Earlier this summer (July 3rd) I wrote about my breakfast with retiring Linworth Alternative Director, Wayne Harvey. Wayne and I often don’t see eye to eye, but I have great respect for Wayne. He is a man who made a long-term positive difference in the lives of kids and someone who thinks and cares deeply about education. Tuesday was his offical last day and he sent the following email to administrators. I thought it was worth sharing and Wayne has granted me permission.
“This is my last day as an administrator in Worthington. Some of you would contend that I never really became an administrator, and I understand and appreciate that at least as much as you may mean it. On another hand, however, I would like to think that I made some contribution over the past 38 years.
I throw out the “38” figure because I don’t differentiate between my years as a teacher and an administrator. Where I received my administrative certification did not grant me another 50 IQ points when I attained it; therefore, my perspective still remans that the teachers I work with are at least as bright and dedicated as I am. We are different blind men holding on to the same elephant, just different parts, and we are all expert of the parts we are holding.
I received an email today from a student I had my first year of teaching. We hadn’t contacted one another since she had graduated high school and she was blissfully unaware of the minor disruption in the universe that my retirement would cause. Through the vagaries of Facebook, she stumbled on me and sent a brief message of appreciation. It was, undoubtedly, more than I deserved, but a wonderfully fitting moment for an educator showing that we never are quite certain when we are making a difference.
That fact is part of what has driven me to question almost every directive that has come to me in my career. Let’s face it, if we knew exactly how people learned, we could make it into a science and replicate it in the brains of all but the least damaged. But we don’t know, and it isn’t a science we have figured out. If it were, each of our sons and daughters (or grandsons and granddaughters) would know everything we want them to know and do the things we want them to do. (At least we would know that when they didn’t, they were being the defiant little snots we think they are.) But it isn’t that simple.
Education happens one child (or adult) at a time. Why it clicks with this kid (or group of kids) now and not others remains a mystery that can be maddeningly frustrating. My kids didn’t learn to walk the same number of days after they were born, or speak, or learn to use objects as tools, or turn a wonderfully wicked figure of speech at the exact same time in their lives. We are all different. And we all know that we don’t have enough control of all the variables involved in learning to believe that any piece of educational research qualifies as hard science. It is much more an art — or an ecosystem.
Many years ago I learned from Wheatley and Rogers that you cannot compel a living system; you can only disturb it. You can hope the chosen disturbances bring the results you want. If you are really good, you may be able to direct those disturbances correctly most of the time. But not always and not on each system. Hence the vagaries of an educator. I had no idea reading a student’s paper aloud in class 38 years ago would disturb her in ways she saw as positive and lead her to contacting me today. I may get a message from a different living system tomorrow contending that if I hadn’t read a paper 37 years ago, that student’s life would not have evolved into the disaster that followed.
Education seems to happen better in the context of relationships: we learn best from those we like and/or respect. Sometimes, taking three days (or weeks) to build a relationship can be leveraged into massive amounts of learning that exceeds the time spent on the relationship. Some teachers’ stories or entire units may not be part of the curriculum; do not mistake them for wasted time or pet projects. Sometimes those stories or units are what allow students to connect enough to that teacher to buy in to large amounts of learning that comes later.
So I encourage you all to keep open minds as you move forward. Don’t think outside the box; forget the box. Just think. Think real, actual thoughts. Question, as openly as you dare, what you are required to do, and remember that there are always outliers — students and teachers and administrators — for whom these requirements will not be applicable. We are, in public education, responsible for those outliers, also.
From time to time i will bother you all with a thought, or an article or a book that has my attention (The First 20 Minutes is a title that has captured me this summer and made me wonder how much we are doing in the mental and educational realms may mimic the physical realm). Always, I will be wishing you the best and success in what you are doing.
If there is something you think I can do for you, let me know. I’ll have a bit more free time than I have over these last 38 wonderful, exhausting years.
On the whole, it has been a wonderful, humbling honor and pleasure to have served as an educator in Worthington.”