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Why We Need Transformative Learning Experiences

By Elena Aguilar — April 23, 2019 6 min read
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Over 20 years ago, I took my 3rd grade class to Yosemite National Park in the middle of winter. My students (from Oakland, Calif.) had never been in the mountains or seen snow. We cross-country skied through Sequoia trees, hiked in the Valley, marveled at icicles, and sat around camp fires and roasted marshmallows. When I hear from those former students, they never fail to remark on how that trip was a highlight of their school years, on how they remember each other through that experience, and on what they learned about themselves.

As a teacher, I knew that kids’ lives could be changed in a place that was beautiful, and unfamiliar, and wild--because such places had changed me as a child. On the occasions when I’d been catapulted out of the familiar, I’d glimpsed possibilities that were obscured at home. I became more connected to myself--to the unnamable, deepest, and most powerful parts of myself. At home, I’d fall into conditioned responses--like we all do--into habitual responses to friends, family, neighbors, teachers, and into the narrow ways that those people often see us. When I was away, immersed in the new and different, there was no hiding from more authentic aspects of myself--they’d bubble up, and I let them be. I was lucky as a kid to have opportunities to be in wild and beautiful places. When I became a teacher, I wanted the same for my students.

For the last 10 years or so, I’ve worked with adults. I aspire to help educators connect with who they truly are and who they want to be, to reground in purpose and passion and commitment, to access courage, and to form deeper and more resilient relationships. And yet, I ask myself often: Can I fulfill these aspirations through my writing or through keynotes? Can these aims be met when people gather for a two-day workshop? What are the conditions in which internal transformation and community building across lines of difference take place?

In early April, I took a group of American educators to Kenya to learn with and from our Kenyan counterparts. We were 19 women, from across the U.S., from every corner of education, who wanted to learn about community development and schools in Nairobi’s marginalized neighborhoods. We also wanted to help--we fundraised to support Kenya Big Picture Learning (the organization that co-organized this trip), we donated some 1,000 menstrual cups for girls so that they won’t miss school every month, and we delivered professional development on topics that our Kenyan colleagues requested (such as student-centered learning and formative assessment). I could tell you more about what we did--school visits, conversations with students, meetings with school leaders and parents, an observation of a PLC meeting, dancing and eating and chapati making, visits to wildlife sanctuaries and other touristy things--but this list feels flat, and I fear that expanding on the things we did will cheat readers of a glimpse at what really happened on this trip.

Transformation by nature defies definition--and so how to describe what happened in this experience that was most definitely transformative? That’s how the American women described it; that’s what our Kenyan friends reported; that’s how I feel.

Let’s start with this: Connections were made between people who otherwise would never have met, whose life experiences have been so different, who speak different languages and practice different religions and whose daily routines have little in common. While we all shared a passion for education, we work in contexts that are polar opposites—one, for example, in a private school with endless resources, the other in tin shack. I could further enumerate the extensive differences-

-but what happened, what was important, was that shared humanity and a passion for education eclipsed difference. For eight days, there was laughter and storytelling and listening and minds and hearts that were eager to learn and see the beauty in the other. There was so much vulnerability and a constant reaching across differences and embracing of each other. And this happened between the American educators and our Kenyan counterparts and also between our American dadas (sisters in Swahili). We bonded in ways that lay foundations for lifelong friendships. And finally, I feel pretty confident in saying that every woman in the group learned something new about herself and felt a deeper connection to herself--to her most authentic way of being, to her needs and desires and yearnings, to her dreams and sense of purpose and passion.

Distorted notions of “the Other” were slain. Sometimes the Other is on a different continent, and sometimes the Other is within our narrow notions of ourselves. We lack terms to talk about unions that are formed amongst strangers, about collaboration that happens on a spiritual (but not religious) level, about learning that shatters parts of yourself that have no name.

What I’m clear about (less than a month after this experience--time will surely illuminate more learnings) is this:


  • Transformative learning experiences are critical if we’re going to heal the individual and collective traumas of our pasts and if we’re going to build resilient communities;
  • Transformative learning experiences happen when we’re extricated from the familiar; and
  • Transformative learning experiences happen when we connect with other human beings in meaningful and joyful ways.

Personally, I’m also clear that I want to continue creating such transformative experiences (this learning exchange to Kenya will be an annual event) and also that I want to support others to create transformative immersive experiences for their communities--be that for the students in their schools, or their staff, or whomever. I’m listening, with strengthened commitment, to the parts of myself that come alive in certain places, doing certain things--and to the parts of myself that feel flat and squashed and dull in other places, doing other things.

Two things are true as I sort through my reflections on transformative learning experiences: We need intensive, immersive opportunities for learning (such as a trip to Kenya) and we also need to build in mini-opportunities for transformative learning every day. Somehow, that feels more challenging--to find the mini-opportunities every day--and yet I know that’s what I need to work on now. What might this look like in a professional-development session? In an 8th grade English class? In a coaching conversation? How do we create mini-moments for transformative reflection and learning? Today these live as questions. And so I’ll follow the poet, Rilke’s advice, and “love the questions.”

“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” Rainer Maria Rilke

Student at High Link School with Kelli, instructional coach from San Francisco

* All photos taken by the author

First photo: Visiting Zeal Covenant School, Nairobi

Second photo: Alejandra, a principal from northern California, in conversation with Everline, a school leader in Nairobi.

The opinions expressed in The Art of Coaching Teachers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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