Being hospitable

I’m a Parker Palmer fan. I know there are lots of people who aren’t that into Parker Palmer, but I don’t know of any other educational scholar who touches on the emotional aspects of the teaching profession quite like Parker Palmer does. I’ve read The Courage to Teach probably five or six times over my career and each time it feeds my “teacher soul” in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. In my interactions with students and other teachers, I find myself trying to channel my inner Parker Palmer and tap into my own courage to teach. My class last week was one of those occasions.

Earlier this fall, I wrote a post about how I was teaching an undergraduate class after several years of teaching graduate ones. It has been a great experience. I’ve gotten to know some amazing preservice teachers and help them develop evidence-based understandings of assessment to support student learning. More than the content of the class, though, we’ve shared a lot of great conversations about our trajectories as students and how our experiences as students can inform our identities as teachers. We’ve talked about becoming advocates for change and how we need to be champions for our students, both in words and deeds. Our final class met last week and it was definitely an emotional experience for many of us.

As I sat in my office after the class, I reflected on the overall experiences of the semester for the students and for myself. While I wanted to revel in the joy of the students’ reactions to our time together, I kept thinking about one student who had made a dramatic shift during the semester. Through the first few weeks of the class, Dave (not his real name) presented himself as the model, engaged student. Dave arrived early to class, participated thoughtfully in class discussions and always contributed valuable insights in his papers and online posts. But midway through the course, Dave became more reserved. He didn’t participate as much during class and started arriving late. His work wasn’t the high quality he had once shared.

During our last class, I had the students write short reflections on their work during the semester. Drawing on some of the activities I shared in a blog post last fall, I wanted to provide some “meaningful course closure” by “engaging “students in reflection not only about what they have learned but also how they will use these ideas in the future.”  While many students wrote in-depth, thoughtful reflections, Dave’s was sullen, dark, and, at times, disrespectful to me, our class, and our university’s whole teacher education program.

As I read Dave’s reflection, I wondered how Parker Palmer would handle this. In The Courage to Teach, Palmer talks about how effective teaching requires the development of “relational trust” which is “built on movements of the human heart such as empathy, commitment, compassion, patience, and the capacity to forgive.” Someplace along the way, I lost some relational trust with Dave, and I didn’t want our time together to end without a chance to rebuild some of it. To do that, I’d need to channel some of that “compassion, patience and capacity to forgive” with Dave.

So, I emailed him and invited him to meet to chat. While he was initially hesitant to talk, when we finally sat down for a few minutes to iron things out, he was much more receptive. We discussed his engagement as a student and his work in the class. We discussed his written reflection and the emotional journey he had taken during the semester. More than that, however, we discussed his future role as a teacher and how teachers emotionally react to the students with whom they work. I’m happy to say that things definitely left on better terms than they had during our final few classes together.

Besides relational trust, Parker Palmer also explores some other critical elements that inform our work as educators. In situations like the one I shared with Dave, one aspect that I try to remember is the need for teachers to “be hospitable.” Palmer writes:

Good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the young, and hospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest. The concept of hospitality arose in ancient times when this reciprocity was easier to see; in nomadic cultures, the food and shelter one gave to a stranger yesterday is the food and shelter one hopes to receive from a stranger tomorrow. By offering hospitality, one participates in the endless reweaving of a social fabric on which all can depend—thus the gift of sustenance for the guest becomes a gift of hope for the host. It is that way in teaching as well: the teacher’s hospitality to the student results in a world more hospitable to the teacher.

While my hospitality was toward Dave, it was also a gift a hope for me. Through our conversation I was hoping that maybe someday in the future, when Dave works with a student like himself, he’ll have a better example of how to deal with it. That he’ll be patient. And empathetic. And be willing to forgive.

A Road Trip

It was 2006 and I was in my second year of my doctoral program and had been accepted to present at an international conference being held at Indiana University. It was my first big conference as a doctoral student and I was more than a little intimidated about presenting in front of a group of an international scholars. As I planned for the trip, one of my doctoral professors inquired about making the 500+ mile drive together.  “It will be fun,” he said. “It will give us some time to get to know each other.”

Although I’m not using his real name here, Max is one of those disciplinary rock stars who is easily the smartest person in whatever room he enters. He’s published tons of research in high impact, peer-reviewed journals. I just did a quick Google Scholar search and his work has been cited over 6000 times in various publications.  Max is one of those international scholars to which I was worried about presenting. And now I’d be sharing  a car with him for nine hours.

Besides being wickedly smart, Max is also pretty humble and reflective and a great conversationalist. In our nine-hour car ride, we talked about our families, our teaching backgrounds and our views of the world. While his scholarship record was intimidating, he was not. He was a regular guy who passed the time talking about music, children and his love for soccer. The hours (and miles) seemed to fly by as we talked. And then he asked about the upcoming conference.

“How are you feeling about your presentation?”

Maybe it was the hours we spent together that caused me to lower my guard. Or maybe I was feeling particularly forthcoming. Regardless, I told him the truth.

“I’m absolutely terrified.”

To this day, I don’t know why I shared that. I could have lied and tried to hide my anxiety behind a wall of faux confidence. But I didn’t. I told him the truth. Looking back, I don’t know which I’m more surprised by. My honesty. Or his response.

“Tell me more about that,” Max said.

That sentence opened the flood gates of my lack of confidence, my self doubt and how worried I was that someone would expose me as the fraud I was. Here I was, a student, presenting at some international conference. Clearly, I didn’t have any business at this conference. Or even being in a PhD program.

“My greatest fear,” I explained, “is that someone is going to stand up in the middle of my presentation, call me incompetent, and then the whole group is going to storm out.”

We sat in silence for a mile or two, and then he said it.

“Ollie, I feel that way all the time.”

I’m sharing this story because the topic of the “imposter syndrome” has come up in a variety of places over the last few weeks.  A colleague shared a TED video about the imposter syndrome that sparked a lively discussion on social media. The New York Times recently published an op-ed about a parent who experienced “motherhood imposter syndrome.” At the gym this morning, I saw that Good Morning America was discussing it, too. So, what is the imposter syndrome?

In a 2008 article, the Harvard Business Review defined imposter syndrome as “the feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. Imposters suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.” Basically, it’s what Max (and I) expressed to one another in our road trip. We felt like frauds, despite any evidence to support it.

I’d like to say that thirteen years later that I feel any different, but that wouldn’t be completely true. Sure, I’ve been successful, but I still experience lots of self doubt. For example, I still have semi-regular nightmares that my dissertation committee is going to find some mistake in my final draft and they’re going to rescind my PhD. Despite being promoted to full professor this summer, I still worry that someone is going to send me an email that starts with “After closer examination, the promotion committee regrets to inform you..” They’re baseless fears, but that’s how the imposter syndrome works.

I guess the point of this whole post is that (almost?) everyone feels this way. If Max the super successful, rock star academic can, anyone can. Realizing this, the bigger question becomes: What does one do with the emotions born out of the imposter syndrome? I don’t necessarily have the answers, but I think recognizing that others are also sharing this long, emotional road trip is one way to quell some of those feelings. It might not make the trip any shorter or easier, but it’s good to know that others are along for the ride, too.

A Mission Statement

A few months ago, I led a week-long orientation on campus for new faculty. We had over a dozen new tenure-track faculty join our institution and, as the director of the teaching and learning center on our campus, I helped to acclimate them to the university and to get them prepared for the coming school year. Early in the week’s activities, I shared with the new faculty the structural aspects of the university. This presentation included an introduction to the different administrative offices across campus and their respective roles. Embedded in the presentation was an overview of our institution’s mission statement and how it factored into their work as faculty.

I have to say that probably like most institutions, our university’s mission statement is unremarkable. I won’t get into the nuts and bolts of the details but it involves some educational jargon about promoting life-long learners who can contribute to a global society. I’m not knocking it or anything. The statement definitely includes values and aspirations that should be cherished. It’s just that as a mission statement it’s a little like eating a meringue cookie; it’s tasty without being all that satisfying or filling.

Having participated in “mission statement” writing at another institution, I know how these statements are written. Since they’re intended to be aspirational and encompassing, they have to be written broadly enough that every constituency and campus community can see their needs and values reflected in it. It’s a challenging process that prompts lots of debate and wordsmithing. The meanings of words are discussed and different nouns and verbs are examined and vetted. It’s a challenging process, especially when you involve lots of civic-minded academics. Some may have different agendas or focus areas. Many come from different backgrounds. And they’re all charged with developing a statement that will define the aims and values of the institution. Crafting a mission statement is definitely hard work. And the end result doesn’t always reflect the hard work. But sometimes it does.

Last August, I attended a panel discussion with academic leaders from a bunch of different colleges and universities. The panel met to discuss the future of higher education and the role that online education would play. Midway through the discussion, one of the presenters, Julie Greenwood, recited her institution’s mission statement verbatim, and then explained how embracing the mission has fundamentally changed their school. Greenwood is the Vice Dean for Educational Initiatives at Arizona State University (ASU) and oversees online programming across all ASU campuses. It’s funny because as she recited her school’s mission statement, I found myself totally buying in, too. It was easy to understand and get behind.

Here’s what ASU’s mission statement says:

“ASU is a comprehensive public research university, measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed; advancing research and discovery of public value; and assuming fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural and overall health of the communities it serves.”

As an educator, I find a lot here that resonates with me, but I’m especially drawn to how inclusive it is. If we’re going to be defined by something, let’s be defined by the students we include and the processes and supports that we create to help them be successful. That’s a mission statement that I can get behind.

Ten years…

This weekend marked an important 8 Blog anniversary. On November 17, 2009, I shared my first blog post on this space. Looking back at that original post, I’m actually sort of surprised that this whole project is still going after ten years. At the time, I was looking for a way to share different instructional technologies with my colleagues. But here we are, ten years later and I’m still posting. While the focus of my writing has changed a little over the years, my desire to continue writing and sharing remains.

Despite the change in focus, people are still reading. Earlier this year, the 8 Blog logged its 100,000 view. I don’t know if it’s the same reader coming back here over and over and over, or whether it’s a couple thousand loyal readers who come here weekly to sift through these musings to find something of value. Either way, thanks for sharing this decade long journey with me. I’m humbled by your support and readership.

Over the years, I’ve shared some of my motivations for blogging. Contributing weekly posts here has helped me hone my writing skills. It has also helped me work through ideas and interactions with colleagues. It also helps me have a conversation with people from around the world. Recently, however, I came across a quote that captures my intentions a little more.

In his book, The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust and Responsiveness in the Classroom, Stephen Brookfield (2006) writes:

Teaching is not about charismatically charged individuals using the sheer force of their characters and personalities to wreak lifelong transformations in students’ lives. It’s about finding ways to promote the day-to-day, incremental gains that students make as they try to understand ideas, grasp concepts, assimilate knowledge and develop new skills. All the small things you do to make this happen for student represent the true story of teaching. Helping learning is what makes you truly heroic.” (p. 278)

I shared this quote with a colleague recently who said that this captures the essence of “selfless teaching.” That phrase has really lodged itself in my brain as I’ve reflected on this ten-year blogging journey. While Brookfield is talking about our roles as teachers in this quote, I can’t help think that he also captures how I see my role as a professional developer on campus and as a blogger out here on the interwebs. My posts are not going to “wreak lifelong transformations” on my readers. But that’s not really my intention, either. Instead, my hope is that a post here and there will help people see their roles as educators a little differently. Maybe it will help someone grasp some new concepts, make some incremental gain, or grow as teachers. I don’t think it makes this blog “truly heroic” or anything, but I’m hoping it helps you be a little more so.

To another ten years.

The Brass Ring

When I was a child, I remember going to the amusement park with my family. While I was excited to see the roller coasters, the Ferris Wheel, the Tilt-A-Whirl and the other rides, I have to admit that I was too frightened to venture on many of them. Maybe it stems from my fear of heights. Or maybe it comes from a hesitation to do something daring. Regardless of the originating emotions, I avoided riding on many of those amusement park rides as a child.

I say I avoided riding amusement park rides, but that’s not entirely true.  There was actually one ride that I always want to go on: the carousel. I know that’s it’s kind of a tame ride in comparison to rides like the Pirate Ship or the Scrambler, but the carousel was MY ride. I know some readers are probably losing some respect for me as they read about my tame choices for amusement park rides, but the carousel was my absolute favorite. Sure, the ride just goes round and round without changing speed much. And the painted ponies just slowly go up and down. But it’s more than that. My favorite part was the brass ring.

Since a lot of modern carousels don’t have brass rings anymore, let me explain. Older carousels had this mechanical arm that would suspend a brass ring just a little outside of riders’ reach. As riders passed that point, they would try to reach for the brass ring. To grab the ring, riders would have to lean off of the edge of the seat and reach really far to pull the brass ring from the arm. If someone was successful, the mechanical arm would replace it with a new one. During any carousel ride, ambitious riders could grab dozens of brass rings as the mechanical arm kept the brass rings coming.

As I think back to my childhood love of the carousel, I think about how the ride is a really good metaphor for teaching and for motivating learners. We provide learning targets for students (brass rings?) and if we do a good job of gauging students’ ability and interest, those targets can push the students outside of where they’re comfortable. They have to lean and grab and extend to reach the goal. They have to be daring and take chances.

Thinking back to my carousel-riding days, however, I can’t remember ever seeing someone fall off of a horse. While people may have had to anxiously reach beyond what they thought they could, they didn’t really fail. If someone wasn’t able to grab a brass ring on one turn, they could try again on the next turn. The mechanical arm kept offering more and more brass rings until the ride stopped.

And that’s another important lesson here. As teachers, we may want to make our classes more exciting than a carousel, but we have to remember to give our students lots of opportunities to reach our learning targets. We have to motivate them to reach beyond what they think is capable but also not have them reach so far that they fall off the horse. While I’m probably taking this metaphor beyond its utility, the real take-away is carousels are anything but tame.

Blind Review

If you’ve never served as a reviewer for a conference, you should. It’s honestly one of my favorite things to do. I know that may sound kind of nerdy, but I really love it. Depending on the conference, I’ll usually receive a list of conference proposals to review five or six months before the conference date. I’ll sift through all of them and do my best to provide a fair assessment and constructive feedback. It’s a time-consuming process, but also a labor of love. At least to me.

In the world of academia, peer review is often characterized as a service responsibility or as a scholarship endeavor. But it my eyes, reviewing conference proposals is a professional development one. By reviewing conference proposals, I’m learning and growing as a professional. When I review a conference proposal, it’s usually a “blind” process. That means that I have very little information about the proposers, their institution or their academic reputation or background. Sure, I’ll sometimes come across a proposal where the proposer has included so much information about their schools or their work that it’s painfully obvious who the proposer is. That’s usually rare, though. Instead, I’ll get a host of proposals written by anonymous people who could be absolutely anyone. They could be THE person who came up with the groundbreaking framework that I draw on all the time. Or they could be someone like me who’s trying to find their way in the world and hasn’t made a huge dent in the scholarly landscape, yet. Since it’s an anonymous process, the proposer could be almost anyone.

But that’s not really how I approach the proposals. Since I don’t know anything about the proposers, I try to imagine that they’re colleagues of mine and that they’re recommending books or research for me to read. As I review the proposals, I sit with a notepad and write down different articles to download or citations to remember. By the time I’ve reviewed a bunch of proposals, I’ll have a whole list of new things to read or new lenses to use to examine my work. It’s not to say that I’m some sort of sailboat who is going to change course because the wind is blowing in another direction. It’s just that there’s so much work being generated that it’s hard to keep up. Reviewing conference proposals is a great way for me to stay on top of things.

Late last week, I received a list of 45 proposals to review for a conference coming up in March. Over the next few weeks, I’ll work to be as an unbiased reviewer as possible and judge the proposals on their own merits. At the same time, I’ll be looking at how the content of the proposal can help me grow as a researcher and inform my role as an educator. While I’m sure many of the accepted proposals will be great presentations during the conference, for now, I’m finding great value in the contributions they’re making to my growth and development.

Back in the Saddle

After teaching mostly graduate and doctoral level classes for the last three years, I started a new undergraduate class last week. The class is a unique course in that it is taught in conjunction with a field placement. My students serve as “teacher interns” in a local school for three days a week and take classes on campus the other two days. While it helps my students bridge the gap between theory/research and practice, it does create some odd identity transitions for them. For several days of the week, they see themselves as teachers. For others, they have to transition to be a student again. With these shifts in identity, I’m sure it creates some dissonance for them. Teacher to student and then back again.

In a way, I’m experiencing similar dissonance. The class is an assessment course and I’m working to help my students develop a strong understanding of strategies for formative and summative assessment. Since this course is designed for beginning teachers, I’m trying to model best practices. In my mind, it’s not enough to talk about assessment strategies academically. I need to incorporate them in my lessons and then also discuss my objectives and instructional decision making. When I incorporate a technology into the class, I also unpack the affordances that lead to my choice to use that technology rather than another.

So, where does my sense of dissonance come from?  Some of it comes from the back and forth shifting that I have to navigate as a teacher and as a teacher educator. In class, I find myself talking about what’s going on in my “teacher brain” and asking students to put on their “teacher caps” or their “student caps” to help them oscillate between their dual identities and focuses. It’s dizzying at times to discuss content that they have to learn (as students) and then be able to apply (as teachers). My use of the “teacher cap” and “student cap” metaphors is an attempt to make this a little more real for them. Although I’ve used this strategy in the past with some success, the time away from teaching this class is making me remember how hard it is to shift this focus.

Another source of my dissonance is the modeling aspect that I’ve embraced. I don’t want to just “talk the talk” but “walk the walk,” too. This means demonstrating different assessment strategies and providing effective feedback. I’d like to think that I do this regularly but this class is reminding me that there are some strategies that I have been neglecting. I’ve been teaching the same handful of classes for the last few years and employing similar strategies with my students. Since I’m trying to act as a role model, it’s forcing me to confront some of these neglected strategies and put them into practice again.

It also is forcing me to reexamine some of the foundational readings that I’ve encountered over and over throughout my career. Working through these feelings of dissonance, I dug up a chapter titled On Becoming a Reflective Teacher that Grant and Zeichner wrote in 1984 and that I’ve read and re-read probably two dozen times. I found this little nugget that seems to capture my feelings.

(Teachers) have to break with the mechanical life, to overcome their own submergence in the habitual, even in what they conceive to be virtuous, and to ask the “why” with which all moral reasoning begins.” (p. 103)

By teaching this class again after a three-year hiatus, I’m in the midst of overcoming this “submergence in the habitual.” While it’s creating some personal dissonance, it’s helping to be more reflective and intentional with my pedagogical strategies. And that’s never a bad result.

Grant, C. A., & Zeichner, K. M. (1984). On becoming a reflective teacher. Preparing for reflective teaching, 103-114.