Got your back…

I keep saying this in a Indigo Montoya voice from Princess Bride in my head: “You keep saying this word “support”…I do not think you know what it means…” I crack myself up. This time of year: no taking self seriously. Over my career(s), ‘support’ is an ubiquitous word that lost its meaning. When one is in a support position or role, they do not need to meet any rubric, metric, criteria or measurement, so we are all allowed to use this word in any way we choose. I believe anyone who wants to provide support though, while easy to say, is extremely difficult to master. I have looked long and hard, especially this past quarter, about what a flawed and fearful human I am: how the ravages of stress do not bolster or create a more robust and engaged creative me/teacher, but do much harm. Ultimately, I am using this post as a time to reflect upon moments when I have truly provided support for a colleague, and when I have received it with sincerity and accuracy.

Just how does one measure “support?”

Like its twin, “leadership,” there are many ways to approach the conversation and context of educational support; it’s a topic, a creed, which when carefully analyzed and understood, may have broad implications for moving forward with instructional and emotional lives for all educators. We all know when we have a strong/good leader. Strong does not mean hostile, just as good does not mean saintly. We know when an effective leader is nearby, our concerns will be acknowledged, triaged, and we are given autonomy to move forward safely. When we are offered support, we know that the person helping us is also being helped by us in return. No one likes to feel like they are a ‘charity case.’ No one responds positively to pity. No one gains support from mandates, top-down thumping, or thieves of thought.

Thieves of thought?

“Thieves of Thought” are those who listen to others ideas and make them their own. Your signature is off the canvas. Erased. Suddenly I want credit for something I shared openly, gave freely, and now resentment creeps in, and resentment is the death of collaboration.

First and foremost: if we have established a growth model for all educators and administrators, we agree on growth, but we disagree on how or what to make grow. We disagree on best practices, on manner and biases of style, student engagement (one might see a child doodling while reading, another might see the child having an inner dialogue about the text), and our human natures that establish bonds and trust with one another can be destroyed with ill-intentioned exchanges and the fragility of egos.

We want to shut our doors, be left alone, and focus on our students. And we should be allowed to do so, and called forward to lead when we will be treated as equals:

When you walk into this world of reality, the greater or cosmic world, you will find the way to rule your world—but, at the same time, you will also find a deep sense of aloneness. It is possible that this world could become a palace or a kingdom to you, but as its king or queen, you will be a monarch with a broken heart. It is not a bad thing to be, by any means. In fact, it is the way to be a decent human being—and beyond that a glorious human being who can help others.

This kind of aloneness is painful, but at the same time, it is beautiful and real. Out of such painful sadness, a longing and a willingness to work with others will come naturally. You realize that you are unique. You see that there is something good about being you as yourself. Because you care for yourself, you begin to care for others who have nurtured your existence or have made their own journey of warriorship, paving the way for you to travel this path. Therefore, you feel dedication and devotion to the lineage of warriors, brave people, whoever they have been, who have made this same journey. And at the same time, you begin to care for all those who have yet to take this path. Because you have seen that it is possible for you, you realize that you can help others to do the same. –From The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chögum Trungpa

NPR did a wonderful series recently about great teachers. I caught the one about Dudley P. Whitney, a woodshop teacher from New Hampshire:

As a student at Dartmouth, I spent oodles of time in his shop. It’s a place with no curriculum and no grades. The studio is open to anyone.

Students and professors can just swing by with an idea of something they want to make, and then they work one-on-one with Whitney or another instructor to learn how to make it.

This part stood out for me:

Mueller says you have to get rid of this stereotype that creativity is unleashed.

“There is this impression that: Give students freedom and they’ll be creative. And what we know is that they need some structure upfront,” says Mueller.

They need a well-defined problem — like building a piece of furniture — and they need to know the constraints and the range of possibilities.

Structure upfront and well-defined problem: So I tried that the other week. I changed my style, mixed things up: I told the students they had a problem to solve together, and that was how to get from Point A to Point B on writing a short answer response to the poem, “Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakka. Overall, it worked, and overall it didn’t. But that’s the beauty of this: I have colleagues I trust to discuss the process, and go back to the drawing board. My students, all of them, whether or not they completed the task, learned a great deal about themselves, and I about them. I saw who needs more structure, and who thrived with the authentic problem (how does one find theme in a poem and dig deeper?).

Ultimately, I am grateful to my mentors: those enlightened beings, so few and far between, who truly know how to listen, share openly, and give: the more they give, the more they receive. I shall endeavor to be lighter of spirit, and more generous, than I have been. I am seeking grace and calmness of soul, so I too can help assuage new teachers’ fears. I may not be in a ‘leadership position’ but then again that means the temptation to be corrupted by power is negated.

A beloved band teacher is retiring after forty-four years. He is a man of God, faith, and love. He has always given me the time, the one word, the small moment that has bolstered me in times of fear and stress. He has never lectured me, nor pushed his ego or agenda. He is mindful, thoughtful, and insightful. I strive to be as good and kind. The next time you hear the word ‘support’ remember the bridge needs both sides of the river.

 

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