The Speed of Enlightenment

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.        ~African Proverb

Seriously? We have to choose?

What about this: “If you want to go fast and far, let there be spaces in your togetherness”?

You’re guilty, I’m guilty. We want things relatively fast. Just not, for the love of God, slow. And please: not always together.

It can be infuriating. The meetings.The waiting to hurry up. The feigning of interest in someone’s absurd point of view. The humouring of curmudgeons. The compromises. The time.

So we see senior administrators trying to fast track change by circumventing due process. Here’s one way to ensure that your initiatives falter—make them unilaterally. Don’t ask your teachers. Keep everyone guessing. Post job openings that start the rumour mill humming. Keep a low profile. Remember, lasting change comes from the outside in.

“I think the first thing one has to do [in setting out to change a culture],” says Robert Dockson, “is get people on one’s side and show them where you want to take the company. Trust is vital. People trust you when you don’t play games with them, when you put everything on the table and speak honestly with them. Even if you aren’t very articulate, your intellectual honesty comes through, and people recognize that and respond positively” (p. 161, On Becoming a Leader, Bennis).

Attempting to change culture without communicating purpose is futile. Leaders must be able to articulate their vision, because, as Marty Kaplan says, “if someone is a complete master of what they need to know, but is unable to explain why I should care about it or want to help, then they can’t get me to support them.”

If you want to go fast, go alone. We’ll catch up sooner or–more probably–later.

Maslow’s Hierarchy

 I am learning what it means to be a teacher in a low-income area.

Last month a student was crying. She had a severe toothache, so I suggested she call home.

She was back in five minutes. “I’ve got to suck it up, we don’t have money to go to the dentist right now,” she said through a wad of Kleenex, and trudged to her desk. Speechless, I immediately went to my teaching buddy Sooz who knows everything when it comes to this stuff.

 “Go down to the office and tell the principal and secretary. They’ll take care of it,” she said. I must have looked shocked. “It’s okay, Twi. This happens at our school.  But we take care of it.”

Indeed. The school arranged an appointment, and a support worker drove the student there and back.

During lunch, as I supervised Lego Club, I thought back to Halloween and Christmas. I was beginning to understand the wisdom and compassion of my colleagues.

For Halloween, the student support teachers had organized a before-school “costume exchange” in their room. Students had one week to bring in old costumes and/or find new ones. On the day of Halloween, they arranged for volunteer face painters to decorate excited students. During the costume parade, every student was decked out. Every student.

With Christmas came “The Christmas Store.” Loaded with donations from teachers and community members, the newly-transformed music room contained “gifts” for students to purchase for family and friends (prices: from $0.10 to $2.00). The grade seven students then wrapped and labelled the presents for the purchasers and delivered them to the appropriate classrooms. On the day before Christmas holidays, all students had gifts to take home and hide. Brilliant.

After Christmas, the first snow led to a flurry of student concerns. Many did not have boots, hats, mittens, or warm winter coats. Fortunately, the school has a collection of donated/purchased clothing and boots. Students that require winter clothing are snugly outfitted.  

When I mentioned to a neighbour that we give clothing to kids that need it, she said, “Do you feel right giving hand-outs? Shouldn’t kids have to, you know–work for it?”

Work for it?  For clothes? Winter boots? Mittens?

No.  Children do not have to earn warm clothing.

They do not have to earn breakfast or lunch or fillings in their teeth or even Halloween costumes.

Children, all children, deserve to have basic needs met, without judgement and without shame.

Yes, the issue of poverty is complex, and it’s easy to point fingers. But while you debate the issue, children still have toothaches. And they are still hungry.

And watching my colleagues, I am finally seeing the subtext: that dignity, not judgement, comes first.

On arriving at a new school

I teach in a high needs elementary school. Our school services (by postal code) the poorest area in British Columbia. Aside from breakfast and lunch, we provide clothing, school supplies, and subsidized field trips. Attendance lists change often. Phone numbers do too.

This is my first year here. Even though I have been a teacher for many years, I am relearning to be a teacher in this place. As I unpack boxes from my old school, I realize I have packed my best quilts and parkas only to arrive in a tropical country.

The first week I notice the obvious: weak skills, short attention spans, spotty attendance. The smell of urine. An upset kid banging his head. Another hissing when I get too close.

So I’ve been working to build trust. It’s a slow process, but I have faith in slow processes.

If this year is rock climbing, I’m having trouble finding footholds. Dangling by one arm, I hear other staff members: “Feel to your right! Put your foot there! Good, now lean on the rope.” By God, there’s a rope. It’s snug around my waist. Even if I drop, I won’t die.

I’m starting my ascent. My team is beside me, which is phenomenally comforting, because for the first time in my career, I think my survival depends on it.