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Change or Die

I’ve spent this week in meetings: New Faculty Orientation, New Academic Program Leader Orientation, various meetings of committees and groups. This is not a complaint; I enjoy these meetings at the beginning of a new academic year, not only because I am not yet exhausted from the work of teaching, but because such meetings provide opportunities to think about why we’re here and why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Why is an especially big question for my university at this moment, because we are about to begin our first year in an innovative new structure that’s been planned for the last three or four years: we have eliminated academic departments and restructured the curriculum and administration around integrated clusters.

What this means depends on who you ask. Right now, we’re in a transition period, figuring out how to keep all the good and necessary functions from the old structure (the stuff necessary for accreditation, for instance) without limiting the possibilities of the new structure. At the same time, we have a lot of people in new positions — many of us are new program leaders, the entire administration has been reconfigured, offices have moved around, staff are doing different jobs…

Anybody who says there isn’t chaos would be lying. But I find myself incredibly optimistic and energized. This sort of productive chaos is familiar territory for me.

Something our new provost said at a meeting with new faculty helped me realize why I feel excited rather than overwhelmed and terrified: “Given the demographics, given the realities of higher education in American right now, what are our options? The university had to do something, and it had to do something big, because doing nothing would mean death.”

I’ve been here before, I thought. A previous school, different challenges, a different vision, but similar feelings. And it was the best time of my life as a teacher.

My first job out of college was at a small boarding school that I had myself attended for four years as a day student. (I’ve described some of my life as a student there in a video memoir of one particularly exciting experience.) This was not a Famous Boarding School or something out of Harry Potter; it was a school constantly teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. In my junior year, we got a new headmaster, a visionary guy who’d never been a headmaster before, but who had an Ed.D. from Harvard and wanted to change how education works. I liked his vision, but during my student years, he was just learning his way around.

I returned to teach at the school because all the other jobs I’d been able to find were internships, and I needed to make more money than I would in an internship because I had student loans to pay, so, since my own school knew me and was willing to hire me if I was willing to take a very low salary (but enough to pay my monthly bills), I ended up back at a place I’d sworn I wouldn’t return to. I said I’d stay maybe a year, at most three.

By that point, our new headmaster had been able to build a faculty who (mostly) agreed with his general vision, a vision built on a premise that education should be flexible, it should be truly student-centered, it should be open to experiment, and it should empower every member of the community — that means the maintenance and housekeeping staff, too, not just the faculty and students. (One day, he gave me a copy of Summerhill by A.S. Neill and said, “We could never do this exactly, but wouldn’t it be fun to try?”)

When I began as a teacher, the school was in better financial shape than when I had been a student, but that wasn’t saying much. We still had to take almost any student who could afford tuition, because tuition covered something like 90% of the school’s operating costs. This made for a motley student body — not just interesting, quirky students, of which there were many, but also some students who for various reasons couldn’t get accepted into any other boarding school. We also had a program for students with language-based learning disabilities, and that led ultimately to about 1/3 of our student body being those students, all of whom had at least one mainstream class. Though our courses were, for the most part, broken into tracks (“paced”, regular, honors, AP), the school was committed to fluidity of tracking: nobody should ever get stuck in a track. In the vision, there should not be “honors students” and “paced students”, but rather the courses you take should be whatever is best for your own learning within that discipline — there was no reason someone couldn’t be in the lowest-level math course and the highest-level English course, for instance. This did not always work out in practice, but we got pretty good at building it into our assumptions for how to work with students, and as a teacher I soon learned that no matter what level my course was officially, in practice it would be a pretty heterogeneous group. Even my Advanced Placement classes were — we had no entry requirements, so any student who wanted to be in AP could be. (One of my best AP Literature students was so dyslexic that she hadn’t learned to read until she was 13.)

I’d told the dean who hired me that I would maybe stay three years, five at the absolute most. I stayed nine.

A few years into my time as a teacher at this school, the headmaster and some of the other administrators decided that we should put creativity at the center of what we were doing. He hired a brilliant woman with a Ph.D. in neuropsychology to turn the “Learning Center” (for kids with learning disabilities) into a “Center for Creative Intelligence” that would serve the entire campus and move us away from separating out the students coded with learning disabilities. We wanted to create a truly mainstreamed environment, one where nobody was stigmatized as disabled and every student was helped to find their own best way of learning. I was part of a delegation that traveled to Yale to talk with researchers there and then to visit the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara.

I could go on and on. Just dipping into these memories is exciting. By the end of this time, we had found, I thought, exactly the sorts of students who best fit with what we could offer. We’d won awards, gotten grants, financially stabilized the school, increased financial aid, and very importantly we’d become a first-choice school for the majority of our students. They didn’t come to us because they couldn’t get in elsewhere; they came to us because they wanted what we offered.

As a teacher, I’ve never been happier or felt more useful

It didn’t last. My life changed, various leaders at the school left and the board replaced them with people with a different vision, the culture itself changed. The school is still doing well, and vestiges of the old vision remain, but I experienced about three years when it was, I’m convinced, one of the most vital and exciting educational institutions in the country, so the more careful and sedate place it has become is impressive but not as exciting. I feel lucky to have had those miracle years, though, because they shaped me at the core.

During meetings this week at the university where I am now working, I felt that old energy of chaos, possibility, and vision. I lived through change or die before, and it was invigorating, even as it was frustrating, bewildering, exhausting, terrifying. It led to miracles.

Of course, we hope we don’t always have to live and work under chaos, on matter how productive. We hope that we can use the energy and vision now to establish structures that will create at least a bit of equilibrium.

But there is no absolute equilibrium. When I was young, a book that blew my mind open was Daniel Botkin’s Discordant Harmonies, and its vision of nature as always in flux is one that I’ve held onto and transferred to many realms. There’s something zen to it, something Heraclitean: everything is change. Life is change, and so change or die is a simple statement of fact. To live is to change.

I like what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says of Heraclitus’s famous fragment about not being able to step into the same river twice:

…the message … is not that all things are changing so that we cannot encounter them twice, but something much more subtle and profound. It is that some things stay the same only by changing. One kind of long-lasting material reality exists by virtue of constant turnover in its constituent matter. Here constancy and change are not opposed but inextricably connected.

This ought to be our vision of education and of institutions.

I’ve sometimes told people that I keep working as a teacher because maybe one day I’ll get it right. But that’s not quite true. I keep working as a teacher because I know I’ll never get it right, because there is no “getting it right” as a finish line, there is no finish line. There is only process, and the process is life, and life is change.

What ought to remain at least somewhat stable are values. This is why I keep thinking ethics is as important as pedagogy. If your ethics are clear, then you’ll find pedagogies that are at least adequate to whatever changing situations you’re part of. That is how we survived at the boarding school where I first worked, where we often didn’t know what we were doing, where our experiments blew up in our face as often as they produced wondrous results — we knew what our values were, what our vision was. We wanted everybody, not just students, to feel empowered and engaged with the work. We wanted to see each other as human beings, to revel in the messiness of being human, to promote kindness and forgiveness more than competitiveness and contempt, to find the joy in a shared endeavor. We wanted to experiment, knowing full well that most experiments fail, but that the point of any experiment is to learn from it. We wanted to embrace everybody’s quirkiness, to celebrate rather than rue the undeniable fact that we were, in the words of one of my best friends, a school on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Thinking back now, I wonder: What didn’t we understand? What didn’t we do well enough? How did we fail to create something more lasting?

Lots of reasons, and no single one explains it all. The administration had priorities other than doing intensive fundraising and building a massive endowment, which ultimately caused the board of trustees to grow impatient with experiments. Even during the best years, and despite remarkable progress, there remained some vestiges of an athletic culture that was hypercompetitive and hypermasculine. There wasn’t enough attention to fairness in assigning faculty responsibilities and avoiding the appearance of favoritism in remuneration. (It would have annoyed the administration, but we would have benefitted from something like a union that created a meaningful employment contract rather than a vague letter of agreement. Job descriptions became a major point of contention and led to personal animosities that were unfortunate and unnecessary.) The downside of empowering students and faculty to try to create whatever they could imagine is that when, inevitably, there aren’t enough resources or time for everybody’s dream projects, people can feel unsupported or disillusioned. We didn’t support women in administration or faculty enough — there were places where and times when a bro-ish culture made the school unappealing to women, so they went elsewhere. (There were also times when we did an excellent job of developing something like equality of opportunity in a place that had never had it — we made a concerted effort to shape the school in a way that would attract more female students, for instance, and succeeded at that. We broke through a virulently heterosexist culture to the point where we provided life-saving support and success to queer students, even as homophobia persisted in some corners. These things aren’t either/or. Old habits and old structures can still shadow new awareness, the best intentions, and real success.)

There were likely other obstacles I’m not aware of, or have forgotten. We built a beautiful (though admittedly sometimes awkward) sandcastle, and it washed away. A new headmaster turned out to be almost the diametrical opposite of the previous, which I’m not sure was quite the board’s intention when they hired him, but it’s how it worked out. And he did great things in his own way, too — he expanded the endowment, for instance, by orders of magnitude. But it soon stopped being the school that made teaching, for me, seem like the most important and energizing career in the world, and I soon left.

I’m still in contact with quite a few of my students from those years. They’ve gone off to a lot of success — sometimes financial success in fields they love, but also, and more importantly, success as parents and friends and people and, in quite a few cases, as teachers.

I had dinner with one of those students last week, someone I hadn’t seen in person in many years. He’s done extraordinary things. We reminisced about the school. “A crazy place,” he said. “I can’t believe we got to do all the things we got to do. It was bizarre. And great.”

It was bizarre. And great.

(I think of a favorite Tori Amos songWe held gold dust in our hands.)

Life is change. Change or die.

Image: Pixabay