As the teaching profession becomes increasingly fraught with forces within education and beyond it, teachers in all stages are searching for meaning in seemingly unlikely places. In response to Vanessa Zoltan's "Praying with Jane Eyre", we examined teaching through the lens of sacredness. Through a dialogue guided by Zoltan and fueled by the examination of our own teaching practices, we created our own criteria for what can be sacred and went on to suggest the larger implications of this concept in the field of teacher education.
The traditional books just weren’t cutting it anymore. Almost overnight, it seemed my students now needed something from me that I just didn’t know how to provide. I had never taught high school English during a pandemic. And none of the resources I usually included in my teacher education classes mentioned anything about social distancing, virtual learning, mental health, or mask mandates. As 2021 wound to its COVID-ridden close, I knew that my English Education curriculum was in desperate need of a booster of its own.
I started reaching out to our alumni to see if they could offer any insights into the types of materials they were using in their own practices: not necessarily with a focus on their pedagogy—I wasn’t looking for things they were teaching—but really whatever they naturally turned to whenever they needed the type of personal/professional development that they couldn’t otherwise find in their school communities. I figured that if real teachers could share whatever authentic materials helped spark joy in their careers—the things they were actually reading for solace and guidance in their lives, and not just whatever they felt forced to read in their jobs—that I might be able to somehow use these materials to serve my students better in their preservice education.
A small handful of these graduates started suggesting a book written by American podcaster and self-proclaimed “Atheist Jew,” Vanessa Zoltan. Her memoir-esque collection of essays—which she calls “sermons”—entitled "Praying with Jane Eyre: Reflections on Reading as a Sacred Practice", had not only comforted these novice teachers amidst their seas of classroom struggles, but also, they reported, helped refine how they approached the practice of reading.
After studying the book through the lens of a teacher educator, I realized that while, certainly, Zoltan focuses on the idea of reading as a sacred act, the book also serves as a metacommentary on teaching as its own sacred process. Zoltan’s methods for engaging with literary texts mirror the ways in which I seek to prepare my students to negotiate the various complex elements of their own classrooms-as-texts, as well as how I conceptualize the task of preparing these future teachers. In other words, even though on the surface it says very little about teaching-as-practice, Zoltan’s book actually offers valuable insights into the teaching profession, on both P-12 and teacher education levels. With Zoltan’s text as a governing theoretical framework, I decided to partner with a former student-now-friend to explore how we each navigate teaching as a sacred act in our own praxes.
The partnership between Devon and me actually began in January 2019, when they were my student in an upper-level Young Adult Literature seminar at our university. The following Fall, Devon and I worked together again in an English teaching methods course, and we stayed in close, professional contact the following Spring during their student teaching practicum.
After graduating in May 2020 and spending two years teaching high school in the district where they student taught, Devon took another position at a neighboring high school in the Fall, of 2022. They are currently in their third year as a secondary English teacher. I am a tenured Associate Professor and Director of English Education at the same midsized, Midwestern American university where Devon and I met and from which they graduated amidst a global pandemic.
Just as Zoltan’s (2022) book serves to chronicle her reflections of reading as a sacred practice, this study seeks to reveal how we, as two different educators, have used Zoltan’s work to examine how we each engage with the various “texts” of teaching (classrooms, schools, students, etc.) in sacred ways. The distinction we ultimately strive to make in this project is delineating between treating some particular thing as sacred in itself and treating any thing sacredly. The emphasis, in other words, is on the action or the engagement itself, not the object; approaching sacredness as a verb, as opposed to a noun. Framing sacredness in terms of behavior, we hoped, would not only alleviate the tensions that derive from not “getting” a particular object or thing; it would also empower “readers” of the world to have it within themselves to treat the world in a sacred fashion. This held particular relevance for us as teachers who, in the wake of so many worldly crises, were struggling to view any aspect of our profession as sacred or special. Maybe the problem wasn’t the profession but rather how we approached it.
Zoltan argues, “as pretentious and lofty as it may sound, the point of treating any text as sacred is to learn how to treat one another as sacred” (p. 23). As teachers and friends, Devon and I approached Zoltan’s book with an earnest desire to “let it teach [us] how to get better at being [loving people] in the world” (p. 22). Especially in our current moment of myriad curricular, cultural, and climate crises, we found that by studying this book as the primary lens through which we might also study ourselves as human educators, we each might evolve in our capacity to be more resilient, empathetic, and holistic teachers for our students. We offer this project in the spirit of doing just that.
Two specific questions governed this self-study research:
- How do Zoltan’s three requisites for reading as a sacred act (which she defines as Faith, Rigor, and Community) apply to the notion of teaching sacredly?
- How can framing teaching as a sacred act inform the praxes of teacher educators, preservice teachers, and practicing classroom teachers?
We hope that our reflective study offers a template for how other teachers might rekindle their sense of love, joy, and investment in a profession that’s proven increasingly difficult to navigate. Despite our current struggles, we each have maintained our faith in the transformative power of teaching. And through treating teaching—the act we love—as sacred, we hope this project echoes Zoltan’s notion that “treating something you love as sacred can be that buoy in the sea” that “[fills] the voids that find us in the dark of night and [gives] us things to hold onto in scary times” (p. 50).
For this project, we extended upon LaBoskey’s (2004) criteria for self-study research to employ a variety of conceptions and methods of collaborative self-study (e.g., Bullock & Ritter, 2011; LaBoskey et al., 1998; Louie et al., 2003). We began by each reading and annotating Zoltan’s text on our own. We then shared our written annotations with one another; met in person to discuss the annotations; composed and shared written reflections on these conversations; and met again to discuss the evolution of our written reflections.
Through a triangulation of our sustained critical dialogue (both written and spoken), narrative writing, and probing/inquiry (in the form of frequent, informal virtual and in-person conversations that we recorded and subsequently coded and analyzed), we developed a greater understanding of the degree to which we each approach teaching as a sacred act, as well as for its implications on our respective praxes. Our use of critical, sustained dialogue (Murphy & Pinnegar, 2020; Guilfoyle et al., 2004), served as a foundation for developing trustworthiness in our findings (Hamilton & Pinnegar, 2017). Our analysis, both of our annotations of Zoltan and our subsequent discussions, have led us to a finer understanding of how Zoltan’s conception of sacred-as-verb can apply to the craft of teaching. Through critical, professional dialogue and our subsequent coding, we identified emerging themes (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000) which we discuss below. Ultimately in this study, we echo Gauna et. al. (2020) by noting that, “the centrality of dialogue to our pedagogy and evidence of opportunities for us to refine this aspect of our practices led us to the focus of this collaborative self-study” (p. 2).
According to Zoltan, a reader needs three things in order to treat a text as sacred: Faith, Rigor, and Community. Faith, Zoltan argues, is rooted in the belief that imperfect things “can give you blessings not only in spite of their imperfections but because of them” (p. 8). In order to read sacredly, we must have faith not only that the text has something essential to reveal, but also that we, as readers, are capable of deciphering what that essential thing is. Rigor, Zoltan asserts, “means that you keep at it even when your heart isn’t in it…It means running in the cold and when you have a cold” (p. 10). And Community, the final component according to Zoltan, “means that you need a gym buddy…someone who points out when you are being shallow or lazy…to make sure you show up even when all you want to do is stay home” (p. 11).
For this study, we took up Zoltan’s theoretical lens to examine how we each approach teaching as a sacred process. If we engage with teaching through Faith, Rigor, and Community—if these serve as the anchors of teaching sacredly—what meaning/purpose might we make for ourselves as teachers? What anchors us, and keeps us afloat? What themes emerge when we view our profession through the lens that Zoltan offers?
Like Zoltan, our project was governed by 1) our shared faith that the imperfect circumstances of our imperfect practices have something essential to reveal to us; 2) rigor, insofar as our commitment to the fidelity of self-study research (LaBoskey, 2004) and the teaching profession writ large; and 3) community as it pertains to our critical friendship and scholarly collaboration. Just as Zoltan demonstrated through her sacred read of "Jane Eyre", our study has not only offered personal and professional sustenance but has also highlighted aspects of our praxes that, to use Zoltan’s terms, serve as buoys in our teaching seas. We discuss each of these aspects below.
The first buoy that we located in our seas of self-study was commitment. “Commitments,” writes Zoltan, “can be freeing. They allow us to focus on one thing rather than looking around at everything, including the abyss” (p. 81). Our study revealed that, especially in our current moment, where Devon and I intersect most commonly with regard to our first buoy is in our shared commitment simply to survive. Since they graduated in 2020, for example, Devon notes:
I have become a licensed educator, taught through much of a pandemic, fought destructive House bills, left teaching altogether, and returned, last-minute, to a new environment, committing for the third time to a school year that I do not and cannot on any level understand.
But commitment is not about planning to do one specific thing; it is about making a promise to fulfill a duty that we know almost nothing about. Each time a lawmaker makes it clear, once again, that education is not their goal for our education system, teachers come out of the woodwork in droves. We speak at city hall meetings. We wear red. We post confessionals on Facebook. But, most of all, we stay. Not all of us, of course; a staggering number of teachers do not make it through their fifth year in the field.
Those of us who stay, however, do so for the very reason Zoltan cites as she discusses Jane Eyre: ‘I will try not to die on your terms’ (p. 89). With every blow to our profession, every law or mandate or ban that strives to make teaching in public schools untenable, we buckle down, grit our teeth, and refuse to be moved. I deeply resonate with Zoltan’s assertion that “[a] willingness to survive is about believing in the possibility of a better future” (p. 89). I simply cannot tell whether that future is mine to experience, but, at least for now, I’m committed to surviving in order to find out.
Like Devon, I also tethered my commitment to teaching, overwhelmingly, in the notion of surviving. Of not dying. This commitment to survival underscored our respective course syllabi/curricula, the feedback we offer students on their projects, and oftentimes, the design of the projects themselves.
Especially as teachers with considerably less power than the system itself, we each found comfort in Zoltan’s assertion that survival is not only an act of commitment of hope but also a threat to the status quo. It is a promise of change (Zoltan, 2020, p. 90). As our data demonstrated, Devon and I both recognize the inevitability of consistent betrayals and sources of resentments in the teaching profession. Through our dialogues and narrative writing, we found that, like Zoltan, “when [we] have been betrayed, one of the main feelings is embarrassment, as if [we] have been taken for being stupid of actually been stupid…Betrayals make us feel as though we cannot trust the world” (p. 97).
Of course, this lack of trust breeds a particular type of resentment toward the teaching profession. Yet as Zoltan argues, “resentment is controlled fire. It is about feeling a sense of unfairness at being treated a certain way, and sitting with that feeling…It is a feeling that makes you notice injustice” (p. 141). Through our discussions and written narratives, we noted that as teachers, Devon and I are no strangers to these injustices, both on the P-12 level and in higher education.
Yet it is the consciousness that stems from this resentment—which itself derives from a sense of betrayal we each feel toward education—that allows us to maintain our commitment to our profession. As Camus writes of the damned Sisyphus, “the lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory.” It was never the perfection of the system that we trusted. Nor was it our capacity to achieve absolution within it. Our data revealed that it was never teaching that betrayed us; in our own ways, we each felt betrayed by something we never subscribed to in the first place—a grandiose yet toxic myth we had fabricated for ourselves that, while tangentially linked to our earnest passions for teaching, was inherently distinct from the realities of being a teacher. So yes, we felt betrayed by the System or the World for what we perceived them to be doing to education; and yes, that betrayal bred a resentment that consistently tempts us to leave the profession altogether.
But as we studied our praxes sacredly—that is, with Faith, Rigor, and Community—we found that this same resentment which fuels our fire and flirts with hatred also keeps us safe. And this sense of betrayal compels us to, as Zoltan suggests, return to the heart of the thing in teaching that we once trusted as a means of relearning how to trust ourselves. We maintain our commitment to survive teaching. Not despite our resentments and senses of betrayal. But precisely and maybe even solely because of them.
Of course, despite our shared commitment to survival, we recognized that constant betrayals and resentments could easily lead to a certain meanness in our teaching. Yet as our data consistently revealed, both Devon and I seem to govern our praxes very much by a spirit of kindness that serves to combat the allure of dismissive cruelty.
Even as a student of mine, Devon struggled with teachers whose pedagogy verged on oppressive or subjugating. As they reflected on one of their early practicum experiences, Devon recalled:
I watched for indicators of [my mentor’s] relationship with students. She once called the school resource officer to the room to lecture about student behavior. When he left, she did not apologize to the student with autism whose self-stimming mumbling was just used against him, and she did not acknowledge or attempt to problematize the lack of thought she put into calling a police officer as soon as her Black student didn’t listen to her. This struck me as unkind.
Unfortunately, the students took notice. They were smart. When a vice principal came in to tell them that their class had received more referrals than any other sixth-grade class, one girl piped up, “well, who’s writing those referrals?” She was told she was being disrespectful. I remember wondering how anyone could expect her to respect this teacher, or this system, especially when they never answered her question.
As we examined how we each treat teaching as a sacred act, we found that in addition to our respective commitments, Devon and I also tether our praxes to the buoy of kindness. Our written narratives and discussions revealed that our conception of kindness very much aligns with Zoltan’s. “True kindness must be brave,” Zoltan argues. “It must be intentional, it must include sacrifice, and it absolutely must entirely humanize the other and ourselves,” (p. 85). This “bold, vulnerable, and completely insensible” brand of kindness underscored not only how we engage with schools and students, but also informed how we care for ourselves as educators. Devon and I found that we equate kindness with courage and humility, with grit and an earnest pursuit to continue “fanning “the flames of humanity within ourselves,” (Zoltan, 2020, p. 87). As teachers, we recognize the necessity to, on a daily basis, simply take everyone in. Embrace their circumstances and create a space where the inherently self-serving nature of niceness pales to the communal good of kindness. Of course, being kind doesn’t rid the world of tyranny; but we each ground our teaching in the notion that through kindness, we might be able to live as humanly as possible to each other. Even the tyrants.
The third buoy that we found anchors our approach to teaching involves the idea of queerness, particularly as it functions both as an adjective and a verb. As a queer teacher, Devon writes:
My parents each reacted to my decision to pursue teaching—which, in a very real sense, was its own coming-out story—in eerily similar ways to how they would eventually react to my being queer: my mom telling me she kind of already knew; my dad pretending to be way more okay with it than he really was. He told me it was my decision, but he clearly could not understand why I would choose this--unintentionally setting me up for the reactions I would hear for years to come, not only to my career path, but also to my orientation.
We do choose to be teachers--it is a career, not an identity--but it is also true that many of us, once we have entered the field, cannot really get ourselves to leave. Something keeps us there. An identity does take root, and we reach the point that we can’t imagine not being what we are. It’s the same with being queer, in that sense.
I experience a similar feeling of belonging at an educator’s conference that I do in a gay bar, even if both do come with a certain level of annoyance and disillusionment with the group as a whole. At the same time, both teachers and queer folks are treated as monoliths, although we know we are not only deeply different from one another, but we also fail to agree on certain issues that are at the very core of who we are and what we do. In both cases, our lives are marked by fatigue, mistreatment, and legislative violence, and we seem to be the only ones who care.
While I personally do not identify as queer, Devon and I did find that we consistently united in our collective desire to queer various aspects of the teaching profession. Whether it’s through alternative text selection, unconventional/multimodal methods of assessment, inclusive curriculum design, or even the nontraditional schools in which we’ve each served, our data revealed 1) a latent resistance we each respectively have with dominant power structures, 2) an acute awareness of and sensitivity to alterity, and 3) an unflinching inclination to provoke disequilibrium and disrupt normative paradigms.
Thus, in addition to our shared commitment to survive the absurdities of public education and conduct ourselves by a schema of kindness, we also actively seek queerness in our teaching practices: queerness in the sense of our identities as educators relative to traditional, systemic frameworks, and queerness in terms how we each occupy and navigate these frameworks. Our pursuit of queerness in teaching, coupled with our natural tendency to queer, in a variety of ways, the educative process, makes queerness perhaps the most significant buoy that keeps us afloat in the seas of education.
At the teacher education level, my personal attempts to queer traditional curriculum were exemplified by my inclusion of Zoltan’s "Praying with Jane Eyre" in my upper-level English teaching methods class. As a pilot study of sorts, it did not go well. But that doesn’t mean the effort didn’t reveal promise. In the closing section below, Devon and I discuss how Zoltan’s reflections on reading as a sacred practice might inform how teachers may approach not only the practice of teaching but also the preparation of teachers.
Even though they are no longer a preservice teacher, Devon found tremendous value in reading "Praying with Jane Eyre" as a practicing educator. They note:
The field of education has a long-held, stubborn refusal to change, not because it is the best it could ever possibly be, but because it is easier for certain parties if the systems in place remain as they are. Zoltan’s practice challenges this, as did my own reading of her work through the lens of teaching. Viewing teaching as sacred, whether in Zoltan’s terms or in my/our own, deepened my sense of identity and purpose in my profession while also revealing cracks in the foundation that I had previously missed. This practice can, and should, do both; it yields neither a net positive nor negative, much as teaching is comprised of moments of both. In addition, unlike many staff-wide professional development programs, this practice offered community while also allowing ample space for personal reflection. I was able to understand myself as a teacher without being told, either by the text or by my partner, what that understanding ought to be.
Despite their initial difficulties and apprehensions, several of my students echoed Devon’s sentiments after studying Zoltan’s text. When first engaging with the book, these students reported that their primary inclination was either to 1) focus specifically on how it could directly teach them methods of ELA instruction, as opposed to offering an opportunity to construct their own meanings, or 2) approach the text through as something they themselves would actually teach their own students.
As I discovered through our class discussions and my students’ reflective feedback, I failed to frame the experience in the way that Devon and I approached for this self-study; namely, rather than using the book solely as a surrogate for traditional methods instruction, I wanted my students to engage with the text through a metacognitive, reflective lens of what it can offer their entire approach to teaching. Even though this first iteration was largely unsuccessful in achieving those ends, our self-study did offer hope that when presented as a holistic guide to teacher identity and positionality—as a sort of praxis primer—Zoltan’s "Praying with Jane Eyre" can verily serve as an invaluable resource for any teacher who’s struggling to stay afloat in their profession or seeking to revitalize a dormant sense of purpose and progress.
For Devon and me, the overall takeaway of this study was the humbling yet encouraging reminder that there is simply no such thing as a sacred classroom. Or method. Or school or student. Or text or curriculum. Or teacher. Prescribing sacredness to things, we concluded, is futile because it absolves us, as agents, of any accountability or incentive to evolve. If things are sacred in themselves—if there is such a thing as a perfect student or saintly teacher or “best” practice—then their acquisition comes with a finitude that risks stagnation and apathy. Why strive for more in a world of absolutes?
Rather, if, as Zoltan does with reading, teachers can frame the act of teaching as sacred, then by extension, any classroom can be imbued with profundity and the capacity to elicit wonder. Any student or text or school or curriculum can be navigated with the faith that it has value and something to contribute. And of course, through faith, rigor, and community, treating teaching as sacred allows us to cultivate a belief that we just might have something to offer the world.
If nothing else, that renewed sense of purpose and passion might very well be the buoy all teachers occasionally need to withstand the inevitable waves of public education. Restoring our relationship with teaching, we found, became much less about whatever riches we once sought at the end of the journey and almost entirely about the compass we used to get there. When viewed as a sacred act, the means of teaching don’t only justify the ends; they become ends onto themselves.
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