Why “Teaching People, Not Poses” Matters

Teaching People, Not Poses by Jay Fields offers 12 principles for teaching yoga with integrity.  When I picked up the book three weeks ago at a friend’s apartment, I got chills as I began reading. Much more than a book about yoga, this concise manual unpacks some truths that lie at the heart of teaching.  Here are her 12 principles:

  • Be yourself.teaching-people-not-poses-home
  • Practice.
  • Show your vulnerability and your expertise.
  • Teach from your own experience.
  • If you don’t know, say you don’t know.
  • Stay in your body.
  • Don’t take it all so seriously.
  • Remember that your students are people.
  • Learn anatomy.
  • Plan enough so that you can be spontaneous.
  • Remember who and what supports you.
  • Don’t try to please everyone.

http://graceandgrityoga.com/read-the-principles/

While you may have to think a moment about how “Stay in your body” and “learn anatomy” transfer to the classroom, when you read the explanations that follow, it’s likely that you will discover what applies to you and your situation. “Learn your subject matter” is what came to my mind instead of anatomy, for instance.

What’s so remarkable about reading Jay’s fully open and honest account of her own journey as a yoga practitioner and teacher, is that she makes you feel right at home. She describes the awkwardness, vulnerability, hubris of teaching as readily as she captures the actual miracle of connection that applying the principles affords.

I could go on but I’d rather let Jay have the floor. (From the conclusion):

When it comes down to it, Teaching People, Not Poses is about having integrity. Integrity in the sense of being more whole. More yourself. Bringing together all the parts of you and not hiding or holding back.

But also integrity in terms of alignment. In this case, alignment with your truth, as opposed to contorting yourself to fit what other people expect of you…

If you’re willing as a teacher to go to the places that scare you, to soften when you want to get hard and to attend to the complexity of your life through your practice, your students will also learn to do so. And that means more people in your community and in our world who dare to live in integrity. And that, my friends, we need for oh so many reasons…

At the end of the day, Teaching People, Not Poses isn’t really only about teaching yoga. It’s about playing your part to help create a world full of people who have the courage and spirit to set aside fear and to live in alignment with their deepest, truest most full self.

It happens one person at a time. And it starts with you. You as you are right now, no transformation necessary.

Shine.

Of all the resources available for teachers on how to improve our skills and develop our expertise, too few, I fear, address the needs of our teaching souls. Kid President can’t do it alone. The 12 principles offer nourishment and sustenance for teachers at every level. More tech and professional development and stiffer standards do not nourish teachers. If we want more teachers to stay for longer, we need to actively foster and strengthen each other’s capacity to live and teach with integrity. We have to do this because the system certainly will not.  Reading and sharing Teaching People, Not Poses is an excellent first step in that direction.

Teaching People, Not Poses by Jay Fields, 2012

Special thanks go to my dear friend and soul mate, Cathleen O’Connell, who introduced me to this life changing text.

Finally Looking Under the Hood

Oh boy.
Stephanie Rivera tweeted some thoughts the other day which caught my attention via @theJLV because THEY WERE ALL IN CAPS. In my understanding, all caps in electronic communication is the equivalent of shouting. What was she shouting about?

Then she went on to write this powerful post: Advocacy in the Age of Colorblindness.. (Please read her blog post FIRST before reading on.) While I have certainly read my fair share on race in American society, and more specifically in education, this post and the comments it provoked landed like few others. Altogether they hit me at my core, pitched me into my past and lifted up the blinds on my present. Just like that – the exposure of widely held thinking among some white educators, the struggle to maintain decorum in the face of an emotionally charged set of triggers, and certainly the dedication to student voice throughout – Stephanie Rivera touched a piece of my own vulnerability in matters of race, identity, culture and education.
In the comment section Adam Beckham points out from his vantage point as a white male:

I can have an innovative curriculum and be tech-forward and all the good stuff we’re demanding from teachers, but I’m not going to get into their hearts like a black teacher can. They know I don’t go home to their neighborhood. We can both listen to some Houston rap and talk about it, but they know we are from different worlds and share different destinies. And they can know that while they know I love them and work for them every single day.

I can sit with them and read “Space Traders” by Derrick Bell all day long, but at the end of the day I’m still a white male. That’s not a bad thing, *there’s nothing wrong with being a white person or a male person*, it’s just not the whole meal they need to eat. It’s good to have some of me in the mix, but I can’t be all the options on the menu.

A kid shouldn’t have to go all day without seeing multiple, successful people reflecting their lives and cultures. That’s injustice. We would never accept that for our kids as white people. It’s unimaginable.

That final sentence is what brings the whole topic home to roost for me: Recognizing what would be unimaginable for my white colleagues and friends as an absolute given through most of my education and career.  Also Mia adds nuance to the dialogue by describing her desire as an Asian-American to have had Asian role models during her school experience.  She writes:

I identify as Asian and I would’ve really appreciated an Asian teacher to be a role model of an Asian American to me. Most of my childhood I learned how to be “white” American and to reject my culture not simply because of my white peers but because of the adults in my life that didn’t understand my culture.

These comments drive home the point that this conversation is not only about skin color – it’s about culture and identity which have many facets – although skin color is the most prominent identifier of minority groups.

For that New Orleans student who was brave enough to assert his own view of what might do him and his fellow students more good in school, I hope he continues to voice his opinions whether or not the adults in his environment are able to hear his message or not. While I was in high school, I doubt that I could have acknowledged or articulated what was missing in my education. I just took what was there for granted. In my case, what was there: predominately white private schools with no teachers of color. I just did my part to make sure I fit in.

And fit in I did. So seamlessly did I fit in that I also began to buy into the notion that race and color were not really so important. My academic, social and professional success were testaments to that, right? When I moved to Europe and created my life here, being African-American and a native English speaker seemed to open more doors than close them.

Well here I am, nearly 50, looking back at almost a quarter century involved in education and what have I learned? The divides are multiple and deepening and the inclination to look away, reshuffle our vocabulary and assert “mission accomplished” appears to be growing. I notice this now looking back, for instance, on my professional career and considering the tremendous lack of visible role models and mentors of color. When I was ready to consider pursuing formal roles of leadership, where were my colleagues of color, especially in independent education, who could share their experience and advice? When I attended conferences, when would I encounter a facilitator or keynote speaker of color doing the type of work I aspired to do? Almost never, unless I was attending the NAIS People of Color Conference where that was precisely the point of the exercise.

I may not live in the US anymore, yet it is my home culture. And being black in America has different nuances and implications than in any other culture in the world. I still live in the shadows of my particular racial narrative. And I sure do recognize the struggles of my colleagues, my family, friends and others to overcome these divides (of color, culture, language, gender, sexual orientation) with understanding and through dialogue. For this reason, I felt a special appreciation for Stephanie Rivera’s thoughtful analysis of the dynamics taking place on the BAT facebook page. When we take the time to actually look under the hood, we may find that even if we’re not sure exactly what it is we are seeing and hearing, we can still recognize when something is not right. And get help to discover what really is the matter.

An Unusual Honor

On Wednesday at my school it was “Dress up as your favorite teacher day” and it was a surprise for teachers.  The Elementary Student Council, comprised of some very clever 4th and 5th graders, came up with the idea and organized the whole activity without the knowledge of their teachers.  Parents were informed through the secretary and the results were simply amazing.  Imagine coming to work and being greeted by 3 or 4 (or more) younger versions of your professional self!

My colleague, the art teacher, managed to get a picture of her assembled fan club – many of them sporting colorful smocks and aprons.  So many inspired Ms. Sabinas laughing into the camera. I can hardly express the thrill of having students tell me: “I’m you today!”  There simply can be no higher compliment than that.

Dress up as your favorite teacher Day!

Dress up as your favorite teacher Day!

Heading into the Thanksgiving holiday, this remarkable display of student ingenuity and generosity struck me as a powerful reminder of how much there is to be grateful for and that who I am and what I do as an educator matters. What an unusual honor.

Parent-Teacher Conferences – Cause for Celebration

I really enjoy parent-teacher conferences.  I see it as a wonderful opportunity to share perspectives on some very important individuals: my students; your child or children.

I sit down with parents for 5 to 10 minutes and it never ceases to amaze me what I can learn, what I can offer and how much connection parents and I can actually build-up. My field is Physical Education and while several parents of the children I teach sign up to see me and I also invite some, I only see a fraction of them during conferences.  Yet for that fraction I have bundles of information to share and my curiosity about each child we consider typcially rises as we talk.

Last year my colleague and I began sharing short video clips of kids in class with parents during conferences.  We use an app called “Coach’s Eye” and it allows us to capture footage of kids in action and also use it for instant feedback with students in class.  At conferences, the opportunity to show Marika in action or Luke taking it easy opens the doors for genuine conversation that often gets to the heart of the matter much more quickly than words or “the data” might allow.   A father and I talked about his son, who was clearly marching to the beat of his own drum on the video, and we both observed that while he seems both distracted and distracting in the example, his movements also convey a great deal of joy.  His son is happy and not following along. It’s easy to talk about what’s wrong with this picture.  I prefer to see and point out what’s right. It makes for a very different and often much more constructive conversation than if we did it the other way around.

Some parents have genuine concerns about their child’s gross motor performance and seem to arrive prepared for the worst. That’s when a short video clip can make all the difference in the world.  “Look at this!” I say, pulling up a recent success on the screen.  Then I listen. I hear about the difficulties in the past; previous negative experiences and prevalent fears. I learn about family histories and self-confessed physical inadequacies.  I hear reservations: “Well, we know he’ll never be a professional… (fill in the blank)”  And that’s when I cannot wait to say – “Well, we actually don’t know. She may become a pilates whiz or a deep sea diver!  We just don’t know… isn’t that great?”  This often produces a smile at the very least and a sigh of relief.  Progress is the goal and your child is well on her way – that’s my message and it matters to all concerned.

Other parents are eager to find out about their child’s specific strengths. Is s/he good at…?  What I have found over the years is that while I can comment on certain tendencies and and preferences, my main message to parents in response is: follow your child’s lead.  What interests does he show? What is it that she likes to do and with whom?  And I remind them that many children have hidden abilities and skills which often don’t show up at school: there are remarkable skiiers, disciplined martial artists, daring skaters or brave backpackers. There’s so much more to our students and our children than meets the eye and when looking at physical education performance, there is even more that we teachers and their peers will never witness. That seems important to recognize, especially when the dominant movement culture (soccer, basketball, more soccer..(in Europe)) tends to obscure that reality.

Looking back at the conversations I had with parents during this cycle, I realize that I spoke a lot about happiness, joy and progress.  Many of my students have challenges of one sort or another, yet they all seem to want to be in the gym.  They want a piece of the action and they get it.  Being in a position to communicate to parents: Yes, this “thing” [ – name the challenge] is going on and your child is happy.  That is cause for celebration. Again and again and again.

The Disconnect amid so much Connection

Just recently I willingly labeled myself a “lurker” in order to describe my social media engagement as an educator.  A lurker is someone who reads, follows, observes online conversations and postings and chooses not to publicly engage by producing output.  I adopted the term because I felt that it best captured my own approach to this (for me) relatively new realm of professional and personal learning. https://edifiedlistener.wordpress.com/2013/10/05/lurking-listening-and-proud-of-it/

Here’s the thing: As I read more and more posts concerning how to get more educators connected, the best way to initiate the uninitiated and essentially how to get more folks to jump on said bandwagon, I’m getting a little frustrated.  I think it’s the labeling we are using to frame the dialogue: connected vs. unconnected or semi-connected, initiated vs. uninitiated.  After reading these terms I have essentially asked myself: What’s the price of admission?  At what level of output do I get to call myself “connected”?  How many tweets until I become “a really useful educator”?  It seems to me that the purpose embedded in so many labels serves to determine exactly this.  If I make enough of my learning public through particular online forums (of which there are many, many), then I get to officially board the bandwagon and become its latest new ambassador.

While thinking (and getting all worked up) about this topic, I realized how much I long for a different tack in the conversation. As educators our most significant connection is, and remains, to our students. We connect through the care, concern, and respect we show each of our students every day.  We connect when we reach out to parents and communicate our hopes, expectations and desire for partnership in developing our young people.  We connect in the way we share and collaborate with our colleagues across the hall, upstairs, in the next grade level, or even on the other side of town.  We connect with our craft whenever we experiment with new ideas, take risks in our approaches and recognize our weak points.  When we co-opt a term as broad as “connected” to define a fairly narrow range of activities and behaviors, we do ourselves and our colleagues a disservice.  We create the “us and them” divide before we even can begin the conversation.

Tom Whitby argues in his latest post that

Connected educators may be the worst advocates for getting other educators to connect. Too often they are so enthusiastic at how, as well as how much they are learning through being connected, that they tend to overwhelm the uninitiated, inexperienced, and unconnected educator with a deluge of information that both intimidates and literally scares them to death. http://tomwhitby.wordpress.com/2013/10/07/patience-for-the-unconnected/

He may well be right. I appreciate his recognition that educators new to social media may be hard pressed to comprehend the fervor of some, yet I can’t help but chafe at the insinuation (in this post and others) that the “unconnected” among us represent so much lack in our whole education system. That may not be the intent yet I feel that sentiment come through again and again.

Come on, educators! We can do better than this! We can be enthusiastic about our turbo learning and wear our merit badges of connection and still remember that every time we divide ourselves, we lose more than we gain. Our “unconnected” colleague down the hall is still, first and foremost, our colleague with whom we share kids and a school community.  We need to always be in the business of supporting each other in striving to serve kids and doing our best with what we have. Let’s stay connected and let’s address the core of the topic: how do we help each other achieve our professional best?  Whether in person, on the phone, by e-mail, or online, let our connection, above all, be human, compassionate and genuine.

 

 

Fresh starts

 

One of my favorite things about being a teacher is the annual opportunity to start fresh. Think about it: when and where else do we enjoy the privilege of regularly repeated new beginnings? Even going into my 24th year in education, I savor the anticipation of that first day excitement and wonder. Here are some of things I am really looking forward to:

The first hug from a returning student,
the first first demonstration of a super wiggly tooth,
the first jump-and-reach high-five,
the first crying student I am able to calm,
the serial smiling and dazzling enthusiasm of my colleagues,
helping a new parent find a particular classroom,
helping a returning parent find a classroom,
watching the hallways fill with students of all shapes and sizes,
observing students rise to challenges,
team teaching with my best buddy,
the first successful tag game in each grade level,
having lunch with my colleagues,
seeing kids at recess,
learning new skills with my students,
Being taught new skills by my students,

So many things to look forward to and so many surprises yet in store.

When we educators kick off a new school year, we are being granted a unique and special opportunity to renew ourselves in our approach, in our practice, in our very presence before students. This year I decided to renew myself by taking up some new interests: speedskating, joining the twitterverse, reviving this blog and enrolling in coaching coursework. The degree and intensity of learning through all those avenues has been exhilirating and humbling. Maintaining balance and persevering when times get a little tough are themes that run throughout each of those undertakings. And I am grateful because these experiences remind what it feels like to be a student, to be a beginner, to be not yet competent, not to speak of proficient.

My take-away is this: The joy lies in the journey and curiosity is what makes that journey an adventure. A new leg of my journey with students starts tomorrow. I can hardly wait.

What new beginning awaits you? What is it that you can hardly wait to start?

What’s in a Coach?

This summer I found the book I believe I’ve been waiting for all my career: The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation by Elena Aguilar.
(San Francisco: Jossey-Bass 2013). Let me try to explain why.image

The title of my masters thesis in Sport Psychology back in 1997 raised the question: What’s in a Coach?
I was writing specifically about the dynamics of the relationship between teacher-coaches and their student-athletes and in a nutshell, I was trying to unravel the tremendous power, impact and reach of those very unique connections I experienced both as an athlete and as a coach. My fascination of and commitment to coaching only expanded and deepened in the years following.

As a PE specialist, a general coaching stance has become integral to my style and method of teaching. I encourage my students to seek their own solutions to various obstacles, I raise questions which help them reflect on how to make the most of their own resources and as much as possible, I listen, observe and listen some more. Further studies in communication, leadership and facilitation continue to confirm for me both the need and efficacy of coaching in a host of educational contexts. And this is where The Art of Coaching soars above all the other resources I have encountered related to coaching in the educational sphere: Elena Aguilar says “transformation” and means it: transformation of teachers, administrators, schools, ultimately of whole systems.

Below is a brief review I submitted to an online publication:

It’s possible to read The Art of Coaching as a how-to manual for instructional and leadership coaches in schools. Aguilar succeeds famously at taking the mystery out of the coaching process and guiding new and experienced coaches to learn, practice and apply the critical elements of the craft. Yet this book offers more. Aguilar’s fundamental commitment to the larger goal of equity in education for all students defines the context of her work at all levels. This broadening perspective lends heft to the individual actions and processes she describes. The coaching itself is not just about helping the individual teacher or administrator to improve, Aguilar sees it as vehicle for transforming schools on the systemic level. Further, as she offers coaches multiple means to connect and succeed with clients, she also champions the use of profound strategies for leaders to view and approach their challenges.
Specifically she introduces 6 lenses for examining a situation from highly unique perspectives. The lenses are those of inquiry, change management, systems thinking, adult learning, systemic (or structural) oppression, and emotional intelligence. She employs rich and nuanced storytelling to demonstrate how these lenses and their respective questions can be used to take problem-solving deeper to address possible root causes. Although the book’s focus is on building coaching capacity, I would argue that in fact, Aguilar has given educators an excellent leadership book written from the coaching perspective.

I am in the process of recommending the book to anyone in education and/or coaching who will listen. Through The Art of Coaching, Elena Aguilar has inspired, instructed and above all empowered me to share the unraveled mystery of what’s in a coach and what tremendous potential resides in coaching for transforming education.