Teaching as Soul Work

“One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do
to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul.
Struggling souls catch light from other souls
who are fully lit and willing to show it” (Estes 1992).

A couple weeks after the state of Illinois shutdown for the coronavirus, I met via Zoom with members of the Association of Illinois School Library Educators (AISLE). Our conversation was focused on sharing children’s and young adult literature online. I had shared an early draft of the presentation with iSchool graduate students in IS445: Information Books and Resources for Youth.

The astute grad students pointed out to me that the information in the presentation was persuasive, but I hadn’t made time to access librarians’ emotions around school closures. (We devoted time in our online course for sharing and developing empathy for one another’s shelter-in-place situations, but the emotional component was missing from the presentation I had intended to share as a conversation starter.)

Answer Garden Image; odd- it is different working from home; without direction; feeling helpless and underutilize; restless; worried for my children from hard places; overwhelmed, useless, frustrated with the news/misinformation; worried about our upcoming remodel; missing interaction with othersI took students’ feedback to heart and opened the webinar by asking school librarians to share how they were feeling about their schools being closed. Most shared in the chat; some recorded their feelings on the AnswerGarden web above.

Educators’ Caring Revealed
I believe most members of the general public have been previously unaware of the depth of caring for other people’s children felt by the adults who work in schools. One would hope that the front-page stories of classroom teachers, librarians, and other educators going above and beyond for their students would have expanded the public perception of the extent of educators’ dedication to their students and how critical their work is to the health of our economic, social, and civic lives. The parades and special recognition families have shown educators is also a testimonial to how much families value educators.

That said, I’m sure that many of us have also noticed how educators are expressing their feelings of disconnection, loss, or even grief via social media. While many school districts across the country have spent decades focusing on Social Emotional Learning, or SEL (“the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions” (CASEL), there has been little talk of how the pandemic has affected the social and emotional lives of educators. (With a nod to an outstanding exception: Courtney Pentland’s 5/14/20 Knowledge Quest blog post: “It’s Important to Give Grace to Others but Also to Yourself.”

Social Emotional Teaching
What we haven’t been talking about, to the degree I believe is necessary, is Social Emotional Teaching (SET). I believe the abrupt closure of schools and the precipitous change from face-to-face to an online environment environment has brought the commitment and dedication of educators to light. And it has also resulted in educators struggling to deal with feelings that are deep rooted in all people whose work is centered in service to others, or soul work. Here are some of my ideas about applying the SEL definition to SET.

Understand and manage emotions: Through exchanging heartfelt feelings with our colleagues, families, and friends, educators can navigate the uncertainty of these times. Increasing self-awareness helps us understand and manage our emotions.

Set and achieve positive goals: Keep previous schedules (waking, working, eating, sleeping) or establish new routines to meet the changing demands of teaching from a distance while maintaining a semblance of normal in family life. Keep a journal to log both daily accomplishments and gratitude for blessings.

Feel and show empathy for others: Educators are empathy experts. The pandemic creates an opportunity for educators to express their empathy for students, families, and colleagues as well as for complete strangers. It is critical that we authentically model the importance of empathy in social and civic life. As Courtney Pentland observes, it is also a time to show empathy for ourselves.

Establish and maintain positive relationships: We must remain vigilant in noting points of light and expressing optimism when interacting with students, families, and colleagues. Stay connected–heart to heart, mind to mind, soul to soul.

And make responsible decisions: All decisions at this time are made in an environment in which credible information is evolving. Make decisions based on verifiable information and be prepared to alter decisions when new information becomes available. This may be most important for educators in terms of individual student’s ability to learn in the online environment, or the ability of families to support student learning.

Teaching Is Soul Work
The academic year has come to a close for many schools in the Southwest. Students, educators, and families deserve credit for completing this academic year in good standing.

The words on the Collier Elementary School marquee, “we miss you,” are not hollow (see 100% Online K-12 Learning). The faculty and staff in schools around the country and across the globe have been sorely missing their students and families. Many are currently missing the end of the year rituals that celebrate shared learning journeys and help students and educators transition to the next chapter in their lives.

These are among the difficult losses we are experiencing as a society.

As Courtney Pentland suggests in her blog post, let’s give grace to ourselves as well to others. Let’s stand up and show the deep caring of our educator souls and be prepared to continue serving students, families, colleagues, and our communities to the best of our ability whatever may come.

Works Cited

Collaborative for Academic, Social, Emotional Learning (CASEL). “What Is SEL?” https://casel.org/what-is-sel/

Estes, Clarissa Pinkola. 1992. Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York: Ballantine Books.

Image Credit: Created with AnswerGarden.ch

Professional Book Review: The Age of Accelerations

For the month of January, I will be reviewing professional books. In December, 2019, I had the opportunity to read from my ever-tall stack of professional books. I am reviewing them this month in hopes that you may have read them and will make a comment, or you will be inspired to seek out these titles and read them (and then make a comment).

The Inspiration
I have long been a devotee of Thomas Friedman. I “found” Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, published in 2016, at just the right time and am so glad to have read it now when, like many of us, I need a bit of optimism. This New York Times bestseller earned additional recognition including the Wall Street Journal’s “10 Books to Read Now” (in 2016!) and one of Kirkus Reviews’ “Best Nonfiction Books of the Year.”

Friedman opens this book with the inspiration for the book’s title. While waiting for someone who was late in arriving for an appointment with him, Friedman had twenty minutes “to spare.” With nothing else on his calendar and not knowing when the person would actually arrive, he sat quietly with his thoughts. These moments of reflection were when he made connections among thoughts that had been on his mind… and the thrust of this book was born.

The Age of Accelerations
Friedman is spot on with his conclusion that in the “age of accelerations” very few, if any, of us can keep up with the rapid pace of change. In Friedman’s view, 2007, the year the iPhone was introduced, marked the beginning of this “age.” In the book, he elaborates on three accelerations that have, since then, stretched humankind beyond our limits:

  • Technology (Moore’s Law)
  • Globalization
  • Climate Change

When describing technology acceleration, Friedman makes the connection to Moore’s Law, which states that computer processing speeds double every two years. He also talks about the “Supernova,” better known to us as “the cloud.” And for better or worse, good or evil intent, Friedman notes the Supernova serves as amplifier of human behavior.

Global markets have changed the employment and economic landscape for people, businesses, and corporations around the globe. He cites many corporate thinkers in this book; this quote on the topic of globalization stood out to me: “Our institutions spend so much time working on how to optimize returns on financial capital. It is about time we started thinking more about how to optimize returns on human capital” (Auguste Copra, cited on page 238).

Mother Nature is Friedman’s personification for climate change and the loss of biodiversity. We have, very tragically, breached the 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere (See 350.org) and cannot ignore the impact of human activity on our shared home. Friedman notes that there will be over 9 billion people on the planet by 2050 (when my grandson will be just twenty-eight-years old). Of that 9 billion, a growing number will be climate refugees. “Globally, 1 in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. If this were the population of a country, the report said, it would be the world’s twenty-fourth biggest” (report from United Nations Refugee Agency in 2016).

K-12 Education Connections
Clearly, technology is a driving force in education today. With all of the benefits of the Supernova at their disposal, K-12 students and educators have many opportunities to positively influence their own future and the future of the plant. Friedman notes that successful youth (and adults) are those who take advantage of all the free and inexpensive tools and flows coming out of the Supernova.

As we all know, the current and future workforce will require continuous learning. “Mother Nature is the opposite of dogmatic—she is constantly agile, heterodox, hybrid, entrepreneurial, and experimental in her thinking” (303). School librarians could use this phrase to describe and self-asses our work with students, classroom teachers, specialists, and families.

I appreciate that Friedman discussed “ownership cultures” in the context of the teaching profession. In ownership cultures, people must first and foremost own their work and learning. He included this quote from Andreas Schleicher, who runs PISA exams: Successful schooling systems have a “high degree of professional autonomy for teachers… where teachers get to participate in shaping standards and curriculum, and have ample time for continuous professional development” (322). They are successful because they are engaged with the tools of their own craft, rather than serve like chefs whose only job is to reheat someone else’s cooking (322). Amen.

The Need to Pause, Build Empathy, and Re-connect
These three accelerations result in the imperative to exist (and thrive?) in a constant state of destabilization (35). This requires flexibility, adaptability, and necessitates reflection. While technology has made waiting obsolete, succeeding today requires patience—the patience to think and reflect. When you pause in the age of accelerations, you have the opportunity to reflect, rethink your assumptions, reimagine what is possible, reconnect with your most deeply held beliefs (Dov Seidman, CEO of LRN, quoted on page 4).

Friedman discusses the need for members of our global society to build empathy—to be able to see the world through another person’s experience. He quotes a Talmudic staying: “What comes from the heart enters the heart.” (13) and notes that caring ignites caring; empathy ignites empathy (152). He also notes the need for human contact that includes face-to-face interaction.

He warns that: “In the age of accelerations, if a society doesn’t build floors under people, many will reach for a wall—no matter how self-defeating that would be” (153). Cultures must address people’s anxiety about the present and the future. We must offer one another a “home.”

I have always thought of libraries as “homes” for their communities—places where they have to take you in, places that are “family.” “It is so much easier to venture far—not just in distance but also in terms of your willingness to experiment, take risks, and reach out to the other—when you know you’re still tethered to a place called home, and to a real community” (452-453).

Work Cited

Friedman, Thomas L. 2016. Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.