Revolution to Evolution: On Curiosity and Humility as Our Return to Humanity

PART I: REVOLUTION

Revolution (n.) - 1. a moving in a circular or curving course, as about a central point; 2. a single cycle in such a course.

It is easy to think of the academic year in relation to revolution: school supply sales, orientations, dormitory assignments, disposable name tags, and name games, predictably revolving around the seasons as they do each year. As we warm up to our new academic families, the weather cools, the leaves crisp and we get into a foreseeable groove as if we weren't on summer break just a couple of months ago. Several scraggly notebook pages later, we’re bundled up for the winter and buckling down for some sort of testing period. We once again survive the assessment stress that we were sure wouldn’t dissipate, though it always does. We attempt to rest and rejuvenate before returning to our school buildings and campuses in a new calendar year. We power through the unimaginably long stretch of uninterrupted academic days until spring break, whose name rudely suggests some relief from the biting winds, cold rain, and overcast sky. Then the countdown begins. The days until final exams, presentations, and end-of-year standardized testing windows are rolled out before us like the last 100 meters of a mile-long race. Then it’s over. We tidy our offices, clean out our desks, stack chairs and say “see ya later” for a month or two before starting all over again. All over again. To what end?

Muscle memory, the ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, as a result of frequent repetition, is a powerful thing. As an athlete and now coach, I am well versed in the importance of developing muscle memory. But as a society, we rarely talk about what happens when our bodies have memorized counterproductive movements. Movements that are familiar, comfortable, maybe even widely accepted, but harmful nonetheless. Our learning communities, like so many other spaces in society, often go round and round, through the motions, with an inadequate amount of thought put into the how’s and why’s of our revolution. We pass out syllabi that have “always worked”, read books with students that have “always been classics”, hold students accountable for rules that have “always been in place” and we do so for no other reason than because it’s what we have always done. We have the nerve to stick to these courses in the face of evidence that shows they aren’t serving students. So, why do we stay on the merry-go-round?

In his 2019 book We Got This, Cornelius Minor argues that the true masterminds working against our would-be heroic educator efforts are “the business-as-usual attitudes, binary thinking, and inflexibility with which we have been conditioned to approach [the many problems of our education system]. These [mindsets] have robbed us of our power and of our curiosity” (p. 10). What an inconvenient enemy the mind is. It is comparably easy to blame segregated neighborhoods and school districts, outdated grading practices, or unfunded mandates for fueling a cycle of mediocrity. While these are significant barriers to change, they are also long-game adversaries that take hours of community organizing and policy writing to change. The mind, on the other hand, is ours to develop and it’s our minds that keep us going in circles. We have been fooled into thinking that this is the best we can do--that this is just about all that’s possible. It is not. It is time to change course, with intention.

PART II: CHANGING COURSE

“I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child--What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.” --Michelle Obama, Becoming

I’ve had generalized anxiety disorder for as long as I can remember. I did not have the language for the excessive worrying I experienced as a child but it was my constant, obnoxious companion. One question that would always trigger me was, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I had answers I thought people would be pleased with: “A lawyer”. I had answers I thought reflected my youthful contemplation: “Oh, I’m not sure, I have so many interests.” But mostly I had fear--fear that everyone would figure out that I had no idea how to be passionate about one specific thing and turn it into a career pathway. I felt like a fraud. All because I couldn’t map out my entire future for grown ups. One of the dangers of allowing our learning communities to keep to their familiar courses is that there is almost no choice but to use this question--what do you want to do or be--to guide their revolution--treating each year as the one when a student should finally get it and subsequently expecting students to hold onto it until they get where they said they wanted to go. But so many of us--students, educators, administrators, and caregivers alike--still don’t know exactly where we’re headed. In 2021, I hope we can finally embrace the ambiguity of learning and growing so we can support, co-create, and sustain learning communities that are invested in the journeys of students more than their destinations.

Changing course is a matter of values. We live in a society that values knowing, doing, and being certain rather than learning, being, and growing according to new knowledge and experience. Many of us grew up in households and learned in schools that celebrated the former and penalized the latter: being asked to sit out of a spelling game, with no opportunity to rejoin after making a mistake, gold stars on completed worksheets even if the incomplete worksheet you persevered through represented a worthwhile, productive struggle, or the sweaty palms and pits you hope no one notices as the teacher cold calls you despite the fact that you’re only 83% sure of your response. We see these values on display boldly and loudly on our televisions, social media pages, and in the political circus we call government. But if we want our society to encourage learning, being, and growing we have to foster learning communities that do the same. Minor (2019) later articulates that “though our culture celebrates innovation, at times it encourages and rewards compliance. When we look across our schools, it can seem that the people who move forward are the ones whose loyalty to mandate outlasts their bonds to creativity. We talk about entrepreneurial spirit while worshipping at the altar of the status quo” (p.126). I can give more than a handful of examples of when I did what I was told despite the negative impact on my classroom community and my professional practice. Thankfully, my self awareness grew and I recognized that I was revolving instead of evolving and modeling an uncritical round-a-bout way of thinking and being for my students. So, I committed to shifting my mindsets in order to shift my practices.

How do we change course? How do we move contrary to our natural inclinations and the pull of the tide? By asking questions and listening with intent, thinking about the communicated message with a lens of humility and taking action. Caregivers, do your children feel safe asking questions, making mistakes, and telling you about their learning experiences even when they are less than perfect? Students, do you see your caregivers and teachers as humans, not just financial, emotional, and intellectual banks? Educators, do our students know we depend on their “taking risks and revealing mistakes in order to help them”? Have we created a community where mistakes are embraced, not penalized? Administrators, does the school staff trust you to listen, support our own risk taking, and hold us equally accountable for collective responsibility? I will be the first to raise my hand and say, “I have more work to do.” I own my shortcomings because I have a responsibility to do so and because this ownership makes way for transformational opportunities for my students and the larger learning community. We must step away from the culturally incentivized knowing, doing, and being certain, and use authentic listening to grow in our curiosity and humility. Cornelius Minor’s three part definition of authentic listening can be summarized as follows: listen, process, and adjust. How do we adjust? Minor explains that “after hearing and thinking, we must ask ourselves, ‘Because of what I’ve heard, how can I make active and longstanding adjustments to my classroom community, to my actual teaching, and to how the department, grade, or school operates?” (p. 17). Adjustment puts us on the path to evolution.

PART III: EVOLUTION

Evolution (n.) - 1. any process of formation or growth; development; 2. a product of such development; something evolved.

Earlier, I mentioned that I am a coach. I coach high school tennis players, resident teachers, and, for the first time this year, teacher leaders working toward year-long goals with colleagues. At some point in our lives, we’ve all had a coach, for however brief a moment: A sibling walking us through the rules of a game, a caregiver asking us questions to help think through a problem, a mentor challenging us to embrace a calling, a volunteer shouting directions from the sidelines of a turf, a veteran teacher facilitating a debrief conversation after a classroom observation. In her book The Art of Coaching, Elena Aguilar states “coaching can build will, skill, knowledge and capacity because it can go where no other professional development has gone before: into the intellect, behaviors, practices, beliefs, values, and feelings of an educator” (8). I’d like to think of this keynote exchange as a (long-winded) coaching conversation--one where we each acknowledge that our will and capacity won’t transform until our behaviors, beliefs, and being do. At my best, I don’t only want to facilitate the acquisition of content knowledge, but coach students through what it looks, feels, and sounds like to be a learner. This starts with their behaviors, beliefs and being.

A few years ago, I met a student named Phillipa. She’d attended Chavez Multicultural Academic Center since kindergarten and was joining me as a wide-eyed third grader. Phillipa was kind, friendly, and enjoyed helping her teachers. She generally approached lessons with a smile on her face, willing to give her best effort, despite arriving far below grade level standards in reading and mathematics. During the first quarter of the school year, participating in a guided reading lesson or reading with me one-on-one could reduce Phillipa to tears. She would start off with decent accuracy but start guessing as soon as she felt out of her depth. Behaviors. No matter how many times we practiced decoding strategies she would abandon them, convinced she was and would forever be a bad reader. Beliefs. Tears would well in those big, dark brown eyes just before she could avert them and hang her head in self-assessed failure. Being. As far as she was concerned, third grade was just another revolution around seasons of failure. Phillipa’s behaviors, beliefs, and being weren’t unfounded. When I took the time to get curious about what lay below the surface of these reading-induced meltdowns, I learned that she was surrounded by siblings, older and younger, none of whom saw her as a reader. They laughed at her when she made mistakes and offered little to no help on assignments when she struggled. So round and round she went, just trying to get it over with.

Before I could teach Phillipa to read, I had to help her believe that she could. I had to facilitate conversations and exercises that demonstrated that she could get off this sad merry-go-round and instead start to take baby steps toward change. I had to rely less on my content knowledge and skills as a teacher and more on our shared humanity until she was ready to absorb the knowledge and skills. It took months of collaboration, conversation, taking breaks, falling down, getting up, listening, processing, and adjusting to meet Phillipa where she was so I could help clear a path to wherever she wanted to go. Like all humans, Phillipa was built for evolution. And so she evolved. Phillipa had the greatest spring to spring reading growth out of all 54 of my students that year. She beamed with pride when she realized how much she’d grown. Scores aren’t everything, of course. But when I looked at her face, electric as she tried to hide an impossibly wide smile, I saw her belief. I saw an openness to what another year of evolution might bring.

Last Thursday, I stopped by the Chavez lower grade center to pick up several texts I needed for summer curriculum planning. Out of practice, I huffed and puffed my way up the stairs to the third floor, all the while thinking about how refreshing it would be to take the stairs with students once again. On the way to my classroom, I ran into Phillipa, no doubt there taking advantage of Chavez’s free summer school. I greeted her, in person for the first time in over a year, with enthusiasm and a big, masked smile. She gave me a shy smile, averted her eyes and continued past me, bookbag in tow, friend chatting at her side. Often when I see students after long periods of time, a highlight reel flashes through my mind--a quick flipping through of all the shared moments that helped make this student who they are today. I thought about how this once defeated student now carried a stack of favorite chapter books in her hands. I thought about how letting the tears flow and having the courage to try again prepared her to support her little brother during remote/hybrid learning this year. Phillipa is a rising sixth grader now and likely one Tik Tok post away from being too cool to give me a hug or acknowledge me in front of friends. But I would recognize that shy smile anywhere. And that’s all I need to remember the moments of Phillipa’s evolution that I was fortunate to be present for, and celebrate her ongoing growth.

I have had 26 first days of school: 26 days of equal part anxiety and excitement for what unknown adventures lie ahead. 26 days of trying (with less than a 50% success rate) to choose a first-day outfit that will wow. 26 days of going from knowing zero names to anywhere from 10 to 55 names by dismissal. 26 days of deciding whether this year would bring the same old, same old, or whether there was something about this year that would change my life. (I was always a precocious child and am certain that I was truly looking for big life-changing moments at the ripe age of six.) In four weeks I will plunge into my 27th first day of school and I am preparing for a year of evolution: A year that reflects my own personal growth and my belief in the possibility for growth in our society. If I am not committed to personal evolution, how can I make space for my students to develop at their fullest capacity? As I recently stated at the end of the hour long Unpublic broadcast with Brightbeam’s Chris Stewart and former collaborating teacher Lindsay Singer, we have to be committed to our own development and reflection. Culturally, there is no incentive to do this work. You have to be in a space where you understand that this is going to add value to your life and to your professional practice. This is arduous work and impossible to commit to if you do not believe in the world on the other side of the work.

I am committed to my own transformation. I hope the time we (virtually) spend together reflects my investment in your own behaviors, beliefs, and being and how they translate into the learning communities you occupy. When I leave our shared space I continue my commitment to institutional systemic transformation. This is how we ensure evolution. A pandemic has torn us away from our calculable courses through the seasons and toward a black hole of sickness, unemployment, displacement, isolation, and death. Many of us have desperately craved a return to our reliable revolution--a return to normal. But a different course awaits us. The night before my 27th first day of school, I’ll pack my backpack and my lunch, lay out a fun, brightly colored outfit with matching accessories, and pray that the always reliable back-to-school nightmares leave me to my rest. But before I close my eyes I’ll say a prayer: A prayer for stamina in the face of long hours and new learning, courage in the face of change, curiosity in the face of confusion, and humility in the face of pressure to know it all, by yesterday. And because faith without works is dead, I will wake the next morning ready to do the work to manifest the evolutionary and transformational experience our students and all of us deserve.

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