The gift of presence: inquiry and being 'in the moment'

One of the most powerful opportunities for teacher inquiry into inquiry is to locate at least some of our professional learning in the classroom itself. I am fortunate to have many opportunities to regularly teach alongside teachers who observe, question and reflect both during and after the session. These conversations are almost always rich, challenging and satisfying. Locating our professional inquiry in the classroom brings us to the heart of what (and why) we do what we do.   I am used to being observed as I teach and I think it has a positive effect on my teaching.  I am more conscious of the 'moves' I am making and more intentional overall.  

Over the years of ‘modelling’ inquiry-based teaching, I have noticed recurring themes arising in our debriefs. I don't always get it right- far from it, but one of the most pervasive themes relates to pace and timing. I often hear:

“The kids seemed to have a lot of time to think and talk”

“It felt relaxed”

“Even though the kids were challenged, they did not seem stressed…”

“There was an atmosphere of calm”

“The strategy was actually quite simple but so much came out of it…”

“ Everything just feels slower and more considered”

As teachers committed to a more inquiry based approach, we all know how important it is to be truly present as we teach.  Inquiry is a stance - so we need to have a mindset that permits us to observe and listen.  When I am working with a group of children in this ‘lab site’ context, I feel incredibly present. I can activate my inquiry stance with relative ease asking myself continually ‘what am I seeing/hearing? What am I noticing? What should we do next?” I don't always get there - sometimes the pressure of being observed can have a negative effect or I fail to respond to my inner voice telling me the strategy I have chosen won't work and I should try another -but most of the time.....

I can recall days of teaching when I was far from truly present.  I was so often thinking about the next thing or about whether we were going to ‘get it done’ in time for the next thing! And, as a younger teacher I was worried about management. I needed things to feel controlled and orderly and then often meant pushing through and ignoring the small voice that questioned my motives.   Although this is still a struggle (I can feel that sense of urgency creeping in when I am running teacher workshops and the clock is ticking!) I am so much less bothered by the clock these days.   Maybe it is one of the benefits of experience (read - getting old) but I know the sky won’t fall in if we don’t finish. I know less is more. I know it is more about the journey than the destination. I understand more keenly now, the gift of presence.

So, what gets in the way of simply being in the here and now?  What stops us from being truly present as teachers – to be right there, in the moment with our learners?

This issue came up with a group of teachers I had the pleasure of working with at Mulgrave School in Vancouver, Canada.   We wondered whether, to engage kids – we can sometimes lapse into ‘edutainment’, creating a kind of frenetic energy (albeit fun!) that gets in the way of reflection and processing. Our kids become dependent on US to motivate and energise so we become even more panicked about not dropping the (juggling?) ball!

We all acknowledged that if the daily timetable is fragmented and overcrowded, we easily become driven by the clock rather than our learners. When we feel pressured for time, we literally speed up. We speak faster, we hurry students and give less time for thinking.  Distracted by the thought of ‘the next thing’ we lose the opportunity to be present in THIS moment.

The wonderful conversation got me thinking. Why is it so hard to slow down and be in the moment? Like the ‘slow food’ movement that pushes against the unhealthy impact of the ubiquitous fast food industry, The ‘slow schools’ movement is in direct response to our need to take time to really listen and observe as we teach. To be an inquirer.  

What else stops us from stopping?

We over plan. Perhaps we get excited by a bunch of creative ideas, perhaps because we worry we won’t have enough for kids to ‘do’.  But the reality is that less really IS more.

And we plan too far ahead.  Detailed, long range planning can sometimes be useful but it can also mean we are far less responsive than we should be.  When we discipline ourselves to plan in response to our learners, we use our time to notice, document and analyse what we see and hear.

We make the mistake of thinking collaborative planning is about all ‘doing’ the same activities all of the time. So, we panic when we have not kept up with everyone else. The activities drive us – not the students or the learning.

We sometimes focus more on the ‘doing’ than the learning. We can be too product-oriented meaning our lessons can pressure kids to get things finished.  We speed things up and forget to notice what’s happening NOW.

We forget to give ourselves time to reflect, to decompress and to slow down.  Perhaps the most powerful thing we can do to be more present in our teaching is to practice the kind of self-talk we might tell our students to employ.  Ironically - as a self-confessed 'busy' person, this is something I need to work on.  

I recognise that it is far easier for me to be truly ‘present’ when I am in the rarefied context of modelling a lesson.  It is a true gift to be able to focus on so intently on what is happening as a lesson unfolds which, in turn, activates a stronger inquiry stance.  

How do we help ourselves be truly present as we teach? To slow down, to notice and to respond? As it says in a popular meme doing the rounds at the do we be less mind-full and be more mindful? 

Just wondering…