What Makes a ‘Whole Teacher’? Part I

gestalt image 5My ten year old daughter found this to be a silly title, rather obvious that arms, legs, torso, etc… was the answer….and her point was not lost on me. If everybody looks relatively the same on the outside, how do we define wholeness and how do we apply this ambiguous concept to the life of an educator? Perhaps we can start by exploring what a teacher who isn’t whole or fragmented might look like, so we know what to look for.

There are warning signs of fragmentation we fail to recognize, serving to reinforce their degree of stress. For instance, we may overlook yelling at a student, disproportionate to their actions and then feel badly that we acted so harshly. We may feel lethargic about going to work, chalking it up to a more temporal condition like a busy weekend, chiding ourselves for not being more energetic. How about reacting to something a colleague says or does as if they have mortally wounded us, not talking to them and increasing our sense of isolation. What if these weren’t merely signs we are having an off day, but the indices of something deeper?

Not feeling whole means lacking the resiliency to easily bounce back from everyday stressors. We aren’t able to let things bounce off us nor can we easily locate peace during times of moderate stress. We may have difficulty calming ourselves or bouncing back from disappointment because our energies are going into self-protection as opposed to self-discovery. When we don’t feel whole, we guard against the world as if any perceived threat may further dis-integrate us. If a parent for instance sends us a scathing email, blaming us for their child’s poor grade, but we ruminate about it becoming resentful instead of curious. Yes their approach was offensive, but what really set them off and what does this mean for the student?

A teacher who isn’t whole could also be called disintegrated or fragmented. Both of these terms means all the pieces aren’t working together to form a cohesive self. As complex human beings we have many moving parts including needs, wants, fears, fantasies, drives, impulses, etc… that come together to form a whole person, only these parts are seldom fully understood, valued, or appreciated as driving forces for our existence. Perhaps we fantasize about yelling at our principal, but keep that urge buried. Maybe we imagine ourselves being nominated teacher of the year, but dismiss this as a silly dream. Each time we disavow a piece of who we are, we become a bit less whole.

Most often these forces are underneath our own radar, having subtle or even overt influences on how we live. If we aren’t aware of our fear of rejection, we may not recognize how we keep people at a distance to guard against this risk. The less aware we are of these forces, the less intentional we can be about taking steps to feeling more secure. As a mentor to young children, we want to model leaning into discomfort so that we can reveal what is hidden. Just as we are illuminating young minds with knowledge of the world, we also want to improve awareness of the self.

If we become too fragmented we experience life as hectic, disorganized, pressured, deflating, overwhelming, restrictive, redundant, oppressive and/ or threatening. We may become anxious, agitated, or dysphoric. We may isolate ourselves, relate on a surface level, and overpower or manipulate others to get our way. We become less authentic, being one way at times and then another way at other times with different people, trying to hide from the world what we are experiencing. As a professional, our teaching becomes less than optimal reducing our sense of meaning and purpose.

On the contrary, when we move toward feeling more integrated, we generate more energy, passion, and vitality for life. Our relationships improve, our work becomes more productive, our intimacy deepens, and our sense of self becomes more fluid. We learn to appreciate those parts of ourselves that we aren’t okay with while moving to make changes that help us with self-acceptance. This entire blog and all the subsequent posts are designed to help with this goal.

Here are some simple but important questions to consider that will help you determine how whole you feel at this point in time.

  1. Happy in one’s personal life
  2. Feels a sense of meaning and purpose in one’s job
  3. Has freedom of autonomy and creativity at work
  4. Students are learning and growing
  5. Enjoys one’s colleagues
  6. Feels safe at work
  7. Experiences good work/life balance
  8. Appreciates the direction/support of administration
  9. Stress level is at a manageable level
  10. Curricula is fun and interesting for the class

It should also be important to note that while feeling/being whole is a desirable condition, it’s not a destination so much as a lifestyle. We are either moving more toward being whole or further away from it. The more we engage our protective mechanisms, such as blaming administrators, policies, students, families, etc… the less likely we are taking stock of our own lives and how we can make them better.