Sustainable Practice: “Thriving, not Surviving”

Teaching Fellows Honors Day Keynote Address, Appalachian State University, Boone NC, April 20, 2012

Good morning. It’s an honor to be with you today to help you celebrate your successes. It’s been my privilege to teach many of you, and as I see you here I am filled with excitement and joy about the transformational experiences you’ll bring your students; the thousands of lives that this group will go forth to touch, to mold, and to change.

This is a day of celebration, so I want to keep it light. But at the same time, I have a heavy thought: the chances are that many of you won’t be teaching any more in a little while.

Nationally, as many as 50% of new teachers leave within the first five years of entry into the occupation, and approximately 33% of new teachers leave within the first three (Corbell 2009). North Carolina’s new teacher turnover rates in the first three years of teaching are slightly higher than that national average – and while this group is better prepared, and perhaps more committed, than a random sample, the sobering reality of teacher attrition remains real.

What’s going on? There are systemic issues here: family issues, quality of administrative support and mentoring, and of course the persistent gap between what competent young people can earn teaching vs. what they can find in the private sector. But I am coming to believe that another significant factor is what we as a field are asking of new teachers: how school routinely asks new teachers to do more than they can, then punishes and shames them when they fall short. We seem to work on the assumption that the schools will enjoy an endless supply of new, young energy like yours, and that we can “run you hot” for the first few years in order to reap the benefits of your increased output. This strikes me as a cynical and fruitless strategy, one that ultimately guarantees working conditions that will drive many out, and will drain the energy and spirits of those who stay.

I think the most important part of my job is supporting future teachers as they find ways not just to survive this work, but to thrive in it. So that’s what I would like to take a few minutes to share with you today: three thoughts about how to thrive in this profession. They come from three doctors, two real ones and one I wish were: the failed-philosopher-turned-professional-development-guru Dr. Parker Palmer; the great, unsung pediatrician Dr. Alan Cross; and the terrifically strange theoretical physicist from The Big Bang Theory, Dr. Sheldon Cooper.

These are insights I am trying to understand as ways to define “sustainable professional practice,” a project that brings the language we use for environmental sustainability into the serious problem of training caring professionals who are likewise self-supporting and healthy. I hope these thoughts are a good fit for what you are thinking about today. At this point, I think they might be some of the most important.

1. Sustainability means protecting yourself against fear, resentment, and bitterness.

We are working in the golden age of teacher accountability. In the last decade, the rhetoric of school change has shifted from socioeconomic issues (like funding levels and sources) and administrative issues (like class size) to a universally-held, common-sense conviction that teacher quality is the most important factor in student success. As you know, North Carolina’s Race to the Top funds are going in large part toward refining our teacher assessment and data collection system to enable classroom-level assessment of teacher effectiveness. Your students’ outcomes will be linked directly to your teaching practice, and will be used as an important criterion in judging the quality of your work.

This means that the teacher’s daily sense of her ultimate responsibility for her students’ success is going to be even stronger and more demanding than it used to be. After all, the whole institution has identified your practice as what matters most to your students. Not poverty, not nutrition, not administrative inefficiency, not race or class or gender or sexual orientation or any of the inequities that continue to haunt our culture: you. That’s a lot of pressure.

How do we respond when we feel administrative, top-down pressure to perform? Well, if we are confident that we are going to make the grade, we feel fine. It always feels good to get an A, or to win a race. But if we have even the slightest doubt that we’ll measure up, we mostly we feel scared: scared we’ll be punished, or humiliated, or have our worst suspicions about our inadequacy confirmed.

I think that when we feel fear, we rarely express it as fear: we usually express it as anger, at others or at ourselves. It is easier, as a rule, to say “I am angry” than it is to say “I am scared.” So, if you follow: in a professional world that lends itself to creating fear, those who work in it are at risk for anger. As well as anger’s passive-aggressive cousins: resentment and corrosive, creeping, bitterness.

We need the energy to speak truth to power: we need to be forthright and articulate when we see things that our wrong with our work, and confident and powerful as we work to change them. But I think we need to be careful to use that energy in positive, productive ways, because it also has the potential to hurt us. Parker Palmer (2009) is thinking this way in his essay “The New Professional,” which I’ll quote here:

We professionals—who by any standard are among the most powerful people in any society—have a bad habit of telling ourselves victim stories to excuse unprofessional behavior: “The Devil [read, ‘the system’] made me do it.” We are conditioned to think this way. The hidden curriculum of our culture portrays institutions as powers other than us, over which we have marginal control at best—powers that will harm us if we cross them. But while we may find ourselves marginalized or dismissed for calling institutions to account, they are neither other than us nor alien to us: institutions are us. The shadows that institutions cast over our ethical lives are external expressions of our own inner shadows, individual and collective. If institutions are rigid, it is because we fear change. If institutions are competitive, it is because we value winning over all else. If institutions are heedless of human need, it is because something in us also is heedless.

I think Palmer is calling us here to identify the places where we feel bitter and be honest with ourselves about how we use that bitterness to let ourselves off the hook of responsibility for our own professional experience. He is calling us to resist bitterness – because, in fact, our institutions have no power over us that we do not give them. This is a high-minded principle, mighty close to Gandhi’s assertion that we must be the change we wish to see in the world. Taken wrong, it could sound like yet another impossibly-high goal of personal perfection – one that no mortal teacher could ever reach, and that perfectionists, like many of us, could use to beat ourselves up with.

But that’s not what Palmer – or I – am trying to say here. I think there is a secret here that can help us avoid burnout and the bitterness that corrodes our capacity to care for others. We must take responsibility for what happens behind our closed classroom door – which as Larry Cuban states, remains the most powerful institution in American education, despite the accountability measures that would reach through it and control every choice a teacher makes. The choice of what to do next in your classroom remains yours. You are empowered to choose what you will do, and more importantly, whether you are an actor or a victim – a subject or an object – as you do it. Keeping that truth in mind helps us find our power and focus our energy outwards, not inwards – out to where it can really make a difference.

2. Sustainability means remaining curious and humble and attentive.

This brings me to my second doctor: Dr. Alan Cross, a pediatrician I worked closely with for five years at the UNC School of Medicine. He passed away this January, and in part I wish to honor him here as one my master teachers by passing on some of the precious lessons of sustainable practice he taught me.

Dr. Cross was an old white guy. He was a true preppie: John Kerry was his roommate at Yale, and he actually said “rawther” instead of “rather.” He wore a navy blazer with brass buttons and Top-Sider boat shoes each day, without irony. From one perspective, Alan had less reason than almost anybody in the hospital to care about people who had less cultural power than he did. After all, he was the natural possessor of all the qualities of someone who runs our culture: white, male, well-bred and extravagantly well-educated, competent, and tenured.

And yet Dr. Cross was more concerned with the daily realities of socioeconomic and other inequities in our society than almost anyone I have ever known. He wore a Human Rights Campaign pin on that navy blazer every day, silently championing the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people as a traditionally-married father of four daughters. He dedicated the last years of his life to transforming the med school curriculum to include far more effective teaching about the social and cultural realities of patient care. Despite his own position of power, he was an unfailing champion of the powerless.

Why did he do that? More to the point: how did he find the energy and optimism to, when so many other forces were working against the ends he fervently sought?I think part of it was how he regarded his work with his patients. Over his thirty-year career, Alan treated thousands of patients – and, as a pediatrician, most of those came in for predictable and non-exciting reasons like runny noses and ear infections. Yet despite the numbing sameness of the clinical care he provided, Alan remained completely, utterly absorbed by the particular stories of every patient he saw. Alan would frequently receive and send texts from patients he had known since infancy – kids who were now in high school or college, texting him about all the health issues that confront emerging adults. Watching an almost seventy year-old man learn to text, because that’s how his patients were most comfortable coming to him, taught me a lot about commitment to the individual needs of those who trust us to help them.

The most powerful lesson Alan gave me, though, had to do with how we need to engage with those who are different than we are. This is an area that medical education has come to call “cultural competence:” the goal of preparing physicians to reach across language, social, and cultural differences in order to make effective diagnosis and care decisions for all the patients they encounter. Dr. Cross loathed the term “cultural competence,” and especially disliked the trend of giving medical students laminated 4 x 6 cards that summed up the cultural preferences and tendencies of different cultures in neat bullet points, so med students could keep them in the pockets of their white coats and cram before entering exam rooms. (“If your patient is a Sikh, then remember…”) “I am not even competent in my own culture,” he would frequently say.

He much preferred the term “cultural humility:” a deep willingness to be taught, every day, about what you needed to do next, by whomever it was your responsibility to serve.And, I venture, that humility – the willingness, even after all those years, to show up in a patient’s room ready to admit that he did not really know what was going on, did not fully understand his patient’s needs and desires, and needed to mind closely everything he heard and saw and smelled and touched – that is why he remained a terrific physician for his whole career. That is why his patients texted him twenty years after he did their first well-baby exam.

And that is why he ended his career as a content, engaged, effective practitioner of one of the least prestigious, yet most important, specialties in medicine: he remained completely absorbed with how the patient, the illness, the thing before him was different than what he had seen before, not how it was the same. He remembered everything he knew, of course, but remained willing to learn here, now, today. By giving what he brought to each moment, each moment in turn gave to him, invigorated and energized him. His attention brought him exactly what he needed to continue attending.

3. Sustainability means not breaking yourself against arbitrary standards and expectations, and staying in tune with what you need.

We watch a lot of The Big Bang Theory in my house. It’s a terrific comedy about the adventures of four young genius academics who struggle with the social realities of life in the big, confusing world outside the laboratory. Dr. Sheldon Cooper is the quirkiest of them, and his Spock-like, purely rational engagement with the world gives us our biggest laughs.

Here Sheldon has decided to begin running, as part of his new and utter commitment to caring for his physical form so he can still be alive when science catches up with his desire to transplant his intelligence into a machine. He’ll take his first run with Penny, the gorgeous hopeful-actress but present-day Cheesecake Factory waitress who lives across the hall from them. Here’s their conversation.

Penny: Hey, nice knees.

Sheldon: Thank you. They’re my mother’s.

Penny: Oh. And the Flash shirt is what? Because you’re gonna run really fast?

Sheldon: No, the Flash shirt is because it’s Friday, but it’s nice when things work out. Where’s your heart rate monitor?

Penny: I don’t have one.

Sheldon: What about your pedometer?

Penny: Don’t have one.

Sheldon: Do you have telematics in your shoes connected to an iPod?

Penny: Uh, no.

Sheldon: What do you do, you just go out there and gambol about like a bunny?

Penny: No. I just run till I’m hungry, then I stop for a bear claw.

I think Penny is on to something here. Running – like teaching – can be seriously measured and monitored, and frequently is. But measuring and monitoring can get in the way of our ability to actually do it.

I ran a lot for several years, and ended up acquiring a complicated watch and several pages of carefully documented logs, completed with my split times and my pace and my race results. Three years ago I decided it was time to train to race a new, longer distance, and used an online algorithm to generate a four-month training regimen. I did the math, and had the plan.

But as I started adding mileage, my knee started to hurt in a different and scarier way than it had before. It hurt enough to make me wonder if something was seriously wrong. But my algorithm had told me I was going to be fine, so I ignored the pain and dealt with it in other ways – ice baths, 600 mg of daily ibuprofen – and called it normal. You probably know the end of the story: I got hurt, tore a meniscus, and stopped running for almost two years. My conviction that the numbers told me I should be doing OK blinded me to the clear fact that I was not.

In the measured and monitored educational world you are entering, there will be many benchmarks and numbers that tell you what you should be doing and whether or not you are on track. But I suggest that the authority of those indicators to tell us who we are – and how we are – is not absolute, and that if we give them absolute power we run the serious risk of breaking ourselves against them. This insight does not, I think, mean we should just go out there and gambol about like a bunny. We can and should take advantage of the data that tell us things that help us do what we need to do. But it does call us to pay attention to our experience of what we are trying to accomplish, and its effect on us. It calls us to stop when we are tired, or at least take a break. And it prescribes, as Penny says, a bear claw now and then.

This is not touchy-feely talk: it is hard, rigorously-demonstrated fact, substantiated by research into how physicians and other caregivers who work in high-stress, low-resource situations manage nonetheless to thrive in those environments. They monitor their own health and wellbeing, and create communities with other caregivers to keep an eye on each other. They do things like meditate, go to church, write, exercise, and talk about what they are really feeling in order to stay connected with themselves and those around them. They do not pretend that everything is going OK when it is not. And they thrive in their work to the degree that they stay in touch with their actual experience, and trust their own sense of their wellbeing instead of an arbitrary, external indicator. I am happy to say I have begun running again. But I am trying hard to let my body be in charge, not an arbitrary distance or pace or time. It is hard, different – against the grain of how the world tells me to run. But I think it is the only way, because I want to run for the rest of my life, and the only variables that will make that possible are the ones I carry in my body every day.

So, to sum up: these are my three best ideas this morning about how to thrive in the work you are preparing to enter:

  • Understand that you are the institution you are part of, and that you are the actor that will set the priorities, tone, and energy of the classroom world that you will create;
  • Strive to remain humble, curious, and enthralled with every student and learning situation you come to engage with;
  • Stay in close touch with how you are doing, and never let an external indicator be the final word on whether or not you are succeeding – on whether or not you are OK. Only you, in your heart and your soul and your body, can really know that.

I know these are big ideas; the kind you can spend a lifetime (or at least a career) working on. In closing, let’s share our faith that we all have what we need to do this work, and our confidence that we will be able to find the strength and vision, and develop the compassion, that our work demands. I am convinced that we can teach in ways that sustain us: that our institutions are not faceless bureaucracies, that effective teaching is not a martyrdom, and that our love for our students and our commitment to their success can become the very engine that drives our fulfilled, whole, thriving lives – if we make the choices that let it happen.And I have every confidence that you will.

Congratulations! Thank you.


Corbell K (2009). “Strategies That Can Reduce New Teacher Attrition in North Carolina.” The Friday Institute White Paper Series. Raleigh NC: The William & Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation. Retrieved April 14, 2012.

Palmer PJ (2007). “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning. November-December 2007. Retrieved April 14, 2012.

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