Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Linchpin Educator

            Recently I’ve immersed myself in some work with a group designing a new program for independent school leadership. One guiding premise stresses non-titular leadership. As part of that, I revisited some of Seth Godin’s work. While I read his blog each day, I decided to re-read three books: Tribes, Linchpin, and Stop Stealing Dreams. Tribes explores groups connected to each other, a leader, and an idea. Linchpin considers the indispensable employee. Stop Stealing Dreams is a manifesto about traditional schooling. Together, they prompted me to try identifying the key qualities of a linchpin educator.
            Three of Godin’s regular themes apply here. First, digital technology changes everything, meaning we should re-examine old models. Second, Godin contends everyone has the potential and means to lead in meaningful fashion. The question is not whether someone could lead. It is will that person lead. Then come matters of what, where, when, and how. Third, merely answering those questions affirmatively falls short. One must produce and ship their particular form of art, the way in which their work touches and changes people.
            Those who do become linchpins. As Godin explains,

What the boss really wants is an artist, someone who changes everything, who makes dreams come true. What the boss really wants is someone who can see the reality of today and describe a better tomorrow. What the boss really wants is a linchpin.

If he can’t have that, he’ll settle for a cheap drone. (Linchpin, 38)
That passage comes a few pages after the following:

Let me be really clear: Great teachers are wonderful. They change lives. We need them. The problem is that most schools don’t like great teachers. They’re organized to stamp them out, bore them, bureaucratize them, and make them average. (29)

In Stop Stealing Dreams Godin thoroughly derides the assembly line model of education. I’d add this is not just a school problem but a societal problem, in that cultures have created their typical school in a way that reveals beliefs and values. Consider what resonates in a politician’s platform regarding education. Ultimately, schools are human constructs.
            Of course, that means humans could change them, provided we muster the collective fortitude. That’s where linchpins come in.
So what makes for a linchpin educator? Nothing in the following is about the nuts-and-bolts of teaching, although those matter. But they can be learned and really are secondary. Much more important are certain personal qualities. We need people who can enhance, perhaps even transform education through shaping a particular type of culture.

Curriculum as Markers
            The etymology of the term curriculum refers to a set path. Through time, as more and more traverse a path, the ruts become deeper; a traveler can have a harder time deviating from the preferred route. In education this has played out in greater standardization, the curriculum becoming almost a script for the teacher. Content becomes paramount, and pedagogy takes on a degree of mechanization.
            To a linchpin educator, however, curriculum serves only as markers. It provides a general sense of direction, but the educator wants to embark on expeditions with the students, often through exploring interesting problems. The linchpin not only ignores the map, but shreds it. After all, here during the fourth industrial revolution, we have no reliable maps.

Questions Trump Answers
            As a general rule, questions can be organized into two categories. The first require factual answers, those sort of lower-order bits of recall that may win someone a Trivial Pursuit game. The second provoke higher-level analysis. Perhaps discourse of some sort may help articulate the stages of determining a possible answer. They don’t work on bubble tests or robo-graded essays.
            These questions beget even more beautiful questions in some sort of epistemological evolution. They allow us to unlock even the thorniest problems. They urge us to question everything. A linchpin educator swims in a sea brimming with “What if’s…” and “How might we’s…,” all the while yelling, “Come on in! The water’s fine!”

Appreciate Weird
            We shy away from weird. Even sometimes its less-threatening synonyms such as unusual, novel, original. It defies our created limits, and thus we cannot measure it. That rocks the stability of the average. We feel unsafe because of how it scoffs at our expectations.
            The linchpin educator embraces the specialness in that which is unique. The English teacher who sees beyond the misspellings or usage errors to see the passion, the imagery. The math and science teachers who delight in a loopy proof or wacky hypothesis and cheer, “Give it a go!” After all, they reason, a standardized education fosters standardized people…and we have plenty of those.

Comfort with Discomfort
            Fear, confusion, lack of certainty, resentment, jealousy, anger (on all sides)—the discomfort can manifest itself in these and many other ways. It’s resistance. It comes from those comfortable with the status quo, and even those who aren’t but feel secure. Or the resistance might be internal, the lizard brain gnashing its fangs and spitting venom, fed by cynics.
            The linchpin educator, though, continues to create art, both drawing on rich traditions and experimenting with new forms. Just as an education should, the best art jars us into a new consciousness. It broadens and deepens our perspectives. It does so through taking risks mitigated by idealism and faith.

A Shrunken Head
            All of this requires a secure, under-control ego. Recall the function of a linchpin: to hold other pieces in place so that the whole can function. Ultimately, school is not about teaching. It’s about learning. Ideally, everyone’s learning. Ironically, an oversized head gets in the way of learning. Egocentricity causes someone to wrest too much control, to reject possibilities, to lessen others. It becomes about the I.
            The best educators shrink so that others may grow. It is about us and them. They challenge and affirm, reflect and imagine, prick and caress. In urging people to become better, they invoke our higher selves. Linchpin educators thus give us gifts wrapped in passion.

At the core, how a school functions depends on the relationships and interactions among all its constituents. Right now I’m imagining the utter awesomeness of working in a school full of such people. More importantly, I’m thinking about how truly joyful that school would be for kids. I see them emerging as the people who solve all our current and future problems. And some of those kids will grow up and become educators, and we’ll have more and more such schools. And then more and more flywheels will spin faster and faster, each held in place by a linchpin educator.

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