This article is Part 2 of Brent’s series, “What Teachers Need.” Part 1 can be found here.
December 14, 2022
There is a sculpture called “The Recovery Stroke” at Swan Lake Iris Gardens, a park in my hometown. The sculpture was designed by our famous local artist, Grainger McKoy. I know it well because twenty-two years ago my mother gifted me a miniature version pinned to a velvet cushion for graduation. A small plaque beneath the wing reads: “The recovery stroke of the duck’s flight is the moment that he is the most vulnerable. Simultaneously, he is gathering strength for the next power stroke to propel him forward.” The sculpture has helped carry me through those transitional spaces in life, between what was and what is to come, because it serves as a reminder that the vulnerability and insecurity of those moments are inescapable; in fact, it’s necessary if we are to move forward, to continue to emerge in our own story. Schools, students, parents, teachers, and school leaders are living in this in-between time right now, in a time between two stories, what has been and what is to come. Naturally, it is a time of heightened sensitivity, of fear and anxiety as well as hope and possibility, where values are challenged and evolve, and when perverse incentives lead us down dead-end roads.
Dual Narrative Bloat
In part one of this series, I argued that an unfortunate consequence of technological efficiency is that more energy is extracted from teachers, not less as we may have once believed (i.e., Jevons Paradox), and this excess energy output has led, partially at least, to teacher burnout. Another piece of the puzzle, however, is that the increased energy output has led to a new model for independent-school education: the bloated, “be-everything-to-all-people,” catch-all school that pays homage to legacy narratives and emergent narratives simultaneously.“Legacy narratives” […] carry entrenched traditions and associated messages that reinforce the narrative, power structures, and signals anchoring our self-identities. By contrast, “challenger … Continue reading In their myopia or fear, many independent-school leaders are hedging their bets and diversifying their programmatic portfolio because of the delusion that we can do it all or because it’s just good business and increases the pool of prospective families. Here are just a few examples of where this incongruence leads us. The first voice comes from the souls of our teachers, the second voice from the industrial education complex—in short, the evolution of our educational values has outpaced our institutional structures:
- Yes, we believe education is a transcendent experience—exploration, curiosity, creativity—and yes, transactionally, students need to be prepared for the workforce by working through the curriculum and gathering all their units for graduation.“When educators debate the purpose of education, a consistent dichotomy is on display. Is the purpose of education to prepare a workforce (that is, the production economy is the primary narrative), … Continue reading
- Yes, we believe in a growth mindset, and yes, the class will move forward regardless of whether students have mastered the concept because we have a long list of components to work through before the end of the semester. From Michael Horn’s From Reopen to Reinvent: (Re)creating School for Every Child, “The system signals to students that it doesn’t matter if you stick with something, because you’ll move … Continue reading
- Yes, we believe students must collaborate and construct knowledge together, and yes, we believe zero-sum competition for students is appropriate, too.
- Yes, we believe in excellent, research-informed teaching, and yes, because we have packed the calendar full of programs and events, we have little, if any, time for professional development.
- Yes, we believe in developing lifelong learning, and yes, “knowledge is treated as an object […] like a destination to be reached. As though it has a linear and finite endpoint to be achieved.” Goldenberg, 42
Our schools are being pushed and pulled by legacy and emergent narratives, by evolving values and traditional structures, which inevitably leads to institutional bloat and, consequently, to mixed messages about what the school values, but perhaps this is an unavoidable outcome of the birth of new narratives. Birth is a process, of course, of swelling and distillation; regardless of whether this outcome is avoidable, this hedging or incongruence in our school’s values and programs leads to cynicism and distrust among our faculty, contributing to the teacher burnout problem. After all, imagine walking into work every day unsure of the answers to the following questions: Am I a sage on the stage, a guide on the side, or both? Is memorization still important? What does this school mean by rigor? Do I give homework? How much technology integration is required? Does the school care more about student well-being or student achievement? The list could easily go on, of course.
If you polled your faculty (and school leaders) on these questions, my guess is you would get a diverse set of answers, which isn’t altogether bad—it’s the independent spirit we love in our people—but it can make for a schizophrenic experience for our students. In one period, a student may hear of the absolute essentiality of memorization, for example, while the next teacher in the schedule may suggest that memorization is antiquated due to Google, and instead, focus heavily on application. While there’s nuance and incoherence in both positions, you get the point. Our students are as confused as we are, which again, leads to anxiety, distrust, and cynicism, features many schools are overflowing with right now. I don’t believe, however, that the cynicism and distrust faculty (or students, for that matter) feel is because of the questions themselves; instead, I believe it’s that we are avoiding the conversation altogether and thus, placing the burden on teachers who are often isolated and siloed and who, because of institutional bloat, do not have the time to engage in the birthing process of a new narrative.Part of the issue here, too, is the need to move from congenial cultures to collegial cultures. See my article from NAIS’s Independent School Magazine (Summer 2022) for ideas on how to make this … Continue reading Without coherent values (i.e., that our values align with our programming), two results occur: passivity and polarization. We do not want passive teachers, nor do we want teachers at the extremes unwilling to move toward one another. The former are disengaged, and the latter claim clarity but are the products of arrested development. We want soulful teachers who are ready to engage and build new narrative frameworks, ones that will (re)align our values and guide us through this time between stories. This process is not mechanized, it is, like childbirth, organic, but it promises to re-engage teachers in an authentic and meaningful way, to make space for the soul in education.
Trust in the Strange Attractor
Independent schools pride themselves on supporting teacher autonomy. Traditionally, this has meant that teachers have total control of their classrooms because they are independent of standardized curriculum and, for the most part, administrative supervision. Laissez-faire pedagogy = hands off my classroom, please. This came with professional trust and respect and the belief that teachers know what’s best for their students. There is a spirit of this that is right and that should absolutely continue, of course, and yet, complete independence, we know, is an illusion. What we can accomplish in our classrooms depends on myriad factors: students’ motivation; students’ maturity and development; technological advancements and distractions; teacher experience, knowledge, and adaptability; the weather outside; the food the students ate that morning, etc. Teachers are a neuron in an entire network of neurons, unique and gifted in their own right but part of a larger framework. Independent and in(ter)dependent.
The technological, cultural, economic, religious, and political disruptions over the last few decades have made the traditional autonomy we once cherished a liability to our students and our teachers. Teachers still need to make the decisions in their classroom, but they must be engaged in a broader network of professionalsThis network could be inside or outside of your school, disciplinary or cross-disciplinary. Could you partner with public or other independent-school teachers? Partnerships may be a way to initially … Continue reading who are tasked to practice radical curiosity and help us align values and structures. You might call these professional learning communities, grade-level teams, or departments, but what is most important is the structure these groups thrive in. In David Whyte’s The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, we learn about “the strange case of the strange attractor”:
All the evidence from the science of complexity says that given certain clear parameters, the communities or teams will become self-organizing. They will be attracted to certain flowing states of organization natural to the people who make them up. In chaos theory, these flowing states are poetically called strange attractors […] Without repressive rules, then, a cohesive team with a strong sense of its mission, ethics, and tasks can be allowed a lot of leeway to develop its own approach to problems […] A calm manager working with simple paddle strokes can ride a turbulent river of events into calm water, while a frenetic manager may be overwhelmed and drowned simply by attempting to account for every swirl and eddy. (244-50)
A “frenetic manager” contributes to faculty burnout, while a “calm manager” understands their role as the midwife to the emergent narrative, which is essential to clear the way for nature to take its course by building robust, problem-solving “cohesive teams” of faculty and giving them real decision-making authority. When is there time for these groups to meet? Teachers are overwhelmed right now! That question could be the first problem a small group of school leaders and faculty wrestles with.See my article with Nolan LaVoie, “Slow Is Fast: Approaching Innovation with Intention” (NAIS) for more ideas about how to approach this problem. By finding or creating time in the schedule for this work, and establishing “mission, ethics, and tasks,” your school is making a value statement: Simple solutions regarding education have never existed, especially now, and we respect our teachers as professionals who will lead us through the “turbulent river of events.”
Here are other sample questions that may initially drive the purpose for these groups before they move into reimagining school systems and structures:
- Given what we understand about neuroplasticity, what has to change about our school and our classrooms?
- What should be more important to our school, student development or achievement or some combination?
- When a student graduates from our school, what qualities about them would lead us to call them “ignorant”?
- What do we consider “deep learning”?
- Do our students define our diploma or does our diploma define our students?Consider this spin on the traditional Portrait-of-a-Graduate profile from Brebeuf Jesuit School in Indianapolis.
By relying on these groups and honoring their solutions within the established boundaries,One of the differences between PLCs, grade-level teams, and departments and the “cohesive teams” I’m referring to is that the former focus their problem-solving within the boundaries of the … Continue reading schools are bound to spawn unique solutions that highlight the independence we so value. As it stands, most independent schools are not unique in significant ways. Yes, perhaps in superficial ways we are, but structurally, we are not: student learning is variable while time in the seat is held as constant;Horn, p. 5 the curriculum’s validation is externally justified (e.g., Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes);Consider the irony of claiming autonomy in the classroom while wedding ourselves to an AP/IB curriculum. disciplines are siloed; learning has fixed boundaries. If we thump our chests about the glories of independent-school education, we ought to look like a highly diverse ecosystem, as opposed to a sprouting monoculture growing under the sunshine of independent school associations. Maintaining an independent-school structural standard is a perverse economic incentive; it is the product of cowardice, not an independent spirit.
Avoid Reductive Thinking about Human Potential
During times of upheaval, a “scarcity mindset” can lead to zero-sum, bottom-line thinking that derives its value from perverse economic incentives as opposed to eternal values. What I see many schools doing now is what Zachary Stein calls “the education commodity proposition,” which “makes learning into a measurable commodity and the student into an object to be designed for optimal social efficiency. This is a way of thinking exemplified by the bad symbiosis between standardized testing, ADHD diagnoses, and stimulant prescriptions” (p. 7-8). What are the implications that a student requires medication to endure or thrive in your school’s curriculum and programming? This “reductive human capital theory,” according to Stein, “is ontologically monovalent—a form of thought committed to reducing the complexity of education as much as possible, concerned only with the control and prediction of closed systems” (p. 27). Independent schools committed to independent thinking are allergic to the “reductive human capital theory” and champion diversity of outcomes for their graduates. In reality, this is inevitable. Humans acting within a fixed system will still emerge with independent and diverse outcomes because humans are irreducible. But what this means is that schools serious about child development will move toward open and differentiated systems, unbounded by an established destination for all students. Where teachers are getting burned out and jaded is they’re working within a fixed system with highly diverse populations whose needs are variable. It is exhausting and demoralizing when you’re asked to fit a square peg in a round hole day after day, and this, unfortunately, is what many schools ask their teachers to do.
(Re)Integrate Spirituality into Schools
My favorite children’s book is Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, a simple story about the relationship between a boy and a tree. When the boy was young, he came to the tree every day, gathered her leaves, climbed her trunk, swung from her branches, ate her apples, and played hide-and-go-seek. The boy loved the tree, and the tree, Silverstein writes, was happy. “But time went by”—the boy grew older and began to value lesser things: money, a house, and a boat (to escape his sad life). The tree gives everything to the boy until all that’s left is a stump, and finally, at the end of his life, the boy asks for “just a quiet place to sit and rest.” And the tree offers her stump, and when the boy takes it, she is happy again.
This is a familiar story: in our ambitious youth, we are lured by junk values, only to realize that the “end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time,” as T.S. Eliot penned. The boy recognizes, I believe, that the only sustaining value in his life was his friendship with the tree. But to do so, he had to exhaust all of the other options, all of the exciting, finite things in life. The existential crisis we face today, however, is that the exciting, finite things in life are inexhaustible. In the history of humanity, the sources of value students have to choose from have never been this superficial or numerous or dopaminergic. We can forecast a world where technological hedonism precludes us from returning to the tree stump, to the values that sustain us. As we looked at in part one, the Jevons Paradox, the increase in efficiency leading to more energy output, has left us busier than ever, our schedules packed, and rest nowhere in sight. And just like the junk food a family purchases after soccer practice on the way home, so too does the ease and ubiquity of junk values attract busy young people. The result of this new ecological niche we’re living in has been more anxious, depressed, and isolated kids.
The problems in our world today spawn from the negation of values, the deconstruction and revelation of their supposedly social nature. This perspective has left people unmoored, bitter, and polarized (because once values are off the table, polarization and groupthink is the only thing left to hold onto). I agree with William Deresiewicz, our sense of authority has been challenged:
The problem […] stems from the nature of the authority, parental as well as institutional, that the young are now facing. It is an authority that does not believe in authority, that does not believe in itself. That wants to be liked, that wants to be your friend, that wants to be thought of as cool. That will never draw a line, that will always ultimately yield.From “We Aren’t Raising Adults. We Are Breeding Excellent Sheep.”
There is probably something to this claim; however, I’m not sure schools or parents don’t believe in their own authority as much as when students are challenged by authority, their sources of value are so fragile that the inevitable result is a crisis. What happens now when an athlete doesn’t get the playing time s/he feels they earned? What happens when a good student earns a “B”? What happens when a middle schooler is called a name? The trend we are seeing in our schools is the demand for a suffering-free childhood, and the losers here are qualities our students will desperately need in the future: resilience, courage, and humility.
Where do we go to find eternal values? What I suggest is the integration of spirituality back into schools. This is not an argument for a dogmatic, prescriptive religious approach; it is an argument that if we don’t create the opportunity for our students to develop a spiritual life, students will continue to gorge on junk values. This suggestion is supported by research. In The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life, Lisa Miller claims that “[e]ach of us is endowed with a natural capacity to perceive the greater reality and consciously connect to the life force that moves in, through, and around us […] our brain has a natural inclination toward and docking station for spiritual awareness” (p.8). And her team at Columbia University has revealed through their research that spiritual development is “invaluable to our health and functioning” (p.9).Visit The Collaborative for Spirituality in Education for free resources and consulting. As a specific example, “a sense of personal relationship with a higher power” is associated with decreased risks of depression, serves as a “buffer against the negative psychological effects of stressful life events such as illness, divorce, or loss of a loved one,” and decreases the “lifetime risk for alcoholism and nicotine dependence” (p. 57).
Our young folks, I believe, are having a crisis of meaning. Their wings are fixed in “The Recovery Stroke,” and they are vulnerable. What they need are sources of value that can sustain them through challenging times; as the world around them continues to be disrupted by technological, ecological, and political upheaval, they will need something to ground them. The nutritious, life-giving values they need still exist, and in fact, many of them are being rediscovered as people everywhere search for meaning in their lives. The journey to rediscovery, though, takes space, time, and patience. It also takes the sagacity of soulful teachers who have navigated these waters and can lead our young people in their journey to a purpose-driven life. Teachers leave this profession when they’re burnt out and can’t give anymore, when their mission is unclear, and when the profession is devoid of the human spirit. Imagine the exhaustion teachers feel when toggling back and forth between legacy and emergent narratives when they are silenced by busyness and professional distrust. School leaders need only look in the mirror to discover why teachers are resigning from their posts. Jevons Paradox, dual narrative bloat, and the demand for sterile, suffering-free school experiences: this is the combination we school leaders must push back against if we are to recover the soul in education. Soulfulness thrives in the time between stories, when the outcome is unclear and the mission is critical; it is our job as school leaders to give it space.
You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Brent Kaneft for Intrepid Ed News.
|↑1||“Legacy narratives” […] carry entrenched traditions and associated messages that reinforce the narrative, power structures, and signals anchoring our self-identities. By contrast, “challenger [what I call “emergent”] narratives” are newborn ideas that are still learning to crawl. Their journey into the public imagination is slower and rockier, but they will eventually replace legacy narratives as the predominant reality. This dynamic creates friction between prevailing ideas, and like a race with many cars, at different moments each idea has a moment in the lead. (Seth Goldenberg’s Radical Curiosity: Questioning Commonly Held Beliefs to Imagine Flourishing Futures, p. 8). And of course, this cycle repeats itself ad infinitum.|
|↑2||“When educators debate the purpose of education, a consistent dichotomy is on display. Is the purpose of education to prepare a workforce (that is, the production economy is the primary narrative), or is the purpose of education to nurture critical thinking (the participation of advancing society is the primary narrative)? It is as though a student can identify with either the story of capitalism or that of civic enlightenment, but never both” (Seth Goldenberg’s Radical Curiosity: Questioning Commonly Held Beliefs to Imagine Flourishing Futures, p. 29)|
|↑3||From Michael Horn’s From Reopen to Reinvent: (Re)creating School for Every Child, “The system signals to students that it doesn’t matter if you stick with something, because you’ll move on either way. This approach undermines the value of perseverance and curiosity, as it does not reward students for spending more time on a topic. It also demotivates students, as many become bored when they don’t have to work at topics that come easily to them or fall behind when they don’t understand a building-block concept. Yet the class continues to progress, and students develop holes in their learning. This fixed-time, variable learning system fails students” (p. 5).|
|↑5||Part of the issue here, too, is the need to move from congenial cultures to collegial cultures. See my article from NAIS’s Independent School Magazine (Summer 2022) for ideas on how to make this transition: “The Problem with Nice: Moving from Congenial to Collegial Cultures.”|
|↑6||This network could be inside or outside of your school, disciplinary or cross-disciplinary. Could you partner with public or other independent-school teachers? Partnerships may be a way to initially help scheduling this time in (e.g., Your school may have three teachers who are free first period, but through partnerships, you may be able to expand that to a group of 12 teachers who are free during that time period. The meeting may have to be virtual, of course.).|
|↑7||See my article with Nolan LaVoie, “Slow Is Fast: Approaching Innovation with Intention” (NAIS) for more ideas about how to approach this problem.|
|↑8||Consider this spin on the traditional Portrait-of-a-Graduate profile from Brebeuf Jesuit School in Indianapolis.|
|↑9||One of the differences between PLCs, grade-level teams, and departments and the “cohesive teams” I’m referring to is that the former focus their problem-solving within the boundaries of the current system. They do not challenge the current structure, they work within it. The “cohesive teams” are tasked with thinking outside of the current paradigm.|
|↑10||Horn, p. 5|
|↑11||Consider the irony of claiming autonomy in the classroom while wedding ourselves to an AP/IB curriculum.|
|↑12||From “We Aren’t Raising Adults. We Are Breeding Excellent Sheep.”|
|↑13||Visit The Collaborative for Spirituality in Education for free resources and consulting.|