Next week, I will spend three days involved in a Teacher Leadership Institute here in Tucson. The focus of this event is the work of Dr. Dennis Shirley; this year we will be revisiting his book The Mindful Teacher. I read this book a few years ago and it did not speak to me the way that it has more recently. During my first read of this book I was a classroom teacher participating in a lot of teacher leadership opportunities, that although were very fulfilling and helped me grow as a professional, they stretched me very thin. I was trying so hard to be a great classroom teacher as well as a teacher leader and what I didn’t realize at the time was that I was doing exactly the opposite of what Dr. Shirley proposes a teacher do, be mindful. I’ve reread this book more recently through a new lens; I am no longer in a school setting and have more time to consider how and why I do things. This time around I feel as though his words have a different meaning to me. I can now consider how to apply his ideas of mindfulness throughout my professional and personal life. I think I am now starting to understand what he means by being integrative, reflective and deep. Although I don’t believe that I was ever the alienated teacher that had to conform and comply with mandates in my classroom instruction, I did fall prey to something I will call the alienated educator. I was in a role where I had to comply and/or enforce mandates on teachers that I found unethical and corrosive to the teaching profession. This did not sit well with me and it made me feel as though I had lost some control over my decision-making ability. It was strange that I always felt in control in my classroom and with my students but once I completely stepped away from being a classroom teacher I lost all sense of power over my decisions. I could no longer be mindful of my work or how I could influence my situation. I don’t think that I could have verbalized these ideas without reading this book again and taking the time to deeply reflect on the tension I felt as an educator, but not a classroom teacher.
As a classroom teacher I was blind to what was happening down the hall or across the school district. I truly thought that most teachers translated mandates into something that worked best for the students in their classrooms. I had no idea that so many teachers had become completely alienated in their teaching practices and almost robotic in their work. I spent time in many schools and was practically put to sleep by the non-stop discussion of data, differentiated instruction and elements of instruction. It’s not that I think that these things lack value; it’s just that the terms are thrown around as school wide efforts, when in reality it fell to the teacher to make this happen, oh and of course, to document. All I really saw were blank faces; head nodding and shifty glances at clocks. There was compliance with mandates but no excellence, which is often the case when mindfulness is not present.
I look forward to this upcoming week and hearing Dr. Shirley again, I wonder what he might think of the idea of the Alienated Educator?