Who I Am
I have been an educator for thirty years. I began as a teacher of middle and high-school English and Spanish, then became a performing arts teacher.
When I went back to graduate school, it was because I wanted to understand why my students were thriving in their music and drama classes differently than they were in their academic classes. I came to understand that the arts do something to us and for us that is so powerful and has so much potential to change our lives for the better that we need to find ways to connect to them every day. We need the arts like a tree needs water.
I got really interested in the relationship between the arts and burnout prevention when I was on faculty at a medical school, of all places. I didn’t realize that med school pays a lot more attention to burnout prevention for doctors than education does for teachers.
When I came back to a school of education full-time thirteen years ago, I was on fire to understand educator burnout better — and to bring the best wisdom I could find to the problem, wherever I found it. Since 2010, burnout prevention (or as I prefer to call it, “sustainable caring practice”) has been my obsession. It is what I think about when I don’t have to think about anything.
I believe virtuality is corrosive to a lot of what is most precious to us. I love manual typewriters because they connect us back to the real world and our real words. I use them in my teaching and my own work all the time. They are magic machines. I have lots if you want to buy one–let me know.
My Day Job
I am Professor of Leadership & Educational Studies and Associate Director of the Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership at the Reich College of Education, Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina.
Why A Red Bird?
When I was young, I lived in upstate New York, where we didn’t see many cardinals. There were plenty of blue jays: screeching, aggressive, attacking each other, occasionally attacking you if you came too close to the nest.
But the cardinal was elusive, rare, special. It was my mom’s favorite bird, so I watched for them. When one appeared, it meant something.
One morning, decades later, I was driving into a job I didn’t love, bracing for a day I was dreading. It was ice, drizzly, and gray; I was barely awake, and miserable. At a stop light, I looked into the impenetrable heavens and asked for something to let me know that I was still on my path, because it sure didn’t feel like it.
A minute later, a flash of red flared into my periphery. I glanced to the shoulder of the road to glimpse a frozen, leafless bush, stark against the white snow, aflame with cardinals. Seven or eight of them, a few fluttering, the rest still, looking placidly back at me. I blinked and craned my neck to get another look as I rolled past. There they still were, their heat fading as I continued my commute.
Later that year I found Annie Dillard’s account of a similar experience, and I recognized her as a fellow traveler in the quest for meaning in a life that sometimes seems meaningless:
One day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The lights of the fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had my whole life been a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.
I’m still spending the power. And in the mountains of North Carolina, cardinals abound.
Red Bird Workshop is named for that moment of enlightenment and hope, and dedicated to cultivating the conditions for all of us to find the deepest meaning in our own journeys through our lives.