A review of
The Flourishing Teacher : Vocational Renewal for a Sacred Profession
Christina Bieber Lake
Reviewed by Geoffrey Sheehy
An all-staff meeting may seem like an inefficient or counter-productive event. And it certainly can be those things—how many times have I sat in a meeting ten minutes too long, willing my colleagues into silence when they are asked, “Anything else?”
But also, these all staff meetings are opportunities for the Questioners to ask what the rest of us hadn’t thought of or were too tentative to suggest. Here I particularly think of Connie and Dorothy, a pair of fearless women who asked at least one question per staff meeting, every one of them incisive, intelligent, and tough. The best part was that they were also two of the most creative teachers in the building, so their concerns could never be dismissed as reflexive resistance to innovation.
Before Connie and Dorothy retired, I never thought to call them Questioners, but that is the title that fits them. I was introduced to the idea by Christina Bieber Lake, who cites in The Flourishing Teacher Gretchen Rubin’s idea that people tend to be one of four types—Obligers, Questioners, Upholders, and Rebels. Questioners, Lake explains, “will gladly do things that make sense to them to do but will question the validity of any other demands placed upon their time.”
On a school’s staff, a great number of teachers will always be Obligers, “doing everything that is asked of them” and a few will be Upholders, “committed to doing what must be done for the sake of the institution.” These Obligers and Upholders are not pushovers or simpletons; in my experience these are often some of the most talented people on staff. They plunge themselves into their work and never consider pursuing anything besides excellence. They do so for the good of the community, the institution, the students, or even out of habit. But in their plunging, they are vulnerable to drowning.
And that is what makes the Questioners so crucial. They are not Rebels, simply rejecting whatever they don’t like, but they provide some resistance, some friction, to counter the force of new ideas—or old ones. If you’re going to convince Connie and Dorothy to hop on board, you’ll have to answer some questions first. And those questions can move Obligers and Upholders away from the depths that are too deep for anyone without a boat.
In reading The Flourishing Teacher, it is easy to see Christina Bieber Lake is a Questioner, and though as different in personality as a person could be from Connie and Dorothy, her value to her colleagues must be similar. In many ways, this book is Lake’s word of advice to her obliging and upholding peers and her buffering encouragement to her fellow questioners.
She knows this profession—teaching—will swallow those who wander into it (“preparation expands to fill the time you give it,” she astutely observes), so she offers with complete transparency advice to help teachers reconsider their habits so they can endure with a spirit of gratitude.
I found myself buoyed by Lake’s advice, even the bits that may not be all that necessary for me. She helps a teacher learn how to say no (with strategies more nuanced than simply saying no to everything). She shares advice on how to rest—at certain times of the year, of the week, and of the day. She offers solid counsel about what is most important for the life of a scholar, and with it she offers smart systems to protect those things, enabling a person to sustain them. After I read about one system—her grading and feedback, which uses the Notability app, the Apple pencil, and Notability’s audio recording function—I applied for a grant so two colleagues and I could implement it.
As a high school teacher, there are limits to how applicable Lake’s advice is to me. I had not realized until reading The Flourishing Teacher how different my working life is from the college professor’s: both our jobs are full of bureaucratic stress, but it’s of distinct types. Hers involves pressure to publish scholarship, to land sabbaticals, to consider students’ evaluations, to serve on substantial faculty committees. In fact, when I read Lake’s defense of “free-range reading,” I lost any edge of jealousy I might harbor toward my professorial friends. The idea that I would feel guilty for reading an 800-page history of the Civil War because it doesn’t relate directly to my field of scholarship is comical to me—outside of contract time, I read whatever I want. Lake, to my mind, has more reason to envy me than I her.
But that is to emphasize the curious. It is easy for me to hear the core of Lake’s thought—which is encouragement for colleagues. And this encouragement arises out of perhaps the biggest difference of all between her world and mine: tenure. In my own experience, substantive encouragement arises from empathy, from understanding. In the midst of the coronavirus measures, for example, the most encouraging words I have heard have been stories of disaster—stories that admit openly that the job and circumstances are hard.
Lake, under cover of tenure, shares openly how she struggles as a teacher and where she believes her employer has gone wrong. The end result is not a lesser view of her institution, however, but a wholistic view of her experience, and only that whole and rich view can offer such encouragement.
Teachers are typically praised for their individual influence. I have lost count of how many motivational speakers I have heard prompt the audience to think of ‘the’ teacher who inspired them. And in some ways this makes sense, as we teachers walk into the classroom each period alone. But the student is educated not by one teacher but by an army of teachers, and I am relieved that when I fall short, my students’ next teacher won’t fall short in the same ways, and that our strengths and weaknesses may balance out. Our final offering, an education, is entirely, wholly, collective.
To strengthen this collective effort, the Questioners must ask their questions and share the things no one else will say–the true things that, if ignored, could lead us to drown. I’m ultimately grateful for Lake’s tenure, honesty, and advice. Though starkly different in temperament and experience, she reminds me of Connie and Dorothy—women who embolden me to do my job well despite its difficulty.
Geoffrey Sheehy teaches high school students writing and literature in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He enjoys writing nonfiction–typically book reviews and essays—and serves as an elder/pastor at a small Bible church. He sometimes tweets here: @sheehy