Teaching is a Spiritual Quest: Acting

Introducing the series, Teaching is a Spiritual Quest! The title speaks for itself, but I’ll add here that this past year of teaching Phys. Ed. in one of San Francisco’s poorest neighborhoods and relentlessly exploring the spiritual concepts of ego, presence, identity, and purpose in my free time has unsurprisingly led me to draw strong parallels between the two. So far, my ideas have just been exploding on the pages of my Moleskine writer’s notebook, so I’m eager to finally release some of that intellectual energy here.

As always, I invite you to engage, question, and comment on these ideas–don’t be shy!

This past summer, I embarked on one of the most difficult (and therefore, most crucial to my development) experiences of my life: my first full-time teaching job at Breakthrough San Francisco. I was teaching high-achieving, low-income 7th graders about the body systems, and I had completely forgotten how delusional and hyperactive pre-pubescent middle school students could be. It quickly became clear to me that all the intellectual readings and discussions I’d had in my college education classes on being a good teacher were useless in the face of limited practical experience. And my practical experience that summer was that I suffered a great deal in those two months because I was resisting one of the first lessons my coaches at Breakthrough taught me about teaching: it’s just like acting.

I’d never heard that before and I didn’t want to hear it then. Put on an act? Take on a persona? Be anyone but myself because that’s what would lead me to success? These were the messages I was hearing, and I rationalized my feelings of resistance because I have always considered myself an honest person, and “acting” like anyone but myself to win over my students felt dishonest and superficial. I wanted to be authentically excited about the content I was teaching and win over my students by being myself, whether that be serious, organized, and caring, or funny, spontaneous, and creative. At the time, I identified as the former, but felt that I was being told to “act” like the latter, which I didn’t agree with.

It’s obvious that I was overthinking this wayyy too much, but bear with me, because there are some great and applicable insights that came out of it! I now understand that part of what my coaches meant by “acting” is developing your teacher voice and teacher presence, both of which are crucial components of your teaching persona (which is, in fact, different from your day-to-day self, but not in the way I had initially thought). On a deeper level than that, though, they were also hinting at one of the greatest spiritual teachings of all time: disidentification from your role as your identity.

If you think about people who act for a living, this concept of disidentification from roles is pretty clear. Jennifer Aniston, for example, has played various roles throughout her career; as the flirtatious and fashionable Rachel on Friends, the down-to-earth Joanna in Office Space, and the powerful and comically manipulative Dr. Julia Harris in Horrible Bosses. Of course, neither of these characters is Jennifer Aniston herself, which frees her from any judgments the audience may make about her TV personality. Any actor must be able to create this distance between his various roles and his personal identity to perform well, or he would be paralyzed by the fear of judgment and criticism of his (sometimes antagonistic) character.

This distancing is exactly what my coaches at Breakthrough were trying to teach me, and my inability to understand that was exactly why I struggled so much. As I mentioned earlier, teaching middle school students from difficult backgrounds at a summer program was going to, by nature, be incredibly challenging, and I was not prepared for the behavioral issues I saw. That summer was an exercise in learning how not to take their attitudes and snide comments personally, though I didn’t even begin to master that skill until my current teaching job. I had completely identified with my role as a teacher, and I was taking their behavior as feedback about my performance–a fatal combination which just further hindered my ability to think clearly and positively during the whole experience.

Had I been able to distance myself from my teaching self and my actual self by embracing the acting metaphor, I would have opened up a space between my self and my students’ reactions. That space is absolutely necessary for taking action to address the current situation on a level deeper than thought and emotion–both of which are reactive most of the time in most humans. Eckhart Tolle, a world famous spiritual teacher and author of The Power of Now, calls this space “presence.” It is our shared identity as humans, beyond thought and emotion, and therefore more powerful than what we like to think of as “rational” human thought. Essentially, it is the mechanism that makes us conscious and living. In A New Earth, he describes this identity as the following:

When that shift happens, which is the shift from thinking to awareness, an intelligence far greater than the ego’s cleverness begins to operate in your life. Emotions and even thoughts become depersonalized through awareness. Their impersonal nature is recognized. There is no longer a self in them. They are just human emotions, human thoughts. Your entire personal history, which is ultimately no more than a story, a bundle of thoughts and emotions, becomes of secondary importance and no longer occupies the forefront of your consciousness. It no longer forms the basis for your sense of identity.

I understand that this is an extremely stripped-down and abstract definition of identity, especially when we’ve been conditioned to think of our identities as defined by race, religion, sexual orientation, life experiences, interests, traits, and dispositions. Of course, all of these things are important and exciting aspects of being human, but they ultimately only define us on a superficial level. I add this new definition of identity here because if I’d identified as the conscious awareness (presence) during Breakthrough, I would’ve been invulnerable to my students’ comments of what they thought I was or my own self-criticism of what I thought I was as a result of their feedback. For example, I’ve always identified as a high-achiever and successful person, and the fact that I was struggling to control my classroom during my first summer teaching was threatening that identity, which further threw me into a tailspin. That identity–as with any other we create–is susceptible to change, whether because we grow, or because we’ve been criticized or praised. Either way, how can it be you if it changes? The concept of conscious presence does not waver–it is undeniable and universal to all human life. I can never not be it. So I am free to try out the roles of serious, stern teacher and fun, goofy teacher, all while staying true to myself.

So there’s the link to spirituality: I act as a teacher, understanding that teaching, as well as any other role I might play during my life (as a daughter, sister, friend, girlfriend, student, captain, teammate, musician, writer) are not me. I can distance myself from criticism and consider feedback with clarity and calmness as a way to improve my role if appropriate. If I approach everything I do in my life through this lens, then my worthiness is never at stake, and I become less reactive. I am free to be curious and learn and incorporate all the playfulness and creativity that makes acting (and living) fun.

I have, through the course of this year, developed a teaching voice and a persona that is more stern and confident than the person I was over the summer. I’ve been much more effective after embracing the acting metaphor; not because I changed myself, but because I found a self deeper and truer than the one I thought I knew at Breakthrough. And that discovery is what the greatest challenges in life are meant to inspire within us.