Review: The Teacher’s Way

Teachers WayAs a high school teacher who often wonders how in the world to get a room full of teenagers to believe that it’s actually worthwhile to figure out how a spectroscope works, I thought that perhaps Maria Litchmann’s The Teacher’s Way: Teaching and the Contemplative Life (Paulist Press, 2005), an attempt to integrate contemplative spirituality and teaching, might be something worthwhile to investigate.  It isn’t a combination that you see terribly often and one that might be a bit more difficult to accomplish when you’re looking at science and math classes as opposed to literature, religion, or other sorts. The short review is that her meditation begins well, but it seems to unravel the further she goes.

She starts by doing two things: First, she analyzes the state of education in general, suggesting that education has fallen into the trap of fixing through new and better technique and constant motion and activity.  Her suggestion, not surprising giving the subtitle of the book, is that technique and activity are unhelpful and symptomatic of a loss of a contemplative mentality in life on the whole.  Now, I’ve never been fond of educational theory, which seems to me to fall into the exact trap she mentions and takes into almost no consideration the wider cultural influences that are affecting teachers, students, parents, and society overall, which I think are just as if not far more important than techniques (not to entirely disparage technique).  Once finished with this, she begins an analysis of contemplative spirituality, using lectio divina as a model, examining the meditative reading pattern’s origins and structure.  She rethinks the four phases of lectio divina (reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation) in a teaching setting as attention, reflection, receptivity, and transformation.

From this point, she takes individual chapters on each phase.  The first two of these phases are well thought out and are readily integrate-able into a classroom of any sort.  Her ideas on attention, while perhaps a little fuzzy, and the use of silence and space seem a healthy counter to the sometimes frantic activity of students’ (and teachers!) lives.  Reflection is something that many teachers already attempt to work into their curriculum, but she expounds on it in a contemplative fashion that gives it a different flavor than the usual.  In these two chapters, she ever speaks a bit into how her ideas are applicable to math and science classes, something that rarely happens in educational books and theories.  In discussing the last two phases, however, I felt as if she descended into a great deal of unclear thinking or at least unclear communication.  The ideas I gained from receptivity could have been expounded in a much more concrete manner with less mystical terminology and phraseology.  As for transformation, it felt as if she were discussing her ideals without providing any means of making such ideals reality.  She specifically admitted that she shied away from too many specific techniques, but for those who are dealing with students who are not interested in transformation or subjects that do not lend themselves that way easily, there was little to aid them.  In the end, the book provides an interesting integration of ideas, and her first few chapters are worthwhile, particularly as examinations of how educators’ typical attempts to “fix” things are missing the point.  In the later chapters, however, it felt as if her model broke down and dissolved into mystical meandering.

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