When Teachers Tell Their Stories

2015-06-24 10.06.50

Teachers have powerful stories to share. There are stories of triumphs and stories of failures—stories of everyday authenticity lived out within the trenches. There are stories of heroism, stories of realism. Stories of hope and inspiration. Stories that have been shared with many and stories that have been shared with one. These stories might not be the same—they are as unique as the storytellers that create them, but they are there written on the hearts and embedded in the minds of teachers, many just waiting to be divulged for the very first time.

Narrative inquiry, within the field of qualitative research, is described by Bochner (2000) as being this:
“…stories that create the effect of reality, showing characters embedded in the complexities of lived moments of struggle, resisting the intrusions of chaos, disconnection, fragmentation, marginalization, and incoherence, trying to preserve or restore the continuity and coherence of life’s unity in the face of unexpected blows of fate that call one’s meanings and values into question (Ellis & Bochner in Denzin & Lincoln, 2000, p.744).

Bochner (2000), while admittedly speaking directly about research practice, compels the reader (who may or may not be reading for the purpose of research) to consider the benefits of personal life writing: a genre that “activates subjectivity and compels emotional response” (Ellis & Bochner in Denzin & Lincoln, 2000, p.744). Bochner (2000) asserts that personal stories are those that exist for offering lessons for further conversation, longing “to be used rather than analyzed; to be told and retold rather than theorized and settled…”(Ellis & Bochner in Denzin & Lincoln, 2000, p.744). He makes the case for amplifying personal voices within the social sciences, but I believe that we must take this one step further, expanding the call for evocative personal narratives to be shared by teachers compelled to tell the stories that must be told.

Too often, the busyness of life and the hectic pace in which we as teachers live and carry out our calling, can serve to strip from us the energy it takes to sit down for half an hour and write introspectively, composing reflections and stories about our daily teaching practice. It might be an easy choice to make, at times, when the options are between taking a mental break or applying your mind and attention to further cerebral activity in the form of written composition. We all need ‘down-time’, especially in a profession that requires our bodies and minds, as well as our hearts. But the benefit of taking time to write at the end of a busy day (or in the early hours of the morning) is something we might do well to consider. It might even have the surprising benefit of rejuvenation and refreshment for weary minds. When teachers write reflectively for themselves, it helps to solidify in their own minds what they think and believe.

Enhancing this benefit, when teachers choose to share their views and thinking, opening their inner selves up by extending their ruminations to others, there are further advantages for those involved in reading as well. The community formed around shared interests, common goals, friendly banter, engaged discussion, illuminating thought and insightful opinion spurs others on professionally to be the best they are able to be in the moment in which they are living. Sharing written thoughts with others also serves to encourage and inspire, as documents and written accounts can be re-read again and again when needed most urgently.

In November 2011, I determined that writing as a practice was important for me as a useful exercise in examining my life— so much so, that I committed to writing almost every day. At the time, I was experiencing a fair amount of stress, experiencing a general lack of joy in my life. Suffice it to say: I was feeling rather discontented in both my personal and professional life. I found the writing I was doing in the carved out time slots I made for such throughout the days and evenings gave me pause for reflection regarding those circumstance and events that brought me angst. As I wrote, I felt a weight being lifted, and I would aver that I experienced healing— emotional, if not physical. Writing in this way was therapeutic, beneficial as a process of helping restore my body, mind and soul to a healthy constitution. It was beneficial for me in restoring my joy. As such, writing has been one of the most significant ways I maintain and provide self-care for my weary soul.

Due to a sense of renewed joy, I found the desire from within so as to continue the writing and introspective reflection. As I wrote, I began to share the stories and prose I was creating with those closest to me, my husband, children and immediate family members. Bouyed to carry on, by way of their response to my writing, I decided to start a an on-line journal in the form of a blog in the fall of 2011, where I have been found writing ever since, sharing this writing with a community of readers over 4600 strong. The name “Pursuit of a Joyful Life” was decided based on my desire for more joy in my life—something I felt others might also identify with in their own lives. Having made a decision to daily commitment to writing, along with finding an inner resolve and purpose to continue this endeavor, I embarked on a journey. A blog was now mine to foster and develop.

Unlike university course work or in-school professional development assignments, where the task is ‘reflection-on-demand’, I never feel externally coerced to write my personal blogs. This driving urge to record my thoughts has always been internally situated. I blog purely because I am compelled to write. I write for pleasure and for joy, thus the name for my blog— a title based on my own personal pursuit of a joyful life. Writing has been for me a cathartic process. It is an escape and a diversion— a means of healing and an opportunity. I did not always know I would be a teacher, but I always knew I would be a writer— it just took me time to discover the writer that was waiting within. Thirty-seven years of waiting to discover the words and stories that I held close to my heart, to be precise.

Even with a full-time teaching contract, this act of blogging has been an almost nightly routine I have been keeping to the past four years, writing both when I was feeling inspired as well as when I was not. It is not so much the message as the act that I believe has infused my teaching with hope and purpose. Writing about the funny, the frustrating, the disappointing and the inspiring parts of my profession has served to enable me in understanding the reason for my calling. I am a teacher because I care, and writing about my practice is just one more way to show that care for the educational community of which I am part. While some might say that I am a writer because I love to put words to paper, I know that I am a teacher because I care about people. Writing has been a means of exhibiting this heart-full care, and it is my preferred language of expression within my chosen profession. Writing is not something I do just for myself now, it is something I do for my students, my students’ parents, my colleagues, my professional partners as well as for the general public, sharing with them all what it means for me to be a teacher and carry out my life’s work. As such, writing is one of the most important aspects of my teaching.

To date, I have 510 posts published on my personal blog, with one blog piece receiving notable public acclamation. In December of 2013, I wrote that particular blog post as an encouraging letter to an anonymous teacher, a letter which I later published to my personal blog. Shortly after that, I decided to publish the blog article on the Huffington Post’s (Canadian Edition) on-line newspaper for which I am a regular contributor. Initially, the letter did not receive any interest, garnering few reads on both my blog and the Huffington Post’s online news feed, as recorded by the sidebar statistics for both. I soon forgot about this particular piece and continued writing about other topics and areas of interest. At the end of January 2014, something peculiar happened. I noticed one day that my blog, as featured on the Huffington Post, had a couple hundred views on it. Surprised, I called my husband over to have a look at this peculiar phenomenon, as every minute the stat figures would change to reflect new readers. This was a complete shock and surprise to see, as almost six weeks had transpired since the original piece had gone to press. Little would I have known then that those couple hundred of views would quickly grow to thousands, then to hundreds of thousands and eventually to well over two and a quarter million readers and counting, a little over a year and a half later.

The fact that this one blog piece on the topic of caring within teaching went viral has given me pause for reflection over the past months; reflection done on my writing, the topics of my writing, the focus of my blog and the purpose behind the messages I share. Why do I write? Who am I writing for? What message do I want to convey? And why is it important that I keep writing? In watching my blog following grow within the educational community, I have felt it prudent to provide more space for writing reflectively about teaching and educational issues. My blog continues to be a space where I can express myself freely, a place where I write about a variety of topics, but now with an overall focus on reflective introspection about the important role of care in my teaching practice. Critical theorists like hooks (1994) contend that forms of dialogue, like writing and blogging, can be a means for teachers to challenge a system within which they often feel powerless to question face-to-face. Freire (1970) perhaps laid the foundations for this kind of dialogue to be possible. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire asserts that “it is in speaking their word that people, by naming the world, transform it…Dialogue is thus an existential necessity” (Freire, 1970, p. 88). I have then felt the inner urging to create a space where I could dialogue on issues that speak to the heart. That place where I passionately dialogue is here, my blog.

My place for pursuing the joy in life.

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I press on

I nearly missed their beauty, walking by them quickly first before making the conscious decision to turn back. Before making the conscious decision to stand quietly looking for simple, untouched beauty on this ‘first-of-many’, warm autumn day. I stood for that brief moment at the guardrail- connected to the ducks in presence only. There were five of them swimming in formation in the shallow waters of the inlet. Swimming where the river lazily makes its winding way through meadows and marshlands lined with cattails and long, wavy grasses- to where it will gently widen and join the river proper. The five were headed away from the bridge where I stood. But an innate sense of knowing made them suddenly take flight. First swooping in one direction and then the other before landing out of my range of sight. Landing softly to swim again without the introspective eye keeping watch.

Birds are like that. Flighty. Capricious, if you will. They never know who to trust.

I am feeling a bit of the same. I write extensively about love, ethics of care, hope and kindness. But lately, I am finding I am challenged by this writing insomuch as I feel that showing love is easier said than done. I feel slightly inconsistent with what I ‘preach’ for I am not one who easily trusts. Who easily gives her love away. Not one who easily gives in to love neither, nor one who gives way to the generosity of spirit that love affords.

Under the watchful eye of those around me, I would take flight rather than stay and expose my weakness. So here I am tonight. A fragile being open to vulnerability. Examining her weakness and limitations.

A sitting duck.

I choose to write about love largely because it fascinates me. But beyond that, I feel my limited ability to express love, while falling short at times only to give way to being generously giving at others, is not lived to its full potential. So perhaps I am fascinated with love because of my perceived limitation. Perhaps it is what I feel is my greatest challenge: to love unconditionally. In my defense, I am in possession of a very tender heart and compassionate soul by nature, the endowment of my gracious Creator. I am Woman who can emote easily and express her feelings. Woman who can convey love as evidenced in the overwhelming sense of care I feel for those most precious to me. But the sheer physicality of showing love- demonstrating it to those same beloved leaves me at times in a panic. Leaves me wanting.

I often have to walk myself through the desired and expected responses, telling myself what to do and how to do it. As if I were alien to the languages of human love. This fact of my life intrigues me.

It is not that love eludes me. I have a very sensitive Husband and four loving children. I am the daughter of two loving parents, one of whom has been a kindred spirit to me for over half my life. Added to this, many people I am connected to who I love and whom I have a sense that they love me too.  But in experiencing love, I sometimes wonder: do I truly know what this feels like? Do I really know how to show love? Receive love? Express love? Offer love? Understand love?

And why the pull to know about love and its subtle nuances anyway? Why is love the consuming influence in my life and writing?

Culturally, we are in a time when love is a consumable. A thing to use and throw away. When the love grows cold, let the fire burn to embers. And then start a new fire somewhere else. Even familial love is expendable. Why love if it has nothing to benefit me?
But love is more than this and in our heart of hearts we know: love’s promise offers us hope to be strong in the face of adversity, joyful in light of fearful circumstances, compassionate in spite of offense. Love transcends.  And it calls us to stay and be who we are, vulnerable and defenceless at times, so that we can first offer ourselves fully.  Being present with the experience of the moment.  Understanding then the value of the gift we are being offered so that we can then receive it fully and know that what we’ve been given is a treasure. A gift not to be taken for granted or lightly perceived, but something to be valued.

When I walk back again toward home, the ducks are still in hiding down along.  I glance, but don’t take the time to ruminate. For I am no longer wistfully looking for them to return. Instead, I fix my eyes on the horizon and see within my sights the familiarity of a country road that leads my heart toward home.

And I press on.