“When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something.” - Pema Chodron
My favorite genre in which to read and write is memoir, but I wasn’t always a reader. In fact, one of my earliest school memories in regards to reading was fairly scarring. It was the tradition in my childhood first grade classroom (my teacher, she-who-shall-not-be-named) for students to volunteer and read a book of choice whenever one was “ready.” So drawn was I to this communal and performative act that I went to great lengths to memorize a chapter from “Little Bear” by Else Holmelund Minarik. On the day of my reading, I clearly remember sitting in the teacher chair, classmates at my feet, stumbling through the pages as memory failed me and my eyes welled with the weight of tears. Likely in an effort to spare me, the teacher stepped in, “Sarah, why don’t you plan to try again when you can read the words.” I quietly vaporized from the seat with an internal vow to never read again.
Fast forward through high school and then college where the gift of inspiring teachers reminded and championed that reading was about knowing the world and knowing worlds unknown. As if by slow moving magic, I became a reader.
As an adult and in the face of tribulation, I found memoir to be an instructive rescue. Reading roots burrowed farther into the heart. Then and now, I’m deeply grateful to writers who pour their raw selves out onto the pavement, patiently and courageously waiting for the carnage to take new and unexpected shape through the passage of time and the grace of reflection.
Nowadays, I find myself wondering what the mini memoirs from this time of pandemic teaching might reveal to us all, as leaders and teachers, in the field of education. We need a pause to see what our own Rorschach tests might reveal to us.
As we near a much deserved summer respite, how might we lean into the work of memoirists to define or redefine our path as we emerge from the rubble? In much the same way as writers chronicle their lives, we may find that looking back and processing our experiences provides us some desperately needed perspective. Here, I offer us a way in which we might nudge ourselves through a bit of contemplation.
Embarking on reflection means opening ourselves. You might think of the ways in which writers look back through a notebook, scraps of captured ideas or wander adrift in memory. It’s through these openings that we can begin to identify the triumphs and name our continuing challenges. Inside of reflection, we closely examine our practice and decisions and work within a forgiving space where mistakes are celebrated, “Thank goodness I won’t be doing that again!” or where questions can emerge, “How can I invite students to authentically write and support them with feedback?” and where curiosity invites us to press outside our comfort zone, “I wonder how other leaders/teachers are setting up_____?” We may even dare to be confused, “What was I aiming for here?!”
When we reflect through the lens of celebration, questioning, curiosity and confusion, we live in a less binary way. Instead of seeing good or bad, we see experience and renewed possibility. We also tend to live less by impulse. Sometimes, maybe even often, our inclination is to quickly create or fix something when in fact what’s needed is a moment to reflect and wonder. We are now offered this time to do just that, and there is no sense of hurry in filling up the time or the space that surrounds us.
This word makes me think of a more recent and deep longing: the arms of a far off friend or loved one folding around me. Such a simple gesture that is transformed to the profound.
While giving ourselves a chance to return to the choices we made within these remote learning days, we should be on the lookout for the embrace-worthy decisions, experiences, and connections we made. Just as writers find a way to not only hold but truly seize their past as if it were somehow hallowed, we too should cling to the things that align with our deepest and truest values about teaching and living.
While watching a recent webinar offered by Dr. Angela Duckworth (author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance) and Dr. Sharon Ravich, professor of flux pedagogy, Dr. Ravich expressed, “We must be willing to do away with systems that no longer serve us.” I found this statement to be a powerful challenge to leave behind the insufficient, inequitable and contrived. Yes, yes and yes. Let’s look carefully and do away with what isn’t lifting us up together and protect the things which are. Embrace those structures, practices and offerings that make us more whole at a time when many feel broken.
It can be wholly disorienting to be faced with so much newness. Many of us find this constant state of beginner’s mind to be exhausting. But perhaps, as summer nears, there’s a chance for us to rest and restore ourselves. Life requires a certain amount of resiliency, and it’s not an endless inner resource, particularly when we’ve been burning the candle at both ends.
Once we’ve closed our screens, powered down our devices, had a nap and a walk and felt the breeze on our face again, we just might start to feel a new something brewing within. A spark of inspiration and the slow thrill that comes as ideas expand in our minds might just be a gentle sign that we are (and were) okay.
The trail behind us demands our gaze if we’re to make sense of all that’s come to pass. Like memoirists who write their way through hardship and loss, it’s acceptance and appreciation of hard learning that reveal possible new pathways. Surprising spaces and perspectives open within us. Imagination returns. It’s the gift we never quite expect but are so grateful to receive.
You may choose to step into reflection as the school year winds down or at a later time when you’ve reaped the benefits of some distance. No matter the moment, the good news is that the gift of reflection awaits: all you need is time and you.