Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Wabi-Sabi Teacher = Beautifully-Flawed

A couple of decades ago, while learning how to spin a clay pot, an art instructor told me about wabi-sabi, a Japanese art form that conveyed the beauty of impermanence and time's impact on objects. Picture a sculpted piece of driftwood along the beach, or a smoothed-over river stone; both are wabi-sabi-ware, organically worn and shaped by nature's geologically-slow hand. The instructor applied it to the imperfections in my clay pot noting that it gave it a wabi-sabi feel. I didn't think too much about it, except that I felt relieved she saw the asymmetry of my piece a thing of beauty rather than a newbie flaw. It was a natural part of my process as an artist, she said, and that's what made it special.

When I first started teaching fifteen years ago, I could've used someone like that art teacher to tell me I didn't have to be perfect right out the gate. We enter into our first classroom with a head full of theory and meticulously-constructed "units of study", and it doesn't take much more than a spit wad hurled across the room to realize we're going to have to adapt to survive. When it happened to me, the sense of fear and urgency was strong enough to put me into overdrive. 

As a result, I would spend a good amount of time and energy those first years trying to reach edu-nirvana, that state where all those rock star teachers in the movies were at. You know who I mean, the ones who stood and delivered atop desks and, at the risk of life, job, and limb, challenged students to positively disrupt their lives using education as the way to do it. I wanted to be that teacher, as many young teachers did. It wasn't hard to shed that myth after a year or two of experience, but the motivation for impacting others and the passion for teaching remained. 

Now that I'm at the mid-point of my career as a teacher, I find myself thinking about that clay pot. Teaching is a craft, like ceramic art. There is no higher place to be than where we are when we're knee-to-knee with students as their mentors and guides.  

We can embody wabi-sabi, not only in our aesthetic (gray hairs and the wrinkles of a smile), but in our ways of "being", too. I see it in artists and teachers who value process over product. I sense it in those who accept their own finite natures with grace and brevity, making sure they're "present" for their students; honoring their learning journeys with patience and compassion. It's in anyone who seems to be in sync and at peace with nature's rhythms.

This is what I wish to remember as I embark on the second half of my journey as a teacher: that I am that stone, newly-aware of being less jagged in all the right places, and I embrace all that which makes me beautifully flawed.