Like many of you I have “unplugged” myself over these summer months. As well as giving myself over wholly to family time, I have rediscovered (an annual July/August event) the personal rejuvenation that comes from the quietness and sustained concentration of reading. Jonathan Franzen seems to have captured and articulated my feelings around the benefits of this solitary experience:
We are so distracted and engulfed by the technologies we’ve created, and by the constant barrage of so-called information that comes our way, that more than ever to immerse yourself in an involving book seems socially useful. The place of stillness that you have to go to to write, but also to read seriously, is the point where you can actually engage productively with an otherwise scary and unmanageable world.
It is from this place of stillness that I, along with you, enter a new school year that is fraught with distractions and political fodder. It will seem at times that our worlds are indeed unmanageable; however, despite the difficulties we will face (and overcome) as a learning community, we can draw strength and certitude in our collective belief that schools are so much more than the walls that define the building. They are about what goes on inside those walls, the culture of a school, the students, the staff and their relationships.
Rather than focus on what cannot and will not be done 72 hours from now, that place of stillness I recently inhabited leads me to reframe our present situation as an opportunity to work with all of you in reinforcing and shaping habits and behaviours that value the following ideas: self-examination, non defensiveness, working together, power to effect change, the conviction that all students can learn, a willingness to work through problems and a belief that what we are engaged in makes a difference to those around us and, ultimately, to ourselves.
There is a great byline from Dr. Jackie Gerstein that reads, “I do not do teaching for a living – I live teaching as my doing.” Teaching is a creative endeavor because its function is not to cover up but to expose, not to insulate but to illuminate. In more concrete terms, its function is not only to encourage inquiry-based learning and fortify knowledge but also to break through conventionalized and simplistic modes of thought, not to throw a halo around stock responses but to give new and significant insights into human experience. In the end, as Chris Lehmann contends, “it’s time to stop thinking of schools [and, by natural extension, teaching] as preparation for real life and instead show students [as we ourselves appreciate] that the time they spend in school can be a vital and enriching part of their very real and very important lives.”
In 72 hours, the way we do business in our schools will change significantly in that our daily routines (what the Dalai Lama describes as the key to happiness) will be compromised; however, what will remain constant is that you will be supported by each other and an administration that is team-oriented, capable of leading without rank, and committed to reducing your stress so that you can do what you do so well – make a difference in the lives of our students and continue to facilitate those “a-ha moments” that make everything worth while.
One of the last books I read and viewed this summer was Larry Towell’s, The World From My Front Porch, which focused upon the correlation between land and personal identity. In the introduction to his book, Towell puts forward a definition of photography that continues to resonate with me:
Photography can take that which is ugly and make it beautiful, not by misrepresentation, but by stopping to look more deeply at the subject itself . . . The ordinary becomes distinct, the way poetry transforms words. This handling of the ordinary is the life of photography itself. In this ordinariness, photography lives and breathes.
Substitute the word education for photography and you have a very real, extremely powerful mission statement for what we actually do as educators. We make the ordinary distinct and in transforming the lives of those we lead, we in turn are transformed and moved by the depth of ordinariness that surrounds us.