What a busy year it’s been. I’ve been relishing life as a first-time grandmother, immersing myself in my university teaching with pre-service teachers, and continuing along the way of developing my PhD thesis.
As a reward to myself for a big year, I recently attended a writing workshop with Heather Plett in Noosa’s Hinterland on the Sunshine Coast, where I spent ten days contemplating writing from an open heart in preparation for writing up my thesis. It caused me to reflect deeply on the purpose of all I’ve been working towards over the last years – the point of my research in both my Masters and my PhD.
Reflections on my learning
Last year I read a post of Heather’s on holding space. I was incredibly touched by her words, by the insights she expressed, and by the sense her words made of so much of my experience. She gave me words for something I had known but not named, and I was affirmed by the power afforded the practice of holding space for others. I held her sense-making words and continued on with researching my PhD – speaking to VET teachers (vocational education and training) about their own experiences of returning to study, and the conditions and learning spaces they identified that were catalysts to transformative change.
Before April of this year, I had never heard of The Big House. Somehow though, I received notification that Heather Plett was coming to Australia to run two workshops. The Big House’s custodian Georgia Bailey had managed to whisper Heather from Canada to Australia, so I came from Melbourne to sit in circle, to learn more about holding space, to learn more about living with an open heart. My schedule for completing my PhD saw me to planning to write up my thesis in December, and I knew I had to be in Queensland in October to learn how to speak my authentic, academic truth from an open heart. Let me share a few insights attained during that time …
Opportunities for growth
For many years I have been on a path of learning. I left school early, married young and made beautiful babies, and ultimately chose to live separately from my boys’ father after eighteen years. Caring for three young boys required a good return on time invested, so a return to study was needed to lift my qualifications and earning capacity. I commenced tentatively and (with various degrees of success) managed to juggle the demands of work, study and sole parenthood. As I completed each necessary qualification and applied the learning in my vocation, I always found myself presented with new opportunities to explore, new spaces I could enter into and learn to inhabit. New identities I could try on.
When I look back on all the iterations of me along the way, the most constant knowing I have had throughout is that of the power of love. I didn’t call it love at the time … it was not until a few years ago when I was researching for my Master of Education and speaking with adults about their experiences of returning to study, that I was able to name it. Through undertaking a critically reflective essay on my own experiences of learning and stretching, it became so apparent that in all the faces of me – daughter, sister, friend, hairdresser, wife, mother, community services worker, fitness instructor and personal trainer, TAFE and teacher developer – I had unconsciously identified the power of love in supporting (or failing to support) people along their way.
In all vocations I fought for recognition in systems that seemingly took no heed of the individual and their unique strengths. Against typically industry-focused perspectives in education, I pushed for recognition of the need to create safe spaces where people could find themselves, so that they could succeed in learning whatever they chose to do, according to their strengths. That without these safe, nurturing spaces to stretch and grow … and fall over as is always part of true, sustainable learning … ultimate potential could never be reached. Truly fortifying life changes could never occur. I also realised after a time that it wasn’t enough just to affect individual students in my classes – I knew I had to research ways of developing and embedding an open-hearted approach within this industry-focused, standardised education system.
Consequently, my work as an educator and researcher in teacher professional development focuses on identity work as the primary foundation for cultivating potential learner capability. I have supported teaching practitioners across a broad range of professional development programs in universities, TAFE colleges, Adult Community Education, private and not-for profit sectors and have contributed to an International Boys School Coalition (IBSC) research project exploring masterful teaching practices in the education of boys. My current PhD research examines the experiences of vocational teaching practitioners as they unpack their own transformative stories of learning and teaching, and I am passionate about cultivating learning and learners.
My students and I speak a lot about social justice, about how our responsibility as teachers is to cultivate safe spaces where our young people – and adults returning to study – can learn about the world, locate and exercise their voice, and find courage to speak their truth. We speak about contesting our assumptions about life; about how we have the opportunity and responsibility to take action; about waking up to our place in the bigger picture of life. Heather Plett wrote a poem about this journey into the self – Waking up is hard to do (referenced in my last blog post). It is an incredibly powerful reflection on this journey, and I have shared it widely in my learning community. It asks us to consider how we experience new ways of being as we begin to wake up.
Applying the insights gained through my writing retreat
I have realized great gifts through my time at The Big House with Heather, Georgia and the learning companions I have come to know and appreciate with love and deepest gratitude. Previously unnoticed connections in my life, and long held truths have been reinforced and brought to the fore. For example that the spaces I create for people, and that people have created for me, are spaces where we ‘hold space’ for each other as we stretch and grow in understanding … that I am part of a container of magnificent souls who are here for each other in this life. I have also learned … and am beginning to integrate … to have the courage to be me, in all my quirkiness, in all my peculiarity. And to accept and celebrate others in their difference as they try to make sense of this often disorienting life … to accept others in their humanity.
Are we asking the right question?
Today I’ve been reading feeds on Facebook and LinkedIn about investigations, from various sources, into the professional development of teachers, and the education of our young people. It dawns on me that my inquiry into education – building on the inquiry of so many critical pedagogues – is asking a different question to that typically posed in traditional educational approaches.
When our children are growing up and entering the world of learning, we often ask “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And as we move along through life and take up additional personal and professional development, the same question is often presented … “What will you be once you’ve completed this qualification?” This certainly has been my experience, and I’ve always wondered why I felt so stuck in knowing how to reply. I wasn’t doing it to take on a specific title, to be able to tick a certain ‘box’, to become someone else’s notion of who I should be. I wasn’t able to name it at the time, however I’ve come to see that all the personal and professional development I undertook was because of what I intuited the learning would help me ‘become’.
I believe that education is about ‘becoming’. It is an evolving process that calls us to continuously interrogate what we know to be true about ourselves, about the world, and about our place in the world. I don’t believe it is about locating ourselves in a place that we can be squeezed into, I believe it is about locating ourselves. It is about finding the truth of who we are so that we can offer the strengths of ourselves to the world in the most authentic and powerful way.
So I think we’re asking the wrong question. Rather than ‘What am I going to be?’ I believe it must be ‘Who am I going to be?’. If we are to truly steel our society, to build strength and capability in our learning spaces and in the broader landscapes of life, we must create spaces where individuals – children, young people and adults returning to study – can connect with the strengths of their own offering. In all contexts, but particularly when there is an imbalance in power or privilege related to gender, ability, age, educational achievement, race, culture or socioeconomic standing, we need to hold space for people as they rise to the fullness of themselves.
We have one life to make our gifts count, and I believe an open-hearted, truly person-centred approach is the way to achieve the most authentic and beneficial expression of ourselves.
This article draws on another, submitted by me for publication in The Big House’s blog
Lovely post Jenny. The writing retreat sounds wonderful and your thesis sounds so interesting. My husband is a Tafe teacher and is very focused on making a human connection with his students. He has such great results, and in fact one of his students was just awarded International Tafe Student of the Year by the Victorian Governor General. All the hard work he puts in the human side of teaching and learning actually makes the teaching part easier – being whole-hearted builds bridges between people, and like you say, holding the space for someone can make all the difference.
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Absolutely Collette… it’s the only way. And ultimately so rewarding…
Beautiful reflection Jenni on your own journey and endeavours to have an impact in the world of education for those who missed out in a flawed system.
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Yes Joan, the system fails to respond to so many learners. It is my that my work contributes to change…