Reflecting on Teaching and Learning

As we wind down the school year, I’ve been reflecting a lot about teaching. While I have taught in other contexts before, this year is the first time I have taught the same group of students for two semesters, from the beginning of September and finishing our time together next week. We sort of said our goodbyes this week because next week is the final test, so this week was really my last chance of ‘teaching’ them. I will miss teaching them. It has been an intense learning experience for me, and I feel so privileged to have had our time together. I have definitely learned as much or more from my students as they have learned from me.
The questions that I continue to ask myself are: What will they remember from my class in 5, 10, or even 20 years from now? What impact have I made? Have I provided at least a small stepping stone for each of them to reach their potential? This is indeed my aim. I probably will never know the answers to my questions, but these questions will continue to impact my teaching, and will challenge me to stretch myself in terms of how I teach and what activities take place in the classroom.
I have also been reflecting about the teachers in my life, who have made great impact in so many ways: by inspiring and supporting my growth, challenging my thinking, and shaping my values. I have had many informal teachers in my life, through work and friendships and family relationships. However, when I think about the formal teachers I have had during my education path, from public school to high school and frpm undergraduate to graduate university, no one holds a candle to my grade 13 teacher: Mr. Philip Marsh. Twenty-two years ago, I took an OAC course called “Science in Society” and that course transformed my life. Why? Because Mr. Marsh was engaging, challenged us to stretch our thinking, cared deeply about each and every one of us and introduced new concepts that were new and exciting and changed our lives. We wrote every week in our ‘learning log’, questioning what we experienced in our day-to-day life, and trying to uncover new truths and new understanding. Before Mr. Marsh’s class, I rolled through my classes and grades, but this class woke me up to learning, to a thirst for knowledge that I didn’t even know I had. Whenever I wrote in my learning log, Mr. Marsh would respond and recommend a book for me to read, and I would pick it up from the library and read it as soon as possible. Some of his reading suggestions were way over my head, like philosophers such as Neitzsche and Kierkegaard, but I read them anyways and tried so hard to understand.
What is fascinating, and I think what is proof that Mr. Marsh was such an amazing teacher, is that I still remember the concepts/ideas I learned in his class. Some of these key concepts were:
-‘Paradigm shifts’ – understanding that culture and cultural values shape science, as well as language and behavior and all day-to-day activities. Understanding that different demographics think differently because they were born with different paradigms of understanding how and why the world works and what should be valued or not.
-Systems Theory / Emergence – The whole is more than the sum of its parts, because of the complexity of interactions and relationships happening. Quite simply, you cannot understand the essence of an animal through dissection and naming of parts. Understanding anything is far more complex.
-Quantum Physics – All I remember is that this science tells a story of the world being alive, full of energy and light and waves of energy, and there is no separation between matter and space. I remember realizing that truly, if you believe the Quantum Physics story, everything, including the desk I write on and the pen I hold, is alive and moving at a subatomic level.
-Anthropomorphism – The idea of attributing human characteristics to nature, such as an animal or the weather. As well, valuing some nature more than other nature because of its relative similarity to humans.
This course was about science, but the learning was so much deeper. After high school, my path was far from science, but the learning from this class continues to carry with me. As a teacher, I want to strive to be as caring, challenging, and engaging as Mr. Philip Marsh was to me in 1992. If I can do that, then I will feel confident that I have played my role in being a small but critical stepping stone for my students on their journey of life.

The Value of Waiting / Non-Action

Alex and I have been struggling with integrating Jewish traditions into our life, in a way that feels authentic and in line with our values and who we are. We are a gay, inter-faith family – Alex is Jewish and I am not. We have tried out different congregations, and nothing felt right. This struggle amplified once we had children, and we feel strong that we want our boys to understand their roots and history and feel pride in their Jewishness. So we started a little group this past January, along with other good friends who are an inter-faith couple with a small child. We named our group “Progressive Jewish Families of the East End”, with the idea Our idea that we would get together for monthly Shabbats, and to build a Jewish child-friendly community. We set up a Facebook group, shared it with a few friends, and hosted our first Shabbat.

Well, three Shabbats later, and our little group has grown to about 15 families, and continues to grow! The last Shabbat was wild, with tons of food and kids running around and lots of new faces. I am thrilled – we have made new friends, deepened existing friendships, and we have fostered a Jewish community beyond what I could imagine. So far, the Shabbats have been very casual with lots of great food and wine and celebration, and only a very time focused on Judaism (the prayer over the wine and Challah before we eat). However, what is amazing is that it doesn’t need to be explicit – it is clear that we are all connected in Jewish community (which means something unique to each of us).

What has also been interesting is my self-reflection on my own personal tensions in building community. While I teach Community Development at Centennial College and have worked in CD positions, it is very different when you are personally invested in building your own community. I teach about the organic nature of community, and the need to be flexible and wait and listen, instead of trying to take control and act. Change doesn’t happen quickly, and authentic change, from a bottom-up CD approach, needs to be dynamic and organic. This is great to teach, but so challenging for me to put into practice.

I am a go-getter, take-action, kind of person. I enjoy waking up each morning with a list in my head of what I need to accomplish and then getting it done, and feeling a sense of satisfaction when I go to sleep at night. I used to battle with this, as it seemed in tension with my Buddhist philosophy, but I have made peace with it now. I have learned through the years (especially as a parent!) how to be more flexible with what I accomplish and more in peace with the moment, through my work and my daily life. However, I still love action, the feeling of moving forward, doing more, improving, making a difference!

Our Jewish group has taught me the value (and challenge!) of waiting and hanging back and ‘not acting’, in order to give community a chance to move at its own pace. We had a lull of no one offering to host Shabbat in April. I wanted to offer to host, but we couldn’t because of both Alex and my crazy April schedule. Some of the group members expressed to me that they couldn’t host Shabbat because their house is too small. How to solve this problem? – my mind immediately went into problem-solving mode, and I mentally wrote a list of community spaces that I would call and get free space and we could do Shabbat there! Before I made any calls, Alex (my wise wise wife) said “hold on and wait!”. Wait? For how long? Wait for what? “Just wait” she says. And so we waited. And sure enough, someone has offered to host Shabbat next week (thanks Ruth!). Her house is small but we are all comfortable to sit on the floor or stand. What is most important is that we get together to build community.

Wu Wei is a central Taoist concept, translated as ‘non-action’. It is often understood as “action without action” or “effortless doing”. Wu wei is not about passivity and just giving up, but its about being engaged in the process, and alert and aware of what is happening. Action is not to be forced, but should be effortless. I need to remind myself that ‘non-action’ is just as important as action, and often more important.

*P.S: If you are an East Ender who fits the ‘Jewish Progressive Family’ demographic, please feel free to find our group on Facebook and send a message to join!