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Transformative Inquiry

welcome the awkwardness


Sometimes there is a theme of shame threading through the questions, writings, ponderings, and images that emerge as learners engage on their TI journey. The literature indicates shame to be an “intense, enduring experience that affects the whole self” (Hartling, Rosen, Walker, & Jordan, 2000, p. 2). Jordan (1997) describes shame as, “a felt sense of unworthiness to be in connection, a deep sense of unlovability, with the ongoing awareness of how very much one wants to connect with others” (p. 147). Shame often inhibits inquirers from becoming the educators they yearn to be. Or rather, hinders them from asking and acting on these questions fundamental to TI: Who are we becoming as teachers? What or how do you need to learn to become a better teacher? Shame has been referred to as the “master emotion” (Morrison, 1989, as cited in Martens, 2005), which inflames many of the perceived inadequacies, fears, and doubts inquirers confront in the TI process. Inquirers must wrestle with complex topics such as practica, poor performance reviews, and the struggle of connecting with a diverse body of students. Especially as the TI process seeks to introduce inquirers into the benefits of reflexive practice and an indigenist worldview, shame is often evoked “When, for the first time, people begin to see and understand that the world looks very different from the point of view of others not afforded the same privileges” (Halevy, 2007, p.19).

When activity meets shame and disapproval, it diminishes our sense of power; we begin to lose trust in our abilities. (TI student)

When left unattended, shame can stifle the passions and learning spirit that drives powerful teaching and learning. According to Brown (2012), three factors allow shame to thrive: judgment, silence, and secrecy. These can then be compounded with Jordan’s (2008) work in which she suggests that the principal cause of suffering is isolation. TI cannot atone for the adversity that laces human experience, but does infuse hope for what could be. TI creates conditions to assist inquirers’ movement out of isolation and into deeper connectivity with their community, the earth and their own souls in order to become mindful and reflexive educators. This resonates with Jordan’s notion of “development as movement toward more integration, more responsiveness, more flexibility, more connection, and becoming a part of something larger” (p. 216).

Within the course, some inquirers arrive at the question: do I really want to be a teacher? Harboring this question can also incite feelings of shame. TI does not ask learners to wallow in this space, this “swampland of the soul” (Brown, 2012) but to move into places where empathy and courage reside, both of which have been referred to as paths to transforming shame (Brown, 2012; Hartling et al., 2000). Mentors recognize these difficult places and encourage the learner to attend gently to these complexities, and dwell (Chambers, 2004) mindfully in the swamp of teaching. When most people hear the word dwell, they might interpret it as a stagnant or negative state.

However, we are in line with Chambers who sees the act of dwelling as “to be still with, to remain for a time with, to reside with.” (p. 11).

Shame shadows each of us, and everyone encounters the alienating effect in some form, at some time. Entering that experience long enough to endure it, deliberately, and consciously in order to transform it, is a challenge which knows no bound. Yet only by facing that challenge can we ever hope to re-create who we are. (Kaufman and Raphael, 1996, as cited in hooks, 2003, p. 102-103)


The relationship between vulnerability and resiliency makes transformation possible. In order to engage in a rich and meaningful inquiry journey, inquirers sometimes move into the uncomfortable and even dangerous landscape of vulnerability. This openness does not need to be ostentatious or brazen, inquirers do not need to reveal anything to their peers and mentors that they feel they should not. However, we encourage inquirers to allow themselves to be truly seen. Our work confirms that the learners who glean the many from their inquiry journey enter into genuine honesty and humility, both of which are linked to vulnerability.

While TI honors vulnerability as a beautiful and inevitable aspect of the human experience, it cannot be emphasized enough the negative association most learners attach to it. Most view vulnerability as a passive and weak state, one that should be persistently avoided; one they deem a liability (Dale & Frye, 2009). In TI we contest the “construction that suggests desire for connection and need of others is the territory of weak and emotionally immature women,” (Jordan, 2008, p. 212). While there can be a adverse associations, we wish to emphasize that vulnerability is an inevitable aspect of learning and teaching that can be both beautiful and useful. Brown (2010) asserts that in our quest to continually numb vulnerability we do three things: live with fixed certainty, perfect, and pretend. These are particularly pertinent in TI, as they align with three of the major issues that instructors work with learners to address.

First, the TI process invites us to enter into the complexity of education, and embrace the awkwardness and uncertainty inherent in learning and teaching. Second, the TI journey seeks to fragment the myth of the Master Teacher. Inquirers are often plagued with anxiety as they strive to reach perfection, despite the fact that there are many ways to be an effective educator. Finally, many inquirers pretend that they do not have doubts and that they are not entangled with this struggle of be~coming a teacher. They try to avoid the questions and conversations that might open them up to vulnerability.

Our work indicates that learners are more likely to enter into the vulnerable aspects of their inquiry when their instructors model openness. When we progress “toward a shared vulnerability – by being open about our fears, doubts, questions, and struggles – we invite our students to share their vulnerabilities too,” (Oyler & Becker, 1997, p. 464). There are countless examples in our research that demonstrate that instructors who share personal experiences of doubt and struggle create entry points for their students. In this way we demonstrate that “to teach is to be vulnerable” (Bullough, 2005, as cited in Kelchtermans, 2005, p. 999).

A teacher can never have total control over her environment or the consequences of her actions (Kelchtermans, 2005); therefore, vulnerability is an undeniable facet of teaching. In TI we do not ignore this inevitable and terrifying element of learning and teaching that emerges in the journey of be~coming a teacher. When we labor to be strong and hence invulnerable and certain, we become more closed, less able to listen responsively to our students, and less flexible (Jordan, 2008). When learners vehemently guard themselves against being open, they deny the power of vulnerability as “the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love,” (Brown, 2010). It is our belief that schools do not need more strong, omniscient educators, but deeply human ones who are open to new possibilities for both themselves and their students.

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