Underwater Mountain Movers: What we can learn about leadership through ocean floor topography

Tidal waves and tsunamis shape the world even though they originate in deep unseen spaces.

Today I had the delight of sitting in meaningful and lingering conversation with two very different leaders.

One is running for office in Baltimore. The other is cozied in a corner office in Annapolis. Both are committed to education, empowerment of young people, and positive community transformation. But one will try to move mountains in the politically charged atmosphere of Baltimore governance, the other will quietly create continental drift in a Range on the ocean floor. One will be a household name. The other you would likely never know even if you were in a room with her.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about where we (read I) should stand in order to leverage change. Today I was reminded that we can be catalysts for change in both spaces of high visibility and low visibility. That the quality and impact of societal and system transformations are not necessarily proportional to how visible their architects are.

You don’t have to see the catalyst to see the effect.

Today I saw a quiet leader for the first time.

I don’t mean I had never seen this person before.

I don’t mean that I had never seen a quiet leader before.

I mean I genuinely SAW a person I’ve known for years for who they truly are and the power they actually wield.

You’d never know it if you met her for the first time. She’s a listener. Self-deprecating. Waits a long time before she offers her own thoughts. Affirms those around her. Works tirelessly behind the scenes. Quietly accrues trust from all directions.

She’s an Ocean Bottom Mountain mover. You see a rogue wave, wonder at its passing, and then let it slip your mind as it moves beyond the horizon. All the while, under the radar, she has re-shaped the landscape in ways that will affect the currents for years to come.

UnderwaterMountains

A popular aphorism that may have been said by Harry Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, or some other wise sage goes something like, “There’s no end to the good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

If I see a success or transformation I know I had a hand in facilitating, do I need to claim credit? Why? What does the effect lose by my calling dibs? What do I lose in the present or the future if people don’t know my involvement?

These questions will be my companions keeping me honest and self-auditing as I myself attempt to work towards the greater good.

Today I realized someone I mistook for a starfish has been a Titan all along. I sat during and after the meeting humbled by this realization. Grateful to have finally glimpsed the long reach of this gentle and benevolent entity. Honored to observe the secrets of her subtle yet persistent influence.

Tidal waves and tsunamis shape the world even though they originate in deep unseen spaces. They may not always get the credit, but we are forever changed by their impact.

Unvarnished Writing

When our paint is peeling, we must decide whether we layer on a glossy new coat or strip ourselves down to the unvarnished beauty that lies beneath.

I struggle when I’m writing to trust my intentions.

What is my agenda? Truly?

Do I seek attention?

Gratification?

Admiration?

When I look back and re-read the things my earlier selves have written, journal entries and college essays, blog posts and Patch articles, whether I grin or grimace is determined by whether I wrote to perform and charm or confess and console.

As in writing so in life.

Throughout the day we decide moment by moment which parts of ourselves to hold up to the light or hide in the shadows. Which parts of ourselves will play well to the audience. What was once conscious choice becomes habit. We spend our days obscuring and augmenting ourselves. With eyeliner and intellect. With high heels and bicep curls. With job titles and Instagram posts. We pluck and polish. Dye and comb over. We posture. We avoid eye contact.

Writing, too, can be like this. I can edit. Refine. Find my best angle. Control the lighting. Amend a position. Strike a new pose. I can re-write this line so it better captures my precise thought. Or I can leave it alone as it emerged the first time. Only I will be able to distinguish one line from the other.

In writing as in life, we can vacillate between a frantic need to be seen and a desperate fear of the same. The words become flesh. The flesh shapes the words.

But oh the power of eyes that see and accept. The heady sensation when we do reveal ourselves and find a gaze that doesn’t turn away or gawk. We long for someone to look at us, see us, celebrate us.

This morning I sat in my car at Anne Arundel Community College before a meeting and wrote:

“Are we a culture that encourages authenticity? Are we people conscious of how we condition our fellow humans to reveal or revile themselves?”

This afternoon, I ran into a former student on campus who (after lifting me off the ground in a bear hug) showed me a screen shot of a text message I sent him over two years ago:

IMG_1459

You better have chills.

We long for spaces characterized by this culture of authenticity and trust. When we graduate or outgrow these spaces, we seek them again and again. Even better…we create them anew.

Hanging on the wall of my classroom was this poem called “Our Deepest Fear”.

It begins…

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

It ends…

“As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

The Lenten season is my space to practice what I already believe deeply to be true.

When our paint is peeling, we must decide whether we layer on a glossy new coat or strip ourselves down to the unvarnished beauty that lies beneath.

I want to see you. Shine who you are. We’ll be blinding together.

Jeremy

Owed to Chloe…

America meets in the classroom. We need cultural diplomats like Chloe who serve as a bridge between.

Ain’t no mountain high enough to sing the praises of my girl, Chloe. As a tiny tribute to the way she has let her light (and our lights) shine, I wanted to make visible the often invisible act of the recommendation letter. 

This is about her…but its also about us, America.

This song of praise.

This song of freedom.

I am writing in support of Chloe Hill’s application for your scholarship. I can say with utter certainty, Chloe has done more to shape me as a teacher and as a person than any other student I have ever encountered. She is a compassionate, deep thinking, and justice minded human being.

Justice Minded Human Being
Justice Minded Human Being

Over the last four years, Chloe has been an integral part of a Signature Program at our school entitled “Community Development and Global Citizenship.” This program is open to all students who attend our school. Chloe opted in early and will be a part of the first graduating cohort of Signature students.  Even more importantly, though, is that through her participation she has shaped this program for all students who will come after it.

To illustrate how and why, I need to tell you two stories. One is a story of collective transformation. The other is a story of personal transformation.

With mentor and spiritual sister Katara West.
With mentor and spiritual sister Katara West.

Leadership II is a required course for students in their Junior year of the Signature Program. This collaborative class allows students to create projects that benefit their local and global communities. Chloe’s project, “Growing Global” was aimed at teaching elementary school students about empathy and cultural awareness. How can students work together on projects, though, if they don’t trust each other? It wasn’t long in this seating-chart-free class before a pattern began to emerge: Self-segregation. Black students on one side. White students on the other. Only a smattering of outliers as the bridge between.

Having taught in public schools for a decade I have come to realize that schools reflect the schisms of the societies in which they are embedded. I usually see it as my role to help students see this pattern, question it, understand it, and decide how they should act to address it. For the first time, though, I watched as the students within the class began to navigate this journey naturally on their own. One person at the center of this social evolution was Chloe Hill.

Chloe and #Squad

A day that students now simply refer to as “the class” began with an impromptu spoken word performance. Students having memorized poetry for English classes began to recite for the Leadership class. Quickly, other students began to recite other works. Then came Chloe with a piece that addressed the systemic inequalities of tracking students into segregated AP classes. Though it has been written by another student in another state, its resonance in our class was immediate. What ensued was a breakthrough moment where students of all colors began to confess long held family prejudices disrupted by the relationships in the class.  They asked questions of one another related to their experience of race in America.

Students looked at each other not with judgment but genuine compassion…and none of it would have ever happened without Chloe. The ripple effect of that class has effected the trajectory of ALL who witnessed it. There were students who changed career paths. Students who changed political parties. Students who began to believe that ignorance is not inevitable. Students who began to trust one another in a new way. Students who began to hope for more in their class…and their country.

“I didn’t say it would be funny…”

On another day, months later, Chloe and I were reviewing for an AP HUG exam. We stood in front of a hanging wall map of America and spoke about where we’d visited, where we had family, what regions of our country were calling to us.

“I’ve always felt drawn to the South,” Chloe said.

I had a different confession.

“I’m scared of the South.”

Chloe was surprised…so was I. I had never named this fear before. Didn’t realize it was there. Began to examine it.

It wasn’t until this conversation with Chloe that I realized my aversion to the South was about the racism that I feared would bowl me over. I went on to explain that I wasn’t afraid of the black people, but the white people of the South.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wasn’t afraid of “them out there” I was afraid of “me in here.” I was afraid of my own part being from a privileged class. I didn’t think I was strong enough to face the history of cruelty and oppression that the South has come to symbolize.

But standing in front of America, arms linked with Chloe’s, I was suddenly emboldened…

“I’m scared of the South…but I’d go there with you.”

And I will. To visit her at Bennett. To visit her classmates in Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi. I will go south to face America. To face myself.

Right on Time

This is Chloe’s power. She somehow makes us face that which we fear and emboldens us to move towards it, not alone, but in community. With conviction. With the knowledge that we are braver together.

America meets in the classroom. Chloe has been a vital part in helping her fellow students…and her teachers not just BRACE for this meeting but EMBRACE it.  Chloe is a bridge between. She stands between divides of race, gender identity, and generations. She is a cultural diplomat who has a rare ability to question systems of inequality while compassionately confessing her own fears and vulnerabilities.

Meeting America

I feel truly privileged to have had Chloe as a student and whatever influence I may have had in her life, she has and will continue to shape the trajectory of mine.  America needs the lessons and leadership that students like Chloe offer. I have no doubt that just as she has challenged her classmates to face the social divides that keep us a part, she will do this for all the classes, communities, and countries of which she is a part.

I would happily answer any other questions you have about this remarkable person.

#BeMore in the Classroom

If we can solve it in the classroom, we can solve it in the world.

This is what I have come to believe after 12 years in the American classroom. It was reaffirmed Monday as I watched children in backpacks hurling rocks at the “rule of law.” People (young and old) don’t attack communities of which they feel a part. They attack communities from which they feel estranged.

I started teaching in Baltimore city when I was 23. Over a decade later I remain certain that though schools didn’t cause the VAST majority of problems our students bring with them to the classroom, there is no better place to begin solving these issues not FOR the students…but WITH the students. Mind your pronouns. They matter.

Over the last few days I have been inundated with love and questions from present and former students about this event. Today I received the following email from a former student that illustrates the tremendous roll civic classrooms can play in the lives of our young citizens:

Yesterday on my way to school I had a lot of thoughts and emotions about what is happening in Baltimore and I wondered which class I would be able to express my feelings. I walked through my day in my head and I got really sad when I realized I’m not taking any classes at UMBC where I can have that close connection with the students and faculty like I did in Signature. I kept thinking back to the day we had in class after the Boston bombing and I remember everyone expressing their feelings and Gaby crying and everyone understanding where she was coming from. I think when a traumatic event happens, it’s good to have a community around you that you feel comfortable enough to express your feelings with and I think that’s a big part of what Signature is; a caring and understanding community.

I feel really grateful that I got to experience this community. The people that I met along the way helped me grow as a person and taught me numerous lessons, but most importantly to always listen to what someone has to say even if you don’t agree with it because you might be able to learn from them. I’ve been thinking about the people rioting a lot and there’s no way I can fully understand the pain and suffering they’ve been experiencing for years but I do sympathize with them. I also don’t blame the people who are rioting. I realize it is not the most productive way to handle a situation, but then I remember that when I’m stressed and angry and bottle it in for a long time, I do end up exploding after awhile (aka, my meltdown in the Signature office senior year). These people have been oppressed for decades, I can’t even begin to imagine the kind of pain and anger they have in them. But I’ve been wondering if there was a place for these people to be heard and properly express their feelings without judgement, like we had in Signature, what kind of a difference that would make in their lives.

Public schools are public space. They are where America meets itself. They are the first society where our young citizens learn how to become active or disengaged. Empowered or helpless. Every teacher (whether they realize it or not) is the community organizer of their classroom reinforcing or renovating the social infrastructures of that their students will go on to replicate in the world beyond.

Arlington Declaration

It is time we understand the classroom as a direct reflection of the community it serves. It is time we recognize both teachers AND students as CIVIC engineers. It is time we start pursuing COMMUNITY core, not just the Common Core. It is not about propaganda or politicizing the classroom. It’s about understanding the classroom as the microcosm of the society we will live in 20 years from now.

Rebuild the classroom, rebuild Baltimore.

Here are just a few glimpses of students seizing their citizenship in the classroom…

Declaration of Sig-Dependence 

“The People” vs “Some People” – Transitional Democracy in the Classroom

People like you can learn to Listen, too

The Fabric of Society is Woven in the Classroom

Muslim Amercian (sp?) Idenity (sp?) and the power of imperfectly wonderful youth

Eduprocity

There is a moment when the labels that have previously delineated “teacher” and “learner” are stripped away.

A moment when the direction of knowledge, the point of origin, becomes impossible to identify.

You are at the epicenter of discovery. Everyone is swept up in this vortex of reciprocal revelation and reveling. Full of wonder.

I live for this moment.

I have come to call it “eduprocity”.

Perhaps this falling away of official titles is a function of having maintained relationships with students well beyond the classroom. Once they no longer need me to grade them, we can continue to move through life together offering insights, supporting one another, asking questions together, human to human.

One wonderful example of this are the cadre of former students who now watch, teach, and generally love on my own children. I came home from date night a few months ago and my former student (now simply friend) Amina was teaching Kip and Ivy Arabic.

Amina Love

Another student Allie, now lives a short walk across Patterson Park from me. She hosts dinner parties and play dates. Last snow day I put my kids in a wagon and we trudged through the snow to her home for cookie baking, cat chasing, and water coloring.

The presumption that a title makes learning one directional is perhaps the prime misconception and missed opportunity in ANY educational space.

Classrooms must not be isolation chambers of mono directional learning. No class is an island.

Instead they can be echo chambers of affirmation where synaptic learning occurs. Connections everywhere.

We must find ways not to be engulfed by senseless educational currents. We can find ways to foster these more gentle ebbs and flows of thoughtful and transformative exchange. This inhalation and exhalation of understanding. Whatever hits we might take professionally are worth the haven we create for our students and ourselves.

They need voices on the wind whispering other truths. They need to see that risk is how we learn.

Every young person who I encounter has a unique insight on what it means to be ________ . Helping them believe that, helping other adults believe that may be my Great Commission.

The good news? We are the stitch in time.  We are the weavers of people into one infinite story that we may understand our connection and glorify each other on earth and not wait for heaven.

We are all wired to learn. We are all wired to teach. Sometimes we have titles that come with the act. More often we don’t.

Breathe in, learn.

Breathe out, teach.

Repeat.

(NOTE: This blog is a weaving together of two. One I wrote today. One I wrote January 15, 2014…but never posted.)

The People vs “Some People” – Transitional Democracy in the Classroom…

“I feel as though some people in this classroom get heard more than other people.”

Jordan makes this declaration after the class has collectively spent three weeks writing, revising, and justifying a syllabus for a “Leadership” course. Many of these students have been in class together since their freshmen year. They have moved through a “Community Development and Global Citizenship” course their sophomore year, so it seemed a logical progression for this junior year leadership course that everything, even the syllabus, be determined for the students, by the students.

When they submitted their drafts electronically, I color coded each group’s proposal so that as we wove it together, the tapestry that emerged refracted the multiplicity of their view points and voices.

Syllabus

After all of this, after the “collab-abus” was signed into law by (apparent) mutual agreement, I sat at the front of the room basking in the presumption of egalitarian victory, assumed it must be a communal emotion, and asked:

“How are you all feeling right now?”

Empowered?

Triumphant?

Grateful to your benevolent teacher?

Any of these responses would do.

Instead…

“…some people…”

In moments such as these, when our intent and our outcomes seem so disparate, it is easy to fall back on defense mechanisms. Righteous Indignation is one of my favorites. In my first five years of teaching, this would have undoubtedly been my response. I might have defended “some people,” insisting that this was the ultimate example of irony brought forth be teenage self-involvement.

Instead of asserting this accusation must be false, I considered that it might be true and asked…

“What do the rest of you think of that?”

What emerged was a conversation that rocked not just me, but all the students in the class to their core. One student in particular, Gabby, put herself in the middle of it all and asked…

“You mean… ‘some people’ like me?”

If it please the court, let us consider the case of The People vs Gabby.

Gabby is the quintessential “good student.” She is always eager to participate, loves group work, is prepared for any Socratic Seminar, and is happy to share her thoughts on everything. She’s… a lot like me. In fact, her freshmen year she transferred into my Honors English class because “Everyone is always talking about you and I feel like we have the same personality and I know I’m just going to love it in here.” Be still my heart.

VS.

Jordan, on the other hand, at the end of her sophomore year told me she WOULD NOT be signing up for the Leadership class because, “I feel like you have favorites.” Be still my righteous indignation. Jordan frequently finds herself in the role of hard truth telling, speaking what others are muttering under their breaths but do not have the courage or freedom to say. Jordan will raise her hand (I will brace myself) and she will say it for them.

You may have guessed…Gabby is white, Jordan is black. “The People” vs “Some People.”

If you’re asking yourself “Well why should that matter?”

Umm…because we’re in America, and it matters.

If you want further proof, let’s talk about the self-segregation of the leadership class itself.

I stopped creating seating charts for my Signature students about three years ago. What emerged, over and over, was a fascinating study in “why are all the ____ kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” Sometimes our lines of identity are not externally visible. Other times we wear them in our sportswear, head coverings, skin tones. Students (read humans) if left to choose, too easily settle and sort into this stratified cultural gravity.

At the onset of this conversation about whose voices are heard, one half of the room (predominantly white) sat gaping while the other half (predominantly African-American) sat nodding.

But…because we’re in America (and because we’re talking about Millennials), race is also not the ONLY thing that matters in this scenario. This was also about the tyranny of the extrovert. The hand-waver. The stream of consciousness live-Tweeter. Ours is not a culture of good listening. The introverts too, regardless of skin tone, were ALSO feeling marginalized.

So when Jordan called us on our “some people”-ness, it could have been interpreted as a the ultimate #fail.

That is, if you don’t have a context for transitional democracy.

One of my favorite people and teachers often jokes that the classroom even at its best is a study in “Benign Dictatorship.” That is, no matter how inclusive and responsive the teacher is to the needs of the students, the teacher is still the central force driving the politics and governance of the class. A one party system.

I remember when I took the course “Conflict Analysis and Resolution” for my Masters, it was a shocking realization that democracy, at least initially, can be more chaotic, conflictual, and even violent than dictatorship.  All those voices, opinions, and directions from all those citizens makes for a noisy society. Despotism is much more ordered. Neat. None of the untidiness of dissent to clutter up the place.

Rule of law, it turns out, creates the conditions for dissonance…but also the conditions for eventual (if only occasional) harmony.

But before the harmony, comes the tears.

After class, as I counseled Gabby, as we considered how we could have so unintentionally silenced so many, the solution was elegant:

Listen.

So we did.

To Jordan. (Who I thanked for speaking up and asked to tell me more).

To the introverts. (Who consequently started an initiative called “Hear my Voice.”)

To the people.

It is a great squandering of opportunity that we do not understand public American classrooms as the ultimate space to witness democracy transforming itself…again and again.

If we stop listening during the tune-up, confuse the dissonance with disaster, we slip out before the reflective pause, and miss the orchestral triumph to follow.

Tomorrow…the people’s opus.

(NOTE: To read Gabby’s Reflection on this moment, click HERE. It became her college essay)

Declaration of SIG-dependence

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.”

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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?”

Arlington crisis

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.

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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.”

We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.