“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
-Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903; in Letters to a Young Poet
I love this. “Have patience with everything unresolved,” “try to love the questions themselves,” “And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now.” We are uncomfortable with living our way into the answer. Education has morphed over the years into an industry obsessed with the answer. Especially in the age of high-stakes testing, we want kids to have the correct answers (preferably consistently and now). As a result, the same is demanded of teachers. It wasn’t always this way. Education used to look a whole lot more like life. Consider the apprenticeship model of education where there was a master teacher (who as it turns out was really just a master learner). This relationship wasn’t something that happened in a controlled, pre-packaged way…it permeated everything. It was life.
As an educator and administrator, I often fight for the education-as-life model for the classroom. It makes sense that learning should be more individualized, that it should seek questions and delight in discovery. It is good that we fight for this. But what about this same model for professional development? So often professional development gets boiled down to training educators in a new tool, methodology, curriculum. It is prepackaged. It is forced. It assumes answers.
Education is messy.
We are in the business of people, and growth, and life. There is so much out of our control in education and yet, as a country, we seem to be continually obsessed with the answers- questions be damned. We have become so obsessed with the answer that we will demand that our teachers get kids to know them on command. That they will be able to perform on the spot, like a well-trained animal. The questions are shunned. There isn’t time! And so, professional development begins to mirror this model. If we demand answers out of kids, then we must train all of our teachers in exactly the same manner and we can expect that they will have all the same results.
Is anyone else picking up on how ludicrous this all is? We aren’t dealing with widgets. We are in the business of people, and growth, and life.
We need a new era of professional development.
Any school-wide, everybody-gets-the-same-thing, professional development should be focused on building up community and culture. When you have a cohesive culture, one focused on bringing life, the rest begins to fall into place. When you have a strong community the questions have room to be embraced. In this model, individuality among the staff is appreciated. The strengths and gifts that each was hired for begin to shine. Passion is contagious. It allows for living the questions now. This is the philosophy at Anastasis Academy. I can attest to the: “Perhaps then, someday in the future, you will gradually, without even knowing it, live your way to the answer.” Incredible things happen at Anastasis Academy. Much of what we do can’t just be packaged up and replicated. We don’t do professional development that is focused on answers. We live life together. We build community and culture. We embrace questions together and then live our way to the answer. It isn’t always nicely packaged. It doesn’t have predetermined nice and neat outcomes. But it works!
What we engage together professionally would not be recognized by most districts as Professional Development. We get together and watch movies like Buck. Then after the movie, we go out for a bite to eat and a drink and talk about themes, hopes, dreams, fears. This movie has nothing and everything to do with education. We wander the streets of Philly together and let our history obsessed teacher impress us with his passion for what we are seeing. We go along with him when he says “Wait! Stop right here and close your eyes, can you just imagine how hot this room would have been during the signing in the middle of the summer?” We watch Saturday Night Live clips together (HVR! HVR!). Spurred on by our students, we all read the Hunger Games, and then go together to see the midnight showing. We eat massive amounts of pancakes at Snooze. We take a cultural tour around Denver and meet religious leaders of religions we know little about. We stuff ourselves with Five Guys Burgers until we vow never to eat them again. We shoot skeet and drink whisky. We attend conferences together. We meet for yoga in the park. We paint together. We visit students in the hospital. We go to a baseball/hockey/basketball game. This is professional development. I’ve stumbled on a little truth about educators: you can’t get them together over a meal (or anything else) very long before the conversation is dominated by talk of education. It is our worldview. Even when we aren’t talking education, we really are.
Without strong school culture and community, there is little to build on that is meaningful. While we have a lot of fun together, our professional development is more than that. It is bonding us together. It is giving us common language, metaphors and jokes. It is living life together and allowing for something meaningful and important to take place.
It is shared humanity.
This is the kind of professional development that is worth doing with every teacher. It builds a school infrastructure in a way that nothing else can. It gives us permission to live in the questions, to learn from each other, and to say hard things when they need to be said.
When you walk through the hallways of Anastasis Academy, you will see a camaraderie among our staff that I haven’t seen in any other place. Our students pick up on this. They see that we genuinely appreciate each other, that we laugh and learn from each other. The impact is big.
People will often say, “but how do you keep your teachers at the cutting edge (of the newest tools, tech, curriculum)?!” Well, we don’t. We leave that up to them. When you give educators some autonomy in their own learning, they do it more authentically. So, although we are a 1 to 1 iPad school, we have never had 1:1 iPad training professional development day/year. Why? As I said, our staff shares with each other and is comfortable in asking the questions and exploring together. Sometimes during our shared Wednesday morning time we will have a “smack down” session where each shares something that they are geeking about at the moment. When we learn a new method of engaging information, we share it with each other. When we read a really great book, we recommend it to the rest of the group. We encourage our teachers to be learners because this is the culture that has been built. We ask a LOT of questions. Sometimes we don’t get to an answer…yet.
We hired teachers with specialized skills and areas of real passion. When we set out to hire a staff, we wanted to build a ball team. It does us no good if we take our well-rounded, masterful ball team and force them to all learn the exact same thing, in the same way, at the same time. We want our ball team to have commonality (culture), but we want them to be the BEST at what they are the best at. We want them to live in their own areas of passion. It contributes greatly to Team Anastasis! Clones do us no good in a school full of unique individuals we call students.
Professional development should be in the business of living the questions now, perhaps then we can start living our way to the answers that matter.