I recently attended an amazing conference - one I'd been counting down for since the moment I signed up for it. The presenters and many of my fellow attendees were people I'd followed for years, whose thoughts on education helped guide and shape the teacher I am today. I read their blogs daily; their books, dog-eared and filled with my scribbled notes, fill my shelves. I vacillated between giddy excitement at the anticipation of spending three days with so many like-minded, inspirational people and learning alongside them.... and being terrified. Yes, terrified - afraid they wouldn't like me or I'd make a fool of myself or in some other way I would turn out to be not good enough or smart enough or authentic enough and that my life's calling would be yanked out from under me.
Yes, that's kind of extreme and ridiculous in hindsight but that's how I felt. I struggle with anxiety, especially socially, and my worries can really spiral out of control in anticipation of a big, important event with many unknowns. And these people were the EXPERTS. The knowers of all knowledge. The ones with the special presenter badges and the blog bylines and the publishing deals. They were here to impart their wisdom and I was here to soak it up.
Well, that's what I thought, but it didn't turn out like that at all.
(If you're ever unsure of how to break the ice with the "experts," maybe you should close your eyes and wander backwards-and-butt-first into them. Here I am gracefully greeting the fantastic Dan Hodgins. Hear him share thoughts on revering the "experts," along with the equally fantastic Amy Ahola, here, on their Shaking Bones podcast)
Once I was finally there and in the midst of things, I gradually relaxed. I won't say I was immediately totally fine - I definitely had several moments where someone paid me a compliment or generally talked to me like an equal while I stammered foolishly and downplayed myself with some lame statement beginning with "Oh, I'm just...." And I hope those people will look past that when next we're together.
By the end of the conference, though, I felt quite differently. I didn't feel like "just" anything. I felt like I was on equal footing with these people. I felt amazingly validated in my professional practice and newly inspired to take on the world! Beyond that, those people I had previously revered (yes, that's how I felt) had listened to what I had to say and laughed and danced and goofed off with me and become my friends. I feel beyond honored to call them my friends, not because they're the "experts" or because they're "famous" and hanging out with them makes me cool (or whatever) but because they're such lovely, kind, funny, awesome people and knowing them enhances my life. I consider them mentors, sure, but I also consider them peers and that opens me up to an extra level of learning and support now that I no longer elevate them to the level of untouchable "expert." I can ask them questions. I can admit my mistakes to them. I can see myself one day making the same kind of impact they've made because I recognize that they're on a journey just like me and we're all working toward being our best selves. Our roles in this life are not static.
(I got to wear the cape, you guys. And we have the same shoes. Not so different after all.
There are many lessons I've taken away from this experience, so many things I'm still pondering, so many implications for my professional practice.
My first thought is this: Why is that kind of "expert-and-student" dynamic still so prominent in our schools? For years, the research has indicated that a student-led learning environment one in which the student feels empowered and the teacher takes more of a supporting role, is the superior model. When students truly own their learning and feel capable and able to constantly grow as a learner, learning truly flourishes. Yet, our schools still so often fall back on the old "sage on the stage" model, reducing learners to passive, empty vessels in need of filling. Elevating "experts" to a higher status than those who are still working their way up is not only unrealistic (those experts are still on their learning journey, as well - we should all remain on that path towards our Truth for life), but it is also damaging. The notion that some people are experts and keepers of all the knowledge supports a fixed mindset - the idea that we are all inherently good at some things and bad at others and there's not much we can do about it. A more collegial learning environment supports a growth mindset - the mindset in which we see intelligence or ability as dynamic, things we have power over, that we strengthen through practice and experience. I know all this - I have been working for years to instill a growth mindset in my students - yet I still fell back on that old, static notion of the "expert," the person who knows more/ is therefore better than me. Being able to engage with those who have more knowledge and experience than I currently have as equals rather than superiors allowed me to see that we're really not that different - and gave me a great deal more to connect to and to strive toward.
I work with tiny people currently, and there is no doubt that I have a great deal more life experience and knowledge than they do. They look to me often for guidance, and rightly so. However, dictating their every move and insisting upon doing things "my way" won't empower them to grow as learners or as members of the greater community. As often as I can, I step back and encourage them to find their own solution, their own answer, their own way.
Why is this good practice? They are, after all toddlers and preschoolers. Some would say that they still need me to explicitly tell them what to do. That model doesn't work on many levels, however. Firstly, even very small children are human, and will naturally fight for opportunities for power. Without a connection to their teachers, they are unlikely to learn much. They're also unlikely to be very happy, which brings me to another big take-away from the conference.
Being embraced and accepted by those around me did so much for my confidence - and for my ability to take in new information and feel ready to own that knowledge and apply it. I felt welcomed and supported by this amazing group of people who had largely been strangers previously. I felt like they were rooting for me to succeed.
That's the atmosphere we want to create in our classrooms. Everyone learns best when they feel embraced and happy, when they feel like their voices are heard. When they feel that they are good enough, they are worthy, their strengths bring something valuable to the group and their weaknesses are accepted, too. We create this environment when working alongside our students, when following their interests whenever possible, when giving them a chance to share their voices and their talents in whatever way they feel most comfortable. This is how we strengthen each other as human beings and how we build a community with a real sense of belonging. When that happens, all of us benefit.
We're working together to figure this thing out....