Recently I shared the announcement that this fifteenth year at my school was my last, and my discovery of what was probably already obvious to you:
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.
Several days ago, I knew I’d be meeting with the division’s faculty for the last time in my position, and figured I probably ought to have something to say. So I wrote something down. Here are excerpts from my comments in that last meeting, right before they let me take an #OscarSelfie that will continue to make me smile in the months and years to come.
Particularly at the year’s end, and just beneath the surface of the countless joys of teaching, there are many complicated feelings that are bittersweet. The sense comes over us that our work is never finished, never fully realized: that somehow — because most of us tend continually to push, to challenge, and to question ourselves — that our work is never as effective as it might have been “if only”…
I feel similarly — irrationally, maybe — about my leadership, and about my departure.
But that’s the mostly ‘bitter’ part: the sense of never quite feeling like the work is ‘done.’ This makes me think how easy it is to forget ‘sweet’ part about learning: that it’s never supposed to be ‘done.’
A poem that’s sometimes attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador — actually a prayer in his spirit by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw — offers a helpful lens through which to view the impact of what we do for the children with whose care we are entrusted:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. …
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way… We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.
It is in that spirit of reflection that Rubem Alves — the Brazilian poet, philosopher, and theologian — invites us to think about the opportunities and obligations that lie in front of us — particularly (in my mind, anyway) in this most exciting, and in many ways uncertain, time in this history of American education:
It is time to stop planting pumpkins.
Let us plant dates, even though those who plant them will never eat them…
We must live by the love of what we will never see. This is the secret of discipline. It is a refusal to let the creative act be dissolved away in immediate sense experience, and a stubborn commitment to the future of our grandchildren.
These thoughts lead me to an answer to the question I’ve been asking myself for several days: the impossible question of the words, after fifteen years, with which I’d like to leave you.
This school provides the most fertile imaginable soil in which children can grow, and transformative learning can take place. Witness the extraordinary achievement of our students, the unmitigated engagement of the families and colleagues who support us, the unrivaled luxury of the resources we enjoy, the unparalleled comfort of our material conditions of employment, and our freedom from the limitations of education policies that encumber most American schools. But be careful not to think of these only as the results of our efforts.
Think about these tremendous conditions we enjoy, instead, as the fertile soil in which we have an unrivaled opportunity to imagine what we could do, to explore what we should do, and to decide what, therefore, we must do in the months and years to come. If we can’t do it, then who the hell can?
We enjoy the freedom and have taken the opportunity, more than ever, to honor the maxim sometimes attributed to Dewey, and sometimes to Yeats, but most likely sourced in Plutarch: “the mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” We enjoy staggering support from the school’s families and friends, and staggering investment from the students, because children here are ‘happy.’ But children are ‘happy’ not when they are merely safe, protected, and led — but when they are challenged, supported, and engaged in a dynamic balance that puts them at the center of their learning. Not just ‘listening’ to students’ voices, but demonstrating that we hear them in the actual design of their learning experience. Responding more to their curiosity, interest, and passion than to our own. Not just ‘preparing’ children for a world that we have created, but inviting them, as collaborators, to create their world anew.. . .
I invite you to consider the conditions we enjoy, and that you will continue to enjoy, as a philosophical and moral obligation — as a member of an extraordinary microcommunity that must also exist in the world, learn from that world, and help to serve and shape that world — earnestly to explore those privileges and those freedoms, fearlessly to push the boundaries of what a school can look like and what a learning community could be, honestly to recognize what we have come to know and what we still need to learn about learning, and openly to share — freely, and humbly — what we discover, what we make, what we do not yet know, and what we can not yet do, with others. At least as much to learn, as to teach.
We are never finished learning. I have been fortunate to spend my last 15 years working with you and learning from you as a teacher, as a parent, as a leader, and as a colleague in what will continue to emerge as one of the great laboratories of learning in the years to come. It has been an honor to travel this path with you, and I hope our separate paths will cross in the future.
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You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes