As an English literature major in college, I had the privilege of meeting and working with some phenomenal poets. Within my writing workshops, these authors assigned very specific prompts with all sorts of restrictions. I remember being tasked with writing a sestina and given the end words and theme to use, based on random class banter. I dragged my feet back to my dorm that afternoon, certain of the impossibility of crafting an effective poem from all of the restrictions placed upon my creativity.
Twenty-five years later, that poem remains one of my best. I learned from these master writers that creativity flourishes when constrained. Necessity is the mother of invention, is it not? When the constraints are a natural product of our reality (kids are hungry, homeless, lonely, unsafe) or because we know what best practices are (we must collect and analyze quality data, continue to read and study our art, be held accountable for performing) then they result in the type of teaching that is beautifully crafted for the exact students which we teach. Our teaching becomes our best.
And yet, because teaching is an art, best performed by talented, creative, dedicated practitioners, canned curriculum and stiff teaching protocols are the opposite of the kinds of restrictions that lead to true excellence in education. We want teachers to feel empowered to think outside the box and try new things, so we must encourage teachers to speak up, take risks, and get creative. Teachers must be provided with a sense of decision-making autonomy.
Still, all artists are constrained by the natural restrictions of their medium. All artists benefit by allowing themselves to be honed and shaped by the wisdom of the giants who came before and by mastering the techniques that yield the best results. While autonomy for teachers is key to a positive change culture, autonomy without accountability is doomed to fail.
Just like the powerful poets I learned from in college, effective educational leaders empower their teachers by providing choice and voice within a system that prioritizes the needs of the learners and requires evidence-based practice. Educational guru, John Hattie, calls these leaders “high-impact” (2015, p. 39). Effective educational leaders engage and empower all stakeholders (teachers, parents, students, support staff) to affect positive change outcomes in the learning environment through encouragement and regulation. So, dear administrators, give me more research-based restrictions; help me to grow into the master teacher I long to be.
Hattie, John. (2015, February, pp. 36-40). Educational Leadership, v72 n5.
This blog is a veteran teacher’s reflections on the perspectives and practices that empower stakeholders to positively impact our learning communities.
Want to Make an Impact? Start with Love.
As a third generation educator, I grew up on stories of my grandmother’s experiences teaching in a one room schoolhouse, deep in the Ozark mountains. She taught all grade levels, all abilities- barefoot, hungry, impoverished students from households that could not prioritize reading, writing, and arithmetic over scratching a living out of the rocky soil. So, when I hear that teaching is so much harder these days, I am skeptical.
I have read Plato’s complaints about the difficulties of educating his day’s youth. Some of today’s challenges are unique, but the broad strokes remain the same. Teaching is hard. It has always been hard, and it will always be hard.
Recent studies show that over half of teachers have considered quitting during the last few years. I know I have. The strain of counseling, clothing, feeding, protecting, and educating students in an environment in which some administrators and parents are making unreasonable demands can often feel overwhelming to the point of hopelessness. In these moments, I have been tempted to just keep my door closed, keep my head down, and solely focus on teaching content. Playing it “safe” however, only leads to ineffective instruction and a lack of job satisfaction. I did not become a teacher to clock in and clock out.
Whenever I feel lost in my role as an educator, I seek guidance from highly successful teachers. They all seem to have one thing in common- they engage with love. One teacher in particular, Leo Buscaglia, fully focused his instruction on the foundational concept of love. His writing has greatly influenced my philosophy on education. Buscaglia’s inclusive model of grace and acceptance guides my interactions with colleagues and students. It helps me to structure lessons that inspire and encourage learners to find their power and passion in what they study. Buscaglia’s work continuously serves as a reminder that, “change is the end result of all true learning.” and that, “there are scores of people waiting for someone just like us to come along; people who will appreciate our compassion, our unique talents. Someone who will live a happier life merely because we took the time to share what we had to give.”
Key transformation does not come from rote memorization or didactic instruction. Our strength of character and high achievements grow from the natural process of engaging in authentic learning. And the research is clear that we cannot focus on cognition unless we feel safe, unless we feel loved. I am changed because of the trust and love of those in my life who were willing to teach me, believe in me, and encourage me to find my truths within a structure that supported learning mastery.
I am who I am because teachers in and outside of the classroom provided environments in which I could push myself and experience success. My competence as an educator is only possible because I was given the confidence necessary to maintain a sense of self-worth. That deep awareness of who I am centers my focus on what is right and good, ethical and moral. My strength of character stems from a deep, generational pool of love.
When I am weary and feel like giving up, I draw on my beloved community; I draw on my experiences that guide those day-to-day actions that demonstrate integrity. I know how to be a servant leader who works through collaboration and with transparency because of the loving models of traditional and non-traditional teachers in my past. I hone my craft with ongoing technical instruction, but it is the sense of a higher calling, a higher power, and a communal interdependence that feeds my drive toward constant improvement.
Whatever I do to support growth and change within my school system, whether it be promoting evidence-based practices, insisting on equity, or driving toward excellent performance for staff and students, I know that I must ground my work in love, which is the limitless well of strength and security from which all growth can take root and flourish.
Want to know more about teaching with love?
Try out one of these books by Leo Buscsaglia: