Dear Teens

I see what you’ve been doing. I’ve been noticing it for a while now. Almost weekly you are solving intractable problems that have had adults stymied for years. A cheap way to check for pancreatic cancer. Stopping the spread of germs on planes. Cutlery that scans for bacteria.  A rain and fireproof sleeping bag for the homeless. The list gets longer each time I look.

And what amazes me is that even when you don’t have many resources, you’re re-inventing the world. You’re doing it with scraps from dump heaps and in places where there are few books and only occasional electricity.

I’m envious. You’re just newly arrived here on this planet and yet you seem to see much more than we who have been here for many decades. Perhaps we have become jaded or too resigned to the world we know?

Of course it helps that you don’t have to invent mathematics. Or the printing press. Or the Internet.  With easy access to the collective pantry of human ideas, you are deftly repurposing and reconfiguring what you find here.

And you do this despite what you learned in kindergarten, one of the first lessons in school: stay inside the lines. Luckily for us, you realize that colouring outside the lines can create a completely different picture. It’s outside conventional lines of thought that creative solutions lie. As you are well aware, it’s outside we’ll all have to go if we have any hope of leaving a livable planet for your children.

You’re quite concerned about the state of the planet you find yourself on and so apart from all the scientific breakthroughs you’re making, you’re also stirring change socially and politically in ways that sometimes stuns.

Those of us who are watching you know that Malala Yousafzi is not an anomaly, that there are many like her who refuse to accept the norm as normal for young women.  We know not all 12-year-olds can start an organization like Free the Children but there are many more like Craig Kielburger who want to end social iniquities such as child slavery. We know that First Nations youth are “idle no more” despite their inheritance of a painful legacy. And we know that Victoria Barrett, who is suing the Obama administration, is at the vanguard of youth demanding that something be done to mitigate climate change.

There are multitudes of you with many brilliant ideas but too often those ideas are being buried beneath your boredom and frustration in schools. It was no surprise to see in a recent study by Yale that 75% of you are either bored or frustrated or tired in schools.  It’s certainly no surprise to Sir Ken Robinson who has for decades been urging schools to allow you to be who you are: creative problem solvers.

But despite his message resonating with teachers worldwide, too many politicians insist that you become human calculators, writers of the 5-paragraph essay and memorizers of the information you can access within nanoseconds on that device in your pocket.

It’s no wonder that many of you are tired. I would be exhausted every day if I had to adjust and adapt to a new environment every hour as you do in schools. How do you cope with being in Biology for an hour and then completely changing your train of thought to adapt to French or Physics in the next hour? How do you adjust to the emotional climate of so many different classrooms and teachers each day? The effort must be daunting!

I wish that schools nurtured your creativity instead of punishing it.  I wish that you were given time each day to allow your ideas to gestate. And I fervently wish that public schools were funded as a priority so that you had all the tools you needed to show us what we cannot see.

If these wishes came true for all of you and not just a few, I can’t imagine what you could do.

But I bet you can.

In admiration,

A Teacher

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.