Recently, I sent my Head of School a note of thanks letting her know how grateful I am to have been given the opportunity to experience Cohort 21. In it, I expressed how it has deepened my understanding of professional learning communities and sparked one of the most transformative years of my teaching practice. In essence, I found Cohort at the exact moment that I needed it the most.
When I started Cohort, I was exhausted. I thought I was exhausted from being busy, but in fact, it was my mindset. A mindset rooted in desperately seeking approval from people in positions of formal leadership. Trying to prove my worth and my value-added, time and time again. I realized that I was trying, in vain, to please the wrong people. All these years, I have let “busy” keep me from being an authentic leader for my students, because I was afraid of not knowing all of the answers. I was too focused on gaining subject knowledge, trying to achieve visible organization in a field that is by nature messy, and aiming to get all of the details of an assignment “right”, never fully able to “catch up” or feel at ease in my role.
Through the Cohort 21 process, I have thought long and hard about my why? What has kept me in teaching and how I envision my future in the profession. How will I create a legacy that goes beyond my classroom? I realized that my goal for all of my students is to empower them to find their own voice and to make positive change in the world. I am deeply committed to helping young women to identify their skills and unique qualities and to understand how they can utilize their strengths and challenges for their own good, and for the good of others. I also want to make learning fun, to maximize student engagement and to make sure that each student is open to the perspectives of others, and that they feel heard, seen and valued for their own unique perspectives. In essence, using visual art to develop a greater sense of empathy, and understanding of the human condition.
Through career coaching, I realized that if I aligned my true self, with my work self, I would no longer feel exhausted from trying to fit into someone else’s expectations or at least my perception of those expectations. I could stop feeling frustrated in an “ideal” that I knew I may never become. I have given up chasing that unknown. I have stopped feeling the need to live trying to receive a stamp of approval that I now recognize needs to come from within. I have developed a sense of gratitude for the things that I have, for the people in my life, and for my supportive community. And I will stop waiting for others to realize my potential.
I’ve been told that I have a sense of alarm. And now I recognize, it’s true. Those alarm bells have been keeping me running on a wheel, year after year. Before now, I had not stopped to recognize that the most valuable part of my work, was already there. The place where I would find my joy was drowning in antiquated ideas of a system of education that is deeply in need of change. I was challenging myself to fit into a mold I wasn’t innately in tune with. I was moving further away from embracing the very things that have always made me excited to be a teacher — the learning for learning’s sake.
It is deeply important to me to help students find their voice and to use their creativity to produce work that is student-driven vs. teacher driven. Being progressive and helping to ignite curiosity, research, experimentation and the creation of meaningful artwork by my students. I feel like I have finally found the balance between the tension of helping students fill up their toolbox through formative, micro-studio experiences and then progressing to their final summative pieces. Through the Cohort 21 process, my action plan has evolved into proposing and creating a new course in design thinking for Grade 12’s next year. It will be a Visual Arts Photography credit, that will utilize design thinking and students will use their tool kit for photography to document their process. Knowing my students better, connecting with my learning community, and being more of my authentic self, I have recognized that my students have always been my greatest gift for motivation. That when I listen, when I let them guide me and I learn alongside them, I will, in turn, be the best teacher that I can be.
Last night, I took a break from writing this and read, Rachel Hollis’s words about how her journey has been everything. She writes, “Nothing that lasts is accomplished quickly. Nobody’s entire legacy is based on a single moment, but rather the collection of one’s experiences. If you’re lucky, your legacy will be a lifetime in the making (Hollis 67).
The most amazing part of the Cohort 21 journey is not that I had the opportunity to participate, but that it made me realize how timing is everything. Although I am very grateful and would have been at any point in my career, I fully believe that the timing was meant to be. As a creative thinker, I am constantly questioning, if I’m in the right place? Am I focused on the right thing? Should I even be teaching? Is this really what I wanted to do? This is a long way from the loft in NYC I dreamed about living in, working as a photographer, when I was “thinking big” in high school. I get that this may now read as a teacher writing a mid-life crisis, Jerry Maguire-style document, but I really feel like the stars have aligned this year. Now, “busier” than ever, I am full of energy. I am kinder to myself. I take time to play with my children. I have slowed down in my classroom, and make a point of connecting with each of my students every day. I have tried to really listen to what they need, and respond with reflective and responsive pedagogy, and not devalue my ability to teach or drive home content that was more about box checking that valuable work. The one pressure that has been most vital is understanding that the work I have been doing all these years is valuable. That the joy I get from my role as a mentor does not mean that I am not also an effective teacher.
As with any good journey, and to reference Garth and Justin’s slide deck from our first F2F, this is the end of the beginning, and I’m so grateful to the many years of work that it has taken to get to this place.