By Karen Weller Swanson and Micki M. Caskey
As winter break approaches, we wonder about reviving the hope, beauty, and joy of teaching. Our purpose is to engage with a kaleidoscopic metaphor to suggest an approach to thinking about practice and dialogue. Our approach is to embrace the complexity of teaching which includes knowing who we are. Our goal is to illustrate how teaching is like a beautiful and ever changing mandala using practice and dialogue.
As two experienced middle school teachers, we recognize the complexity of teaching is in constant flux. Middle level educators “...respond to the nature of young adolescents in all their amazing diversity and are designed specifically to support the developmental needs and social identities of students” (Bishop & Harrison, 2021, p. 3). The work of middle school teaching is kaleidoscopic in nature. We are going to focus on how practice (teaching) and dialogue (reflection and mentoring) can positively impact teachers.
Practice and Dialogue
Teaching nudges us to think and rethink our practice, sometimes by choice and sometimes by circumstance. Bishop and Harrison (2021) state that middle school teacher development also is responsive to the needs of teachers. They suggest that professional development “...is job-embedded, extends over a sustained duration, and is built on a model of ongoing coaching, feedback, and reflection” (p. 49). We believe that intentionally developing a practice and dialogue model grows the teacher identity for all who participate. Practice and dialogue can be a professional learning community, an integrated team, content area groups, or friends.
We view practice as pedagogy, content and instructional choices, building classroom communities, parent communication, and creating inclusive environments for all learners. We also view it holistically much like Maxine Greene (1988) who explained:
It is through and by means of education that they [teachers] may become empowered to think about what they are doing, to become mindful, to share meanings, to conceptualize, to make varied sense of their lived worlds. It is through education that preferences may be released, languages learned, intelligence developed, perspectives opened, possibilities disclosed (p. 12).
Dialogue, on the other hand, “is more than just talking, it embodies the challenging work of questioning” our practice. We are “a mirror for one another to challenge assumptions…and “to collaborate in an intimate way, and lastly, to grow individually because of investing in each other” (Swanson & Caskey, 2022, p. 9).
To reveal the intricacies of an integrated teaching career, we turn the kaleidoscope and consider the resulting mandala. These actions of turning and considering help us to learn and grow as teachers. We practice, and then, we dialogue about our practice.
We couple practice with dialogue because through dialogue teachers can further examine their practice. We view dialogue as our conversations with colleagues, team members, discussions with special education staff, talking with administrators, counselors, and parents. We agree with bell hooks (1994), an author and social activist, who asserted:
To engage in dialogue is one of the simplest ways we can begin as teachers, scholars, and critical thinkers to cross boundaries, the barriers that may or may not be erected by race, gender, class, professional standing, and a host of other differences (p. 130).
From practice and dialogue, we get a sounding board for ideas, reflection on instructional experiences, and problem solve. Because practice and dialogue are constant and fluid , we get better. Practice and dialogue are at the heart of our kaleidoscopic perspective.
A Kaleidoscopic Perspective
We use a kaleidoscopic metaphor because of its dynamic nature. A kaleidoscope illuminates the interplay of identities (teacher, caregiver, partner) that produce an integrated teaching identity. When turning the kaleidoscope, light and motion create beautiful patterns—a mandala that illustrates the complex, every-changing nature of teachers’ work. According to bell hooks (2003):
[T]he classroom is one of the most dynamic work settings precisely because we are given such a short amount of time to do so much. To perform with excellence and graceteachers must be totally present in the moment, totally concentrated and focused. (p. 14).
The eye pieceallows you to look inside the kaleidoscope and focus on images produced when turning the kaleidoscope. It symbolizes a starting point, a position, or stance from which a person engages with life and the world. In the case of teachers, it is your perspective of the teaching practice.
The central section is the viewing tube, encircling a set of mirrors. Most kaleidoscopes have three rectangular, lengthwise mirrors that reflect and produce an image. By turning and re-turning the viewing tube, you can reflect on your teaching practice.
The end cap securely holds the pieces of glass that move in relation to one another when turning the kaleidoscope. In our metaphor, these colored pieces of glass stand for multiple identities. For example, we are both moms, spouses, sisters, friends, colleagues, mentors, as well as teachers.
You control the turning of the kaleidoscope and the every-change beauty of the mandala. Choosing a kaleidoscopic perspective actively engages you in creating and interpretingthe beauty. A key element is a quality light source. As an instrument of reflection, the source of light makes the difference. Bright sunlight makes the colored pieces dance, while a dim lamp seems to make them float softly. Both options are beautiful but deliver different experiences. What illuminates an integrated identity can include friends, mentors, and respected educational leaders. Light can also come from students, peers, a pedagogical book, or self-reflection.
Our goal is to encourage teachers to bring themselves—their whole being—into the classroom. Teachers’ multiple identities are active, interrelated, and inextricably woven together. Taking time to breathe and reflect allows teachers to form a rich, strong, multi-faceted, and ever-changing mandala. We find that turning the kaleidoscope can lead to ever-changing mandalas with the benefits of activating creativity, building avenues for growth, quieting emotions and stress, and improving focus (Singh, 2021).
We find hope that the intentional use of practice and dialogue anchors our professional work. We believe that a kaleidoscopic perspective helps us value the beauty in small changes, while also grasping the joy we feel when turning the endcap and creating new patterns.
Bishop, P. A., & Harrison, L. M. (2021). The successful middle school: This we believe. Association for Middle Level Education.
Greene, M. (1988). The dialectic of freedom. Teachers College Press.
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge.
hooks, b. (2003). Teaching community. A pedagogy of hope. Routledge.
Singh, N. (2021, June 3). Mandala: A blend of history, religion, and psychology. The Mind Fool. https://themindfool.com/mandala/
Swanson, K. W., & Caskey, M. M. (2022). Mentoring dialogue and practice: A transformative experience. Journal of Transformative Learning, 9(1), 8–17.
Karen Weller Swanson, teacher, Timberview Middle School in Colorado Spring. As an eighth grade science teacher and former academic, she mentors teachers. Her teaching and research focus on mentoring and teachers and teacher candidates
Micki Caskey, professor emerita, Portland State University. As an academic and former practitioner, she mentors educators. Her teaching and research focus on mentoring teacher candidates and teachers.