The Twisting Path: Research and Transformative Teaching

the-twisting-path-winding-through-paradise-jeff-swan

I am in the thick of my pursuit of an education doctorate. I am also in the thick of my first year at a new high school, with a new position, and mounting responsibilities. I have no complaints, however. While I imagine my first two sentences infer a sense of anxiety, they are not meant to, nor are they meant to elicit any sympathy. If you’re an educator, you know stress and you know anxiety. I won’t be preaching to any choirs, nor soliciting folks for forms of empathy. No–the point of this post is to espouse how much my life and career have shifted in the last eight months. While I am in the thick of many aspects of my career, I wade through it with my head held high and more inspired than ever ready to continue the journey.

During the fall as I took on my new position at a new school, I involved myself in a directed study with another cohort member and Dr. Ryan Rish–who I’ve mentioned many times before. During our time together, we started to explore teachers’ mindsets–the origin of their pedagogical practices, their sense of burnout, their experiences, and their educational philosophies. One of the pieces we explored together is Smagorinsky, Rhym, and Moore’s (2013) “Competing Centers of Gravity.” The piece explores how beginning teachers are pulled in multiple directions–“Their experience, rather than simply being pulled in two different directions, often more resembles being drawn-and-quartered, or perhaps drawn-and-sixteenthed, in many directions” (p. 148)–and and how centers of gravity (curriculum, a mentor, college program etc.) compete for their attention and retention.

While the study concerns itself with beginning teachers, the concept of competing centers of gravity continue to exist for even the most veteran of teachers. I’m generalizing here for better or worse, but even without empirical evidence to back up that claim, I can observe my co-workers and see the push-and-pull of everyday teaching–young and old(er).

I’ve been spending sometime since last semester trying to understand my own centers of gravity and what they mean to me, where they position me, and maybe even what imply about me. Smagorinsky et al. (2013) bring to bear Vygotsky’s conception of a “twisted path” that a learner experiences throughout socially constructed experiences. The researchers challenge not that this twisting path exists, but rather the twisting path has no final result or destination as has been implied in studies previously using this Vygotskian concept. Upon reading this part of their framework, I got a little skittish. Now having thought about it for nearly six months, I’m less skittish, but nonetheless concerned with what this twisting path implies for me and so many other teachers. Smagorinsky et al. try to prove their point by implicating studies they had conducted that showed teachers reverting to old thought processes or taking ‘u-turns’ despite other strong centers of gravity. This push against the twisting path having a resolute destination makes a good deal of sense to me.

Where I am currently is a twisting path with many new and old centers of gravity. While I am physically at a new destination, my philosophical stance and pedagogical risk-taking is very fluid. I am dealing with the tension of wanting to explore teacher leadership while co-existing in the classroom; I must contend with diverging beliefs on the common core’s ELA standards from both a political and pedagogical stand point; I am wrestling with my role as simply a container of knowledge; I try to balance my view of reading and writing as acts of apprenticeship in my classroom and not simply skills to obtain and access. My centers are numerous and the path is as twisted as Vygotsky explains, but the fact that these tensions and this path may have no final destination is completely okay with me.

Four or five years ago, I could not confidently say that I don’t want a final destination in my conception of being an educator and agency to be one. With so much change, reading, and writing, I can only no confidently say that I am thankful for these competing centers of gravity, for I believe now more than ever those tensions make me a better teacher, a better empathizer, a better human being. When I get caught up in one of my tensions, I now recognize my reaction is due to the level of care I now attend to my teaching philosophies and actions. I am stronger for my competing centers, and now the thought of a final destination is more worrisome than not having one. Where would I go when I got there? What would become of me? What purpose would my life still have?

I want to always keep moving and allow the twisting path take me to the next checkpoint, but simultaneously I want it to prod me to move again, letting me know the journey is always calling.

My hope for anyone who becomes an educator is that they recognize that the challenging, twisting path is worth each agonizing step. Because if we ever stop moving, balancing, contending, what will ever become of us?

References:

Smagorinsky, P., Rhym, D., & Moore, C. P. (2013) Competing centers of gravity: A beginning English teacher’s socialization process within conflictual settings. English Education, pp. 147-183.

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