The quality of teaching is not strained

The more I think about recent conversations around teaching – about why some people leave, and others don’t, about why some choose it over more lucrative or socially respected professions (in some circles) – the more this phrase spins in my head:

The quality of teaching is not strained

Of course, that was stolen from Portia’s famous lines to Shylock in a Merchant of Venice in her speech on mercy:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show like God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Act IV, Scene I

In this case strained means something that can not be forced. Mercy’s greatest quality is that it is voluntary. It must be naturally so or else it is no longer true mercy.

I think about this in relation to teaching. We can train teachers in pedagogy, even show them what it means to be compassionate, to love children. But that compassion, that love of children, that recognition that true learning depends on relationship and sharing your story. That part, that can not be strained. That part, that’s the passion that calls many of us to our profession. And it is what keeps the majority of us who stay.

Kindness, I’ve discovered, is everything in life.
~Isaac Bashevis Singer

Why do anything unless it is going to be great?
~Peter Block

Being together

Kindness, I’ve discovered, is everything in life. Isaac Bashevis Singer (via nezua)

Sea Lions live in colonies. These ones are hanging out together in San Francisco. They can also spend weeks at a time hunting in the open sea. Click image for source.

Sea Lions live in colonies. These ones are hanging out together in San Francisco. They can also spend weeks at a time hunting in the open sea. Click image for source.

Yesterday I commented on Kelly Hines’ post Core Beliefs about my own core belief that learning happens in community.

Today I found this beautiful sentence in  Michael Doyle’s post Puddles:

When one wanders away from one’s usual world, it’s good to have company.

I remember how Meg Wheatley’s words created a shift in me when I first read them a few years ago, that conversation is the natural way we humans think together (from the book Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope for the Future).

So what does this all have to do with my job as a teacher?

Learning can be about wandering away from one’s usual world, I think that good learning must. When we are learning new ideas we are changing our cognitive framework.

Imagine, we have the innate ability to change our thinking processes, biologically.

While this is happening, especially if it is with a paradigmatic shift in our thinking and beliefs, it is not only good to have company, I think it is necessary.

There are certain states that people need to feel they are in for learning (or change) to be able to happen – a sense of belonging, of safety, of worth. As teachers, we don’t always know if our students experience those states outside of our classroom (though we can sometimes guess based on the behaviours that we see in it!). A big part of my job is to create an environment that encourages these states to be. Not only for students in my classroom but for my colleagues in theirs as well.

Sometimes we need to tell it like it is. Photograph by Joel Sartore, click to view source at National Geographic.

Sometimes we need to tell it like it is. Photograph by Joel Sartore, click to view source at National Geographic.

I’m not talking lovey-dovey group hug, you are so special all the time kind of support. I just mean good solid, I know you are here for me and I am here for you and we will be honest kind of support. The kind of support that allows for conflict – the best learning often happens through it.

The support that we as teachers and that our students as co-learners can give each other is vital for learning (change) to happen.

I think of the hard-as-nails student who, in June, wrote a personal reflection on how she had changed over the year. She sobbed openly throughout the hour or so she took to write, shaking her head no when I asked if she wanted to write somewhere else.

Sometimes it can be as basic as just being together that allows us to take the risks we need to take to change how and what we learn.