Hindsight and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

I blog for myself – to clarify things. When other people read posts and find them useful, hey – that’s a bonus. My fellow SD42 administrator Kristi Blakeway commented on the post I published Saturday that has made me think. She said this:

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It immediately got me thinking. The human mind’s love for stories as a way of making sense of life is pretty well known, and stretches back to the beginning of time. What about that love for stories though – do they always help us see things more clearly?

Do things always make sense in hindsight? Or do we blot out the possibility of other options to tell ourselves that there is no way we could have made any other choice? To make the present seem preordained certainly allows us to sleep easier. But could things have unfolded otherwise? Do we tell ourselves stories – the ‘in hindsight this all made sense’ – to make sense of things that seem out of place?

To make it a little bit more concrete… Sometime in the middle of my junior year of college a buddy called me up and told me he was volunteering in a middle school classroom a couple days per week – was I interested? I was a history major and hadn’t given much thought to education. But a volunteer opportunity was a good thing on the resume, and it might be fun. (Twenty-one year old Karl was pretty cynical, huh?) So off I went.

It was fun. Middle schoolers are a handful, but the individual tutoring I got to do was fun, and interacting with kids was really rewarding. Fast forward 1.5 years later to graduation – my friend and I continued to volunteer at the school. Some of the students even came to our graduation – I think we even got a shoutout in the speech our college president gave because of their presence at the ceremony!

Those 1.5 years in the classroom demonstrated enough interest, and the beginnings of a skill set, that I was accepted as an education volunteer in the Peace Corps. I had the privilege of spending two years teaching in northern Namibia. When I returned to the US, I still wasn’t sure on my path. On a whim, through the Peace Corps newsletter, I applied for a job doing environmental education on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Given that both the bosses were returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs), and knew that RPCVs would work long hours for not a ton of pay, they were interested in me. Two years of environmental ed – and four years in education – was enough to get me into my teacher training and masters program at Stanford. (I can tell you it wasn’t my college grades that got me in.)

That led to the teaching job I had at Hillsdale High School. Fast forward a few years and an RPCV I served with told me I should apply for the MERIT program. The summer of 2011 was a head-first dive into the world of student-centered tech integration, and it was on. That led to Twitter, which was how I met my wife. MERIT also led to edcamp, which was how I got involved organizing edcamps and developed a belief in myself as a leader in education. Twitter was also how I got introduced to Grant Frend, who helped me as I applied for jobs in School District 42. Where I work now.

And yes, all that makes sense in hindsight. How could I have made other choices? It all seems clear.

Except that I applied for a summer fellowship to spend six weeks in South Africa with the National Endowment for the Humanities in the summer of 2011. I didn’t get in. Had I gotten in, I wouldn’t have done MERIT. What then?

What if I hadn’t said yes to that middle school volunteering opportunity in the fall of 2000? Would I even be in education?

I don’t know. I completely agree with Kristi’s comment – it all makes sense if you follow the string backwards. And to be clear, all the decisions that I made were the right ones: I love the life I get to live. Is that part of the reason all those choices make sense in hindsight – my privileged position in the world? But it could have gone other ways. I’m glad it didn’t, but it could have. What then? Would I be saying the same thing – that I ended up where I ended up and it all made sense in hindsight?

Clearly, I don’t have answers, but it was fun to start to parse all this out. Thanks, Kristi, for making me think on this for a while.

Out of Place?

I’ve been thinking more about that feeling competent piece I talked about last week; the feeling of being completely out of place, of what the heck am I doing here. It’s still a weird feeling, but one I am getting used to.

As I was thinking more about that feeling, I started to think back to other times I felt out of place – times where I wondered what the heck I was doing where I was.

The first time I felt that was after the vans dropped me and about 15 strangers off for the start of a National Outdoor Leadership School course in southeastern Alaska. We had everything we needed for the month we were going to be out sea kayaking: all the food, clothes, maps, etc. And I had just met these people. I VERY distinctly felt that ‘what the heck am I doing here’ feeling. However, that trip was one of the happiest months of my life. Bald eagles, bears, seeing no one else for weeks at a time, having a humpback whale come up for a breath ten yards from my kayak and scare the crud out of me: it was an amazing experience.

I also felt that what am I doing here feeling as I got dropped off in Olukonda, the village in Namibia where I served as a Peace Corps volunteer. I was living with a family, speaking a language I had learned for two months, and walking into a teaching job – class sizes of 45, students who spoke English (the language of instruction) only at school – that I was distinctly unprepared for. But my time in Namibia was incredibly powerful: I fell in love with education and in my two years there came to know and understand the amazing people and culture of a country many people have very little knowledge of.

The third ‘what am I doing here’ time that came to mind as I reflected on this feeling was as I sat in my classroom about a half hour before school started on my first day teaching in California. Was I prepared? I didn’t know any of the students. Similar to my situation now, I didn’t know who to talk to about what at my school – who was in charge of supplies, field trips, etc. Following the pattern of the other two experiences, my eight years teaching at Hillsdale were a total and complete blast.

What’s the message here? A couple things, I think. Discomfort is good. Feeling overwhelmed – in the in over your head kind of way – has been a really positive experience for me. Despite the initial unpleasant feeling, all three of these times when I felt in over my head were amazing, transformative growth experiences for me. Hopefully the pattern holds and the same is true for what lies ahead. But regardless, in the moment, it’s good to remember how this feeling has turned out for me in the past.

Feeling Competent – Or Not

California to British Columbia. Teacher to administrator.

One of those jumps is a big deal. Both of them together are a head spinner.

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Don’t get me wrong – I’m thrilled about my new job. The other two administrators I work with are great. The clerical staff is so helpful. Teachers have been super welcoming. The district admin mentoring program – non-evaluative, opt in, paired with an administrator not at your school, tailor the conversations and meetings around your needs – seems thoughtful as well. But it is a BIG set of changes.

Day one was a head-spinner. I ask a lot of questions; that’s how I process things. But you can’t ask questions every time anyone says something. That’s both not feasible and annoying. I left that day feeling kind of lost.

Again, that was to be expected. New education system and new country, new role.

Day two was a little different. I was working on tangible things. I asked questions – lots of them – when I had them. I think that I started to get used to feeling lost in larger conversations. Which is fine – I’ll learn the context of these conversations over time.

But I left day two feeling more accomplished. Did I get more done? No, not really. But I knew what I was doing (kind of). I felt competent (kind of).

As I thought about that feeling – competence – it was a little jarring. As a teacher, I usually felt competent: I knew what I was doing to try to get students from point A to point B and how I might fix it when it didn’t work. But in a new role and in a new place that systemic understanding, that path forward, is currently lacking for me.

This feeling, a lack of competence, was a good reminder. As a new teacher, I felt that lack of competence a lot. I slowly lost that feeling: I knew how to reflect, who to talk to about that field trip, what teacher might have an insight on an issue I was struggling with.

Competence is important. Not to lower the bar – excellence is important too. But feeling competent is a win. A huge win, at times. I need to remember that going forward. How can I help people feel competent? What about new teachers or people new to a school? That’s about a quarter of the staff this year.

I’m reminded of what a brilliant friend of mine Darren Hudgins talked about in his newsletter a couple months ago: how are you helping people start the year by feeling ‘right’? Helping them start the year with small wins? In his words, a bit more elegantly:

So as the year continues – or starts – how are you making students and teachers feel competent? How are you helping people feel right? Helping them get small wins? Because my head-spinning couple of days was a reminder of just how important that feeling of competence and the humility of being a beginner really is for us as educators.

Charlottesville, Michael Brown, and What We Do in Classrooms

I recognize the privilege of this post. It’s important to share our journeys, even if we aren’t proud of them.

For a long time, I was scared to talk about issues of racial injustice in my classroom. I didn’t want to mess it up. I wanted to make sure I did it right. This attitude – grounded in my own privilege and fear – ran counter to what I thought about other units. “Not quite perfect? No worries. Teach it and make it better for next time.” Nope. Not in this area.

As a straight white cisgender male, it’s easy for me to say that. To look the other way. To not know the enormity of the problems around racial justice in the US because those problems don’t directly touch me. I’m not proud of any of that. But it is the case. And I don’t think that I’m alone in those feelings – of fear, of I’m not sure how to do it right, of it doesn’t really impact me, of avoidance of a topic like this with my students.

Again, I’m ashamed by this feeling, this ability to hide that I took advantage of. Denying our common humanity, a threat to one is a threat to all – I’m not proud of ignoring this. But it was part of my journey, and unfortunately I don’t think that choice of avoidance by white educators is a unique one.

There was something about Michael Brown’s death that broke that feeling for me. Broke the I’m scared of doing it wrong. Broke the this doesn’t really impact me. Snapped me out of my privilege and made me actually teach American racial injustice with my students.

I wish it hadn’t taken that. I wish I had had the courage, the principles, to teach hard things like current racial injustice in the US in my class before his death. But I didn’t. Luckily, I had a couple of amazing teachers I worked with who said we have to teach this.

On the heels of this past weekend, I’m hopeful that more white educators will have a similar realization after the events in Charlottesville. I hope more white educators find their privilege jarred, knocked askew, and see the problems of racial justice as their problems. I hope they find the courage to teach about these things. To have the hard conversations with kids. To teach issues like this without fear of doing it wrong. To do what needs to be done to teach current – and historical – American racial injustice in their classrooms.

Because despite my long period of inaction around teaching issues of racial justice with my students, ignoring issues like these isn’t right. It won’t get better, we won’t get better, if we just hope it.


Edit: My buddy John asked for resources about teaching issues like this. For Charlottesville specifically, check out this post. For issues of social justice generally, I like Teaching Tolerance.