Teacher Self-Knowledge

Summer 2015

By Peggy McIntosh

I spent a good deal of time in elementary school in the 1940s staring out the high windows of Kenilworth School in Ridgewood, New Jersey, and thinking. In my time, place, race, and class, this was often called woolgathering. That word referred to plucking off bits of wool that sheep had left on bushes in passing, that it might be spun and woven into usable cloth. The teachers did not fault me for woolgathering probably because I was a white child with blond hair in braids who showed up for school every day and was able to do the assigned work. But I filled every available minute in school with my own diverging thoughts.

I think I daydreamed because I was trying to get away from school, which I experienced as a wounding place, like the rest of the world. I felt scared and wounded not only by World War II but also by the wars closer to home — in family cruelty, in children’s cruelty to each other on the playground, and in the grading and report card system that subtly set us against each other. I could do the schoolwork easily but suffered watching what happened to others who could not. I tried to daydream my way out of fear and sadness to a place of greater peace, stability, and grounding, plucking ignored bits of fleece to make my own fabric.

I see this habit now as an attempt to come to some version of alternative self-knowledge.

Having worked in schools and with educators for 58 years, I’ve come to wish that all educators were given more time and more rewards for self-knowledge. I feel that when we as teachers have the opportunity to get to know our deep selves better, we improve our lives and the lives of those who deal with us. But daily school life, extroverted in its demands, does not give students and teachers much incentive to follow Socrates’ core directive: “Know thyself.”

I wish for all students and all staff in school, even if only in flickering seconds and silences during a day, stability, peace of mind, and the chance to follow their own ideas, mine their memories, and explore their feelings — and not be constantly made to divert their attention away from their own trains of thought. The act of reflecting, even in snatches, gave me to myself and allowed me to try to make sense of my life. It allowed me to find my threads of coherence in a scary and unjust world. In time, it also made me into a far more engaged and effective teacher. Once I knew more about who I was, I became far more useful to others.

Although solitary self-reflection was a priceless asset that started me on the way to a coherent life, it was too narrow to make me knowledgeable. Too few other voices reached me. Team-teaching was the first corrective. As a very young teacher, I had felt exhausted after class, whether in school or in college. My teaching hours felt strained and artificial, and I would end each class feeling relief that I had survived. Survived what? It was not until I got the chance to structure classes more intuitively, and without rigid lesson plans or modes of instruction, that teaching did not tire me out, but rather inspired me. I felt then that I had stopped being an instrument in the hands of other people’s ways of knowing. This change felt like spiritual development to me.

Team-teaching with a trusted, close, diverse group of colleagues at the University of Denver in the 1970s, I could help to develop inclusive pedagogy and soul-restoring courses. We did not try to “cover” subjects so much as create classes in which students could bring to school what they knew and could speak, listen, be heard, imagine, feel, and think in reflective ways. As teachers, we did the same. Developing such processes required faith in our new methods; I would sometimes feel that, by the old standards, we weren’t really teaching — hardly earning our paychecks, we were having such fun — until… Bam! We arrived back at the old task of grading, which demanded that we judge students and which reinstated the top-down relations between teacher and students as well as the competitive relations among students and a certain subservience to the named curriculum.

Despite the backpedaling that grading required, we wanted to come to class, and so did the students. Thirty years later, we were still getting love letters from graduates about what our ways of teaching gave to them. We taught that “history” is really just versions of history, and that doing research in primary sources was a route to greater political intelligence about knowledge making, but it seems they felt that, basically, we gave them back to themselves — as more fully human. We helped them heal from all the years of schooling that had ignored them as knowers and had avoided questions of power in knowledge making.

Is it unrealistic to think that a teacher can keep growing, reflecting, threading together the pieces of his or her vulnerable being in the midst of the demands of teaching? Can educators become italicized to themselves in a way that feels restorative? I think so. But a group setting makes all the difference in achieving this.

The SEED Project

For the past 28 years, I’ve worked with an amazing group of educators in the National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum. The acronym stands for Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity. The Project prepares teachers to facilitate deeply personal group work with colleagues in their schools. We find that when teachers come to believe in mining their own memory banks and interior selves for their understanding of equity or injustice as they have experienced these in their own lives, they become more firmly grounded in school and in life — to a degree that often startles and surprises them. And when they do this in the company of other educators, the effects can be life changing.

The group work of the SEED New Leaders’ Week, in particular, offers participants the experience of meeting with other educators at a place of self-reflection and self-respect, beyond competition, judgment, and the need to prove oneself. The workshop participants, immersed in print and video resources about inequity and diversity, testify to their own experiences, listen to others do the same, see patterns and systems in their stories, and keep pondering, reflecting, and connecting. Then they go home and facilitate that same process for a year of monthly meetings in their own schools.

The key questions addressed in seminars focus on how to make the curriculum, teaching methods, and school climates more multicultural, gender fair, and inclusive of every child regardless of his or her background. The group process of personal testimony within frameworks of systemic seeing changes teachers, who in turn tend to relate to their students in newly engaging ways, respecting what they bring from their own stories. As Emily Style, SEED codirector for 28 years, came to realize in her high school classes, “Half the curriculum walks in the door when the students do.”

More than half the curriculum walks in the door when teachers arrive at the SEED New Leaders’ Week. In their dialogues, we ask them to draw on their experiences rather than opinions, for opinions are usually generalizations of some sort. Twenty-five years after her training, SEED leader Nancy Letts wrote, “SEED didn’t demand anything from me but to be more of what I was. It wasn’t the literary criticism I expected when the books for the workshop arrived in the mail. It was my experience that counted. My gendered experience, my racial experience, my blue-collared experience. It was my life and the lives of others that counted….”

SEED leader Keith Burns wrote, of learning about privilege, “Here’s the magic of SEED and its ability to create vision where there was none. No one told me about my privilege. No one blatantly revealed to me that my life was something other than what I understood it to be. SEED simply welcomed me into conversations about myself and about others, about history, and about the present. And because SEED showed me how to take part in conversation, and because SEED showed me that conversation is as much about listening as it is about talking, I discovered within myself things I had not known or seen before. I discovered how much of my own experience reflected important aspects of how our human worlds of power work. And when my eyes were opened and my mind made aware, I wept at what I now saw and knew….”

SEED leader Phyllis May-Machunda­ wrote, “When I signed up for SEED training I never anticipated how deeply this training would transform my being. SEED has rooted social justice education in my worldview, and now I am compelled to tend and share seeds of social justice throughout my life’s work.”

Readers may wonder whether this work can be called professional development. Years of experience make it clear that it is — though perhaps a better way to think of it is as “adult development of educators.” Through the years, we’ve received common illustrative comments about this method of coming to self-knowledge. Teachers value the opportunity to have something for themselves and about themselves. They appreciate being part of something that touches their hearts, minds, and spirits. They say they become better at listening, empathizing, and accepting of people, become better at respecting and learning from colleagues. They appreciate the chance to unpack their personal and professional stories as a means to help shape another generation’s growth through this same process. They believe that feeling validated allows them to teach their own students to feel the same way themselves. To a person, they learn to dig deeper into issues of diversity and social justice — and embrace Frances Moore Lappé’s view that we start by changing ourselves.

My experiences with this work, in fact, make it clear to me that focusing on self-knowledge is one of the most important elements of teacher development. How can students trust us as educators if we come to class without a sense of our intricate complex selves mediated through history and circumstances and all we have seen? Because strong self-awareness is usually neglected in teacher training programs, teachers are often thirsty for the attention to their lives that diversity work can bring, and appreciate schools that encourage and support this work.

Self-Knowledge and Intentionality

Exactly how do we introduce educators to the experiential method of testimony and listening? The opening exercise of a recent SEED New Leaders’ Week is a good example. Some 50 or 60 people gather in San Anselmo, California, on an afternoon in late July, and sit in circle as a group, for about an hour and a half. There are no name tags, no welcome, and no way of telling who is a staff member and who is training to become a SEED seminar leader in their own school. In turn, uninterrupted, each person around the circle reads part or all or none of a piece he or she has written ahead of time called “Boy” or “Girl,” based on Jamaica Kincaid’s two-page piece called “Girl,” published in 1984.

All of us contain voices in our head from early childhood onward, telling us how to be a boy or a girl. We ask participants not to write a narrative but to transmit words that were actually said to them. After the reading, each person finds a square piece of colored construction paper and a marker under his or her chair and rewrites in large letters something he or she wrote earlier. They then put all these sheets of paper on a grid in the middle of the floor. Each piece of paper with a participant’s statement is then glued down, and the staff hangs the whole “quilt” on a wall where it stays throughout the week of the training.

There is no abstract analysis of “gender” during the week. But the posted statements always give us much to reflect upon and always reveal some repeated patterns, some female or male specific teachings, much ethnic and cultural variety, adult inconsistency, and generational differences. Mostly, they reveal culturally embedded views on class, sex, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity. Each participant then becomes his or her own analyst of statements like these:
  • Wear clean underwear in case you are in an accident.
  • Put the worm on the damn hook.
  • Boys don’t cry.
  • Why don’t you go into teaching? You can always fall back on it.
  • Girl, get your education and never depend on a man.
  • Why are you such a Mama’s boy?
  • Suck it up.
  • Keep your voice down.
  • No, your brother will wash the car.
  • You can be anything you want in life but that dress is not appropriate.
  • You can do anything you want but remember never beat a boy at anything.
  • Looks don’t matter; manners do.
  • Maybe next time you could try wearing red.
  • Don’t wear red! You’ll look like the whore of Babylon.
  • She doesn’t have to cut the grass because she’s your sister.
  • Wait ’til your father gets home.
After reading the statements without interruption, which we call serial testimony, everyone has a large amount of primary source information to reflect on. There is no argumentation, contention, generalization, or authority to instruct anybody on what to notice and what to conclude. On principle, we do not debrief afterward, for debriefing requires generalization. But teachers recognize that they know something about all this. And if they think back on what has served them well and what has not, from their and others’ early teachings on gender, there are central questions that follow: Am I doing to the next generation what was done to me? If so, what are the consequences for them? And me? And the society in the future? How do I feel about it?

Through this process, teachers raise their level of awareness of issues related to identity and society, which means they can teach from a base of greater self-knowledge and intentionality. 

What We Believe

Emily Style writes about how the SEED process balances “the scholarship on the shelves with the scholarship in the selves.” The key extroverted questions of the SEED Project are:
  • What are we teaching, and why?
  • Can we make the curriculum, teaching methods, and school climates more gender fair, multicultural, and engaging to all the students regardless of their backgrounds?
Key inner questions are:
  • Who am I in all this?
  • Where am I?
  • What is my own experience?
  • Can I put my life more in the service of what I say I believe?
My point here is not to recruit educators into the SEED Project, but rather to underscore the reasons we dedicate ourselves to this work year after year. We know that self-exploration leads to a better understanding of who we are and how we want to teach, which in turn makes all of us better educators and more grounded human beings.

The teacher essays that accompany this article (starting on page 57) illustrate the regrounding that can occur for teachers who come to recognize the authority of their own deep experience, and bring it into their schoolwork. In a very multiracial and multicultural group setting in the SEED New Leaders’ Week, they have learned the validity of talking about and hearing about experiences that most people have been encouraged to discount or ignore in conversations about education. These neglected areas often have to do with unexamined hierarchies. They constitute what we in the SEED Project call the evaded curriculum — the curriculum usually avoided in school settings and skirted by the unreflective self. The evaded curriculum often has to do with our own experience with systemic inequity and injustice that, in both obvious and subtle ways, does its work in and around us. Exploring our own growth can create a reflective awareness about who and where we are as educators. If we do so, we have a better chance of engaging alienated students who themselves have not been encouraged by education to know in a deep, usable, and validating way who and where they are.
Peggy McIntosh

Peggy McIntosh is associate director of the Wellesley Centers on Women. She is the founder of the SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum, which she codirected with Emily Style for the first 25 years of the Project. Currently, Style and Emmy Howe are codirectors of the SEED Project; Gail Cruise-Roberson and Jondou Chase Chen are associate directors. McIntosh’s essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” which appeared in the Winter 1990 issue ofIndependent School, remains one of the magazine’s most requested articles for reprint. The website of the SEED Project is www.nationalseedproject.org.