Students are gathered in an outdoor pavilion at Arlington Echo hunched over a piece of poster paper. They are laughing, talking, calling out ideas and corrections while one student tries to get it all down.
“This is like the Declaration of independence,” declares one.
“Yeah, because Signature emancipates us.”
This is a two day overnight trip for Signature Program Seniors. I have taught many of them since they were freshmen. The final activity of this reflective retreat is drafting a definition of what “Signature” is. Despite the fact that almost every student has declared the impact of this program on their lives, our greatest struggle has been and remains DEFINING it.
Five years ago I stood with a different group of students. Before the Signature Program was developed, it began with a “global cohort” of students and a question of “What should education offer to the local, national, and global community?”
Now, five years later, a different group of students are under the same pavilion on the other side of the question. They have been a part of program that has taken them to local farms and to international exchange programs. They have started diversity clubs and political internships. They have created curriculum, videos, conferences, and all manner of other real world products and projects swirling around their signature experience.
I am their teacher…but they have made me obsolete. Finally.
As they begin to string together a statement of purpose, I watch them with pride but also with poignancy, because I know something they don’t:
I am leaving them.
One week from now, I’m going to sit them down in the Library and tell them that I am taking a new job at a new school where I can bring and build Signature with a new group of students. I know they’re going to be shocked…but I have set them up to see they’ve outgrown me anyway.
Earlier in the week, under the same pavillion, I asked them to draft an annual plan for signature. What would they do personally and collectively by the end of the year? What were their goals and how would they get there. 10 minutes into the activity, I gave them a hypothetical crisis.
“The new Superintendent has declared he does not believe in Signature Programs and thinks they are a wasted investment. How does this change your plan?”*
10 minutes later I gave them a second crisis…this one less hypothetical.
“Your Signature teacher has been poached by the department of education to work on global citizenship education nationally. How does THIS change your plan?”
In both instances, the students responded that their plans were not dependent on even these seemingly cataclysmic scenarios. In the words of one of the students: “Sig is an institution. Not a single teacher/administrator will prove the downfall of the entire program.”
The following week when I announced that I was leaving, I hung up their plans and their words declaring the longevity of the Signature way.
Many of them wrote me emails and letters in the weeks to come. My favorite came from a student who over the course of the 4 page hand written note went from grief and anger to acceptance and confidence…with just a touch of doubt:
“I feel like signature is still a baby. The first sig completer class hasn’t even graduated, yet your’re leaving…so soon…But maybe it’s the best time…Even though I’m broken and sad, I know Signature will not die. We can’t let it. You’re forcing us to be strong. We have been ready for this all along, we just didn’t know it. Very clever of you to put that scenario in our activity at Arlington echo, then tie it to your announcement. Now I get it. Ha. I’m ready for this. Sort of. I guess.”
There were still tears. Still disbelief. Still anger. Still feelings of betrayal…but then on the other side there was strength. There was conviction. There was confidence that I was not the center of signature. THEY were.
When students at Arlington Echo finished their Declaration of SIG-dependence, they signed it and hung it on the marquee….where they hoped the visiting superintendent would see it.
Julia ended her letter with a pledge. She wrote it for herself, but it belongs to all of us who have been touched by this thing we call “Signature.”
“I pledge to myself to myself and the program that I will do everything I possibly can to continue what we have been working so hard on.”