Working to Be Me (Even at Work)

Artwork by Kathryn Solie

Artwork by Kathryn Solie

I am a teacher. 

This is a loaded word in the culture of spirituality and mysticism, accompanied by a healthy dose of connotations, expectations, and some truly beautiful expressions. Swami Vivekenanda’s “there is no other teacher but your own soul,” comes to mind, for one. But I am speaking here in the much more traditional sense of the word as it is understood in today’s world. I am a teacher. I work in a school, and I interact with students in a variety of settings, from leading classrooms and writing on blackboards, to one-on-one tutoring, after-school programs, and everything in-between. I am a teacher.

Of course, that isn’t ALL I am. If it was, I probably wouldn’t be writing this article, or browsing through others like it on Conscious Variety, or spending close to an hour meditating each morning before work. After all, that time would probably be better spent lesson planning or calling parents or researching new pedagogical techniques.

Wouldn’t it? 

That’s the question I started asking myself three years ago, when I began a more earnest and explicit spiritual practice and realized that doing so required substantial time and energy;time and energy I had previously been devoting to my work and other pursuits. As I attempted, through mantras, meditation, and spiritual readings to slowly develop a clearer and more honest view of myself and the world, I again and again would stop and struggle with questions like:How does this apply to my work with students? What does it mean for my interactions with coworkers? How does my journey for a clearer view on life coincide with my “development” as a teacher and a professional? Do the two even relate at all?

To some people, I imagine the answers to such questions may come easily. For me, however, they were (and still are at times) quite difficult. As a teacher, I found myself playing a role within the classroom that was often in conflict with the way I was coming to view myselfand the world. In this setting, I felt charged with becoming an all-knowing, omnipotent beingfilled with knowledge that I would soon pour into the “empty vessels,” of my students, who were expected in turn to receive such knowledge, passively and without question. And that is what I did, or at least, tried to do anyway. Like many of us, I attempted to separate my “work life,” from my “real life;” my spiritual practice, and the person I felt I really was. Very often, I asked mystudents to do the same. In doing so, I was dismissing the beautiful and unique natures of both myself and my students in favor of a shallow, one-dimensional view of one another, and my effectiveness as teacher was suffering greatly as a result.

I am not sure how many teachers struggle in this fashion upon entering the profession, though my conversations with those close to me would indicate it isn’t all that uncommon. What I AM sure of is that this effort to separate our work from the rest of our lives, in the end, is futile. As teachers, we can never REALLY become a different person when we enter the classroom, and neither can our students. In every case, our collection of individual experiences, emotions, biases, and everything else we identify with as part of our ego or “separate self” continue to affect the way we teach, learn, and interact with each other. Simply put, no matter how hard we try, we are who we are. And if we want to be a better teacher (or any other professional for that matter), we need to understand just who that is. Thus, a process of self-examination and reflection must be just as much a part of our professional development as pedagogical practices, content knowledge, or classroom management skills.

Of course, what exactly this process looks like is difficult to describe, and it will bedifferent for every teacher, just as it is for every person. For clarity’s sake, however, what I am essentially speaking about here, in the words of Georgi Y. Johnson, is some form of “an honest and authentic dialogue about self-identity, purpose and direction.” This means making a concerted effort to understand the ways in which our experiences, beliefs, and biases play out inside our classrooms and with our students, just as much as in any other aspect of our lives. 

As we engage in such a process, we will begin to see the ways in which our “classroom selves,” remain subject to our individual insecurities, desires, and struggles, despite our best efforts to “leave them at the door.” For me, a white male raised in an upper-middle-class suburban neighborhood, working with low-income students of color in Philadelphia, the process was one that was especially necessary, if somewhat painful at times. Through my own “authentic dialogue,” I came to understand that, in many ways, I was downright afraid of the students I was working with. I hadn’t had any sustained interactions with anyone that shared their experience before, and despite my best efforts, I was still subject to many of the misguided stereotypes about urban neighborhoods, schools, and young people of color that are common in many suburban neighborhoods like the one where I was raised. Just as destructively, there was also a big part of me, based on years as an insecure teenager in love with Hip-Hop music and MTV Cribs, that desperately, desperately wanted my students to think I was cool. These fears, as well as many other manifestations of ego that I found, were standing in the way of my being the teacher I knew I could be, and I couldn’t resolve them simply by trying harder in the classroom or through stronger planning or better lessons. What I needed was a larger commitment to understanding myself and developing a sense of security in who that person was. 

In this way, I began to understand the necessity of breaking down the barriers I had created to keep teaching separate from the rest of my life. I slowly allowed myself to be morewholly present in my workplace, open to learning and interacting with students and coworkers on a deeper level. I also used these interactions as opportunities to further my so-called “personal” growth, trying to see each day and each situation as a chance to practice patience, humility, love and other values. As it turns out, there was often no better place to exercise these things than the place I spent the majority of waking hours. While it remains a challenge to this day, the willingness to truly be myself- my whole self- in the classroom has brought with it a comfort, a security, and a harmony that was sorely lacking for too long.

 

What I eventually came to realize, and what we all must realize, is that there is simply no disconnect between our work and any other aspect of our lives. Despite whatever efforts we might make, all of our seemingly separate identities are intimately connected as part of a larger whole. I am a teacher, and while that isn’t all I am, it IS one inseparable piece of the infinite and beautiful puzzle. It is the same for everyone, regardless of our age, our background, or our career choice, and it is the same for our students as well. All of us are striving in some way towards a clearer view of ourselves and the world, and this doesn’t stop when we enter the office, the job-site, or the classroom. In fact, this is where much of our best learning can occur. Thus, we must remain open to the inspiration of every person, every experience, and every moment, so that the imaginary walls we build will begin to break down. When this happens, our minds and lives are free to blossom, and the result is a personal and professional development that goes far beyond what may have seemed possible in the past. 

 

Good luck and God Bless.

Ricky

 

"Ricky (that's me!) is a full time student of Urban Education at Philadelphia's Temple University,, but finds the true grounding of his work to be in his studies of spirituality and religion. Since graduating from the University of Maryland in 2011, he has worked for a series of educational organizations in Philadelphia, hoping to support young people in their quest for greater understanding and fulfillment of their true selves. In addition to meditation and prayer, his own journey features heavy doses of physical exercise, cooking, poetry and music, all of which provide their own insights to the true beauty of the world surrounding us every day."

 


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