I went treasure hunting. I sought the definitive metaphor to contrast the power of all that is wrong in education with the power of all that is right. Yin Yang? Nah. A transformative professional development doesn’t need to be balanced by a mind-numbing policy directive. Manichean Paranoia? It’s fun to say and captures the dark versus light battles we fight. But too often, “Mani-what?” is the response. The search lasted months and took me through a 900 page novel, a painful drive to Phoenix, and an extraordinary evening walk.
In Steven King’s novel, 11/22/63, Jake Epping travels in time to stop the assassination of President Kennedy. A time portal delivers Jake to New Lisbon, Maine, on September 8, 1958 – at 11:58 a.m. As Jake waits and prepares such strange things happen, including several brushes with death, that he concludes that the Past has a will of its own and is “obdurate” against any challenge.
That concept came to mind early one Saturday last April. I was driving to Phoenix to help colleagues helping National Board candidates prepare for their assessment. Rain hammered down in the freezing grey dawn. I stopped at a convenience store and picked up a steaming black coffee. Diving into the car to get out of the rain, I caught my eyelid on the corner of the door, ripping a gash that required four stiches.
On my way to the emergency room, thinking I should call Phoenix to tell them I wasn’t coming, I had a thought. What if the Future has a will of its own, too? What if empowered teachers threaten a Future dedicated to a stagnant and strangling status quo? An obdurate Future in which teachers – the membrane through which policy becomes practice – have but a whisper of a voice?
What if that Future slammed my head into the door because of my commitment to teacher leadership?
OK, a crack on the head might make you delirious too, but I decided right then, “Bring it, Future, you’re not stopping us.”
Months later, pumped up by a webinar with teacher leaders from around the country, I took an evening walk. As the last red bands of sunset lit the western horizon, I vaulted over the back wall and landed to the surprise of a rattle snake coiled between my feet.
I learned two things in that foot-frozen instant, straddling the buzzing rattler, while my own reptilian brain pondered flight or fight. I learned you can think a whole lot in a split second: Should I call 911 or go straight to the hospital? How will I explain to Mary that I really didn’t need a flashlight? When will I have a chance to call for a substitute and send in lesson plans? And, when my heels finally took flight, how will razor sharp fangs actually feel as they penetrate my naked calf?
I also learned I scream like a little girl.
More pumped than ever, I went out the front for my walk. As I returned, an owl swooped down out of the dark and made a slow banking turn on wings that spanned my own height. Alighting on a neighbor’s wall, it stared down at me. I attempted to approach. The owl launched toward me, banked left, flew down the block at head level, and disappeared into the dark on soft and silent feathers.
The next day I told a colleague who exclaimed, “That’s mythical! Did the owl go and kill the snake?” I had no idea, but I did find my metaphor.
Just the other week as I failed to teach even one good period, or connect with even one student, the snakes coiled at my feet. They took great delight in pointing out my innumerable deficiencies. They mocked our weariness during the weekly standardized quiz. They laughed out loud when I learned that I’m going to be charged an extra ten percent for medical insurance.
The snakes are so very proud to protect an entrenched educational system that changes “slower than the rules of chess.”
But that Friday night an owl reminded me how happy I am with my students this semester and joined me Saturday morning to prepare the kind of projects they deserve. And that night a parlaiment of owls joined the Celebration of Accomplished Teachers – a night to honor exceptional practice throughout the state. Then Tuesday, a third owl, taking the shape of my student Mario, gave me a high five, and proclaimed, “I just discovered something crazy, look how I solved this problem!”
I’ve discovered something crazy, too. Faced with any snake, I can find an owl. And you can, too.
And what’s the biggest owl of all?
The growing nationwide network of connected and united teacher leaders who are developing the means and ability to recreate the profession that creates the nation.
(Note: “Slower than the rules of chess” is from Kurt Vonnegut.)