3 ways to bring wabi-sabi into your teaching practice

In part 2 of this series, I explore the idea of wabi-sabi and how it might apply to educators.


I was initially attracted to the concept “wabi-sabi” when I was in teacher’s college. I picked up a copy of the Utne Reader and in it was an article I ended up clipping and gluing into my journal. In the midst of that year, when my peers were all striving to build the perfect lesson plans, units, and portfolios, it was a relief to read that there are those who revere imperfection, who value it for its uniqueness.

The article talked about wabi-sabi in the traditional sense – the appreciation of old, worn items: the chipped vase, the scratched wood floors, the leather patches on a favourite wool sweater. Those imperfections which speak of life being lived, of a non-disposable culture, of the beauty that comes only with age and wear. Now, doing a quick search on the internet, we see this everywhere — food bloggers are falling over themselves (and each other) to acquire antique napkins, plates and cutlery, to display their food on scratched wooden tables. I have even noticed the bizarre trend of having spilled food next to the featured dish. Seriously, keep your eye out for that one. Intentional wabi-sabi. Place those oats just so on the distressed tabletop. Distressed tabletops selling for more than new ones. How to distress your tabletop in 3 easy steps.

While it’s an appealing concept on a material level, I have been thinking today about why it caught my eye back then in university, and why I thought it might make the cut as a name for this blog.

1. Trust the tried & true

I think we all deserve to cut ourselves a little slack (well – most of us!). There are so many amazing tools and strategies at our fingertips, it’s hard to be OK with not putting them all into place and then crowing about it on our blogs. We want the best for our students, and we see what all these other amazing educators are doing, and we wonder why we can’t do it, too. [a brief aside: parents, especially mothers, go ahead and substitute yourselves in there. It’s the same thing.] Did you dust off a tried-and-true lesson plan you’ve been using & improving for the last 4 years, and use it again? Good! It works, it’s getting better with age, and your students can tell that you love it. It might even work if the internet cuts out. Not everything we do has to be cutting edge, techno, collaborative 21st-century buzzwordy bloggy stuff – if it works.

2. Students are imperfect

The next thing that strikes me is that it’s important for us to remember that our students are not perfect. They come into our classrooms with all of their foibles: this one stayed up too late, that one isn’t into the subject, the other one had to work all weekend and didn’t do her homework. The strongest student in the class rubs you the wrong way. The one who participates the most never has a pencil. You plan an amazing class, and half the group doesn’t show. (I’ll stop now, as I could go on all day). They will never be perfect, but what is lacking in one is often made up for in the other. The spacey one who’s obsessed with his hair all of a sudden surprises you with an insightful and well-organized presentation. The ones who had trouble working as a group figured out how to resolve their conflicts. The one with ear buds in all the time sat down with you for a great talk and even made eye contact.  My point here is this: our students will never be perfect, so even if you could plan the perfect lesson, it would never be perfect. Instead of focusing on that, I would like to try to focus on what their imperfections bring to the class.

3. Wine snobs need not apply

Can you drink an amazing wine out of a chipped glass?  Yes – but maybe you can’t get quite that same perfection if you put the wine in a coffee cup (vintage or not!). Can you give a great class if your work conditions are not perfect? If there isn’t quite enough money, if your colleagues are not supportive of your creativity, if the school grounds don’t allow you to take the class outside as often as you’d like? I think so. I think a teacher who is creative, thoughtful, and who strives to continually learn and grow, can do wonders with that chipped glass. She could do wonders with the coffee cup, too. However, give her a styrofoam cup and all those subtle flavours might not come through. I think we can succeed despite or even because of imperfection in our work environments, to a point. But negatively comparing our work to that done by those with more resources is like tasting a great wine out of a styrofoam cup and saying it’s not that good.

We are not all Michelle Pfeiffer

Without being defeatist, I’d suggest that there are so many uncontrollable factors that go into making authentic learning happen, it seems silly to berate ourselves when things don’t go as magically as we had hoped. If we can embrace wabi-sabi in the classroom, maybe we can forgive our students for not being 100% engaged; maybe we can forgive ourselves for not being that teacher worthy of a major motion picture.

For an in-depth discussion of wabi-sabi, click here



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