How do you know if you’re making a difference that matters?

This is the year that everything seems to matter— and yet no one knows if what they do day-to-day matters very much at all. It’s certainly the paradox of our time and especially for teachers. I think it’s important to reflect on our everyday practice and put into question our views about the purpose of education and how we engage young people.

Jacob Needleman writes about an all too typical experience:

“There they were, about fifteen boys and girls, there I was—talking, talking, talking. I couldn’t stop talking. Hands started waving in the air and I finally called on one of the students. But no sooner did she start to bring her question out that I steamrolled over it with an answer that left her absolutely no room for further questioning. I went on talking, amusingly, animatedly bringing in Plato’s cave here, the Upanishads there… Time flew by. The bell rang and suddenly the class was over. That was it, that was all. As the students cheerfully filed past me and I smiled to each of them, exchanging a few informal remarks, I began to realize in my gut what had happened. To be precise: nothing.”

This fiasco, as Needleman called it, propelled him to engage in deep reflection and eventually to take on a high school class in San Francisco after years of teaching at the college level. Later he writes, “My task is to engage that part of them that needs to achieve while calling gently to the part that dreams of Truth.”

Needleman designs his philosophy class around enduring questions that he categorizes as “real, gut-level questions of life that often students are not free to address in educational institutions.” Questions such as:

Why are we here?

Why are we given more advanced brains than other animals?

Is taking another human life ever justified?

What is a human being?

What can we hope for?

Who am I?

What is love?

While I read Needleman’s words in a thin book I found on a cluttered shelf at Strand bookstore (Schools with Spirit: Nurturing the Inner Lives of Children and Teachers, edited by Linda Lantieri) I inhale and exhale deeply. I am inspired and reassured. It is so easy to question.

This is a message to all my fellow writers, philosophers and teachers out there who feel deeply about the quality and character of life. What matters is your willingness to inquire within and to find the magic that transforms the outer world through honest, everyday practice. It is keeping humanity at the center of all things.

Sometimes we are stuck in a place where we have to ask: How do I break through this robotic stance? How do I metamorphose this lifeless, sterile, empty space, this institutionalized public space into a personalized, soul-searching, heartbreaking, life-altering space where the spark of curiosity dances through us continuously?

It is easy to get bullied or brow beaten especially considering the real challenges of teaching and learning. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that examining, exploring, honoring, nurturing the quality of our character, our souls, the core of our human existence is somehow someone else’s job or not so important.

Mathematics, science, ELA and technology are important, but not so much if we do not have the capacity to use knowledge in an ethical and mindful way so that we better our world, ensure we are working for peace. Without an investment in the soul work of teaching every day, in nurturing a sense of belonging, purpose, meaning, and value for all life– we may be accidentally contributing to the self-destructive, violent, and hateful behavior we see tormenting our nation.

Rules of Authentic Engagement

All change, innovation, and progress depends on the engagement of ordinary people. Ordinary people like you and me make things real by our commitment and every day practice. This is what academics refer to when they use the word Praxis. Praxis is the act of engaging people in every day practice in order to realize a big idea. Without praxis, big ideas die.

The engagement of ordinary people in education policy and decision-making is important because education is about human survival and all decisions in education, public or private, impact the future of our children. We are all born with the instinct to protect the future of our children and preserve humanity. That is why the topic of authentic engagement and praxis in education is so important—and especially now when it is so hard to stay conscientiously engaged.

Challenge

In my experience, engagement in discussions that may lead to important decisions in education has become increasingly strained and artificial. Especially when it pertains to issues of equity. I think we are all feeling the pull of that downward spiral towards apathy and lack of motivation. I think this trend has to do with two things. One is our leadership and the second is lack of responsiveness.

Leadership

Many of our leaders starting with the President are problematic and their ascension to positions of power have surfaced great angst, confusion, and mistrust about how people rise up to leadership in our society; not to mention the qualities and characteristics required of a leader. In view of the current debate around our nation’s leaders, it is right to question the process and whether the hearings, for example, are simply formalities rather than opportunities for us to exercise our due diligence and make corrective action. Do the individuals being appointed to the cabinet by the President, such as DeVos, for example, truly reflect the heart and minds of the people they would be charged with serving? Is she in touch with the type of impact her decisions would have on districts, schools, teachers and whole communities? The DeVos situation makes us wonder what knowledge and experience matters when it comes to leadership. There is so much to consider when a leader takes ownership of a position, especially the impact this leader will have on authentic engagement.

We see this in organizations as well that experience similar dilemmas in leadership. Hiring practices, promotions or appointments are often rooted in political agendas, bias, funding, and nepotism. A person may be put in charge of an education program or diversity initiative that has a background in finance, for example. How might this flagrant lack of value for knowledge and experience deter people from engaging authentically in the organization? Even more importantly, what happens if flawed decisions in leadership result in the total breakdown of authentic engagement?

I wonder if it is possible to have authentic engagement when we question the knowledge, experience and overall commitment to our collective well-being of our leaders.

Lack of Responsiveness

Everyone knows the promise and pitfalls of the “feedback” or “suggestion” box. The idea is brilliant. It communicates a respect and openness to input from everybody. And yet, what happens when the feedback or suggestions don’t ever get implemented? What message does that send about the authenticity of the process?

In a recent conversation with my husband, he shared how at first the suggestion box in his office contained seemingly trivial requests, such as asking for better lighting in the bathroom or a new microwave for the kitchen. However, once the management took those small demands seriously, over time the suggestion box filled up regularly with feedback on deeper issues such as flexible time to promote work life balance or how the company should provide a private space in the office for mothers who breast-feed. The power of responsiveness and the attention to detail, especially at the beginning was priceless in ensuring authentic engagement.

Unfortunately, I have often found that we ask people to engage in a conversation about decisions only to find out later that the decision would be made behind closed doors. I have also recognized patterns of which voices systematically get silenced such as people of color, women or members of the community who are deemed as less educated.

There are two main reasons for a lack of responsiveness. One is political structure, like in my first example. Important decisions that matter are really made at the top, often by one, two or three individuals who have power and the collaborative protocols in between are really just artificial exercises to give the appearance of being flat and inclusive. The second reason is conscious or unconscious bias, dominant ideologies and/or notions about whose voice we should value. Some might argue the latter is particularly pernicious because it reeks of subtle bigotry but I believe they are equally problematic because they both end up breaking down authentic engagement and the much needed participation of people. I have often wondered just how aware an organization is of their lack of responsiveness, survey after survey, meeting after meeting.

Agency and Mindful Inquiry

I want to believe that authentic engagement can happen regardless of flaws in leadership or a history of lack of responsiveness. I have spent a life putting my faith in the power of ordinary people like myself to make a difference by expressing voice in the face of adversity and somehow convincing others to act conscientiously for the common good. Sadly, I am not sure anymore. I question if large-scale innovation or change can happen without authentic engagement and if authentic engagement is possible without authentic leaders. That leads me to my mindful inquiry for this week:

  • How can we develop authentic leadership for equity?
  • How can we get the attention of our leaders to become our allies in our work for equity?
  • How can we develop alliances within flawed structures and leadership in ways that can challenge the status quo, without ousting our allies in the process?