The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you.
The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you.
… the idea that somehow being less is really being more is dangerous.
I do not understand.
I do not understand the how or the when.
How did it become a good thing to be less informed, less inquisitive, less prepared?
When did it become a strength to be unclear, unfocused and obscure?
There’s something going on in the United States that, as educators, we should consider and counter. There is a significant shift in our cultural consciousness from valuing intelligence and preparation to valuing … something else, something other, something dangerous.
Dangerous is the right word for us as educators because, if the culture says being undereducated and unprepared is what we should be, schools might as well close up shop. If the culture is saying intelligence is bad, what the hell are we doing? If the idea is that a high level of preparation and proficiency should be mocked, are we not just wasting our collective time?
When did this all become okay?
I love watching smart people doing smart things. I love being in conversations when the talk around me is high level talk and the people are smarter than I (and I am in a lot of conversations like this). I love seeing ingenuity at work, intelligence on display, preparation in abundance.
I spent many years talking to students about being smart, being hard working, being prepared. I talked about these things as gold standards, as things to be admired, as values to be attained. They were things to which we should aspire. I would challenge students. Be cleverer. Be better prepared. Be controlled. Be quick and nimble and intelligent.
I am not currently in a classroom and, lately, when I ruminate about how I might discuss with young people this shift in national consciousness, I am at a loss for concepts and words.
Perhaps that’s okay. I guess that is what is valued now. We want our students to be at a loss for words, right? We want them to grope for the simplest vocabulary. We want them to only access the most basic concepts. We don’t desire multi-step, multi-faceted plans. Why would we? Plans with one or two steps should suffice and, if the problems to be addressed by our plans are more complex than we can imagine, we simply need to beat them into the shape of our mindsets. There is nothing beyond our frames-of-reference that we should know. All that is beyond us should conform to our perceptions.
That’s so much easier. And it requires so much less of me as a leader, as a teacher, as a person.
That’s good, right? To be less? To find the easiest route? To dumb it down?
This is dangerous, teachers. Dangerous. It doesn’t matter if you’re Republican, Democrat, Independent, unaffiliated or uninterested. In this context, the idea that somehow being less is really being more is dangerous.
Teaching has a counter-cultural bent to it. It always has. When you give young people the keys to the kingdom, as it were, and teach them how systems work and how they don’t, when they find out how to put the apples in the cart and then upset that same cart, when they are exposed to truth, they sometimes think they know better than their teachers.
In many ways, in our current context, I hope they do. I hope they know better than the messages they are receiving.
I hope they are better than we are currently proving ourselves to be.
If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.
I just don’t know what having a 3.75 or a 4.00 does for you? Will it potentially get you into a better school? Sure it will. Potentially. Will it get you a scholarship? Same answer. Potentially. Should you work hard because, well, we all should work hard? Of course you should. But what does having a high GPA really do for you?
Are you going to see Sully, the movie about the Miracle on the Hudson? I recommend it for all kinds of reasons: good direction, good acting, great message.
When you are a high school teacher or administrator, you tend to inherit things and I’m not talking about fun things like antiques or bequests. No, I am talking about duties. I am talking about inheriting duties.
When I reminisce about the various duties I took on over the course of my twenty-plus years working in high schools, I cannot remember how I received most of them. Usually they were delegated. Sometimes I volunteered. Often I was in the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong) time.
One duty (and, no, I cannot remember how it fell to me) that I thought I would not enjoy that I ended up loving was delivering a brief speech at our Underclasswomen Honors Assembly. My role was not, strictly speaking, directly involved with students. I was an assistant principal for faculty and curriculum. However, I was never one to turn down giving a speech. I’m still not one to do so…
The idea behind the speech was to share some words with the underclasswomen about what academic achievement meant. It’s important to note that the girls receiving the awards and the girls who did not qualify for the awards were in attendance at this assembly. So, yeah, if I did not want to make anyone feel bad (and I am thinking of the girls who worked really, really hard to make honor roll and just missed the cut here, not the ones who really did not care about the thing), I needed to tread lightly or with some modicum of awareness at least.
I hit on a through-line almost immediately. I told the girls “I don’t really know what receiving these GPA awards means. I’ve been teaching a long time, and I am not sure if getting them is a function of hard work – I am sure that is part of it – or the particular teachers you have – I am sure, too, that’s a part of it – or sheer luck – yes, that’s a part of it as well. I just don’t know what having a 3.75 or a 4.00 does for you? Will it potentially get you into a better school? Sure it will. Potentially. Will it get you a scholarship? Same answer. Potentially. Should you work hard because, well, we all should work hard? Of course you should. But what does having a high GPA really do for you?”
Here I paused as though I really did not think having a high GPA is that important – spoiler alert: I think it is important.
“You know,” I continued, “there’s this guy. Captain Sully. Have you heard of him?”
This first time I gave this speech was in the spring of 2009. The “Miracle on the Hudson” had happened in January that year. Many of the girls did not know to what I was referring which worked just fine for my purposes.
“Did you hear about the plane crash and the captain who saved all the passengers and crew on his flight by landing his plane on the Hudson River in New York City? How does something like that happen? How does this guy know he can’t get back to an airport, know what’s going on on his plane? Know he can land on a river?”
I asked them to imagine the scene. I asked them to imagine the man. I paused again.
“Began to fly when he was a teenager. Won numerous civic awards. Near the top of his class in high school. Numerous commendations at the Air Force Academy. Top of his class as best flyer at the Air Force Academy. Incredible work ethic. Incredible dedication. Incredible feat to save 155 lives. Maybe this kind of stuff does matter.”
I paused one last time.
“Captain Sullenberger was in the right place at the right time with the right background. If he hadn’t prepared his life as he had, the Miracle on the Hudson may never have happened. What’s in store for you?”
That was it.
I think it was enough.
Right place. Right prep. Right time.
The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than to provide ready-made knowledge.
Isn’t that what we want our students to become? Explorers? Don’t we want them to be seekers? And are we really doing our best by them if we aren’t inspiring them to go boldly?
Teachers, listen up. Here is a quick history lesson for you… and it begins, as many journeys of discovery do, in failure.
A failed television show aired its last episode on a Friday night in the spring of 1969. The show was called Star Trek and the episode was called “Turnabout Intruder.” The less said about this seventy-ninth and final episode of Star Trek, the better. When the final title card lit television screens (not that many of them), Star Trek signed off the air with no fanfare and very little interest, destined to fade into… well, history as it turned out.
On the strength of syndication of the original seventy-nine episodes and through the support of a very dedicated, potentially crazy fan base (with a little help from a small, independent science fiction movie called Star Wars), Star Trek found its way back into production less than ten years after its cancellation, this time as a big screen movie.
At the conclusion of 1978’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a title card fills the screen following the Enterprise saving earth once again. “The Human Adventure Is Just Beginning” the card announces indicating that this first Star Trek movie would not be the last.
Star Trek has spun off five times as television series to date. The sixth Star Trek television show premieres in January of 2017. Star Trek has spawned thirteen films to date. A fourteenth has been announced.
The phenomenon has gone on for fifty years. That’s right. Star Trek has been around for a half century. Thursday, September 8, 1966, the show went on the air. Thursday, September 8, 2016 is the actual mark, the anniversary, the big day.
So what? Why should anyone who is not a pop culture lover, not a science fiction fan, not a Trekker care? Why should teachers and educators care?
Is it because of the damned persistence of the show and its fans? The never-say-die, Spock Lives! attitude that kept the thing afloat all this time? Is that not a great lesson for us as teachers? Should we not learn something from this example, that each time we are down, we are not out? Should we not pass this on to our students? Should we not praise this kind of dedication?
Of course we should, but that’s not the only reason Star Trek should inspire us as educators.
Is it because Star Trek, at its best, presented a unified future where men and women of all colors and races (including alien ones) worked together in near harmony? Is it because Star Trek was the first (no hyperbole here, it was the first) show to feature a black woman in a role that had real responsibility, an Asian American who was not a villain or a sidekick, the first interracial kiss? Is it because Star Trek took on race riots and segregation and class warfare? It did all those things, you know. Should we not underscore these contributions to American thought?
Of course we should, but that’s not the primary reason we as teachers should celebrate Star Trek.
Is it because in a time when science fiction primarily portrayed bleak visions of the future, when dystopias were the rage in the sci fi world, when it seemed more likely that humanity would destroy itself rather than persist, Star Trek stood as an example to point to? Is it because Star Trek showed a vision of the future where humanity had conquered want and need and boarders and had reached – united – into the star? Should we not praise Star Trek for this message of hope?
Of course we should, but there is one better reason to applaud Star Trek.
… its five-year mission: to EXPLORE strange, new worlds, to SEEK OUT new life and new civilizations, to BOLDLY GO where no one has gone before…
Explore. Seek Out. Go Boldly.
My goodness, if those don’t sound like words that all of our schools should have in their mission statements. What could be a better mantra for us to impart to our students?
Explore. Seek Out. Go Boldly.
I am a Star Trek fan from… well, from way back. I cannot remember a time when Star Trek wasn’t a part of my life. I thrilled to the adventures of Kirk, Spock and McCoy in reruns on weekday afternoons. I watched the spin offs. I saw the films. I wrote my own Star Trek fiction, read the books, immersed myself in this unique world. And why? Because I am a geek?
Sure, that’s true. But more critical for me and for so many others was the message – the mantra: Explore. Seek Out. Go Boldly.
It’s what made me a teacher. No doubt. Star Trek made me a teacher.
There is a terrific line in Star Trek Into Darkness where the irascible Mr. Scott, upon learning that the Enterprise is about to take on weaponry for their next mission, confronts Captain Kirk. “I thought we were explorers…” he says.
Isn’t that what we want our students to become? Explorers? Don’t we want them to be seekers? And are we really doing our best by them if we aren’t inspiring them to go boldly? To go boldly on their human adventure?
Star Trek not only celebrates the future, it celebrates the future of intelligence, of mastery, of education. It doesn’t fear smart people, it exalts them. You might be surprised at the number of conflicts in Star Trek that are not solved with weapons and fighting, but are solved with logic and reason and love. Sometimes using those tools is the boldest choice of all.
“Inside you is the potential to make yourself better… and that is what it is to be human… to make yourself better than you are” said Captain Picard of the Next Generation.
A teacher couldn’t have said it better herself.
Star Trek lives, and it lives in you if you are a teacher worth your salt… (which brings us to the first aired episode of Star Trek – “The Man Trap” – but that’s another story).
Lord, show me the way and I’ll do the work.
Because we often venerate those who came before us in our institutions, we tend to venerate the systems they created right along with them.
We sometimes talk about “human systems” – the architecture of people who live and work and journey together. These human systems are the ways we relate, the hierarchies we put in place to deal with one another. They help orient where we stand. And how. They are important sociological structures that keep our schools functioning. Without these, our schools would descend into chaos.
Of the many elements that unite schools – private, public, charter and otherwise – perhaps none are so prominent as the fact that schools are places which rely on human systems that create systems on which we all rely. Attendance procedures, grading scales, assignment turn in policies, employee handbooks, you name it, schools have them. They prescribe how cell phones are to be used, where food can be consumed, how people (students and faculty alike) can dress. Systems and structures abound in school settings. Even those schools that cast themselves as innovative and free, open and would like to suggest they don’t have systems do. They have systems. They have structures.
How does a student get out of class to go to Counseling? Fill out a pass. Have it signed and countersigned. System.
When does a teacher round up a students’ grade? Check the manual. System.
How do we get to the parking lot during a fire drill? System.
What are the on-boarding procedures for our new faculty and staff? System.
Here’s where the trouble comes. We sometimes define ourselves and our schools by our systems. Because we normally do good work and our schools and collaborate to develop solid systems, it’s hard to recognize when the time has come to shut them down. Because we typically trust the people with whom we’ve created said systems, we have trust in the systems themselves. Because we often venerate those who came before us in our institutions, we tend to venerate the systems they created right along with them.
Therefore, we sometimes adhere to systems long after we should for fear of offending someone. We resist updating outmoded policies and procedures because Janney designed them in 1998 and we love Janney.
No one wants to make Janney feel bad.
But that’s not the point, is it? The point is, as our schools move through the years, the systems that looked so shiny, so snappy and so smart when we designed them inevitably show their wear-and-tear.
How many libraries in our schools kept the card catalogs years longer than necessary? Raise your hand if your school still has it…
How many schools resisted moving to data driven decision making processes because the systems they had in place – largely anecdotal, often inaccurate – had worked just fine for years, thank you very much.
How many schools continue to prop up old systems instead of building new ones?
Break up the system. The system is not the person.
Schools that are forward thinking, ready to adapt and change to meet the needs of any new day, understand that systems must change even when the people behind them do not change. Schools that do this with facility build into their systems the understanding that they are temporary, that they will become obsolete. This is stated truth and lived fact.
It’s often not the people who need to change, it’s the system.
Separate the two.
Fight the system.
The supreme art of the teacher is to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.
Don’t ignore. Don’t demolish.
Work the problem. Work it piece-by-piece.
No matter what subject we teach, we think it parts, not wholes. Take US History for example: when history teachers begin the year, they know where they have to end up. They know they have to get to the election of President Obama (in truth, many US History teachers will be happy if they hit the chapters on the Reagan presidency by the end of the year, but that’s neither here nor there). They know where they are going and they begin to plan how to get there. They plan units, they plan chunks, they plan blocks, they plan lessons.
We hope our students do things the same way. We preach at them to do so. Start the lab. Put on your goggles, then look for the chemicals. Learn the vocabulary in Mandarin before you attempt speaking the language. Understand the equation and then apply it. Begin the research paper with, you know, the research, then start to write. Look at homework assignment-by-assignment, not at the totality of what needs to be done on any given night.
Assess the big picture. Paint the small strokes and make it coalesce.
Why don’t we apply this same thinking to the challenges facing our schools?
All too often, especially at the beginnings or ends of school years, we look at what we perceive as being wrong with our schools and become paralyzed. We see problem linked to problem, issue feeding issue, hazard upon hazard and our reactions do not always help. Our reactions break down into two categories, neither of which is particularly constructive.
We either throw up our hands, stymied by the enormity of the trouble, by its complexities, fearful that pulling any thread on the quilt will rend the thing asunder or we leap to solutions that will tackle the entirety of the trouble, consequences, ramifications and collateral impact be damned.
The systems that exists in our schools are comprised of human beings each full of talents and commitments and agendas and weaknesses and strengths. Rarely do any of us set out to create complexity and tie Gordian Knots around our institutions. But it happens. It seems to always happen.
Some leaders believe the way to overcome these challenges is with the precision of hand grenades. Blow the problem up and start anew. Some leaders believe the way to overcome these challenges is to trust people to do good work and let the problem work itself out.
I understand both reactions. I’ve had them. I’ve lived them. I’ve turned away from the beast. I’ve challenged it head on. Not the best plans.
We can solve the issues we face if we do one thing at a time, address one problem at a time and, wherever possible, keep the pieces separate and the issues distinct. We actually can, with discipline and planning, take on each part and create a chain reaction that will solve the whole.
Work the problem. Work it piece-by-piece.
We don’t expect our teachers to teach everything at once. We don’t expect our students to learn everything at once. We cannot solve each issue our schools face all at once.
But if we don’t start with the first step, we’ll never solve anything.
And if we try to jump to the last step, we’ll likely solve even less.