Sunday, August 21, 2016

Resolve To Be Present

For the next couple of weeks, as the beginning of my school year approaches. I'm going to write to renew my resolve to keep focus in my practice. This is one of that series of posts.

If teaching is about relationship (and I believe most definitely that it is), then it must follow the First Rule of Relationships, which is that the first thing one must do to be in a relationship is show up.

There are any number of reasons that one has not shown up. Stuck in your own head. Distracted by issues from outside of the time and place you're currently occupying. So used to doing something that you no longer think about it, but just go through the motions.

We know some of the cliche versions of absence. The person who is so stuck on either a great or a terrible moment in the past that they fail to move into the present, repeating like a closed loop the tale of either a former triumph or an unreleased wrong. Or the person who is waiting for life to begin ("Once I get through X, I will be ready to really start living.")

The person who just doesn't want to be here, for whatever reason. And so, in their head, they're not here. And for some of us, it's easy to get lost inside our own heads for no particular reason at all.

We make excuses, sometimes without even knowing it. In my first marriage, I somehow had it in my head that having made a commitment in the past, that business was locked down and taken care of. This, it turns out, is stupidly and self-destructively wrong, like saying, "Well, I ate last week, so there's no need to eat this week."

But no-- you have to show up and be present every day. Really listen, look, see, pay attention, and not just as a disconnected observer sitting somewhere in a bunker in the back of your head. You have to bring all of yourself into the room.

This is a tricky balance for teachers. Your classroom is not all about you; you are the least important person in it. Nor do your students benefit from being the porters for whatever emotional baggage you're carrying today. Being present for a teacher means somehow pushing through and beyond ego without simply numbing all sense of self.

When I was starting out, I would do this thing where, if something came up, some question, some issue, whatever, I would basically leave the room to go figure out how to respond. My physical form was still there, but I was not there, and I didn't come back until I'd figured out the right thing to say next. Add that to the fact that I am not by nature a wild and dynamic person, and it was easy for my students to conclude that I was one of those just-going-through-motions teachers. What I have taught myself to do is stay in the room and verbalize. Instead of working it out in another remote headspace, I do it in front of them. "Dang. I don't know. What would be the way to approach that? I remember one example-- anybody ever heard of--?"

That's me. Presence takes different adjustments for different people. Some folks cover their absence with silence, and others cover their absence with noise. But what presence requires is attention and honesty.

I draw the line this way-- at the end of the year, I think my students should have little idea of the specifics of my life, but they should have a good idea of what sort of person I am.

Presence is one more way in which teaching reminds me of performance. I imagine it's similar for athletes. There's a whole world of stuff that we carry around with us, stuff that distracts, that stings, that numbs, but when the lights come up and the show starts, every bit of us is right there, present and focused in that moment. In that moment, what we're doing gets everything we are.

It sounds like a lot of work, I suppose, but there are benefits. One of the biggest is that in those moments in which we are really present, life is more vivid and full and rich and interesting. I teach teenagers, who struggle with the problem of being bored bored bored bored, and I've talked about some version of all of this at some point every year, because I'm convinced that presence is the antidote to boredom. That being where you really are and being all there and all in is infinitely more interesting than wishing that you were somewhere else, or waiting for something to drag you out of yourself into the moment.

All those things we say we want to do-- engage, excite, inspire, inform students-- can be most easily done when we show up, when we are present in the classroom. Not waiting for Saturday or planning for tonight or tuning out Pat's incessant droning or just wandering off in our own heads, but present in this moment and place, focused and purposeful and present.

Always a challenge for me. This is my reminder to me to be there, fully and honestly.


  1. Here is one small piece of advice to teachers who want to be present in their classrooms: Stay off your electronic devices during class, even after you've assigned your students group or individual work. Look on, express interest, continue to actively engage them. They need you to notice them.

  2. Another way to be present is to look for something to learn from them. We can all learn something from the people around us. Yes, sometimes students or our children teach us the hardest and most crucial lessons. I am not referring to those situations as they occur usually without an invitation.
    When we look at students, young though they may be, we can learn from them. They are not incomplete people. They are complete. It is easier to be present when the goal isn't just to be sure you have reached them. Without their knowing it, we can learn a lot from them. Goes back to humility.