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CAG Blog: Powered by Optimism

"Powered by Optimism" captures my reflections of life in and around an all-girls' school and highlights the values of C.A.G.: leadership, global citizenship, wellness, and teaching and learning. Underscoring it all is a deeply ingrained sense of optimism that we are preparing a generation of boldly creative women who will help change the world.

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on trust- 3.6.12

Posted by: 
03/06/12 12:00 AM   | reply

what I think about - and, therefore, of what I write. This one is about teachers – that powerful constituency that shapes, inspires and motivates the next generation. 

I wrote this post in Seattle, in the lobby of my hotel, after hearing a most amazing speaker at the National Association of Independent Schools’ annual conference. There are times when a speaker gets right to the heart of what matters – reminding us why we all started in this business called education in the first place.

This man, John Hunter, did just that. John is perhaps best known for creating the World Peace Game, and is at the center of a documentary film called “World Peace and Other 4th Grade Achievements.” Most importantly, John is a 4th grade teacher who has touched the lives of countless children throughout his remarkable 38-year career in education. John inspired the thousands of educators in attendance with his talk. He spoke of the far-reaching touch of teachers for years to come, at times invisible, yet never dormant, as students go on to create lives their teachers helped sculpt.

He spoke of his relationships with students, without which, he said, there cannot be great teaching. It struck me, as we watched an extended trailer of the documentary, how each of those relationships, how each risk he took in the classroom, was based on trust. A trust that all great teachers dedicate their lives to build and sustain. 

I have come to believe that without trust an educator is left with only a superficial daily experience. I have to come to see that without the conditions trust engenders, schools operate in fractured, hollow ways, with classrooms as silos and students as mere consumers of a product that may or may not achieve what it set out to do.

Trust is the keystone of healthy and valuable relationships. Trust is based on a mutuality of goals and vision. As members of an institution, we accept our mission as our core guiding principle. We set out, each in our own way, to live up to those goals, and we trust that we, our students, our leaders will each contribute to the realization of that vision.

Teachers, I have come to believe, must trust in the process of teaching and in the students they face daily. They must believe that those students are willing to go along with them on a journey of learning that will leave them, in infinitely small increments, better equipped to engage in the world.

It matters not whether the teacher instructs students on European history or math or the basic formation of letters and numbers. Without trust in self and student, a teacher lacks that moment of inspiration, which fuels her with the energy to instruct her students for yet another day.

A senior recently told me that she will forever carry with her the sixth grade teacher who accepted only the highest standard of work from her. This teacher trusted she could and would do better – and helped this girl uncover within herself a creative, disciplined critical thinker. Six years and countless teachers later, that trust has paid off in dividends unpredictable back then. 

Kindergarten teachers trust that our girls will learn how to become citizens in a community in which they will live well together for years to come. They trust they can do this by loving, without restraint, each and every little soul that walks through their doors on the first day of school.

One such teacher told me that she continually strives to create a “Classroom of Belonging” so each girl might find within it a place to take the risks she must, in order to begin the journey of growing and discovering that is her birthright.

I recently sat in on an eighth grade class, where girls were collaboratively researching Victorian England. The teacher trusted their process of discovery, as she moved continually from table to table. There was laughter, a lot of it, the teacher’s, at times, loudest of all – giving voice to the sheer delight and energy that comes from uncovering a new fact – a fact that leads to making connections, tumbling one after another, till students got it, the whole picture; the silly, the quaint, the restrictive ways of the Victorians.

It is not particularly insightful to point out that trust leaves one vulnerable. It may be somewhat insightful to realize that truly trusting connections are founded upon hard work. Many hours of planning, of grappling, are necessary for teachers and institutions to realize their mission-driven goals, in essence, to educate students in the ways they deserve.

I asked one of our celebrated and beloved teachers recently what his secret was – he told me it was simple: he discovered long ago, he told me, that one treats one’s students with the same respect as one would any adult. They will live up to your expectations, he said, as long as you give them the latitude you would give a colleague or a peer. It struck me how in each relationship with a student, he took this leap of faith: I trust that you are here to think, to consider and to engage. I trust you will work hard, because I work hard. 

I observed this teacher’s classroom and found a room full of girls who could not wait to talk with him about an item in the news, or their stance toward a civil rights’ issue that they were only just starting to form. He used his vast knowledge to impart facts, and he urged them to know where they stood on issues, after having considered complicated and multi-layered arguments on either side. “You must know what you think, not what I think.” How powerful this gift was – a gift of confidence in his students, of trusting they would rise to the challenge.

A teacher’s trust manifests itself in differing ways: one teacher sits at the center of the conversation; another places herself outside of it, as I observed in another classroom. She asked her students to lead their own discussion, while she silently took notes on their thinking. At the end of the class, she skillfully summed up their insights – powerfully demonstrating for them the sophistication of their own learning.

When I was in the 10th grade, I had a wonderful literature teacher. This, of course, was Dutch literature (I am not, originally, from this country)– but the lesson is universal, regardless of language. At the end of the school year, she gave our class a poem to consider. A woman who was sensitive, yet never sentimental, she offered these lines to us as our parting gift. While I understand the risk of translating poetry – and I am decidedly not a poet, I kept thinking about these lines when I thought about the importance of trust in a teacher’s life. So forgive me for butchering the beautiful cadence that is part of the poem in Dutch, but I think the words still work: 

(From The Ploughman, Adriaan Holst)

I demand no harvest; I have no barns

I am in your service without much

But I am rich in this:

I will not see the stalks

Nor will I bind the sheaves when full

But let me believe in the harvest

Which I serve

It is humbling to realize that each day, teachers recommit this piece of themselves to our girls. I trust that you know that this will make all the difference.

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