Monday, February 27, 2012

How Do You Spell Respect?

Yes, I know this book was published in 2009.  And yes, I know that it's 2012.  Perhaps this book was ahead of it's time and it's moment is now.
Against a policy backdrop of reductionist accountability run amok, The Mindful Teacher by Elizabeth MacDonald and Dennis Shirley quietly restores a measure of sanity and balance.  This book could not have arrived at a better time for educators feeling under siege.
The Mindful Teacher displays profound respect for the teaching profession by throwing into high relief the intellectual and spiritual dimensions of teaching.  It is a demanding volume that honors the reader by showing confidence in the intellectual capabilities of educators, drawing on the best of the philosophical traditions of both east and west.  The book is more than a philosophical tome, however.  It constantly grounds this elevated discourse in concrete examples of improved teaching practice and better student learning, through six moving case studies of urban teachers, displaying teaching as a profession in the finest sense. 
MacDonald is a teacher in the Boston Public Schools; Shirley is a respected researcher and academic.  Together they pioneered the Mindful Teaching seminars, really a professional learning community (PLC) which is a product of an exemplary school/university partnership.  Dennis Shirley is a rare academic who is humble enough to see the correct role for academics in the education enterprise.  He sought ways to respectfully support educators.  Rather than pushing an agenda on a group of hard pressed urban teachers, he supported a process enabling them organically discover the questions they themselves needed to explore.
The seminars took place over a four year period and yielded ten clusters of questions specific to participants, but universal in character, and an “eightfold structure” which could be adapted to other PLCs with different circumstances.  An example of a question I found particularly telling: “What does it mean to be a teacher leader? How can I help build support networks for teachers in a way that leads to my renewal rather than burnout?”
An essential part of the eightfold structure of the seminars is the role of meditation in creating a space in which mindfulness can grow.  The concept of mindfulness emerges from the Buddhist tradition, and the concept of mindful teaching is advocated in the book as a means of mitigating alienated teaching, a concept borrowed from Marx.  The authors handled the practice of meditation in their seminars in a way that made it accessible and helpful to people from a variety of spiritual traditions.
The Mindful Teacher concludes with an exploration of dialectical tensions in the profession of teaching.  The Seven Synergies are individually necessary and jointly conditions for mindful practice, including concepts such as a caring disposition, professional expertise and collective responsibility.  The Triple Tensions acknowledge the existence of polarities in teaching practice: contemplation and action, ethics and power, the individual and collective.  The faith the authors show in us, that we can hold these tensions in our minds in what Estelle Jorgensen calls a “both/and” synthesis, demonstrates a profound respect for educators as intellectual and spiritual actors.
I was a bit troubled near the end of the book when the authors referred to teaching as a vocation.  As a labor activist, I fight for professional compensation and working conditions, and worry that teaching as a vocation leads us down the path to martyrdom.  But then I realized what The Mindful Teacher had taught me: profession and vocation are just one more tension that can be creatively embraced.  I felt both moved and honored.

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