Awakening Our Genius

Last week I had the opportunity to check in with a young principal who is in her first year in the role. I remember the day eleven years ago when I interviewed her for a teaching position. She arrived a little late, and she was wearing an art smock and overalls – both covered in drying clay. Her hands were still white from clay, and she rushed into the school – apologizing for being late. Her hair, pulled back in a pony tail, had bits of drying clay in it – and to this day I don’t think she knows that she had a streak of drying clay on her cheek. Her rationale was that she, “got so absorbed in the activity we were doing that I completely lost track of the time.”

I will never forget the energy that this young teacher brought with her into the interview. Instead of relying on the questions I might normally ask, I asked her to describe the activity that had consumed so much of her attention that afternoon. This young person expressed to me with unparalleled passion a depth of planning and thought, and a perspective that focussed on meeting the individual needs of her students – which she was able to describe in an articulate manner and with a complete understanding of each one of the children. The reason she got so absorbed was because, “the children’s stories as they worked on their creations were amazing. They told me so much about who they were as learners and what they needed.”

I offered this teacher a position – because I recognized that she would be the energy our school needed to challenge the status quo and to reshape the way we worked as a team to address the diverse needs of our students. Oft times we had a bump or two along the way. Her creativity and her need to challenge many of the traditional practices held closely by many caused a ripple in the community. Her class was anything but traditional. The children were busy building, creating, researching – and laughing. There was a sense of joy – and an excitement for learning. Most impressive that first year was the giant igloo they built – to scale – out of plastic milk cartons as part of their study of Inuit people. When I spoke to those children they could regale me with wonderful tales about the Inuit people. They knew history, traditions, geography – and they knew the challenges of keeping a culture alive in changing times. I don’t ever remember them sitting in quiet rows in the class gleaning this information, all from the same page in the same book. Computers, videos, books – all accessed by the students. These children were in grade two and three. They were passionate learners and deeply engaged.

We had to find ways to keep the caretakers on side; it wasn’t easy for them to clean around all of the children’s projects. We had to find ways for other teachers to become engaged in the projects rather than to be angry about them because the children were noisy. We had to find ways to legitimize the practices employed by these teachers so that they became a part of our school culture and an expectation of the community. This teacher did change us all. I think she changed too.

And now, she is a principal. The reason I called her last week is because there was an article in the newspaper about her. As always, respectfully challenging the culture of a community and asking that community to step up to a new view of the world of learning. The newspaper article pointed to the response of the community when long-held traditions were questioned – in the presence of a much more important conversation about how children in the school could become active, contributing, and responsible members of their community.

I guess the reason I wanted to write about her today is because she will always be a cornerstone of courage for me. She is a reminder that we all need to step up if we want to change the way we do things. I keep hearing that is what we want to do in British Columbia; we want to change how we educate our children and youth so that they can be better prepared for life in the 21st Century. I’m thinking we need to be more like the person I am describing – more absorbed in our work, more deeply connected to each other in caring and respectful ways – and more able to express our curiosities in an environment that supports our questions and wonderings.

Yes. She is a principal now. I am so very proud of her! And, I am truly confident that she will ensure each child in her care will thrive – and find their individual genius.

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