The View from Here...
Notes on Teaching to Inspire

The first step in the acquisition of wisdom is silence,
the second listening, the third memory, the fourth practice, the fifth teaching others.

Solomon Ibn Gabriol


Dr. C. van Daalen-Smith, R.N., PhD Teaching Philosophy
Spring, 2010

An invitation to share my passion concerning teaching is an invitation that I embrace with excitement. In the paragraphs to follow, I hope to illuminate my values and beliefs concerning teaching, learning, my role as a candle-lighter, the presence of ubiquitous student wisdom and the potential for social change that teaching at a university provides. My comments are not exhaustive, but my emergent thinking about the privileged position a teaching post affords. It is my hope that this will serve as an introduction to the ways I convene learning gatherings, and provide a window into my praxis as an educator.

At the Seattle Special Olympics, nine contestants, all
physically or mentally disabled, assembled at the starting
line for the 100-yard dash. At the gun, they all started out,
not exactly in a dash, but with a relish to run the race to the
finish and win. All, that is, except one little boy who stumbled
on the asphalt, tumbled over a couple of times, and began to
cry. The other eight heard the boy cry. They slowed down and
looked back. Then they all turned around and went back........
every one of them. One girl with Down's Syndrome bent down
and kissed him and said, "This will make it better." Then all
nine linked arms and walked together to the finish line.


Such is the journey I strive to enable in the learning collectives I convene: anti-hierarchical, collaborative and we-centered. Who I am, is how I teach. Who I am is what I teach. My way of being with students is rooted in a firm belief in the power of mutuality and interconnectedness. Rooted in my profession's ethical values of respect, choice, autonomy, fairness and dignity, I plan learning gatherings whose blossoms are yielded by the collective wisdom in the room. My desire for peace based ways of being in the world which are enveloped by social inclusion, fuels a curriculum that confronts and un-packs supposed truths: truths about health, children, women, learning, mental health, hierarchy, and privilege. To me, there is no disconnect between the dialogue I invite and the way I invite dialogue: my praxis is my passion; my hopes for our planet are my curriculum; and the changes I seek are co-constructed and eventually led by students from one privileged semester to the next. The means are the ends. How I do what I do, is more important than what I do. Process matters, and most of my energy as a teacher is devoted to paying attention to the right of dignity, choice, autonomy, and agency that each student I partner with is afforded. I strive to replace the focus on "getting it", to "getting there" – and this attention to the energy in the room, to voice, power and respect, ensures that every student "gets it" in her or his own way. Each semester ends with a crescendo of acknowledged agency and students leave congratulating themselves and seeing themselves and their peers as actors in the world – in a better world where every issue is a health issue and every issue is important to a nurse.

Cooperative, socially critical, transformative, collaborative and empowering are key words associated with the approach I utilize in the classrooms I convene. I invite students as co-learners into partnerships with one another and with myself in order to support and foster mutuality in learning. I intentionally shift the focus from that of a supposed finish line, to the asphalt itself and the multiple ways in which we sojourn together along it. Freire (1973) believed that liberation was not achieved autonomously but rather through a mutual process. In my view, teaching and learning are tools in the backpack of change agents, and I believe that because of the privileged lens through which nurses are permitted to see the world, we must understand our role as change agents rather than individuals who bandage up the various spirit injuries incurred by our patients – only to send them out to be bruised again. Thus, what I teach and how I teach are both driven by an ethical responsibility to make a difference- to plant seeds – or to light the candles of passion for a more healthy social system. It has been said that a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle. What I've come to realize is that in lighting candles, my flicker of hope never wanes, and my path to protect the dignity of those both in the classroom and outside of it, will always be lit.


Blythe Clinchy's (1985) feminist model of connected education is one that I draw heavily upon. Her model, based on research involving 135 women students, is built from the understanding that many women learners "yearn for a teacher who would help them articulate their latent knowledge: a midwife teacher, i.e. one who draws knowledge out" (p.40). Clinchy's (1985) model of connected education includes: (a) explicit confirmation for all modes of thinking and kinds of knowledge that women value; (b) opportunities to explore the particularities of first hand experience, before moving to conceptualization; (c) support for women's efforts to define their own educational tasks and develop their own individual styles of work; and (d) arrangements for egalitarian and collaborative construction of knowledge among teachers and students.

Through a two year self-directed study of feminist pedagogical principles and practice, I now incorporate attention to six distinct concepts in my teaching practice. These include voice, mastery, power, difference/diversity, position and authority (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger and Tarule (1986); Bunch and Pollack, 1983; Chinn and Wheeler, 1991; Clinchy, 1985; Freire, 1971; Gaskell and McLaren, 1991; Piercy and Freeman, 1970; Rich, 1979; and Shreve,1989). These represent key principles associated with feminist teaching, and are central to my philosophy and how I live it in the classroom.


When the student is ready .....
the teacher appears.




Voice has to do with my desire to foster the awakening of responses from students that reflect their opinions, beliefs, and emergent understanding. I embrace the use of the word "I" in both oral and written form – for it is the "I" in any student author that best represents one's core values and way of being/viewing the world. To me, voice, no matter how it is demonstrated, is a metaphor for students awakenings and connotes a connection of one's education to one's personal experience – a connection that members of marginalized groups must often give up when they seek mastery through canonized dominant discourses. At every step and in every learning evidence, I seek to foster voice. I seek to break silences, and invite students to question, share, confront, debate, and take risks. I know a class is successful when there is joyous boisterous conversation occurring, and students leave speaking with one another about the content.

In breaking silences, naming ourselves, uncovering the hidden,
making ourselves present, we begin to define a reality which
resonates to us, which affirms our being, and which allows the
woman teacher and the woman student alike to take ourselves,

(Adrienne Rich, 1979, p. 245)


As a feminist educator, I believe that an examination and confrontation of the power in the teacher-learner relationship is an ethical requirement. Like Chinn and Wheeler (1991), I invite students to let go of a "tell me what to do" attitude and in return I reflexively practice so as to never adopt a power-over posture as the professor in the room. Classrooms are steeped in tradition, and for students entering a feminist classroom, overcoming expectations for traditional paternalistic role expectations for teachers and learners is not easy. I embrace the dignity and comfort needs of the learners while gently nudging the learning collective into a shared power model where we collectively tap into the wisdom in the room. I strive to stay rooted in the moment of a given classroom encounter rather than focus on what I envision at the end, and respect that this shift to shared power, may never be desired nor comfortable for some students. Above all else, with dignity as my headlights, I convene classrooms with a constant attention to a power with model, and all decisions are made as a learning collective. With an explicit expectation for accountability to one another, students quickly flourish under a model of classroom process where hierarchy is questioned and dismantled, and multiple ways of knowing and showing are celebrated.


Feminist educators seek to dismantle power imbalances in classrooms, interpersonal relationships and societal structures. In order to do this, a recognition of the differences that connect learners is critical. Attention to and celebration of diversity is central to my teaching practice, and in so doing, I strive to enable voice for the typically voiceless. Difference links to the concept of position: a learner's social position is defined by a social system that values or devalues individuals based on age, gender, size, class, literacy, and sexual orientation. On the other hand, one's position, in all its richness, affects and informs knowledge as well as authority. A classroom is a small version of our larger culture, and in so being, can be complicit in reinforcing problematic norms and practices that exclude, marginalize and discredit. With the power afforded by the title of "professor", I believe it is my ethical responsibility to not only not be complicit, but to shift unequal positions of authority, if only for twelve short weeks during a semester.


Students come into learning collectives expecting to be greeted by an authority in a given subject area. Without careful navigation of this expectation, an educator can oppress students and erroneously imply that students are mere empty receptacles into which authorities deposit information. Rather than what Freire (1973) coined a banker model of education, I practice a midwife model of education and draw wisdom out of students through a series of activities aimed at the development of student self-esteem, integration of theory and practice, and a recognition of one's own agency.

Some of the pedagogical practices that I use to enact my philosophy include the development of trust, mutual respect, shared leadership, connected learning, negotiated curriculum, self-evaluation, consciousness raising, and a mix of cognitive, affective and aesthetic learning (please see the attached course syllabi for my various learning evidences). In addition to convening classes whereby the above are enacted, I see my role to be that of a capacity builder, a strength seeker, problem poser, a simultaneous translator, a resource, a space creator, a discussion conductor and possibly a mentor.

As a capacity builder who seeks strengths rather than deficits, I make sure students know that they start at 100 rather than zero – in other words, I attempt to remove the focus on trying to prove oneself to the "expert" in the room so as to create a climate of relaxed risk taking where self-esteem can flourish. Building self-esteem is powerfully reciprocal, and my own inquiry into nursing's role in building self-esteem confirms this (van Daalen-Smith, 1998). As a problem-poser, I ask questions in order to enable dialogue. We co-teach one another in dialogue, and students come together as critical co investigators (Freire, 1971). Consciousness raising (CR), considered to be the technique most suited for a transformative feminist classroom, is both a philosophy and a process. CR bridges the personal and the political, whereby what Marge Piercy (1989) calls a "click" occurs. In every classroom, when light bulbs go off, the energy is like a lightening rod. I live these moments almost as if we are all tuning forks – when one resonates, eventually we all resonate.

The click ... the light bulb or the eye popping
realization ... the sudden comprehension, in
one powerful instant, of what sexism (for example)
means; how it had colored one's life, and the way
all women were in this together ... it's the awe
inspiring moment of vision and of commonality

(Piercy, In Shreve, 1989, p. 53)

My philosophy and approach to the teaching/learning enterprise is not without rigour. Critical analysis, synthesis and the development of theory is central to my practice. I make use of Charolotte Bunch's (1983) teaching technique that involves the introduction of a four part model of theory development. Students are invited to first describe what exists; then analyze why that reality exists including determining its origins and the reasons for its perpetuation; then envisioning what should exist. This requires establishing principles, values and setting goals; and lastly strategizing how to change what is – to what should be. This action based theory building model works very well in the community health course I convene, and very well in the courses where we interrogate the social position of children and their resultant health, as well as the health and quality of life of women across the globe.

My philosophy, and my style continues to emerge. I have much to learn, and even more to un-learn. I will close this preliminary introduction to my evolving thoughts about my role as a nursing teacher, with the question I constantly ask myself:

"How will I know that I've succeeded as a feminist adult educator?"

I will have succeeded if I've offered the opportunity to claim
relevance for the lives that students live as a source of legitimate knowledge.

I will have succeeded if the student gains an increased
understanding of their own history, and an analysis of theirs and
other people's lived conditions.

I will have succeeded if the learning collective has shifted from
being me-centered to we-centered, and strive to become life long
change agents.

I will have succeeded if the students call up the voices they need
to hear within themselves.

And I will have succeeded if I do, as well.*
*(c) C. van Daalen-Smith, 2005


Belenky, M., Clinchy, B., Goldberger, N., & Tarule, J. (1986). Women's ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind. New York: Basic Books.

Bunch, C. & Pollack, S. (1983). Learning our way: Essays in feminist education. New York: The Crossing Press.

Chinn, P. & Wheeler, C. (1991). Peace and power: A Handbook of feminist process. New York: National League for Nursing Press.

Clinchy, B. (1985). Connected education for women. Journal of Education, 167 (3), pp. 28-45.

Freire, P. (1971). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum Press.

Gaskell, J. & McLaren, A. (1991). Women and education. Calgary: Detselig Enterprises.

Piercy, M & Freeman, J. (1970). Getting together: How to start a women's liberation group. Cape Cod: Cape Cod Women's Liberation Outreach Committee.

Rich, A. (1979). Taking women students seriously. In A. Rich, On lies, secrets and silences. New York: W.W. Norton.

Shreve, A. (1989). Women together, women alone: The legacy of the consciousness raising movement. New York: Viking Publishing Company.

van Daalen, C. (1998). Powerfully reciprocal: A Feminist analysis of nursing's role in enabling self-esteem growth with women. Un-published Masters Thesis. Toronto: University of Toronto.