time I was inspired to publish my first children’s book, Q is for Question: An ABC of Philosophy, to help empower young people to ask big questions like, “What is the meaning of life?” Teaching children gave my own life more meaning, and I hoped one day to have a child of my own.
Then in July of 2009, my world fell apart. After 5.5 months of pregnancy, my baby was stillborn. The grief—an unimaginable feeling of emptiness—was like a black hole swallowing me from the inside out.
For weeks, all I could think about was how my life seemed bookended by death: I lost my father at age five in a helicopter crash, and now my first baby was gone too.
By September, I had to make a decision about my work.
Determined to move forward, I drew a boundary around my loss, and took an opportunity to teach in a specialized position at another school.
After all, how could I return to my former school—to the young students who had made me cards and long lists of baby names? How could I return with an empty belly? Even though it wasn’t rational, I couldn’t help but feel I let everyone down.
In the hope I would learn to turn things around and lead myself through this difficult time, I signed up for a masters program in educational leadership.
Soon with the new job, university, and no time to recharge, life was all go-go-go! I was running on empty.
To survive, I compartmentalized. There were recesses I ducked into the staff bathroom just to breathe or cry—but I would put on a smile in time to greet my students, determined that the show must go on.
Looking back, I realize that although I did the best I could, I wasn’t always being my most authentic teacher self. My priority was just to try to hold it all together as a professional. Yet in the effort, I was also holding back from my students the best of who I am as a person.
For example, I used to love playing guitar and leading students in making up silly songs. But in that hard year, the music just stopped.
At last, I was relieved and overjoyed to discover I was pregnant a second time. Yet with the still-fresh memory of my loss, I think my pregnancy made me even more guarded with others: I was trying to not share too much of myself with others because my obviously growing belly already made me feel so exposed and vulnerable.
When my beautiful, healthy baby boy finally arrived—I too felt reborn! Once again there was a song in my heart.
Although sleep-deprivation, various post-partum health issues, intensifying university coursework and financial challenges arose as new battles, I discovered that I could get through anything…if I took time to care for myself in small daily ways.
I learned that taking time to recharge was not only vital for me—it helped me be able to give more to others.
One afternoon as my son drifted off to sleep across my lap, I reached for an assigned reading for one of my leadership classes, a chapter in Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach. My heart leapt when I got to this passage:
“I once heard this Hasidic tale: ‘We need a coat with two pockets. In one pocket there is dust, and in the other pocket there is gold. We need a coat with two pockets to remind us of who we are.’ Knowing, teaching, and learning under the grace of great things will come from teachers who own such a coat and who wear it to class everyday.”
“What a powerful metaphor!” I thought. “I need that coat!” I reached for a pencil and paper and quickly sketched out the plans.
My Teaching Coat…
I found a plain white lab coat and put a pinch of dust from my garden into one pocket and tucked a teaspoon of gold sparkles into the other pocket.
Then for several hours, I wore the coat as a way to sink into the ideas: “I am dust. I am gold.” Each time I repeated that phrase I made new connections and meanings.
I recorded my thoughts on paper, but soon took to writing them on the coat itself. This felt empowering—tattooing my heart and mind across this coat I could share with others!
I also attached all kinds of other symbols: commemorative school pins to remind me of my journey as a learner; a little mirror for reflection; a magnifying glass to remind me to examine life more closely; and a beautiful crocheted lace made by my grandmother to connect me to my past.
In the weeks I spent creating what I called my Teaching Coat, I realized I was getting to know myself more deeply.
When I began to share my Teaching Coat with others, I found it sparked rich discussions, as each person seemed to offer insightful interpretations of my coat and wonderful visions for their own coats.
It has been amazing to see how The Teaching Coats Project has taken on a life of its own.
Today, take time to recharge and listen to the wisdom of your inner teacher. Imagine:
• What might your own Teaching Coat it look like?
• What words, images, symbols, inspirations and memorabilia might you add, and why?
Next, consider sketching, writing or talking about your ideas with others…or even create your own Teaching Coat to wear! Please feel free to share your thoughts below, and for ideas and support, visit teachingcoats.com.