Take the Leap


She had tears in her eyes when she said, “I wish I could teach like you do but I’m too afraid”.

I didn’t know what to say and mumbled something that probably did nothing to assuage her grief as I hugged her.  I’d like to try to say something in response now.

On the long road that led to being invited to Italy to share my teaching ideas, I too shed many tears. I know very well what it feels like to be overwhelmed by the enormity of our task and the impossibility of ever doing enough for every student in our classrooms. And I too have an abject fear of failure.

But what I hold on to when I take that leap into the unknown every time I try something new in my classroom, is my extreme distress at the discomfort so many of my students experience in school,  and my ongoing irritation at the waste of their creativity.

Have you noticed lately how often there is news of yet another discovery or invention by a teenager? How many more could there be if we could stop force-feeding them boredom and instead unleashed their minds to look anew at the intractable problems of our world?

I wonder how many teachers, after hearing Ken Robinson’s plea for us to nurture creativity in schools, take the leap into innovating their teaching practice? Since February 2006 the talk has been viewed over 36 million times and translated into 59 languages but I’m curious about what its impact has been on the critical core of education systems: the relationship between teachers and students.

That’s where the “frontlines” of innovation actually are: the space between a student and a teacher. It’s what I find in this space that motivates me to keep trying to change what happens in schools.

In that space hangs the question each student asks of me: Do you care?

It doesn’t matter if you’re a taskmaster or a laissez faire teacher, a charismatic John Keating (Dead Poet’s Society) or a demanding Jaime Escalante (Stand and Deliver),  caring comes in many colours in classrooms.  And, luckily,  students are caring colourblind – they’ll take any colour of caring that they can get.

They really don’t need all the technological tinsel promoted during too many professional development workshops. They may enjoy the novelty of it but when that wears off, they’re back to wondering whether you, their teacher, care.

Care is one of those words that can have many interpretations but what I mean does not include unicorns and rainbows.

Caring is pragmatic. Even if I can’t change the entire system today, every day I can ensure that my students, in my classroom, are as comfortable as possible by allowing them to move, to eat, to take brain breaks. I can choose to be aware of what they need as human beings, not as empty vessels to be filled and tested.

Caring is challenging. It requires me to put myself in another’s shoes, to be compassionate, empathic; to see the other, my student, as I would want to be seen. Even when, and especially when, that student is recalcitrant.

Difficult students have been my most memorable teachers because conflicts with them have been the catalyst for my excavation of who I am as a teacher.

This excavation is necessary because it’s where all change, anywhere, begins. From the inside out.

So if we are to change education systems, yes, it’s important that there is political and economic support for change, that there is social support for innovation, and that enough time is also provided for teachers to explore new ideas, but what is most critical of all is that each individual teacher gather up enough courage to override her fears about changing what she does each day in her classroom.

Because change requires courage.

The kind of courage that Brene Brown talks about in another famous TED talk. The kind of courage that requires the willingness to be vulnerable, to risk being hurt.

The kind of courage lubricated by tears.

And, dear colleague, when you’re ready to take that courageous leap, I’ll be there to hold your hand.

We’ll take that leap together.

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