The late bloomer and the gift of time

There’s a lovely children’s book by Robert Kraus (1971) called, Leo the late bloomer.  Leo is a small tiger who can’t seem to do anything that his other animal friends can do.  He can’t read, write, draw, eat neatly, or talk.  His father, looking at his son in light of the other animals, begins to get quite concerned about the lack of progress evident in Leo.  Leo’s mother, on the other hand, soothes the father’s concerns by encouraging him to be patient because Leo is just a late bloomer, and “watched bloomers don’t bloom.” I was reminded of this story when I was talking with some of my students about differentiating curriculum.  Sometimes we make differentiation a very complex and overwhelming task.  Sometimes we forget that we already have gifts/resources to give that can help students naturally learn and grow.  Sometimes they do just need more time – along with a caregiver who is patient, who sees the child in light of who they are meant to be rather than in comparison to other children.

Schools establish quite arbitrary time systems that aren’t always informed by good research or even good logic and can seem incredibly inflexible to students, parents and teachers.  But maybe they aren’t as inflexible as we think.  The gift of time is possible and not hard to give – even at the university level (if we’re willing to give up our own agenda).  It’s amazing to me that we’re still using the factory model in schools and our students are the ones punching the time clocks.  Maybe that’s one of the reasons so many parents are choosing to home-school their children.  Maybe that’s one of the reasons teachers get discouraged – because teachers usually are like Leo’s mother, but feel the pressure of performance that Leo’s father seems to feel.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t intervene when you see a child struggling, I’m just saying that sometimes we intervene too quickly – for our own reasons, instead of the child’s best interest.  Sometimes our help doesn’t help. It seems that reverence for the learner would require us to be discerning about this.

I’m not saying that structure and time requirements are wrong either.  Schools need them to function, students sometimes need them to learn to manage their time well and to be able to move onto something new.  I am just saying that you can push back on institutional demands a little when necessary.  Wise educational leaders know this and support it.

We are all late bloomers in some way or another, all in need of the gift of time and a patient caregiver.  The gift of time often brings peace, and peace is the best environment for blooming.

The hope of glory

I’ve written previously about the dangers of being an idealist, but today I want to focus on a related illness – that of being a perfectionist.  I write as someone who is still recovering from this illness and as someone who has great concern for the way this illness is developed (often unintentionally) and manifested in educational settings.  My hope is that these words will somehow break through the perception that perfectionism is an any way good for educators or for students.  I have heard too many beginning teachers say, “I’m a perfectionist“, with the assumption that this is good news to me, that I somehow hope that they are perfectionists.   I don’t.   Instead, I want to do all I can to interrupt this discourse because these words can reveal a hope that outer light/glory will conceal inner darkness and can become a road that is eventually very damaging.

My experience as a perfectionist has taught me the following:

Perfectionists come to believe in their own capabilities.  They are so strong in themselves, they have no need of God.  If they are Christians, they are Christian atheists.

Perfectionists are preoccupied with their own glory and crave recognition for that glory.  Their greed for glory is never satiated.

Perfectionists think about their own accomplishments – a lot!  They dwell/live in their accomplishments.

Perfectionists hate hearing about any glory given to another (although they would never admit this).

Perfectionists are irritated by imperfection and those less perfect than them.  That irritation can easily explode into anger.

Perfectionists are usually not content or grateful or joyful or peaceful or gentle…They don’t have the fruit of the spirit because they haven’t actually recognized their need for the Holy Spirit.  They may be good at pretending these things in order to preserve an image they have of themselves, but their mask keeps slipping.

Perfectionists see only what is imperfect in others or in circumstances.  They obsess about fixing things.  Their lives are full of ‘picture frames that need straightening‘.

Perfectionists are frustrated with any ambiguity or complexity that prevents them from getting the right answer quickly and then getting recognition for having gotten the right answer quickly.  They want to know what and how more than what if or why.

Perfectionists use others to make themselves look more perfect.  They are the opposite of relational and personal human beings.  They are atomistic, fragmented, self-centered individuals.

Perfectionists crumble when they are shaken by circumstances beyond their control.  They have no inner strength, no unity between their inner and outer lives, no way of reaching beyond themselves.  They are often deeply sad.

Perfectionists don’t teach, they impose, control and manipulate and then produce mini-perfectionists.  We always offer who we are.

We teach people to be perfectionists when we are confused about the aims of education.  We confuse learning to live well with God and all others, with correctness and rewards.

We teach people to be perfectionists when we start to view them as ‘pictures needing straightening‘.

We teach people to be perfectionists when education becomes more about individual hoop jumping and rule following than a shared, joyful and challenging journey.

We teach people to be perfectionists when we tell them that their only hope of glory is to win a competition, to be the best.

We teach people to be perfectionists when we tell them salvation is an event rather than a journey.

We teach people to be perfectionists when we praise them with too many words that they come to understand as defining them – words that eventually enslave them with the pressure to continue to be what others think they are.

We teach people to be perfectionists when we are cruel and merciless, rather than gentle and patient.

We teach people to be perfectionists by immersing them in a culture that focuses on image and presentation of image.  Facebook was made for perfectionists.

Perfectionism can become a serious illness, one that is easily caught and taught, but also one that can be healed – with time and help.  Healing usually requires significant shaking – especially if you’ve been a perfectionist for a long time, and your mask has hardened.  It requires turning away from yourself and towards others.  It requires learning to let go of….well…almost everything.  It requires coming to the end of yourself (and you will) and seeing the abyss in front of you, within you.  It requires a ‘cat’ that will turn your most beautiful piece of ‘furniture’ into its scratching post. It requires recognition of the quality of spirit that is infecting all of the ‘good‘ you do.  It requires seeing how little true life you have to offer others.  It requires gratefulness for your contingency, for your complete reliance on God and others for any good that is given to you to do.  It requires teaching yourself to forget any good you do immediately after you do it.   It requires understanding that the only hope of glory you have is Christ in you, transforming you, helping you become like Him, helping you become human.

To be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect is a good thing to want.  It is not wrong to have a telos, it is wrong to have an idol.  Perfectionists eventually turn themselves into idols.  Our Father is perfect in love, perfect in goodness, perfect in mercy, perfect in peace.  We are judged by His absolute strength, but saved by His willingness to share His perfect life with us.  God is the one who perfects ( 1 Peter 5:10).  To be perfect like our Father, is simply an invitation to keep ourselves in the love of God, before His face, looking for His mercy (Jude, v. 20).

Daily acts of faith

I have been reading an inspiring book called, The Reed of God, by Carryl Houselander (2006).  I’ve just discovered her spiritual writings and I’ve been so encouraged by her contemplative and reverent approach to scripture and the Christian tradition.  She was both a writer and a carpenter – interesting pursuits for a single woman who lived in Britain during both World Wars.  Her writing often deals with issues of suffering and loss, and reveals an authentic personal struggle to have a heart that is firmly established in God and His church.  I hesitate to try to summarize any of her writing because it is difficult to remove even one word – each word is chosen so carefully and draws you more deeply into her meditations.  But I’m going to try in this post, with multiple direct quotes (in italics), because I am so intrigued with one aspect of this latest book – something she calls, ‘daily acts of faith.’  I am often in need of strengthened faith and I am hoping that practising these acts will help me and may also help my readers.  I also see these acts of faith as translating easily into the classroom and establishing a sacred space for relationships to flourish.

Houselander describes an ‘act of faith’ in the following way, “…believing something because God has told us that it is so…Faith is something immeasurably more than a sixth sense, more than intuition, more than feeling or knowledge.”  Mary is our example here through her hearing from God that Christ was being formed in her and her acceptance (fiat) of this truth.  Houselander goes on to say that Mary’s daily act of faith, believing that Christ was within her, was part of the nurturing of Christ’s growth within her.  She encourages us to perform the same daily act faith, to believe that Christ is in us – to say, “My God, I believe that you are within me.”  This is an act of faith because,  “It is quite incredible to think that God is really present in me.”   This first act of faith brings us peace, “…it silences the noise of distraction, the loud busyness of fear.  It is the stilling of waters.  It gathers our thoughts into a circle like a crown of flowers; it crowns us with peace…Christ our Lord is within us; there is no room for any other awareness; everything that we see and touch and taste and think must be related to this one fact…It not only enables us to believe in the miracles which throng our lives, but it makes our charity a thousand times more sensitiveAwareness of the presence of Christ in us draws us off from every distracting and destructive preoccupation, such as self-pity, anxiety, irritability with other people, the morbidity which leads us to dwell more upon our own sinfulness than up the beauty of God….In the wonder of the awareness we are able to accept the humiliation of being ourselves.”  It is ok to be me when Christ has entered even me.  

There is also a ‘second daily act of faith’believing that Christ is in others.  “Just as we cannot depend upon feelings to know that Christ is in ourselves, we cannot depend upon appearances to know that He is in others…”  She compares the faith we need to have that Christ is in others to the faith that we have that Christ is present in the Eucharist.  Those who have a sacramental understanding the Eucharist and come to the cup regularly, have no difficulty believing that Christ is present there – our practice has taught us this.  We can have that same reverent orientation to all persons, and we have exactly the same reason for believing in both: the word of Christ.  “Both are miracles of love which, like God’s peace, pass understanding.” Because faith isn’t about rational certainty or intuition or feelings, we are “… like blind people learning, through the touch of caressing fingers, the features of the face that we cannot see.  We discover the Face that we seek in every human face; and just because we must seek with a more sensitive medium than sight, we are not put off by the visible things:  the mutilation, bruises, sweat, dirt, and tears.  Beyond all this we discern the invisible beauty of the Man abiding in mankind...”

There is a caution given in this second daily act of faith.  There is a particular spirit that true faith provides as we seek Christ in others.  “Faith simplifies the search.  We do not have to discover in which of several people Christ is to be found:  we must look for Him in them all.  And not in an experimental spirit, to discover whether He is in them or not, but with the absolute certainty that He is...If we look for Christ only in the saints, we shall miss Him.  If we look for Him only in those people who seem to have the sort of character we personally consider to be Christian, that which we call our ‘ideal,’ we shall miss the whole meaning of His abiding in us.  If we look for Him in ourselves, in what we imagine to be the good in us, we shall being in presumption and end in despair…Our search through faith and courage and love is a great going out into darkness, a reaching out to others in darkness, believing that Christ is there in each one; but not in the way we expect, not in the way that we think He should be, not in the way that we already understand, but in the way that He chooses to be, Who is Himself the Way.”  If we seek with faith, we shall find.  How wonderful to find Christ each day in each person – with charity a thousand times more sensitive!”

Two daily acts of faith – believing Christ is within you, helping Him to be formed in you, and believing Christ is in others and then naturally responding to that image in ways that recognize the suffering of Christ being borne in each person.  The seeing of Christ cannot help but motivate daily acts of kindness and compassion and forgiveness.  And then the love you give generates even more life in you because these daily acts of faith nourish one another.  We respond to Christ in others in the same way that St. John the Baptist responded to Christ in Mary.  It is an inner movement (and then outer).  It is a movement that brings us the same joy it brought Elizabeth and Mary….”a sudden rush of sweetness of life within us.”

Christ is in us, He is in every colleague, every students, every friend, every family member, every person.  We need acts of faith to find Him where we least expect Him, to see beyond appearances and behaviour and expectations, to see Him in the tears and mutilation and suffering, to see Him even in ourselves.  He is hidden, but never absent.  The eyes of our heart just need healing.  I think daily acts of faith can help us heal.  I also think it is interesting that she didn’t suggest that a daily act of faith would be to read more scripture or pray more or become more knowledgeable about doctrine.  I’m sure she wouldn’t suggest that the latter are unimportant or unhelpful, but she seems to be reorienting us – keeping us face to face with each other and Christ, helping us know Christ, helping us experience His presence.  What could encourage our faith more?

Integrity and orientation

My students and I began an interesting conversation yesterday.  We were talking about curriculum orientations and how they can and can’t help us educate with integrity.  We talked about how integrity is usually understood as clearly articulating our beliefs, values, and aims, and then matching our practice to what we have articulated, and then continually reflecting on whether or not this match continues.  We talked about the difficulty of being so completely self-transparent.  Can we really reflect accurately on the underlying motivations and overarching intentions of every aspect of our practice?  Do we really think about those things in the moment to moment decisions we make as educators?  Scripture tells us that our hearts are a mystery, only known fully by God, and that our actions flow from our hearts (the wellspring of life).  James Smith ( 2009) says we don’t move through the world with our worldviews, we move feeling our way with arms outstretched, “…we lead out with our heart and hands.” (p 47)  It takes a lifetime and more to come to know ourselves as we were intended to be, so it may be presumptuous to think we can know ourselves so quickly and transparently as teachers.  It seems that the integrity project, when conceived as a matching project, is closely related to the worldview project we discussed in a recent post.  I left the conversation with my students, prompted to think further about what it would mean to have integrity if one was oriented towards God.

Orientation is embodied and personal – life lived face to face with God and others, therefore integrity has to be about more than my individual efforts to match my practice to my inner thoughts and determinations about teaching or any other practice.  Integrity has to be about a bodily gesture that arises from a unified heart and mind that is intentionally responding to the other/Other.  What do I mean by a unified heart and mind?  I mean a mind that is stilled by a heart that is at peace – so at peace that Christ can be found there and righteousness is possible.  I mean a mind that isn’t distracted by discursive reasoning processes or the demands of a noisy ego or a busy day, but is listening deeply to the Other/other or others with them.  I mean a mind that is “mindful” of or “attentive” to the sacred space that opens where two or three are gathered, and authentically responsive.   Truly loving and fruitful teaching gestures can arise under those conditions.  Christos Yannaras (1984) writes about each person saving within themselves the universal possibilities of life-giving gestures.  I like to think about teachers saving within themselves the universal possibilities of the teaching act – treasures within them that can be offered at the right moment to the right students in the right manner.  It is good to know a great deal about teaching, to store up those treasures, to even articulate what your best understanding about educational practice is at this particular time and place, but integrity comes when you do what St. Basil the Great says, “…return to your cell,”  your heart, and allow the Holy Spirit to teach your mind to be at peace and to be ready to be fruitful.  Every teaching gesture can then be infused by the wisdom and love from above.  Integrity, when we are oriented, is a unified, unconditional offering of self to God and others.  It is a moment when we are both gathered and offered.  A lack of integrity would be a teaching gesture or offering that is fragmented, without presence, without peace, without intention for a particular person or persons, without anything from heaven to bring it to earth.

To think of integrity as matching practice to ideals is to fall into the trap of answering complexity with certainty and to believe that ideals, on their own, are life-giving.   Simone Weil calls ideals notions and says, those notions do not dwell in heaven; they hang in the middle air and for this very reason they cannot root themselves in earth…It is only what comes from heaven that can make a real impress on earth.”  Trying to address complexity with certainty can result in a ‘regime of truth’ that becomes easy to impose on others, as well as, yourself.  These ‘regimes of truth’ can result in self-justification or blaming when things aren’t matching.  We blame our students for not learning or our institutions for not providing us the right conditions for our ideals to flourish.  To think of integrity this way is also a swift road to despair because, in my experience, I’ve never been able to match my practice to my ideals.  And I’ve tried….hard…

What about this working understanding of integrity?  From the possibility of self-conscious transparency to the possibility, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, of offering person oriented, loving, life-giving teaching gestures in a multitude of moments.  This understanding gives me hope, hope in possible moments of integrity – even if those moments are few and far between.  I am just a beginner at unifying my mind and heart, of being gathered and offered.  This understanding also gives me a place to start – “return to my cell.” 

“Like a swan you swim across the quiet of my heart and make it fruitful.”   St. John Climacus

Smith, J.K.A. (2009).  Desiring the kingdom: worship, worldview, and cultural formation.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Academic.

Yannaras, C. (1984).  The freedom of morality.  Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Blessing is necessary…

“Then He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed and broke them….”

If we are oriented toward Christ, we understand that He is always blessing offerings and ‘feeding’ multitudes.   We understand that teaching is our offering, it is what we offer to God, our colleagues, our students and our communities.  We also understand that we must do more than offer, we must first ask for our offerings to be blessed.  We are all like the little boy with the five loaves and two fishes…

We realize that our offerings are so small they need God’s blessing.

We trust that God will take our offerings, bless them and multiply them.

We offer the little that we have spontaneously in an outpouring of our love for God and others.

We are thankful that God accepts and blesses and multiples beyond our greatest hopes and expectations.

We let go of our offerings and let God.

We keep offering and we keep asking and we keep thanking.

May God bless all of the offerings happening in classrooms today and this year!

Being and becoming oriented as an educational goal

I have been thinking a lot about the difference between the words ‘orientation’ and ‘worldview’.  So often in faith-based educational contexts the phrase ‘Christian worldview’ is used to describe what teachers or professors should have and what students should acquire.  A worldview is understood to be the correct way of thinking about the world, thinking the way a Christian should think based on certain interpretations of the Bible.  It is assumed that if someone has a Christian worldview, correct decisions and choices will be made and a Christian life will be lived.  Therefore, teaching someone to be a Christian becomes a task of teaching correct ideas and ensuring these ideas can be articulated or used to interpret the world around them or to see the world correctly.  Having a worldview often makes me think of seeing the world from outer space – the whole world can be seen at once and understood in a coherent meaningful way.  The messy complex realities of life lived ‘on the ground’ are lost in the perfect beauty of intellectual categories and rationalizations.   Things are clearly good, bad, right, wrong, beautiful, ugly, false and true.  For a Christian worldview to be acquired, much is dependent on humans and their intellectual capabilities.  They acquire a worldview, and are in control of their worldview and, therefore, control their world.

I spent many years trying to acquire and use a Christian worldview.  I wanted to be the best Christian I could be and I was told that this was the path – especially for a Christian academic.  However, a Christian worldview has never been very helpful to me because the world, lived on the ground, in a body, is much messier and complex than the world perfectly organized in my head.  What is good for me is not necessarily good for another.  What is right for me could very well be wrong for another.  What is false might be proven to be true when illumined with light rather than the darkness of my mind.  I have come to see ‘having a Christian worldview’ as quite presumptuous of me.  As if I could figure everything out, as if I could be God.

I am not suggesting that the Christian faith is not reasoned or reasonable.  I am also not denying that there is much to be gained by becoming more knowledgeable about our faith through reading scriptures and becoming immersed in the holy writings of the Christian tradition.  I also think that Christian educational institutions can and should have goals that increase students’ knowledge about their faith.   What I am trying to say (or explore by writing this blog) is that a Christian worldview isn’t the goal we should be striving for in Christian institutions, that more knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to a life lived for Christ.  The pitfalls of pride, dualism, disembodied idealism and self-righteousness seem to be what we achieve when we aim for this goal.  I am wondering what would happen if we sought to be oriented towards Christ instead.   How would acquiring an orientation be different?

The word orientation, in its current use, has come to mean something we do for people entering a new situation so that they can begin their new journey with and in the right direction.  Many schools and universities will be “orienting” their students this weekend, getting them off to a good start, immersing them in a particular community and helping them to connect with that community. To be ‘oriented’, in its original meaning, is to be in relation to ‘the east’ or  to be facing the east.  To be facing the east implies a whole body turned towards or  moving in a preferred direction. Throughout the history of Christendom, in the east and the west (up until the modern times of churches in gymnasiums and malls), church buildings have always been oriented to the east, with the altar on the east wall.  In order to worship in a church, one faced the altar and the Holy Gifts came to you from the east in the same way that scripture describes Christ as the rising sun coming to us in glory.  This worship orientation of offering and receiving forms us to live our lives facing and experiencing the joy of Christ coming to us, even though not yet fully realized.  It is an eschatological orientation that can happen anywhere in the world because the orientation is not to a particular place, but to a particular personal God,  the coming Christ, whose face we seek, whose face shines on us and causes our own faces to shine, whose light illumines us, transfigures us, saves us.

Acquiring an orientation to Christ is very different from acquiring a Christian worldview.  I can’t think my way into a better orientation, I have to move there, to practice staying there, to recognize when I’m not there.  I do this by following Christ who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.  His ways are prayer, fasting, almsgiving, service, self-emptying or humility, submission to the will of God, living in communion with God and others.  These practices become revelatory.  It is only as I practice this Way, putting myself in the stream of God’s light that I can gradually become filled with the light of God and can increasingly respond in life-giving ways to the messy and complex world I live and teach in.  This is the knowledge that matters, this is the wisdom I long for.  This is what we hope a Christian worldview will give us, but so often it doesn’t.

I sometimes wish that a Christian worldview was all I or my students needed.  It doesn’t seem to require as much from me as a teacher.  I can easily learn correct ideas, even if I have little understanding of what it means to put those words into practice.  It also doesn’t require much from students.  They can easily parrot back ideas they expect I am wanting to hear.  But I know how empty and despairing this worldview game can be and I am much more interested in struggling with my students to orient and reorient myself – again and again.  To be formed, transformed and informed by grace-filled Christian practices.

I wonder how ‘orientation’ can become a preferred goal of Christian educational institutions, educational institutions aren’t churches and struggle to provide spiritual practices that can orient and reorient….But this posting is already too long.  Future postings will come back to this question and I would love to hear from other educators about practices they use in their classroom to “orient” themselves and students towards God and others.

If the Lord wills, we shall do this and that

The summer is drawing to a close and many of us who are educators are thinking about the school year that lies ahead.  We are grateful for a summer of more time with family and friends, more time in creation, more time to think deeply about our work and about life.  But likely, within each of our hearts, is the growing excitement of reconnecting with colleagues, meeting new students, starting new projects and getting back into routine.  The educator’s life is a cycle of seasons – each season necessary and fruitful in different ways.  We have good work to do and we are grateful.

The beginning of a school year is an intense time of planning and goal setting, both for and with students – and it needs to be.  A reverence for learners would emphasize the importance of planning with students or at least with their unique needs in mind.  I find a plan that is more of a ‘vision open to revision’, is inherently more inclusive of learners than a plan that is a blueprint requiring every detail to be implemented.  Blueprints work extremely well for buildings, less well for human growth and flourishing.  Blueprints assume a confidence that is not possible in the often messy, humbling, relational and dynamic context of teaching.

This week I was reading St. James’ caution to the overly confident.

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow.  For what is your life?  It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.  Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.”  (James 4: 13-15)

It is easy to forget in a context of pressure to write and accomplish particular outcomes that we are a vapor and there is nothing that we do outside of the Lord’s will.  It is easy to forget what the Psalmist says – that we set our time in light of God’s face.  It is easy to forget, in our making of plans, that we are taught by God, helped by God, gladdened by God, led by God.

Even more tragically, when focused on our ends and then distracted by detailed means, we forget that each moment is a potential revelation, a possible connection with eternity, an opportunity for the “more” that we all long for – more presence, more peace, more communion.

May we learn to plan and then say, “If the Lord wills.”  May we live each moment of our coming practice in the light of God’s face.  May we learn to accomplish and say, “Thanks be to God.”

The ‘ethic of care’ and the Christian faith

Last week I was interviewed by a researcher about the ethic of care in our teacher education program.  The researcher was interested in exploring how the ethic of care was understood, communicated and experienced in Christian faculties of education.  Her interest in the ethic of care stems from her own affinity to the theory as a Christian teacher educator in a small US Christian liberal arts university.  She also expressed a growing realization that it is valued in many Christian faculties of education.  Given that the theory was developed in a secular setting, she is wondering why it is so commonly valued in Christian teacher education and what happens to the theory when it is brought into a Christian context.  Do Christian teacher educators and students think about the ethic of care differently? Teach it differently? Practice it differently?  I have been thinking a lot about our interview since it occurred, and in particular, about her last question to me regarding how I understood the ethic of care being connected to my Christian faith.  Below are some of the thoughts I shared with her and some that I’ve thought of since.

But first, it might be helpful to briefly summarize what is meant by an ethic of care.  An ethic of care is a normative theory of ethics that arose from an understanding of the inter-relatedness of all humans, as well as, our responsibility for one another.  In other words, ethical reasoning, or a decision about how to act in an ethical way,  is not based on knowing abstract principles of what is right or wrong and then trying to match practice to those beliefs.  Instead, it is based on relational understandings of what is most supportive of the person requiring care, discovered through attentiveness and a sense of responsibility for that person.  Carol Gilligan, a feminist philosopher, first developed this theory in response to Kohlberg’s moral stage theory.  She found the gender bias of Kohlberg’s theory objectionable, and questioned the strict linear development towards abstract reasoning as the highest level of moral development.  Her theory centered on the realization that such abstract morality often made the moral actor blind and indifferent to the needs of others.  The ethic of care, rooted in understandings of nurture, emphasized compassion and empathy (or sympathy), and an attentiveness that seeks to respond to others on their own terms.  It asserts that caring is not present if the person being cared for doesn’t understand the response of the carer as care.  The ethic of care is also closely connected to critical theory and social justice concerns, in that care is particularly important in determining ethical treatment of those who are without power or vulnerable in any way.

Nel Noddings is well-known for her work in connecting the ethic of care to education and most educators would be familiar with at least some of its tenets, even if they don’t have an in-depth understanding of the theory.  Teachers are very conscious of the vulnerability of their learners and the imbalance of power that is part of every educational setting.  It is important to note that demonstrating an ethic of care is not simply being sweet or nice or kind.  The ethic of care is a stance of self-emptying attention to the other.  It is a strong desire for our help to be truly life-giving to our learners and support their growth.  It is a recognition that what can be good for one, can be evil for another.  There is a humility implicit in the ethic of care and a willingness to be taught by the ‘cared for.’  

I am not at all surprised that teacher educators who are Christians (little Christs) are interested in the ethic of care.  I don’t think you can read the gospels without becoming aware of the way Christ responded to those around him – particularly those who were marginalized or vulnerable.   He didn’t have a single method or apply any kind of discursive reasoning to his actions.  He attended to all he met with an intuitive understanding of their deepest and most pressing needs, and responded to each person in ways that brought healing and life.  He brought the lost into communion with the Trinity and through their relationship with Truth, they began to participate in that Truth and love the Truth.  He met life with life, not abstract principles and rules.  But it was not just any life – it was a calling to life that was more abundant – I think He had divinely high standards.

For me, the ethic of care is a generally revealed truth that points to the reality of our need for communion with God and others – to be persons rather than atomized individuals.  The truth is revealed in our every day experiences, and our memories of being truly cared for, and in our longings to be cared for again.  It reflects our personal being, our uniqueness or unrepeatability and our deep connection with all others.  It fills our moral actions with a content that makes sense to us in ways that abstract ideals can’t.   It’s not that abstract ideals cannot be helpful – St. Paul says the law is our tutor and Christ fulfills the law, rather than abolishes the law.  However, we can’t offer ourselves with faith, hope and love to an abstract ideal.  We can only offer ourselves to others/the Other.  Only we can offer ourselves to another.  This is our absolute freedom and uniqueness.  Our motivation to care arises from our opportunities to go beyond ourselves through love – to become ourselves in the emptying of ourselves for others. 

Would there be a difference in how Christian teacher educators understand, practice and communicate an ethic of care?  Since Christianity is a way of life and a radical shift in orientation to life (a turning from self to God and others), a putting on of Christ and a putting off of self, it would be almost atheist to say that there would be no difference.  However, I don’t think you would necessarily find the difference in the level of care shown by teacher educators or encouraged within a program.  I don’t even think you would find much difference in the level of care shown by graduates of various teacher education programs.  I think most educators are already strongly oriented to care for others.  I’d like to think Christians are better at caring, but I’ve been humbled too many times by the level of care shown by those who don’t profess Christian faith.  God loves us all so much that we all have experiences of that love and are motivated to love others.  We all experience the truth of living in communion and long for it when we don’t.  We all try to recreate a sense of love and community through our interactions with others.  I am reminded of the gospel story of St. Photini, the woman at the well.  Christ says that she serves who she doesn’t know, whereas the Jews serve who they do know.  Those who know the truth about caring are responding to the voice of God in their hearts even if they don’t know Him yet.

What might be the difference then?  One thought is that there would be a difference in the way the ethic of care would be understood and communicated.  As a secular theory, it is a fragment of truth.  Christians, through their relationship with the Truth, can see and experience that fragment in relationship to the whole.  They can see how it is truly real in the way it points to the reality of human nature, the reality of our relationship with God, and the reality of what it means to help/save/give life.  It is not just one theory among many to choose, it is a way of participating wholly in the life of God.  Teacher educators who are Christians should be knowledgeable about the theory, but also delight in continually connecting it back to the revelation of God.  Rather than a theory to be grasped, it can become part of the light that enables us to see light – a revelation to be received with gratitude and openness.   So, maybe a commitment to the ethic of care would have stronger roots in Christian educators, maybe we wouldn’t give up so quickly on care and default to the imposition of ideals and rules.

Another thought is that we Christians would be growing in our ability to care through the practice of spiritual disciplines that teach us to attend to others in ways that suppress the self so that the other can be heard, or to invite others into life-giving relationship in ways that are not manipulative or controlling.  I would hope that our attentiveness would become a kind of prayer and that our responses to others would be guided by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit rather than the outcome of our own discursive reasoning.   I think this is the greatest thing we can offer to each other and our students through an ethic of care – the presence of God in us, a presence full of faith and love and hope for the other, a presence that inspires and guides.

Near the end of my interview with the researcher, we talked about how the ethic of care was woven into our program to the degree that it would be difficult to separate it out from any aspect of our program – not from teaching, researching, administrative policies or other events.  It should be this way.  There shouldn’t be a time when we are practicing the ethic of care and when we are not.  There shouldn’t be things that we do carelessly.  There shouldn’t be aspects of our program that don’t take into consideration our care for each other and our students.  What better thread to weave into any institution than the thread of care.  May God help us weave even more beautifully and carefully.

Teaching: Do I love it, am I good at it and is it worthwhile?

Below is a speech given by Dr. Matthew Etherington, Associate Professor TWU School of Education.  This speech was given at the 2013 B.Ed. Graduation.
“Teaching: Do I love it, am I good at it and is it worthwhile?”

Greetings: Good afternoon. First of all let me say well done to the graduating PYP class of 2013; and of course a warm welcome to family and friends—all those who shared the trials, traumas and successes in earning this degree today.  It is an honour to be giving the faculty reflection address. I am fully aware that anyone who accepts such an invitation as this has a delicate task to perform.
His/her first duty, of course, is to congratulate you. It is my sincere prayer and hope that you will find in your personal and professional lives a source of great joy and happiness.  The second duty is to give a reflection, so here goes.
Well you made it! You made it through many, many classes. In the School of Education some of these were Dr Franklin’s assessment class, Dr Pudlas’ educational psychology class, Dr Jule’s social issues in education class, Dr Van Brummelen’s Critical Issues in Education and Culture class, Etherington’s classroom management class, and the PYP classes and practica with Luella, Lisa, John, Bruce and Bruce and of course your wonderful school associates. You did it, you made it.  As of today you officially become part of the teaching and education world at a time when there are, as always, serious challenges. Never in our history has there been a greater need for wise, courageous and enlightened leadership than at present. It is to you, young men and women, that we must look to for that leadership. May God speed you.  You would never have accomplished what you have today unless you actually believed that you were good at it, that it was worthwhile and that you loved it.  So this is what I am going to reflect on in the next few minutes – Graduating as a Teacher in 2013—Do you Love it, Are you Good at it and Is it Worthwhile?  These are the three questions we might continually ask ourselves as teachers: beginning or experienced.
So teaching, do you love it? Remember that teaching is an act of love. We know that throughout history when people study great teachers… there is consensus that the learning that takes place is much more driven from their caring and heart work than from their teaching style or lesson plan.  So what might we mean when we say that we love to teach? You could mean that you enjoy the act of teaching, or that you cherish those whom you teach or you could mean you are encouraged when you see learning take place and you were the cause. And so many have said that one criterion for having chosen a career in teaching is because you – teachers – love it!  In the Canadian home design reality TV series Love It or List It, either you love it or you sell it and rid your hands of it. Clearly if you don’t love what you have or do, you are less invested.
So If I might suggest that you should love what you now will officially do as a teacher. But to love it might also mean that you always have high hopes. All great teachers hold up a model of hope for their students to emulate.  I remember in conversation one day whilst shopping for groceries I happened to mention to someone I hadn’t seen for a very long time that I was indeed a grade one teacher.  The first reply was “oh that must be such a relaxing career, just playing all day alongside the children” – I smiled, but then this person continued: “Ahh young children, they said, the last of the great believers”- I smiled once more.  Great teachers, I think, should also be the last of great believers. Never allow any disappointments or challenges in teaching or life to cause you to lose hope. Don’t ever lose hope because hope makes us free to accept, even laugh at the barbed wire in our lives and to discover that strangely we can be happy even in our suffering, we can rise above the present. I will not give up on me or you. Such high hopes of course come at the cost of our calling. Indeed, as you know, to have become a teacher and to be a teacher costs time, energy and money. Your vocation will demand as much time as needed to complete a preparation for a meeting or lesson, to grade papers, to counsel your students, to pray for grace in meeting parents.
Teaching requires time and energy. And there is a price to pay for the privilege of being a teacher, and only a sense of hope and calling can justify that price.  So do not think that to love teaching means to master or conquer it. You or I will never master teaching. No one does. Love it because you are involved in acts of hope, giving, receiving, empathy and sympathy every single day.  So stand in a right relationship with these things. Loving teaching requires an attending and a focusing, in which the intention is not to see things through my eyes but to listen to things speak and to seek to hear their voices.
Okay well I love it but am I good at it? I am reminded of one parent who made the following observation regarding the end of summer, her three children and the teacher:  Isn’t it wonderful the mother said? Summer is over—and my children are finally going back to someone who can handle them. Obviously we are expected to be good at being a teacher. Are you good at it? CS Lewis discussed what it truly means to be a good teacher. To educate is to enable young people to become the type of people who contributes both to their happiness, that is, human flourishing, and to the happiness of the society they live in.  Ultimately being a good teacher might also lead to a life of leisure— but wait—let me qualify that— teaching leads to a life of thoughtful contemplation and introspection, and not just a career—The examined life.  Now this means that although you are a good teacher life’s true purpose cannot be actualized within a teaching career. In fact this is just as it should be.  For example, only animals are exclusively focused on their vocation. They are extremely good at what they do, they are the perfect working professionals. They would, if they could speak, only talk shop to one another. Lions cannot stop hunting, nor the beaver building dams, nor the bee making honey.  Being good at what you do as a teacher is important, and you have demonstrated that already. But being good also requires a love of learning to free you to pursue a life of reflection that enables you to come to a knowledge of what is true in the world and what is not.  A good teacher seeks truth.
Okay I love teaching and I am good at it but is it worthwhile? As I prepared this talk I was reminded of a study that was conducted many years ago by a sociologist who asked one hundred people over the age of 95 one single question: If you could live your life over again, he asked, what, if anything, would you do different? After three months of meetings and discussions, these 100 people over the age of 95 agreed with three things they would do different.  The three things, in order, they would do if they could live their life over again would be to (1) risk more (2) reflect more, and finally (3) they would establish more long-term things that would last on.  If we applied these three things as a measure to a worthwhile career, then yes teaching is worthwhile. You do these three things everyday as a teacher— risking, reflecting and establishing long-lasting life time memories with your students.

Teaching is worth loving, worth becoming good at and it is always worthwhile!

Great Expectations

It’s time to say, “Good-bye but we will see you again.”

Your PYP year at Trinity has come to an end.

You’ve made more cherished memories

And many more new friends.

You’ve watched yourself AND PEERS learn and grow

And change from day to day.

I know that all the long nights,

the lesson plans you’ve developed and taught—

have meaning in both present and eternal ways.

So it’s with joyful memories, love and prayers

We send you out to soar

With great hope and expectations

For what next year holds in store.

Thank you all for allowing each and every one of us to walk with you in your journey to teach.
God bless the graduating K -12 teachers of 2013.

Dr. Etherington

Our God is with us

It is graduation week and my thoughts are with our graduates – those that we have had the privilege of caring for as faculty over the past 4 or 5 years.  On Friday and Saturday we will celebrate their accomplishments.  We will applaud them for their successful completion of a very challenging and comprehensive program.  We will become part of photographic moments with family and friends.  We will pray for every blessing on their future paths.  We will acknowledge that they are now our colleagues and not our students.   These times are bittersweet.  We know our graduates are ready and already outgrowing us, but we also know the complexity and challenges that lie ahead in the world where they will offer themselves as teachers.  We know they have learned enough to be outstanding beginning teachers, but in many ways their learning is just beginning and we have to absolutely trust that they will continue to learn – that they will continue to care deeply about their students as whole persons, that they will continue to pay attention in a way that calls those students into being, that they will continue to care about the most important and meaningful questions in life and learning, that they will find places to nurture life in whatever dehumanizing system they find themselves in (and all systems can be dehumanizing), that they will continue to reach out to those who are further along on the journey of becoming teachers, that they will stay open and wondering, joyful and hopeful.

How will it be possible for them to do these things without us there to encourage them, help them, teach them? We probably think too highly of ourselves, but it really is like Wilbur the Pig in Charlotte’s Web seeing the spiderlings transported and separated by the wind to destinations unknown and beyond their control.  Their teaching selves are so fragile and they are still so young.  So we send them off with smiles and tears.  We can’t help it.

The good news is that it is also NOT like Wilbur the Pig in Charlotte’s Web.  We know that we have given our graduates more than practical training, more than sound educational theory, more than professional attitudes and dispositions.  We’ve given them what gives us life.  We’ve given them the hope that our God is with them no matter where they find themselves as teachers.  He is everywhere present and fills all things, the treasury of good things and the giver of life.  We’ve reminded them to pay attention to the good, the beautiful and the true because God is there.  We’ve told them that there are dangers in ideals that become idols and over-simplistic answers to complex questions.  We’ve encouraged them (by word and deed) to be present with their students, in the messy and unplanned moment, open to the unexpected, open to the still small voice of wisdom that speaks to prayerful hearts.  We’ve shared the joy and hope we find in teaching, knowing that they can find the same joys and hopes.  We’ve shown them that teaching, turning souls, is a vocation – God gifted work – work that is always too big for us, work that requires grace and a continual turning towards the light.

And so we can say good-bye with smiles and tears and gratefulness.  Our God is with us.



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