Making Meaning of a Life in Teaching

10 Feb

We maintain that to continue to grow as teachers, academics should live “examined” teaching lives.  In this regard, teachers can position themselves for personal and professional growth whenever they honestly consider what they know and believe about teaching and why.  As part of examining their own stories, teachers may explore the rationale behind their professional practices.  Memoir writing is a form of autobiographical writing that has great potential for promoting such self-reflection.

Kathleen O’Donovan and Steve Simmons

In creating, launching and conducting the yearly “un-program” Making Meaning of a Life in Teaching from 2004 to 2008, Kathleen and Steve invited small clusters of “seasoned” teachers together for a full year of engaging with self-reflective thinking, writing and responding prompts meant to provoke each participant’s generative writing toward creation of a teaching-inspired memoir essay.  

Why tell our stories as teachers about our teaching and our learning?  As Kathleen and Steve noted within the Making Meaning sessions, teaching is a matter of the heart , and they drew on Parker Palmer’s sense of “heart in its ancient sense, the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self” to address this heart matter.  Making meaning of teaching – moments and lives – requires more than student feedback, peer conversations about shared curriculum, and course design inspired by engagement with the scholarship of learning and teaching.  All of these are vital components of making meaning, but the core – the heart of the matter – is that autobiographical lens turned by a reflective practitioner toward lifewide and lifelong learning vantage points.

As teachers, we – whether the readers or writers of this post – do care. We who write this post hear the caring whenever we pose the question “Years from now, how do you want students to remember your class?” at workshops.  The responses participants say they’d want to hear from students go something like this:

Topic X is so cool. 

Subject Y matters! 

I see how I can be a part of change. 

This course allowed me to see new things!  

The teacher didn’t just respect me, she saw me.  

I want to spend my time – maybe even my career … my life – learning more about this. 

I get it!

We who are writers of this post want our students to care about our subject, to care how learning links to lives, to care about how we interact in our heads, our classrooms and worlds.  

We who are readers of this post you are likely share these cares as people committed to teaching – as readers of things related to teaching and learning, you likely have also questioned higher education, learners and learning, even your own teaching.  Going to the heart of teaching – where pasts and presents, learning and teaching, intellect and emotion converge – you have come to care deeply about what our late colleague extraordinaire Kathleen O’Donovan called the “learning pulse.”  

To illuminate some of the Making Meaning of a Life in Teaching process that Kathleen and Steve called together, we’ve organized the remainder of this post into three parts – Part I: A Context for Reflective Practice in Teaching, and a Part II: Reflective Practice – Teachers’ Own Words. And we wrap this post with Part III: What’s Your Story, which further features resources to support your noodling towards crafting a teaching reflective practice essay.

Part I: A Context for Reflective Practice in Teaching

The critically reflective process happens when teachers discover and examine their assumptions by viewing their practice through four distinct, though interconnecting lenses. 

Stephen Brookfield

Oxford Brookes University’s First Steps into Learning and Teaching open online course lists Brookfield’s four lenses –

– and points out that when “teachers are more reflective then they are better placed to make reliable judgments about approaches to teaching practice, evaluation, curriculum planning and purposeful responses to learners’ issues.”

The autobiographical lens underpins a critically reflective practice in teaching with the basic premise that “our own experiences as learners can influence our behaviour as teachers. This may have a positive or negative impact but the important point is that an ability to use our autobiographical lens will enable us to identify these personal drivers and therefore review our practices.”  While autobiography may be at the heart of reflective analysis of teaching, it is not the singular element for building analytical understanding.  To construct robust narratives, we also solicit and are open to students’ words about their own learning, share insights – even narratives – with colleagues for comparative analysis, and test – create, design – our emergent understandings in light of research-based scholarship of teaching and learning.

Part II: Reflective Practice – Teachers’ Own Words

Kathleen O’Donovan would say of offering the excepts below that the collection is meant for readers’ noodling – that verb extending an invitation to play or experiment with a new idea, to improvise upon or create from an insight sparked in something shared or found.

The full text of the essays excerpted here – as well as essays offered by Kathleen and Steve – are collected via this archived, and accessible, webpage:

From Lance Brockman (theater) on how a tough start was ultimately a good thing:

Later I discovered that it was common practice for Dr. Doran to meet a faculty member that he was not pleased with on campus and declare, “Well Mr. Faculty member, there is a bus going east and a bus going west, I suggest you be on one before next year.” [For clarity, the campus and community was platted in an east-west holler and there was no way you could go directly north or south without an arduous climb up some difficult terrain.] It also became clear that no matter what you tried to accomplish there was always going to be a certain amount of unsolicited scrutiny that could lead you to a bus going east or west. It became painfully apparent that I would have to mind my Ps and Qs.

All of this did not deter me from what I felt, then and now, was a wonderful place to start my academic career. I sensed that the students, many representing the first generation from their family to go to college, were excited at the prospects of having someone who was willing to help them realize their potential—albeit in an art form that was for many as foreign as indoor plumbing. I also knew that my ability to navigate difficult situations and people would put me in good stead with the craziness that became life.

From Terry Cooper (soils) on this wonderful stuff we call soil

In my last year of college I became a soil scientist because mapping soils in Michigan was a very rewarding and interesting job. I was outside with lots of fresh air, walking over the fields and forests, trying to understand the mystery under my feet. It came naturally to me to be out there with the soil. I found a passion to be one with something that is so important to all of us. Later I found a need to also teach others about this wonderful stuff we call “Soil.”

 From Ed Griffin (English) on learning how and learning why

With [Coach] Magner, it wasn’t just how; it was why. He quickly figured out that unlike some highly gifted athletes, I cannot automatically make my body mimic what my eyes see. (It didn’t help that I was nearsighted but played all sports without glasses. I didn’t let on that I was hurdling over blurs.) “Watch me and then do what I do” doesn’t work well with me. I’ll watch, but that’s no guarantee I’ll instantly “get it.” Instead, I learn by breaking complex actions into their constituent parts and practicing them individually until I have each step under control, then gradually assembling them into the whole sequence and repeating them until I have the idea of the whole and my muscles remember the feel of the action done correctly. With me, you need to say, “Watch me. I do this; then this; then this, then this.” But that’s not enough. You also have to say, “And here’s why I do each step this way and not that, why you need to do it in this order and not in that order.” There has to be a reason. I need to see the logic of the operation, how it all fits together into a pattern. In high school I taught myself how to high jump by getting a book out of the library. That’s also how I taught myself to dance. I admit that it’s also how I figured out sex. I wish I weren’t so mechanical, that I were more instinctive, a natural athlete, a better mimic, but I am not. Magner had me figured out during that first day, and he tailored his instruction to my way of learning. Maybe it was his way of learning as well. I don’t know. I do know that I loved it. Couldn’t get enough of it.

From Patricia James (art) on relishing ambiguity

I hope that students in my classes can learn to use the arts to develop a clearer sense of their own identities as young adults. I also hope to provide a safe environment in which they can push beyond their beliefs about their creative potential and in which they can develop concrete ways to express their own experiences. Perhaps most importantly, I hope to help students learn to work with—and maybe relish—uncertainty, ambiguity, and even chaos as they seek meaning in their lives. I want to help them develop creative vision, to use the arts as a way to better understand themselves and other people, and to have compassion for artists and other people who sometimes see the world through strangely shaped lenses.

From Jim Perry (conservation biology) on what makes for a life well lived

Overall, I was most interested in these major questions: Is this a life well lived? Is this the life of a teacher? As one passes through life (as I have passed through this one), to what degree are we directed by external forces, to what degree do we influence our life direction and to what degree do we react passively to what life offers? I found, however, that these questions could only be addressed post facto by reflecting and writing, then reflecting on that product. I wrote a series of stories characterizing various life stages and then I posed those large questions by looking back at the writing and reflecting process. 

From Beth Waterhouse (sustainable agriculture) on unlocking doors:

Teaching is a deep red thread woven into the tapestry of my life. It keeps showing up. In its essence, I have relished that excitement of unlocking a door in another person’s mind—from teaching a sixth- grade boy named Victor how to read by using wordless books to teaching a new American and Cambodian friend named Yorn the details of written expression.

Part III:  What’s Your Story?

Teachers are like architects; that is, they design space, select materials, create innovative outcomes, and engender patterns of interaction that may well change not only the landscape of their students’ outside world, but also the inner terrain of their bodies, minds, and hearts.

Kathleen O’Donovan

What are the elements from which you are designing, on which you are building, your teaching experience?  What’s the role of your own learning life in the creation of stories you build in practices as a teacher?  How might you bring together four mighty lenses to understand your teaching practice through critical reflection in looking at teaching as a matter of the heart?  The following three resources – along with the public collection of essays from Making Meaning of a Life in Teaching – are the starting places we offer.

And we invite you to stay tuned here for twice yearly publication of a teacher’s reflective practice essay.  Starting in August 2014 the Center will feature an invited interactive presentation in its annual Teaching Enrichment Series to honor the work of Kathleen O’Donovan.  And each February we will invite a blogging scholar to create a reflective essay in the spirit of Kathleen O’Donovan to feature at our present from this teaching heart around the time of Valentine’s Day.


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