Teaching as a Healing Art

Teaching as a healing art or a healing craft?

Denkanstoß—Food for Thought

A couple of months ago, during a meeting with my mentor, he critiqued the way I wrote my promotion application. He said the first draft read as if I was just happy to put something in a box—which it pretty much was. But then he asked me crucial questions. He asked: What makes you roll? What is important to you? What is the one thing you try to do?
Now I have two answers to that. First, the official one:

1. I want to translate creative pedagogies (as described in various previous blog posts) into higher education. And yes I am very passionate about this.

BUT then there is the true answer. I am always too self-conscious to speak about, because, quite frankly it sounds a bit esoteric for a scholar in learning and teaching.
Or does it?

2. I believe that teaching (and ultimately learning) is a healing art.

Well, I told him, exactly that. I said: To be honest, I believe that teaching is a healing art, but I can hardly write this into my academic practice statement. Can I? The answer was a definite no, and the decision to focus on answer one, was made. I think if I ever want to be able to use this as a proper answer, without the esoteric flair, I will have to establish some serious evidence. An initial search brought up this article by J.P. Palmer about teacher identity and integrity. One theme that seems to emerge when talking about teaching as a healing art is that of weaving. Weaving of identities, realities, in conversation with our students into a shared tapestry of our mutual selves.

Good teachers join self, subject, and students in the fabric of life because they teach from an integral and undivided self; they manifest in their own lives, and evoke in their students, a “capacity for connectedness.” (Palmer, 1997)
Can we afford to put this quote aside as a romantic notion of teaching?
To some degree this quote reflects one of the key findings from my doctoral research project, which was all about the importance of relevance. I found if there was no relevance of the learning content to the learners’ lives and their selves, then they displayed disengagement—even disciplinary issues. And until reading Palmer, I had thought about this particular finding in a very linear way. If there is no relevance, then there is disengagement. But now I am wondering if there is more to it, than this simple causality. Granted my data did not permit me conclusions beyond this, and in subsequent years when I rigorously applied this principle to my pedagogy, I could observe the positive impact, even obtained data, and feedback on its success.
Now this leads me back to the conversation with my mentor. He asked me if, whatever it is I do with the students*, could be undertaken by anyone, and if so, how so? He was questioning the simplicity of my argument about the if-then relationship between relevance and engagement.
Do I indeed do more? Unconsciously in the moment?

In essence, this work is […] allowing readers to witness how I am weaving together various strands of myself including the personal, emotional, professional, intellectual, and spiritual. (Villanueva, 2013)

Maybe the answer to this in somewhere in there?

I agree on all points made by Villanueva. However, how would this be quantifiable? We imply it in our postgraduate diploma. We ask the participants, who are all in one way teaching at university, to write an account of professional practice, and in this account we asked them, to some degree, to reflect on their teacher identity. We also refer to the UKPSF, our professional standard framework here in the UK. The framework is split into three sections: Activities, Knowledge, and Values. The values speak about respect for learners, equality and diversity, but also using evidence informed approaches and acknowledging the wider higher education context. Now you could question the intrinsic value in acknowledging the higher education context. But you could also just look at it more closely and realize it reflects the elements of weaving Villanueva is writing about—professional, and scholarship refers to intellectual, CPD to personal. So mapping these philosophical, maybe romantic, notions of teaching to more tangible constructs could be a way towards quantifying the less tangible dimensions of teaching.

Another way to approach this topic is through exploring teacher identities. I very much associate with the below quote, and think somewhere in there is how we build the previously mentioned connections with our students. It makes me wonder how much ones self-awareness is related to creating a connected teacher identity.

Identity and integrity have as much to do with our shadows and limits, our wounds and fears, as with our strengths and potentials. (Palmer, 1997)

However, identity negotiations are much more complex than that. In a comprehensive literature review Lankveld (2016) and colleagues identified this sense of connectedness as one of the psychological processes of teachers’ identity negotiation in higher education. The other aspects seem to link back to the above mentioned UKPSF. So it seems this might be a reasonable way to think about exploring teaching as a healing art. If our identities and integrity reflect our wounds, shadows, fears, and this is woven into our interaction with students it could be equally healing or destructive.
Five psychological processes were found to be involved in the development of a teacher identity: a sense of appreciation, a sense of connectedness, a sense of competence, a sense of commitment, and imagining a future career trajectory. (Lankveld et al., 2016)
*His perception is that of some sort of carrot and stick approach
  • Thea van Lankveld, Judith Schoonenboom, Monique Volman, Gerda Croiset & Jos Beishuizen (2016) Developing a teacher identity in the university context: a systematic review of the literature, Higher Education Research & Development, 36:2, 325-342, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2016.1208154

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