Living the Questions
There are years that ask questions and years that answer.
-- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Pulling my car out of the teacher parking lot on the last day of school this June, I had few set plans. Thinking I was being low-key and true to myself, I had signed up for a photography course for teachers in Santa Fe, which seemed like a dream trip and a class I would traditionally die to take; but, it was still a class, a performance, and a commitment, and if I am honest, I was relieved when it was cancelled due to low enrollment.
What I really wanted to do, it turns out, is sit at my kitchen table with a hot cup of coffee in a real mug, and stare at my tomato plants in the backyard.
This is not a story about the trauma of teaching during COVID-19--at least not directly. But it was because of my burnout that I gave myself permission to do “nothing” this summer, in other words, no professional development, classes, or workshops, which opened the door to reading some books I have long wanted to read but have not been quiet enough in mind and heart to do so. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, is no doubt destined to be (or already is) a modern classic of environmental writing, but if asked how to describe the author, I would call Kimmerer a poet first, and then a botanist. As I was reading about the gift of maple trees, the science of strawberries, and the relationship between wild salmon and the indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest, I felt a kindred sense of humanity, healing, medicine, and as Ranier Maria Rilke said, “liv(ing) the questions” that I find when I read poetry.
One of the more cliché questions, but I think still one of the most important ones, we get asked these days is how the pandemic has changed you and your life, work, friendships, you name it. I’ve noticed this summer that the opening up of the country thanks to vaccinations has caused a rush on making up for lost experiences through doing all the things we “missed out” on over the last year. But a big part of my heart still feels JOMO (the joy of missing out), versus FOMO (the fear of missing out), and I have thought multiple times: I don’t want to bring back many aspects of my pre-pandemic life: the mindless hustle, my lack of perspective, my lack of gratitude for my body, my American hubris, teaching from a place of personal insecurity and comparison…the list goes on. I wish to hell it did not take a pandemic for me to assess these things, but here we are.
I have a feeling in August we will be asked to reflect on what we learned about teaching during the pandemic, and what we will change about our practice as a result. But rather than listing out all the ways I am going to change my life, and specifically, my teaching post-COVID-19, I would rather explore some of the questions I am always living, and the insights (not really answers) that I am receiving through the pandemic, this summer of staring at my tomatoes, and reading beautiful storytelling in books such as Braiding Sweetgrass.
How can I avoid comparing myself to other teachers?
Admittedly, I ask myself this question a lot, maybe because, as an Enneagram 4, I am always looking for the holes in myself; what I am missing that other people have that make them the objects of my deep affection and admiration. I observe my colleagues and hear chatter about what is going on in their classrooms, and I always feel I could be doing more. Also, I think it is fair to say that every educator in the world might have had at least several moments this year when they felt like the worst version of themselves, both in and out of the classroom. So how do we move forward, or heal by reconnecting to our own gifts?
Braiding Sweetgrass focuses on the ritual of giving away our bounty as a process of reciprocal honor and ceremony, which ultimately builds respect and community. Whether the gift is organic fertilizer for my flowers or the time I spend listening to a friend, I am in the act of giving, which is part of our relationship. But this process is not linear; it is a circle and a cycle:
We are showered every day with gifts, but they are not meant for us to keep. Their life is in their movement, the inhale and exhale of our shared breath. Our work and our joy is to pass along the gift and to trust that what we put out into the universe will always come back (100).
We each bring a gift to our students, and it is not the same gift as their teachers before us, or their teachers after us, and no gift is more valuable than another. If I can imagine my students as travelers, receiving the hospitality of each teacher’s gift across the journey of their education, then I imagine my students rich with diverse experience and blessings. By giving my gift I give of myself, but to do that, I must be in touch with my gifts and honest about what they are, versus trying to embody someone else’s gifts. This takes true soul-searching on my part and doesn’t let me off the hook; rather than focusing on my deficits and what is missing, I need to focus on what I do well and what I can give, which might, ironically, require more of me than obsessing on what I don’t do right. I will need to cultivate a strong relationship with myself, versus clinging to the deficits I perceive in myself or in how I think others perceive me, and then use my learnings and my strengths to create and build my post-pandemic teaching craft. I have to remember that not all learning will happen in my classroom alone; the gift cycle is always in motion as students travel from teacher to teacher, and we are all working together as a community of gift-givers, cultivating the growth of our students.
Is technology important, and if so, how can I use it and not crush creativity in my classroom?
I feel like we are trained, especially non-tech native members of Generation X and older, to have a knee-jerk, enthusiastic response to this question: “YES, OF COURSE!” Maybe some of us jump to this response out of fear of being left behind or seen as a problematic Neanderthal if we don’t embrace technology with glee and abandon. But, when you say that, do you always mean it?
Here’s what I am thinking. Technology saved our asses during COVID-19, because my school was lucky enough to respond to online and hybrid learning with a full suite of Microsoft products that included Hubs and Teams calls. Our transition was, all things considered, smooth. But this was not the case in many districts across the country, and the academic loss from online learning will be haunting us as a nation for years. Because we know disruptive events are likely to increase rather than decrease as we barrel forward into a changing climate, we owe it to ourselves and our students to think of ways to develop a relationship with technology that doesn’t burn us out. The word balance comes to mind, and when I think of balance, I think of the teachings of nature.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer proposes that when we think of the relationship between humans and the earth, we often think of the negative: humans taking from, hurting, and pillaging the earth. We assume the relationship is detrimental to the planet because up to this point, we have done so much one-sided damage to our ecosystem. This is reinforced by not only the dire news, but the way we grow up separate from nature and taught to consume to be successful, and therefore, happy. But her argument is that what we need is a mind shift; rather than focusing on what we take away from the environment, how can we focus on what we can contribute, or give, in our relationship with nature? How can we heal our planet by contributing to her: “We need the berries and the berries need us. Their gifts multiply by our care for them, and dwindle from our neglect. We are bound in a covenant of reciprocity, a pact of mutual responsibility to sustain those who sustain us. And so the empty bowl is filled” (373).
I sat with this idea for several days because I feel like this mind shift can be applied across my life, from my gardening and love of the wild to my self-image and the way I perceive myself as an educator. But can it also be applied to how I view my relationship with technology in my pedagogy? Can my relationship with technology be reciprocal? What creativity can I bring to my relationship with technology that can make teaching easier and more engaging? How can a reciprocal relationship shift my mindset from “I am overwhelmed by technology” to “I have something to contribute to the way technology is used in my classroom?” How can I still be myself and ask students to journal on paper and use their drawing pens in class, while simultaneously showing up in discussions of technology, versus automatically checking out? What if I view technology as a gift, versus an albatross, and therefore let go of some of the tension and fear in my heart about embracing technology?
Is it important to teach and assess well-being as an academic competency?
One of my biggest insecurities last year while researching and developing well-being competencies for my English curriculum was that colleagues might think these skills are fluff and don’t belong in an academic classroom. All teachers would say they hope their students learn empathy and resilience, a growth mindset and voice, but to explicitly teach these competencies through literature, and then assess them through the writing process, might seem like veering away from essential content. I gnawed off a lot of fingernails last year wondering if I had lost my way and / or mind.
But, the context of surviving a pandemic reinforced why studying empathy, resilience, growth mindsets, and voice are essential in every classroom, alongside content. We still learned the technical pieces of writing, such as drafting effective thesis statements and citing textual evidence, but in reflection, many of my students cited empathy and resilience as the largest take-aways from the course:
My biggest takeaways from this year are that I am not alone in my struggles, whether it is related to writing or its personal. I’ve found that at least one person in class or one person in a book we have read has had somewhat of the same struggle as me and I’ve been able to relate to them.
My biggest takeaway this year would have to be the importance of empathy in the world. I had no idea how vital empathy was in the understanding and development of characters and perspectives in the books we read, but seeing empathy in literature has opened my owns to so many new perspectives and opinions.
I have learned how important self-expression and resiliency are, especially through the pandemic and discriminatory issues we have in our world today. Writing about my life and what is going on around us has helped me understand myself better.
I have improved my writing this year because I have started to write about things I am passionate about. I am writing from my heart. My writing is me.
Doing this research and work during a pandemic gave me the perspective to remember our goal as educators, and that the definition of a competency is a skill that a student can still do, ten years from now, after learning in our classrooms. Students are living complicated lives that are likely to increase in complexity, so if they can use a skill from my English class to help them advocate for themselves, empathize with others, grow as humans, and seek help when they need it, ten years from now, then I would be beyond thrilled. I like to think of these competencies as the gifts that my students will take into their next stop on their education journey: “My job was just to lead them into presence and ready them to hear” (215).
How can rest impact my teaching craft?
Kimmerer reflects: I remember the words of Bill Tall Bull, a Cheyenne Elder. As a young person, I spoke to him with a heavy heart, lamenting that I had no native language with which to speak to the plants and the places that I love. “They love to hear the old language,” he said, “it’s true.” “But,” he said, with fingers on his lips, “You don’t have to speak it here.” “If you speak it here,” he said, patting his chest, “They will hear you.” (57)
Whether plants or students, other beings can know our intentions through our actions, for in our actions, we reveal our hearts. I have heard it often said that students know if you are being yourself as a teacher and respond better to authenticity than anything else. But I will jump in here and say, at age 42, I am still very much on a journey to understand who I am. Our lives are difficult, and we all pass through seasons of fear, poor health, family conflict, etc. Even for the happiest and most gifted teacher, it is sometimes excruciating to perform on the stage of your classroom, let alone be in tune enough with our soul that we can open it up and expose ourselves to the gaze of others, even if (or especially if) it is our students.
Much ink is spilled in the public conversation about the term “self-care.” It used to be a synonym for bingeing Netflix, sleeping in, taking a bubble bath, and drinking a bottle of Chardonnay. I have lately noticed a pivot, thankfully, to a richer discussion of self-care as boundary setting, sleep, exercise, and mental health care, without regard to gender, race, and socio-economic class. The discussions among these different groups will inevitably be different, but I think a commonality is the need to completely step away from our daily routine and rest. In Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives, Wayne Mueller wisely notes: “Rest is an essential enzyme of life, as necessary as air. Without it, we cannot sustain the energy needed to have life. We refuse to rest at our peril—and yet in a world where overwork is seen as a professional virtue, many of us feel we can legitimately be stopped only by physical illness or collapse” (19).
Rest will look different for each of us. But after a year in which I learned to hold sacred my body’s ability to survive and fend off disease, I am thinking I need to take rest seriously this next academic school year. Because what did we learn last year? Anything can happen. Time is to be cherished. You will need to step up when you are called. And only when we are physically and mentally strong can we do so. Our bodies are there for us, when we need them most, so we must return the favor. And to teach with a full heart, we must be in tune with our heart, which requires continual reflection, and rest.
I am trying to learn one of the ironies of love; sometimes you have to step away completely and love yourself first, before you can love others. If we are an empty tank, spiritually, physically, or mentally, we truly have nothing to give. This summer, I have stepped away, completely, from teaching, for maybe the first time. Through meditation, and prayer, I know, come August, I will be ready for the year ahead…but not a moment sooner.
I will forever be indebted to Braiding Sweetgrass for reintroducing me to my soul--I haven’t stopped carrying it with me, and plan to re-read each vignette, slowly, over the years, to remember. I will certainly be a better English teacher next year thanks to devoting my whole self and attention to its wisdom this summer, and I do not teach Biology, or even science. But, as Kimmerer reflects: “A teacher comes, they say, when you are ready. And if you ignore its presence, it will speak more loudly. But you have to be quiet to hear” (215).
Kate Schenck is a collector of pigments and spices, dreamer, and builder of tables for lesser heard voices.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Perennial Classics, 1937.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions, 2013.
Mueller, Wayne. Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives. Bantam, 1999.