Smile and Wave: The Next Chapter of My Learning & Leadership

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Chris Thinnes


Curtis School - Announcement - Thinnes 750In today’s surreal experiment in inclusive leadership, I tried to facilitate a meeting with teachers I’ve been supervising for several years, in order to collect and share their input with the search committee that will appoint my successor. This past Friday, you see, the teachers and the rest of our school’s community received a notice that this fifteenth year at the school will be my last. The notice explained I will be incorporating CFEE as an independent entity and serving as its Executive Director, while laying the groundwork for a variety of potential transitions in the years to come by pursuing an EdD in Educational Leadership for Social Justice at LMU.

In any case, it was a little too soon after the public revelation of this news, and therefore a little too emotionally complex for me, at least, to be particularly effective in supporting such a discussion. Today reminded me, at this meeting and throughout the day, that not only learning and teaching, but leadership as well, are fundamentally relational. It’s the web of personal and professional relationships I’ve developed with these close colleagues in recent years — much more so than the ‘learning’ and the ‘teaching’ and the ‘leadership’ one might be tempted artificially to disaggregate from the relationships that make them possible — that I will miss the most.

While I’m genuinely excited about the extraordinary experiences I will explore in the months and years to come, I’m sad to think about the many personal and professional relationships that will inevitably be disrupted. I found some solace in the Gita this weekend when I landed — coincidentally, or perhaps not so — on the following passage:

I am the unbounded deep
In whom all living things
Naturally arise,
Rush against each other playfully,
And then subside.

I know, intellectually at least, that life ‘is’ change, and that relationships are no less susceptible to change than circumstances. As Dr. Seuss put it, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” And all that. But still. Even the extraordinary opportunity to reinvent oneself — an opportunity, I realize, that very few people have the privilege to explore — doesn’t come without its challenges.

I have been touched by the many kind notes I have received from teachers, leadership colleagues, and parents over the weekend. I won’t violate their anonymity, but I’ve shared with them how much they moved me. This weekend as well, I was honored in a wholly unrelated context by Dr. Jack Hassard, who listed me — in the company of some of my heroes in this line of work — among “A Vanguard of Voices in Educational Reform.” In that post he wrote these words:

Chris Thinnes is one of those educators you wished you had for a teacher.  If you are a teacher, he is the kind of administrator that you would want to work with.

And if that isn’t about the highest compliment you could pay to somebody in our field, I don’t know what is. Thank you, Jack — and thank you to the teachers and parents at school who echoed similarly humbling thoughts in your notes. Statements like those usually make me deeply uncomfortable. But this weekend they were a great source of comfort.

Some children at school, for whatever it may be worth, seem less comfortable around me than I’d hoped. A few who didn’t nervously avert their eyes asked me the same question, verbatim and with the same vaguely hurt tone: “Why do you have to leave?” I tried to explain that it’s kind of like when you graduate. You see through a certain number of years in one place, making the most of the opportunities and the relationships you develop, and then you move on to your next experience to find out what awaits you there. I’ll try to find a way to break the ice with some more of the kids this week, as the dust settles.

As for the work I will leave behind, and the feeling it remains unfinished, I realize that our work as educators never really feels finished, and probably never will. The solace I take in this case, as I have before, comes from Rubem Alves’ haunting lines:

Let us plant dates
Though we who plant them will never eat them
We must live by the love of what we will never see
That is the secret discipline.

Comfort comes as well from the amazing Carlina Rinaldi, who reminds us in Making Learning Visible that

Ours is a time of transition, and our generation is transient. Our task is to live a “season of design” in which it is impossible to use the old pedagogical, architectural, ethical, social and educational parameters and values, and in which it thus becomes essential to venture into the new and lay plans for real futures.

Though it is certainly a time of potential disorientation and confusion, of widespread uncertainties and contradictions, it is also an exciting time, rich in possibilities.

I look forward to sharing more news about my transition in the weeks and months to come. Until then, I’ll lean on these affirmations I uncovered, and others kindly provided me, this weekend. And I’ll do my level best to heed my marching orders from the penguin in Madagascar: “Smile and wave, boys. Just smile and wave…”


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You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes

  • Barbara Bomes

    I so completely understand this, so I am smiling and waving, and still offer hugs.
    Congratulations and best wishes.

  • Philip_Cummings

    Congratulations, Chris, and good luck on this next adventure.