I was fortunate enough to join a wonderful groups of writers and educators this summer in the Greater Madison Writing Project. Below is a statement I wrote in response to this experience. Enjoy!
This I believe…
I believe that we are all two parts. How you divide these two parts depends, but they are often in contrast with each other. There is the tragic and the comedic. There is the part we can control and the part we cannot control. There is the physical and the part that is of ideas, feelings, faith, or the spiritual. There is the good, the bad, the light, and the dark. This idea of duality is best illustrated by Martha Nussbaum in the following quote from her book, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy:
That I am an agent, but also a plant; that much that I did not make goes towards making me whatever I shall be praised or blamed for being; that I must constantly choose among competing and apparently incommensurable goods and that circumstances may force me to a position in which I cannot help being false to something or doing some wrong; that an event that simply happens to me may, without my consent, alter my life; that it is equally problematic to entrust one’s good to friends, lovers, or country and to try to have a good life without them– all these I take to be not just the material of tragedy, but everyday facts of lived practical reason.
I believe that we cannot forget this in our personal lives and in our lives as teachers. It is easy for us to see that our students are plants with a range of needs, some thriving within the conditions of our society and others wilting more each day. Some like lily of the valley prefer the protection of the shade and others like coneflower who enjoy time in direct sunlight. Yes it is easy to see the young as plants because we are constantly thinking about what they need and what we can do to help them bloom. But do not forget that we are also plants with specific requirements trying to thrive, and our students have more agency than we often realize.
We cannot begin to fuel the agency within our students if we are only watering and encouraging the plants to grow. Likewise we cannot provide this fuel if we do not remember our own circumstance as plants. There is a balance here that is hard to achieve in life, especially in service professions. This balance requires that we truly recognize what is within our control and out of our control. I believe that with creativity and an open mind there is a lot more that is within our agency than outside our agency. Within the politics and bureaucracy of society, it is easy to lose hope and motivation letting both plant and agent parts struggle.
There are many times when we tend to take on so much that our professional lives seem daunting. In addition to the changes and goals within our classrooms to connect with every student there are the circumstances that are forced upon us in the form of educational mandates, teacher effectiveness measures, professional development requirements, testing, etc. Our roots begin to feel like weights instead of like the firm foundation from which to grow and agency is limited to choosing between two necessities: water or sunlight.
Under these conditions it is very easy to waste substantial energy complaining, blaming, and shaming. Complaining about and blaming the system for the constraints we feel and shaming both ourselves and our colleagues for a perceived lack of progress. When we find ourselves stuck there are two points of focus that will help break this cycle. The first is mindset and the second is relationships.
Your mindset is vital to your happiness professionally and personally. It impacts your productivity and your ability to connect with others. It also influences the perceived limits of your vision, creativity and goals. Your mindset governs all of your agency as well as your perceptions of your experiences as a plant. We hope that our students are not afraid to fail and have the resiliency to push past that first downturn. However, we also need to see our own failures as essential to our own learning. We need a growth mindset before we can expect our students adopt a growth mindset.
In order to encourage a growth mindset in our students and to feel supported in our own risks and failures, I believe strong relationships are vital. All of nature and society is connected, and it is these connections that either produce a harmonious system or a dysfunctional mess. Strong relationships take devotion which means effort and time. With the chaotic atmosphere of education and the never-ending to-do lists a focus on relationships can easily become a side dish to a main course of content coverage, wordsmithing learning goals, or even deciding what mathematical method can best quantify a student’s learning. I believe we need to work hard to bring relationships back to the center of all that we do in school. The relationships are what we will remember and what our students will take with them into their futures.
I believe our duality is suited to actually help us focus on these two priorities. Our agency means we have control over our mindset or at least the ability to improve our mindset. Our plant-like quality provides us with an ingrained need to focus on and build strong relationships. Our duality can be our strongest asset for our ourselves and our students if we allow it to be.