Morphing the Dragon

Sara came into the TI experience with a prior introduction, from another course, to the notion of transformative learning.

I know that transformative learning…has taken a hold of my thinking, and my emotional and social processes as I find myself inquiring, questioning, and investigating each and every day, while my prior experiences and knowledge fold back on themselves and evolve each time, lending itself to the cyclical nature of reflexivity. I am excited to see where this course takes me!

Sara’s inquiry was full of emotion. It began with questions about her practicum experience and a tension she felt around exploring her felt reactions to the fact that she and her mentor teacher had significantly different teaching styles. Sara was frustrated because she had the sense that in order to be professional she had to take on the attitude of “don’t make waves, don’t create drama, and don’t wake the sleeping dragon.” Her initial inquiry questions reflect this concern around the dynamics of mentor and student teacher relationships:

  • What are the positives and negatives of a student-teacher mentorship?
  • Do student teachers morph to fit into the already-established routines, teaching styles, management techniques of the mentor (whether similar or dissimilar)? How? Why?
  • Is this morphing reciprocal?
  • What if our ‘mentor’ teacher embodies everything you don’t want to become?
  • If we are expected to morph and learn from our ‘mentor’ teacher, does that expectation include morphing into a terrible teacher?
  • What happens if our philosophies/styles etc. are not aligned and we do not choose (whether consciously or subconsciously) to become a chameleon (in a negative sense) and how does that further effect our practicum evaluations, school impressions, staff interactions, and the classroom climate?

Early in the course, Sara had a randomly assigned thinking friend who was able to help her find new perspective:

Sara: Yeah. Well I just had my thinking friend meeting so I’ve got tons happening in my mind right now with lots of questions that have come up, like what a brilliant concept the whole idea of thinking friend is… Because it really helped me kind of…. think of it very differently…. She has no idea what my experience was; she just knew that it was a kind of negative experience.

Mentor: Right.

Sara: And so she was able to ask questions that some of my friends might stay away from because they know it was more touchy…. She was able to get more real about it. It was really cool. But I think more than anything just more questions came up… Which naturally happens… in thinking. But I think I was realizing that although I was clinging to the unbiased and I was clinging to take that emotional step back to be able to look at kind of what happened from a very factual standpoint instead of a hurt and wounded standpoint. I wasn’t actually doing that as effectively as I thought I was.

Mentor: How could you [achieve that]?

Sara: Exactly. And so [she] said to me, “How do you make sure that you’re doing that? …What are some of the steps you can take in order to make sure that you are taking that unemotional standpoint? Is it possible? …That I’m looking at it factually and non-judgmentally and from both sides because obviously when you feel wounded or when you feel hurt you go, “Well, you did this to me,” you feel that way... What I am trying to get to is how did I also perpetuate the dynamic that was dysfunctional?

From this meeting, Sara promised herself that her inquiry would “serve as a ‘therapeutic’ release” and she gave herself time and space to explore some of the stress and trauma that emerged around her differences with her practicum teacher. It was important for her to do this exploration both in conversation with others, and alone through creative expression.

Sara: What I was able to identify is that talking about it really helps me; that hearing other experiences from other classmates who struggled during [their] practicum with mentor/teacher dynamics, that was very helpful for me. And also some kind of artistic expression is very helpful for me… [My exploration] may turn out to be a collage. It may turn out to be a painting on canvas.

Mentor: Absolutely.

Sara: It might be a number of sketches.

Mentor: Wonderful.

Sara: I think it’s going to turn into that because this week there’s so much in [my head] and the only way that I’m going to be able to get any kind of clearing from that is to go whoosh, [let it all out] on a canvas.

Mentor: Great… And maybe keep the odd journal notes so that you have those little touchstones for the point in time in which you were creating that piece of art. And have you thought of…who you might approach to be your second thinking friend?

Later in this interview, Sara and her mentor discussed the nature of knowing and that it is not only intellectual; emotions can be a source of knowledge.

Sara: Yeah... I’m someone who asks a lot of questions, and [intellectual] knowledge makes me feel very comfortable.... That’s why I always ask questions because then if a question means I don’t know something therefore I’m seeking an answer to know it. And I do that in every part of my life, which can be very annoying at times. But knowledge makes me feel comfortable, it makes me feel secure. And this experience made me feel really uncomfortable and very insecure and so that’s why this is a very great starting point.

Mentor: Absolutely it is. Yeah.

Sara: [It’s a place] for me to ferret out and turn the emotion into fact so that I can understand it. Does that make sense? Making that transition between emotionally it’s going like this in my head and in my heart, and feeling heavy and just ugh all the time because if I can’t put words to the emotion I can’t understand what happened or how I felt or why I felt a certain way when I did. But by investigating these certain questions about, you know, whatever; doing that will help me find and be able to put a more tangible understanding onto the emotional feeling of it… It’s making… that transition to have it be one understanding with an emotional response to a factual event; why, what happened, and how it’s meshing.

Mentor: This gives you a chance to process it. And those emotions are really important sources of knowing. We need time to process them and to translate them into language because we think with words or images. Images are very powerful too. I mean if you’re comfortable staying in the cyclical process and you’re okay with returning to it and going okay, here’s another cycle and now I’m going this way. That’s exactly what you should be doing.

Sara: Yeah. That’s what [another instructor] had the very beginning of my practicum. “Are you comfortable in the chaos?” And I’ll always remember that. It makes sense. I am comfortable in the chaos and I know that’s transformative learning and I know that it’s the unbounded questions that help us process and help us understand….

Mentor: Absolutely.

Sara: Questions come from other questions and that is a process that is forever… But if I can get some kind of grasp on what happened [emotionally] for the last 10 weeks of my life I’d really like to know.

Through a series of creative paintings and conversations with others, Sara continued to explore her topic despite the feeling that it was somehow taboo. She wrestled with the emotion and how to give it attention as a way of knowing without it being too overwhelming, without feeling she was “perpetuating the dynamic that was dysfunctional.” She came to realize that an unemotional standpoint was not possible or even desirable. She was hanging out with the dragon, trying to understand it, and in the end, she began to morph how she saw herself as a teacher, a process of “closing the disconnect between [her] personal and professional self.” This led her to write:

I began this inquiry process by focusing on the dynamics and relationships of others (perhaps a subconscious way of remaining impartial and ignoring the ‘felt’ experience of my own professional relationship). I realized along the way, how backwards this approach was – I needed to look at myself first, which then led to self-awareness of my seemingly separate identities within my professional relationship with my mentor teacher. This further led into investigating myself within relationships with others; 1+2=3

Sara was willing to explore not only her practicum experience and the emotions that it provoked, but also to connect with how her intense emotional life was an integral part of who she is as an educator. She did not shy away from lingering with the discomfort of the sleeping dragon or her emotional vulnerability around that experience. In her Guided Inquiry Conversation she shared her heartfelt experiences with honesty and emotion, leading to a strong exchange with her peers around professional relationships. Sara left the course with evolving, significant and challenging questions:

  • Can one separate the ‘teaching’ from the ‘teacher’ or the ‘person’?
  • Is one’s professional identity inhibiting to one’s personal identity or vice versa? Which is the important one to maintain? Is there a hierarchy?
  • Can identities actually be separated? When disconnects are observed, what is actually happening?
  • Should there be some sort of ‘screening’ process of mentor teachers before they are deemed suitable to take a student teacher?