Saturday, August 19, 2017

Drive to School

Out the door, up 2nd to Irving, Irving to 7th which turns into Laguna Honda which turns into Woodside which turns into O’Shaunnessy which turns into Bosworth. Left on Alemany, up a street whose name I realize I don’t know even after driving this route every school day since moving to my house in 1982,* left on Sweeney, left on Bowdoin and into the parking lot of 300 Gaven. That’s the drive I’ll do today as I go to the Work Day to prepare my room for my 43rd year of teaching at The San Francisco School.

On the closing day of my World Music Course in Toronto yesterday, I spoke, as I often do, about a different kind of Drive, a book of that title by Daniel Pink that describes three powerful drives that motivate us to do our best work. They stand in opposition to the old ways of the stick—do this or I’ll beat you— and the carrot—do this and I’ll reward you. When we build a school culture around the carrot and the stick, we turn the whole venture into an economic transaction, giving children the message that the thing we are doing, be it learning music, math or how to be nice to each other, has no intrinsic value and is not worth doing for its own merits. We act from the assumption that people are lazy and if didn’t motivate them with external threats or enticements, they would sit around watching bad TV all day drinking beer and eating potato chips.

But if we accept Pink’s researched ideas that we have deeper drives that paint a more positive picture of human potential and motivation, we might just stumble upon the secret of a place that makes kids and teachers alike happy and excited about coming to school each day. In short, the three key drives are:

• AUTONOMY: The freedom to figure out our own way to do things, to try to understand things the way that our minds and bodies are wired, to try to express them in a way that makes sense to us and speaks something of our unique character. When everyone goosesteps to the same drummer in the same style, mindless obeys some outside national standard and proscribed method of teaching with mandatory keywords and use of the i-Pad, we have a severely reduced notion of what education actually is or could be. Since “educare” means to lead forth or draw out that which we already have within, it is essential to acknowledge that no two person’s insides are the same and the invitation that Frank Sinatra gave to do it “My Way” is what will make all the difference.

• MASTERY: We all have an innate urge to do things well. We’re frustrated when we can’t, so when we hit that wall, we resist the temptation to drop out or call the activity stupid or call the teacher stupid. We buckle down, focus and get to work and rejoice in each little inch of progress. But first we might assess if indeed the task is worthy of attention. I would have trouble making homemade explosives to use to harm people and would wisely choose not to master that particular skill. And that brings us to:

• PURPOSE: To devote time and energy to disciplined practice presupposes a purpose that speaks to our vision of the world as we’d like it to be. It’s the fuel that will propel us through the hard spots, justify the sacrifices we’ll make, encourage us to persevere. It is often the “mission statement” that connects us to our colleagues and gets us working together. For we accomplish very little alone—collective purpose and action, from the hunt to the barn raising to the political campaign to the meditation retreat, is the true nature of the human beast. By agreeing on a purpose that brings something of value to the world, we fuel our drive toward mastery and frame our autonomous way of working.

Autonomy. Mastery Purpose. I often talk about this to describe the way the music program works in my school, but yesterday, stumbled upon these drives as the center of the entire school culture, as the way of working that is responsible for the vibrant community and culture we have created.

From the beginning, the teachers have been granted the autonomy to create curriculum and teach in their own style. That makes them feel respected and entices them to think about how to craft each lesson in a way that keeps the whole venture fresh and alive. The record number of staff who have been at our school for 10, 20, 30, 40 and more years is unique and testimony to the excitement that comes when teachers feel valued and free to go to the edge of their craft in their own way.

But with every freedom comes an equal measure of responsibility. Combined with the drive towards mastery, teachers take that gift of autonomy seriously and work hard day after day, year after year, to master the intricate art of teaching, constantly poking and probing to see where they need to adjust, change, grow or let go. And hence, we have a large population of educators who have truly earned the title of “Master Teachers.”

And finally purpose. Like every school, we have out Mission Statement—“…to cultivate and celebrate the imaginative, intellectual and humanitarian promise of each child within the circle of community” and it’s one that means so much more than empty clichés to us. We believe in it, we organize our classes around it, we do our best to live it. When the next method-du-jour comes sweeping through the school, we consider whether it will enhance or distract us from our purpose and refuse to be swept off our feet.

And so today I will once again take that familiar drive in my car to a place that honors these other drives and even though it marks 43 years of the same old same old, the autonomy, mastery and worthy purpose keeps it all perpetually fresh and new and worthy of my efforts. It allows me to say without hesitation:

“Here we go again! Yeeehaw!!!!”

* PS I looked today and the unnamed street is Cambridge. Only took my 35 years to find that out!

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