Monday, February 9, 2015

Why I #LoveTeaching: It’s About Finding Flow

When everyone is working toward the same goal, in the same space, a room throbs. The space hums. The activity doesn’t matter so much as the intentionality: to concentrate effort and become a part of a process of meaningful work. The energy moves into flow. I have experienced flow in all kinds of learning situations—both as a student and as a teacher (I am always a learner, in whatever role). I have felt it in yoga classes, while working in gardens, doing service work building houses, in book groups, in writers’ workshops, in professional development. It happens to me alone, too, when I write, when I run or hike, sometimes when I cook.   

This sense of engaged awareness, lack of distraction, a distorted sense of time, loss of self-consciousness —humming along with the work and with others—these are qualities that characterize flow experience. According to Csikszentmihalyi (1996) flow involves deep immersion in an activity, producing feelings of success and competence, sometimes joy. We know it when we feel it.  

I love teaching for many reasons, but I love teaching best when flow happens in my classroom. I have experienced this shared energy in a silent session of independent reading or writing: the only sounds may be pages turning, pencils moving, or keys clicking, but the palpable vibration is there, collecting in the spaces between us.  I have experienced it in discussions: insights are almost visible as they zing around the room, one speaker building upon the ideas she has just heard, passing her insight like a ball of fire to the next speaker. Faces open, alight, eyes widen, voices catch—“ah ha!”—in moments of realization. “We’re getting it; we understand!” When it happens during class, the bell will come as a surprise, and students may say “Class went by so fast today!”

I can’t force flow in my teaching, and I can’t pretend to know how it works, but when it happens, I always just let it. I do believe there are conditions I can create in order to find flow. I can help students to feel comfortable by honoring their expertise and voices, giving them opportunities to take ownership of their own thinking, offering choices of meaningful work, and being there to guide their inspiration—and I think setting these intentions helps. I can’t predict it, though, and when the magic begins to happen, the best I can do is ride along on the waves, even if it interferes with my lesson plan or curriculum schedule.

When a classroom is humming with flow experience—when my students and I are positioned as fellow learners, breathing and growing together, I feel read and whole, as if I am doing my life’s work. And I think my students feel it, too. Even when it happens only rarely, flow experience keeps me engaged—it’s the heart of my practice, and why I love teaching.    

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York, NY: Harper Collins.  

A note: this post is my contribution to the #LoveTeaching Campaign, a celebration of teacher love during Valentine's Week, 2015. Information is available here

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