Teaching—The Sacred Art: The Joy of Opening Minds and Hearts

An exploration of the hopes, fears, joys, frustrations, gifts and limitations that influence teachers of all kinds every day. Includes stories of many teachers in conventional and unconventional settings, reflection questions, practices and activities to help you reinvigorate your passion for your vocation, your students and your subject.

Rev. Jane E. Vennard

5½ x 8½, 160 pp | 978-1-59473-585-1

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Authentic teaching is messy, exciting, frustrating, joyful, challenging—and sacred.

“Through stories, information and reflection, we [will look] inward, going more deeply into the discovery of who we are, not only as teachers but also as women and men for whom teaching is only a part of life. I believe the deepest calling … is the call to be who we truly are.”

—from Chapter Seven, “Teaching Who We Are”

Beloved teacher Jane E. Vennard leads an inner exploration of the hopes and fears, joys and frustrations, gifts and limitations that influence teachers of all kinds—teachers like you—every day. Drawing on her own experience as well as stories from many teachers in conventional and unconventional settings, she inspires you to reconnect to your original desire to open minds and hearts to learning. With reflection questions, practices and activities, she helps you reinvigorate your passion for your vocation, your students and your subject, thus recognizing how teaching is a sacred art.

“Required reading for any teacher. Jane’s insights … are profound, challenging and inspiring. The spiritual dimension that she brings to this inquiry is the antidote for teacher burn-out.”

Gary Friedman, Center for Understanding in Conflict/Center for Mediation in Law; author, Inside Out: How Conflict Professionals Can Use Self-Reflection to Help Their Clients

“Truly a book for all who teach, at any level and in any subject…. Pivotal and persuasive … the reader comes away with a clear sense that those traits and practices by which we become most authentically human allow us to become uniquely effective teachers.”

Marjorie J. Thompson, author; Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life

“A masterful meditation on teaching as a sacred art. With the gentle guidance of an experienced teacher, [this book] will enrich your life and may wholly transform your perspective on education.”

E. Glenn Hinson, Emeritus Professor of Spirituality and John Loftis Professor of Church History, Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond

“One of the finest books I’ve read on the vocation of teaching as a journey to deeper self-knowing. Eloquent and informative.”

Diane M. Millis, PhD, author, Deepening Engagement: Essential Wisdom for Listening and Leading with Purpose, Meaning and Joy

“Teaching is a tough job; Jane Vennard shows us how to make it a blessed calling as well.”

Rami Shapiro, author, The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness: Preparing to Practice

“An intimate exploration of the deepest contours of one’s soul. For both self-identified teachers and would-be teachers … offers a challenge to view teaching as a life-long journey of discovery.”

Arthur C. Jones, clinical professor of culture and psychology, University of Denver; author, Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals

“Extraordinary! The exquisite weaving of insights and stories illuminates a sacred teaching in Islam: the teacher kindles the light; the oil is already in the lamp.”

Imam Jamal Rahman, author, Sacred Laughter of the Sufis: Awakening the Soul with the Mulla’s Comic Teaching Stories and Other Islamic Wisdom


What inspired you to write this book?
SkyLight Paths has a series of books that names a number of activities as sacred: Writing—The Sacred Art, Dance—The Sacred Art, The Sacred Art of Listening and many more. The series did not yet include Teaching—The Sacred Art. Knowing of my love of teaching, SkyLight Paths invited me to submit a proposal for this book. The invitation excited me since I come from a long line of teachers and have been a teacher in some form all my adult life. It was also an opportunity to bring insights from my religious training and spiritual life to the secular world and the wide community of teachers. Over the years I have come to believe that for many people—myself included—teaching is a vocation, which is another way of speaking of the profession as a sacred art.

What did you enjoy most in the process of writing this book?
Because I wanted to draw on teaching experiences other than my own, I interviewed ten teachers in a variety of settings—a public school fourth-grade teacher, a high school English teacher with at-risk students, a mother homeschooling her three daughters, two retired professors, a yoga instructor, a preschool teacher and a high school principal. I would come away from these visits amazed at these teachers’ generosity of sharing with me—and ultimately with you, the reader—their experience of the teaching life. I was energized by the stories I heard and was eager to weave them into this book.

What about teachers who do not experience teaching as sacred?
I know that there are many teachers for whom the sacredness of this profession has gotten buried under the struggles of the everyday reality of the teaching life—overcrowded classrooms, standardized testing, students not ready to learn and the absence of support. Many of these teachers have lost the passion and possibility that brought them to teaching and have lost sight of the wonder of being present to the learning that can take place in any situation.
All the teachers I interviewed were realistic about the difficulties of teaching. They spoke about the times they overreacted to student behavior and other times when they were so tired they simply gave students busywork. They spoke of being overwhelmed by responsibility and often questioned their competence. I asked the preschool teacher if he ever thought of giving up and leaving the classroom, and he replied, “Every day.” But he was still there and was able to hold in tension both the struggles and the joy of teaching.

Who do you hope will read this book?
As I have spoken to a variety of groups about the book, one common response is that people want to buy the book for someone else—maybe a daughter, a nephew or a dear friend. Sometimes people thought of sending it to a teacher who had meant a lot to them. Not too many people have spoken about wanting it for themselves. This has interested me, and I think the reason may be that we often see sacredness in the lives of others, but don’t recognize it in ourselves. My hope is that those who receive this book as a gift will experience it as an affirmation of their work and that those who buy it for themselves will find in it the encouragement they need to discover or reconnect to the wonder of teaching.

Do you give practical advice and techniques for understanding and experiencing teaching as a sacred art?
No. I believe that experiencing teaching as a sacred art is very personal and differs from one teacher to another. Each of us needs to find the way for ourselves by being willing to explore our inner landscape—our joys, our fears, our prejudices and our vulnerabilities. I think the best way to learn from our own experience and wisdom is to tell stories from our hearts. I have taken these sacred stories and expanded on some aspect of each story, offering suggestions of what that particular story could mean to other teachers and learners.

Are you teaching now? And if so, in what setting?
I no longer teach regularly or full time, but I am actively engaged in responding to invitations from book clubs, women’s groups, seminaries, churches and retreat centers. I experience the creativity of planning the lessons and activities for a particular group, and the excitement tinged with fear as I enter into the sacred process of teaching and learning. I hope to teach in some form for many more years.

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At the end of each chapter are questions to invite you to look inward and go more deeply into the stories and ideas in the text. I encourage you to reflect on and maybe journal with them in preparation for the discussion with your book group.

Before diving into the introduction and chapters, I invite you to begin by reflecting on your experiences as a learner. Everyone in your group may not be teachers, but all of you have been to school. There can be no teaching without students and learners, so exploring these roles in your own lives will establish a context for the exploration of teaching as a sacred art.

Happy reading and sharing! I hope you are willing to share from your hearts with one another. I hope you have different responses to the stories and the ideas presented in the book. I hope you are encouraged to claim your teaching as a vocation with all the struggles this involves. I hope you might see teaching a little differently as a result of encountering this book and others in your group.

Many blessings,
Jane E. Vennard

Introductory Discussion

  • Share with your group your experiences of being a student. Did you enjoy school? Did you admire your teachers or did you believe that school had nothing to offer you? How important were your peer relationships in your experience of school and learning?
  • What were some gratifying learning experiences you had outside of school? Did you teach yourself or did someone teach you? Who did you learn from?
  • What are you in the process of learning now?

Chapter One

  • What is your “call” story? I invite you to draw your story. This picture can simply be a line. Notice where the line is straight and when it curves or changes direction abruptly. You may make note of when you lost your way or indicate the different choices you made at different times of your life. Try not to judge; simply draw your journey and let the image speak to you. What does it reveal?
  • How have your call and vocation stretched you beyond an image of yourself into a new way of being and living in the world and to a more authentic sense of purpose?
  • What risks were involved in responding to your call? Do you resonate with Heidi’s experience of flinging yourself into the unknown? What words might you use to describe your understanding of call and vocation?
  • Are you feeling discouraged as you read these stories, which are filled with passion and purpose? Do you long for the vibrancy they express, rather than thinking of your teaching as simply your job? What might you learn from the lived experience of others that would help you reconnect to your original motivation to become a teacher?

Chapter Two

  • Review the nine intelligences discussed on pages 24–27. Which three are your strongest and which are your weakest? Were these ratings true for you when you were a child, a teenager, a young adult? Were you encouraged to explore areas in which you did not excel? To become more aware of the multiple intelligences in your teaching and your life, see if you can pinpoint how others are intelligent.
  • Recall a time you had to struggle to learn something you needed to know. What was it like to persevere? Did you give up? Were you tempted to give up? Did anyone encourage you? Try to rescue you? What did you learn from the experience?
  • Think back to teachers who treated you kindly. What were their various ways of letting you know how they felt about you and other students? What effect did their kindness have on your learning experience? How do you show kindness?

Chapter Three

  • Have you had teachers who loved their subjects? What was it like to learn from them? What do you love about your subject and what do you love about teaching it?
  • What are your experiences, as both teacher and student, of teacher-centered, subject-centered or learner-centered classroom methods?
  • How alive is your inner learner? Think back on a time when a student taught you something new. What was that like?
  • How do you feel about keeping up with new developments in your field? When was the last time you explored a new area of learning?

Chapter Four

  • When in your teaching have you experienced the power of using personal language?
  • How do you feel when you get caught in a debate with another person? Do you love the challenge? Do you want to flee? Why do you react this way?
  • When are you apt to cause conversations to turn into debates? Is debate a comfortable communication style for you?
  • A colleague said of a friend, “When he listens I hear what I say.” Have you had such an experience of deep listening? What happened as a result of that experience?
  • When in your teaching would the use of honest, open questions in any form be beneficial?

Chapter Five

  • What has been your experience of shared responsibility in the classroom or with individual students? How has it worked for you? Where have problems arisen?
  • As you think of the two models of power we have explored, allow images to emerge from your mind and heart for each of the models, and draw them. What do you learn from this visual aid? How might it guide you in claiming your own authority?
  • Describe how you claim authority in the classroom, in your place of business, on the sports field, or any other place you hold the designated or informal position of teacher. How has your approach to claiming authority evolved over your years of teaching?

Chapter Six

  • Using the guidelines on pages 91–92, envision a part of yourself that is often controlled by others’ expectations. Draw the image and see how it may block your authenticity. Also take note of what gifts it may bring.
  • Where in your life are you seduced by the idea of becoming flawless and perfect? How does that longing get in the way of your teaching authentically? What might happen if excellence, rather than perfection, were guiding you? Might you then relax and recognize the strength and competence that you already possess?
  • As a way to explore how you might guard against surprise, stand with your feet slightly apart and your knees unlocked. Using your arms and upper body, move yourself into a defensive position. This might be by crossing your arms tightly across your chest or your belly. From this pose, say to yourself, “I will not be surprised, I will not be surprised, I will not be surprised.” Then take a deep breath, feel your feet on the floor giving you steady support, stand up straight, opening your eyes and arms, and say to yourself a number of times, “I welcome the surprises life brings.” Describe the physical and corresponding emotional difference in the two positions. How might this be useful in your teaching life?
  • When have you experienced teaching as holding a mirror to your soul? Describe the situation in detail. What feelings arise? What did you learn?

Chapter Seven

  • How do your ancestors and your history affect who you are and who you have become? What threads and themes do you see running through the generations?
  • When have your teaching experiences been transformative, not only in your behavior but also in your deepest being? How has teaching contributed to making you who you are today?
  • Lao-Tzu wrote that he only had three things to teach—simplicity, patience and compassion. What three words would complete this saying for you? What are your greatest treasures?