This statement is, perhaps, widely understood by most teachers who have been in the classroom for more than a few years. But in the midst of the busy school year, it is somewhat less often brought into an active or deeply reflective dimension. When Bill Taylor and Adrian Sydenham, the Co-Principals at Brockwood Park School, offered me the chance to attend this summer's Teaching Academy at Ojai, I could see that this was one of those opportunities to stir up the spirit of inquiry and reflection about what I was apparently spending most of my days doing - educating, teaching and hopefully, learning.
No one who arrives at Ojai for the first time could fail to be struck by the natural setting of the place: a fertile valley of orange groves and avocado trees surrounded by stony mountains and canyons which provide the silhouettes for the daily inspiration of the sunset. An air of resilience is evident in the sculptural displays of agave, cactuses and succulents which line the roadside, in sharp contrast to the easy greenness of the Hampshire countryside around Brockwood. It was not difficult to imagine that, somehow, this extraordinary air and light might bring about a clarity and sharpness of focus as well as a sense of renewal. We were privileged to be able to use Pine Cottage for the Academy with its natural light and spaciousness and fortunate to have Gopal Krishnamurthy and Karen Hesli to facilitate it. They complemented each other perfectly, bringing their passion, playfulness and insights to the course. I was also delighted that the other participants were not only from four of the five continents but that they came from varied backgrounds, all brought together by a deep interest in education but by no means all teachers; this lent a richness to our discussions and learning.
We spent the first week formulating our 'burning questions' about education and reflecting on the turning points in our own experience of learning with Timelines, which informed many of the subsequent activities. We then generated 'claims' about learning, from our Timelines and the reading of one of the core texts, 'Education and the Significance of Life' by J Krishnamurti, and prepared a short presentation. I chose to focus on when learning can be effortless, when motivation is not an issue and competition is removed, when momentum and discipline are sustained by the learner. This also led me to consider the role of a teacher: is it to set learning goals, create and assess structure; or is it to facilitate, guide and give feedback? In the same week, Gopal had asked his class of MEd students at UCSB to prepare one-minute mini-lessons and we spent an enjoyable afternoon with the class, sharing our personal views on education and seeing their skillful and generally entertaining mini-lessons. These young people just starting out as teachers impressed me with their enthusiasm, openness and ability to articulate and question their ideas.
I particularly gained a lot from the emphasis on communication in the course. Karen's introduction to Non-Violent Communication, firmly anchored in observation and emphasizing facts over judgment, and the practice we gained from the role plays, gave me an effective tool to use in bringing order and compassion into misunderstanding and conflict in an educational setting. Council and Dialogue were new to a number of people in the group, and this brought a refreshing quality to them; a particularly memorable and spontaneous one being on the subject of fear, prompted by the arrival of a rattlesnake to the place we ate our al fresco lunch. Many of our exchanges continued over the delicious and abundant meals, cooked for us with love at Oak Grove School and delivered by Gabriel, one of the graduating students. In addition to these impromptu conversations, I greatly appreciated the opportunities to meet and talk with other members of the Ojai community, from veteran teachers to parents and administrators, in panel discussions and presentations.
The second week's theme of observing and crafting lessons compelled us to sharpen our skills of describing exactly what is going on in classroom practice. We tried to use only descriptive language, and to be specific in our aims for learning, as reflected in the micro-lessons we planned to reflect those aims. These activities were, I feel, especially relevant to those of us who were more accustomed to the idea of observation in the classroom as a method of evaluating teachers, involving judgment and comparison rather than mutual support between colleagues.
Over the two weeks of the Academy a tremendous atmosphere of affection and trust grew amongst the participants, and one could see how a sense of truly working together can foster a teaching and learning community. This, for me, was one of the most important things I gained from the course, as well as a notebook filled with questions to keep me going for a long time.