You can’t give what you don’t own
An origin story matters. I am the youngest of three children to parents who grew up in the same neighborhood and were themselves children of immigrants. I am also the younger brother to a sister born with cognitive and physical disabilities. For as far back as I can recall, nothing was more important in our house than keeping order, keeping routine, and being predictable. If those conditions were met, my parents were happy and our house peaceful. My unspoken role was to help manage stress and keep order by always being by my sister’s side.
My formal schooling reinforced this approach. I was really, really adept at following directions, meeting expectations, and keeping harmony around me. I even enjoyed some moderate success in a sport that further promoted this mindset - rowing. All this order, predictability, and deference to authority tended to make other people happy. Back to my sister. It didn’t really matter what expectations were set forth from our school bus driver, camp counselors, parents, or neighborhood kids. Many things I accomplished one way, she couldn’t. On any given task, it didn’t take long to see and feel her burgeoning frustration. Why would I continue “as directed” if the approach not only didn’t work - but diminished her - and if I had started to discover that she could do much of what was being asked of her, just not in the way everyone else did it? She made meaning. She just did not construct the same meaning nor in the same manner. The high-pitched squeal of excitement she released when she felt empowered, when she had agency, could and still does bring tears to my eyes. In hindsight, the dynamic between us was unspoken sharing of the learner and teacher roles - an experiential learning laboratory. These discoveries were the foundational blocks to the model of education I sought to build upon and bring to others. Yet, the ruts, routines, and constricting Ivy of the status quo seemed to infiltrate everywhere and would inhibit transferring the teaching and learning I did with my sister to other domains of my life.
After “mastering” high school, college and more formal study as instructed, I went into teaching at a school that was very similar to my own high school experience; orderly, traditional, reverential for the way things had always been done. The idealism of youth and experience that suggested there wasn’t a singular way to learn, gave way to the experience of keeping others placated which meant preserving the order of existing systems.
Thankfully, in hindsight, it was a short stint as most faculty sabbatical replacements (you know, like a part) tend to be. Thereafter I landed where I needed to be. In a centuries-old school that was very intentionally student-centered, I contributed to evolving school programs that allowed students to make meaning for themselves and of themselves. The faculty conversations were so robust and so honest, and ultimately as valuable and formative as any professional development or graduate course I had taken. I was surrounded by boundless creativity and capacity. The adults in the community believed we must continually explore and advance our desire to help students be prepared for the world that they were going into. This proved to be the first professional experience that aligned with my childhood experience as a learner-leader alongside my sister. Ah, but as fate would have it, I lived in a dorm of juniors and seniors and I found myself talking with students about life beyond high school which inevitably lead to reading college essays, looking at applications, and trying to educate myself on the colleges and universities that they were considering. Soon enough, I became one college counselors and then eventually the co-director of college counseling. This step “up” into administration was really a step deeper into the status quo machine. Even at this forward-focused school the force of the status quo was formidable (not all different than the dark side of the force in Star Wars). In the college process all had to be just so: all constituencies contributed to the arms-race and tyranny of the College List. Do school as it is supposed to be done. Student-centeredness matters until it bumps up against the transcript. The transcript - the way we’ve always done it - always wins. Adult seriousness disorder (ASD) had taken hold and was ravaging my system. My job was to stay in line and climb the ladder in front of me.
Over the next decade. I served different schools in various leadership capacities, many professing an interest in challenging the status quo. Ultimately, at the threshold of “no return” each reverted back to what it had always done, appeased constituents, and perpetuated a system that was long broken. Any traces of my super power or signature presence had faded to the point of being imperceptible. Then, an understated colleague introduced me to Twitter: “the scope and depth of ideas out there are incredible. If each of us were to follow 10 to 15 people, just imagine the crowdsourcing of ideas we could generate.” A few Twitter hops, skips, and jumps later, I received an invitation to apply for Leadership + Design’s Fellows program. Oh, hello, Ellen Dee. It’s nice to finally meet you. I didn’t even realize that I was looking for you.
Looking back, the prompts of the Fellowship application itself resonated with me. Yes, these are the people I want to be around: building capacity and fostering creativity; seekers, mavericks, and questioners creating the future of teaching and learning. As part of the first Fellowship cohort, I had many moments where I thought, “I’m holding them back; my contributions won’t matter.” You know the type: the destructive self-talk, the imposter syndrome chatter that keeps us safe, following instructions, being mastered, squarely in the status quo, and ultimately unfulfilled? I felt like a conflicted, twisted stork. But, there simply wasn’t time for or value in that thinking. In this group, I was supported in my quest to (re)discover whatever I needed to in order to be authentically me. I was liberated from my comfort zone and steered toward relevance and agency - for adults and students. The vulnerability and courage of this group was unlike anything I had ever seen - like those persistent squirrels that are in continual motion, planting seeds in some places and unearthing them in others - always believing in what might be. Disagreeing, perhaps, but never disagreeable. They were scratching at a surface I had rather effectively hidden away. And, each one of them passed my internal litmus test: my sister would trust them because they were patient, tireless, human, and sincere. As we tapped into improv, empathy interviews, duct-taping the broken parts of school, prototyping, critiquing, bowling, and even snowballs, everything spurred creativity and deeper inquiry. The realization that I was not alone was like whiplash. But, this tribe was not at my school. How might these Fellows help me awaken a faculty in my school who might then together build an indispensable learning environment that would serve students by listening to the signals of their future, not merely the order, routine, and predictability of the past? A tall order, sure, but only that.
Out of sight was not out of mind. This tribe was a constant (often virtual) source of conversation and inspiration, willing to put safety third, shoot for the moon, and marvel at what was co-created even when missing the original mark. As the year-long Fellowship drew to a close, I clearly had been stirred. I wondered whether my sense of being an L+Doer was merely a function of being in their company (there’s the chatter again…) or if I could sustain this sensibility on my own from within. A fellow Fellow offered a possible lens: the Santa Fe Seminar. Off I went, rather quietly, of course, trying not to disrupt the status quo. Once there, Crystal Land, Ryan Burke, and Carla Silver gave us compasses to explore rivers, ruts, labyrinths, shadows, springs, hikes, and challenges. Santa Fe posed powerful yet simple questions: What do you value? What’s in your way? So what? How do you offer benevolence in response to the status quo’s fear, anger, and selfishness?
Santa Fe cut through years and years of overgrowth in short order, and I felt both exposed and grateful. The traditional rules, the rules that kept everyone happy - at least on the outside - had choked out the springs that fed my desire to be in education. My river had been rendered a rut. Here’s the kicker: I owned most of the blame. You can’t give what you don’t own. So, it’s no wonder that so many educators, schools, and students in our society are stuck. We tuck away - or worse yet, surrender - our agency, our creativity, our most powerful selves just so we can get into an orderly line and play the game of school. That’s not who I was, at least that was not who I had been and nor was that who I wanted to be. But, over a couple of decades in schools I had allowed myself to contribute to the creation of my own confinement. It was here in Santa Fe, immersed in my own (re)discovery, that the idea of “truth pods” were introduced and in one of the least status quo and most immersive places I had ever encountered: Meow Wolf.
Inspired by what sounded like a melding of ideas presented in Annie Dukes’ “Thinking in Bets” and the Quaker practice of “clearness committees”, these Truth Seeking Pods were my weekly sustenance for this stretch of my transformation journey. They were critical to sustaining the “springs” of conviction I found in Santa Fe. To find glimmers one’s truth and let allow that to guide thoughts, deeds, and interactions would take intentional practice, patience, and more than just me, lest I revert back to the gravity and inertia of the status quo. In these weekly pods of five educators in similar, but not identical environments, we “pod members” were surrounded by others willing to confront fun-house-mirror perspectives and distortions as a means to think and perceive as objectively as possible, because we cared about each other and the shift each was trying to make in schools. The goal was not group-feelgood. The goal was learning. This was the equivalent of ten weeks of “weekly dinner with grandma”: lots of explaining, lots of questions, lots of patience, lots of care, and… you just. did. not. skip. This was a chance to build habit and endurance necessary for exploratory thinking to take the place of the comforting confinement of confirmatory thinking. Having someone challenge the stories I told - the very same I told myself and others and of which I had grown tired - was a gift. These stories were burdensome status quo stories and no consequential transformation would advance until those stories were named and brought to sunlight. I knew I needed it, I believed I’d be better for it. I just didn’t always revel in the moments my layers of masks and carefully constructed rationalization fell away. Unknitting a sweater isn’t easy. Each week: drip, drip, drip; rip, rip, rip; ship, ship, ship. Anyone who claims virtual meetings are devoid of meaningful connection likely hasn’t been in a L+D Truth Seeking Pod.
And then, we launched. Our L+D guide not wanting us to be too dependent on a singular “leader” for truth-speaking and sense-making left us to do it on our own; we were being “held capable” of building what we needed to own for ourselves. We stumbled, even stepped backward, and then we launched. Not unlike that moment when a parent’s hand releases the bike seat unbeknownst to the new two-wheeled rider. When the rider figures it out they are momentarily terrified and then overwhelmingly empowered by their agency to explore the world and expand and shape their reality in it.
If the words, “my transformation is complete” were to ever pass my lips, I might rightly be mistaken for that robot outside Meow Wolf. Saying it would reveal a fixed mindset emblematic of so much of educational status quo and proof that I was still mired in the muck of ruts. There is nothing to complete; the game has changed. Being “unmastered” by the status quo is an overt choice, intentional and iterative. This sensibility needs regular cultivation by me and this sensibility needs to be explored and inspired by Fellows, rivers, and pods. The game to be played in schools now is more about surfacing the value of non-traditional learning experiences that spark creative disobedience; that is, the antidote to the status quo. UnMastered - the online professional growth experience from Leadership + Design introduced this past summer - aptly captures the arc of my L+D transformation these past three years: human-centered design, futurist thinking, and the individual as change agent and manager.
Sustaining the status quo is easy on the outside, but often corrosive and debilitating on the inside; certainty stunts growth. Interrogating reality is hard on the outside, but invaluable and generative on the inside; curiosity sparks growth. My L+D transformation is not complete, but at least it’s happening. My ASD is employed with discretion now (I still have to manage a RBF, however). I am a more fully present colleague and family member. Missing a mark doesn’t grind me to a halt; progress beats perfection. Contributing to how other adults build capacity so they can do the same for students is a more enduring transformation proposition. By now, I’ve lost my place in the line enough times to wonder if I even want to be in line for what awaits at the end of it. I’m more fully me, catalyzed by provocation and exploration, optimistic about what might be, and, like Ellen Dee, far more curious than certain about the future of learning and education.
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