Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Gazing Into The Mirror

This has been a summer for taking stock, for deep reflection about the direction of my life and what I hope to accomplish while living it. Change is the only constant in this universe. Everything must change or die.

I mistakenly thought that one reaches a certain age and the self is clearly defined, a finished product. Not true. The day we stop growing is the day we die. I realized that I needed to make some changes, that the dissatisfaction and restlessness I have been feeling were the result of my desire to move forward, to discover, to learn more. I needed new challenges.

I became a teacher because I love to learn, and I want to give back to others what my teachers so graciously gave me. It is a most important vocation, one I feel blessed to have been given more than two decades ago.

This summer has been about reaffirming what I am looking for in my work. I need creative challenges and the chance to discover something more about this life. I want to continue to work with students who see the world in a unique way, and who have big dreams. I have always been lucky in that regard: the students I have worked with in my teaching life have been the best part of the job.

Change: it keeps us on our toes, helps us to stay focused and invigorated, and makes us grow and further define who we are. Human beings are always becoming. We are never finished, and we must never rest on our accomplishments. It is a good thing to stand and look into the mirror, even if the image is blurred and not fully articulated.

There are always fresh horizons and new worlds to explore. It is okay to feel a little apprehensive, a bit discombobulated, for that is when we summon the courage to step off the cliff, ever closer to our destiny, and never more fully alive.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tigers Above, Tigers Below

Comfortable With Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion
By Pema Chodron
Shambhala, $12.95 paper
ISBN: 978-1-59030-078-7

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
By Pema Chodron
Shambhala Classics, $12.95 cloth
ISBN: 978-1-57062-344-8

There is a story Pema Chodron cites in the middle of her book, Comfortable With Uncertainty, that sums up perfectly the notion that we should live in the moment. “A woman is running from tigers,” she writes. There is no escape but to go over a cliff via a hanging vine. The woman swings out over empty space, free from the pursuing tigers now above her, only to see another group below her, seemingly waiting for her to fall. She sees a small mouse begin to gnaw at the vine, and in the moment, realizes that her life is in grave danger. Her attention is distracted by a cluster of wild strawberries growing on the cliff face next to her. “She looks up, she looks down, and she looks at the mouse,” Chodron writes. “Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.” Even in the midst of danger, of extreme emotional distress, we must live in the moment. We must forget the tigers waiting to devour us and focus on the sweet beauty of what we have right now.

The story is part of her 56th meditation, “Experience Your Life.” Her book contains 108 in total, many of which are drawn from her previous writings and teachings.

Chodron was born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown in 1936. She attended the University of California, Berkeley, graduated and became an elementary school teacher. Marriage and family took up her time and focus, until a chance encounter in her mid-30s changed her life, and she became a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the “Vidyadhara” and preeminent teacher of Tibetan Buddhism in the west. Through her study with him, Chodron became a specialist in Mahayana lojong teachings, or mind training.

She went on to become a fully ordained nun, a rare honor for a westerner, and was appointed director of Gampo Abbey at Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She continues to teach at the abbey and offers workshops around the country for dedicated followers and lay people in various aspects of Buddhism and Eastern philosophy. She has also written many books on her teachings from which Uncomfortable With Uncertainty draws its 108 meditations.

The book is a good beginner’s course in Pema Chodron’s work. Each of the 108 chapters offers a single focus for meditation and reflection. The topics include the study of Bodhichitta, a Sanskrit word meaning “the awakened heart of loving-kindness and compassion,” how to approach meditation, work with selected Buddhist “slogans,” and reverse Samsara, another Sanskrit word meaning “journeying,” or “the vicious cycle of suffering that results from the mistaken belief in the solidity and permanence of self and other.”

The secret to this philosophy is deceptively simply. Impermanence is the only certainty in life. Any attempt to hang on to something is doomed to failure, because everything changes. We are all in a state of transfiguration, even to the smallest atomic particle. Trying to hang on to something and make it permanent can only lead to suffering. Until we free ourselves from such clinging, we are destined to be in pain.

Chodron’s advice is often spot-on for our difficult times, A second book addresses the arduous and challenging moments we are all facing today. When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times was compiled from various teachings Chodron gave from 1987 to 1994. Her editor, Emily Hilburn Sell, suggested she work through her notes and lecture tapes and see if there was another book in them. Together, they rewrote, edited, and completed the book.

She begins with the idea that “fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” We are drawn to challenging circumstances without knowing if we can face them. This leads to a reluctance to live our lives, a fear of being present in every moment. She recommends immersion in the emotions we experience—fear, jealousy, hatred—and to withhold judgment. Above all, we should allow ourselves to study the feeling of fear, to live in it and appreciate what it makes us do. Only then can we modify our behavior to live fully in the moment. This theme recurs throughout the book.

What we come to discover is that our ultimate fear is the fear of death. How do we live in a world where we are destined to die? The answer, of course, is to live. This is not easy, as Chodron takes great pains to teach us, but “it takes death for there to be birth,” she writes, and there is no greater challenge than for us to accept our lives as they are and simply live.

Chodron goes on to address themes of loneliness, isolation, peace, and non-aggression. She discusses how hope should be abolished. Many Christian and Catholic faiths teach that giving up hope—despair—is a sin against God. But Chodron means something different and refreshing. Life contains both the good and the bad. To say that I have hope that tomorrow will be a good day, is a ridiculous wish. There will be good days and bad days. If we are mired in a terrible moment in our lives, we can rest assured that a good moment is on the way, and of course, the reverse can be true as well. To hope for only the best is not to live in reality.

The final chapter in the book lands on a common theme in several cultures. Chodron believes “the path is the goal.” Our wisdom comes from living the journey. “The source of wisdom is whatever is going to happen to us today,” she writes. “The source of wisdom is whatever is happening to us right at this very instant.”

Chodron is a proponent of starting right where we are. There is never a more perfect moment to begin to live then right now. Many people might wonder if these books are appropriate for people who have strong religious beliefs in other faiths, Christian, Catholic, Muslim, and Jew. One does not need to be a Buddhist to appreciate Chodron’s themes and ideas, nor is she proselytizing for her faith. Eastern philosophy has much to offer the west, as we have discovered over the years. It is not about becoming a Buddhist; the philosophical elements of the east have traveled well through the west in the writing of Emerson, Thoreau, Kerouac, Ginsberg and a host of others.

In the end, one reads Pema Chodron because she offers good advice and a way to live in these perilous times. Through her teachings, we can deepen the spiritual experience of daily life and come to appreciate our journey, knowing that now is all we have and all that we are given.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Wake The Sleeping Bear

Don’t look now, but the Los Angeles Times may have found its way back to relevance.

This past weekend, writers Jason Felch, Jason Song, and Doug Smith woke the sleeping bear by going after teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District. In an article entitled, “Who’s Teaching L.A.’s Kids?” the reporters “obtained seven years of math and English test scores” from the district and using a system called “value-added analysis,” compiled a startling picture of who is effective in the classroom and who falls miserably short.

A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, the local teachers’ union, was quick to condemn the article and ask his members to boycott the paper. (I don’t think this should worry the management at the paper; most subscribers have already left.)

First, let’s talk about the article and the information contained therein. Value-added analysis “rates teachers based on their students’ progress on standardized tests from year to year,” according to the writers. “The method has been increasingly embraced by education leaders and policymakers across the country, including the Obama administration.” Obama has supported and renewed many of the failed policies of the Bush administration, even when the architects of “No Child Left Behind” called it a mistake last year. Obama swept into office promising change, but in education, he has been a weak imitation of a failed predecessor.

The Times writers did come up with some interesting discoveries. Many LAUSD students find themselves with the same failing teachers year after year. And “although teachers are paid more for experience, education and training,” they write, “none of this had much bearing on whether they improved their students’ performance.” No matter how many degrees or credentials a teacher has, certificates and diplomas do not make teachers. Teaching is an art and craft, and if a candidate has no affinity for it, the students will suffer. Many people have credentials and degrees, but few can do the job because it is a calling, a vocation. Do a Google search of how many online degree programs there are for teaching credentials and masters-in-education programs. If you have the money, you can get a teaching degree very quickly in cyber-class. But unless you have talent and passion for the art, you will fail in the practice.

When the standardized test scores are used this way, it is amazing how quickly teachers and union leaders put them down as “flawed,” saying they “do not capture the more intangible benefits of good instruction.” When test scores earn them raises, salary points, and tenure, they shout hosannas in a come-to-Jesus fervor. As the article states, test scores are only one measure of an effective classroom, and by no means should they be used as the only measure.

So how do we rate teacher effectiveness? Our intrepid reporters at the Times observed that the best teachers “shared a tendency to be strict, maintain high standards and encouraged critical thinking.” They also engaged students, often in Socratic dialogue of question and answer. If some of this seems familiar, you must have gone to Catholic school.

Four of the teachers profiled in the article demonstrated the reporters’ observations. One, John Smith, struggles to control a class and is flippant with his students. He sent three to the principal’s office as unteachable. The second, Miguel Aguilar, is “soft-spoken and often stern,” giving praise only occasionally, which, according to the writers, makes his students try harder. He runs a tight ship with high expectations. Is it any wonder his students do better?

A third teacher, Karen Caruso, appears on the surface to be a model teacher. She was “first in the district to be certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. In her spare time, she attends professional development workshops and teaches future teachers at UCLA.”

She ranks “among the bottom 10% of elementary school teachers in boosting students’ test scores.” Yes, the bottom.

According to the article, “Caruso set clear expectations for her students but seemed reluctant to challenge them…She dismissed the weekly vocabulary quizzes that other teachers give as ‘old school.’”

Nancy Polacheck, a veteran teacher of 38 years, takes a more traditional approach without the “old school” prejudices. In the top five percent, “her teaching style is a rat-a-tat-tat of questions, the most common of which is ‘why?’” She does not spend a lot of time socializing in the faculty room, eating her lunch alone in her classroom. Her colleagues “think her expectations are too high.”

What is the conclusion here, the logical through-line? Miguel Aguilar is a younger teacher, only 33 years old. John Smith is 63 and started teaching in 1996. Karen Caruso has been in a classroom since 1984, and obviously, Nancy Polacheck is an old hand at wrangling students. Young, old, veteran, newcomer, highly trained, naturally gifted?

Here is the plan. Cut the bureaucracy at the top. Why are we not laying off administrators and the dead weight at the top of most school districts? Why are we not dumping ineffective principals and administrators at the school who know little or nothing about the classroom? Many were failed teachers; that is why they went into administration. We need to stop cutting veteran teachers because we do not want to pay their salaries. Younger, lower paid teachers fresh out of education school may fit the fiscal model, but they lack experience. There is no way to cut the budget to success. Education costs, but it is central to the future of a first world nation.

But here is the most important thing. Promote teachers, real teachers, into administrative positions, and allow them the time to be in the classroom with their colleagues observing them teaching. Stand in a classroom for five minutes, or longer, as the Times reporters did, and the effectiveness of the teaching will be clear. You will not need to rely solely on standardized tests, a task force, or anything else. Veteran teachers who have a talent and passion for the craft, dropping in unannounced every day to watch fellow teachers working. Everything will be crystal clear. Those who can’t teach are out. Those who can, keep the job and are paid their worth in a culture that puts the education of children as its highest priority.

If we are to regain our footing as a world leader, it will take more than pretty commercials about the need for better math and science instruction. We need solid gold teaching in all subjects from professionals with the gift to teach. We are becoming a stupid country led by stupid people. And that is a far greater threat than any act of terrorism.