If I were to build a school from the ground up, I would make two choices. First, I would set it next to a creek (the image above is one of two that flow through my campus) and not fuss too much with the nature of the building itself; whether a humble portable, a reclaimed shipping container, or any form of “low road” assemblage, it would play second fiddle to the setting. After all, what is more beautiful than moving water?
Second, I would establish one founding Design Principle – the first words spoken from the initial moment of gathering, the first memory created (individual, institutional), the first silt of culture deposited in that geography (physical, mental, emotional):
May there always be fresh water flowing down the creek.
Simple enough. However, the institutional memory that accumulates over time presents its own opportunities and challenges: the opportunity to build a powerful culture centered on mutual purpose and experience; the challenge of not letting that culture become the reflexive, default setting – the sacred cow. At some point new organizations/entities must seek some form of homeostasis for the sake of operational integrity – to not have to create things tabula rasa on a daily basis. As new ideas and practices become standard, and an organization transitions from infancy to adulthood, one important question emerges:
Who is perceptive enough to see and sense when an organization has shifted from a mindset of flexibility and openness to one of established, unquestioned practice?
This is my third post on coaching. The role of the coach in education is not well understood, nor very visible; it is possibly even the subject of some (much) skepticism and derision. As we continue the slow process of rethinking what meaningful education looks and sounds like in our current context (not last century’s), I would argue that there is no role that carries greater importance. Coaches are the fresh water flowing through the isolated (sometimes stagnant) pools we inhabit – the fixed spaces of our campuses and the histories, legacies, practices, and traditions that can often outlast buildings. Spaces that were once cognizant of their own youthful rawness that, over time, become fixed in their operational, and relational, culture.
As humans, it is natural to seek equilibrium and permanence. Establishing settlements as means of social connection, shared endeavor, protection, propagation. When we “settle” our school campuses, however – by classroom, by office – the organization can begin to take a shape that is comfortable and secure to us, rather than the shape that best allows the flow of vibrant ideas and discourse around those ideas. Of course the people working in any organization enrich it with their particular voice and history, yet no one voice ever speaks the whole story. Water is powerful in volume, rarely as a droplet.
Coaches, like creeks, go about their work quietly – so quiet that we begin to take their presence for granted. Yet their presence does alter the landscape, imperceptibly, inexorably; through listening, skillful facilitation, and mining for hidden tensions, coaches ultimately do not provide ideas as much as the permission for new ideas to be shared and considered. A coach’s most radical suggestion may be that we can do the things we – as individuals, as an organization – have reflexively considered to be unthinkable. As I wrote in my last post, they help us gently dismantle the limitations we ourselves have imposed on our own potential.
Water shapes geography at the same time it takes the shape of anything it flows into and through. So many great coaches have helped shape the thinking and practice of our schools; like water, they move along after a spell, inching closer to the ocean, returning to anonymity. While we can’t hold onto a coach forever, we would do well to remember how they (re)shaped us. Rather than limiting us to the construct of tradition, our active remembrance must enhance our commitment to continued growth and meaningful change (change will happen regardless – we determine if it is intelligent).
Our learning must be as ceaseless, clear, and forceful as fresh water flowing – shaping the world around it, taking the shape of the world around it. Not all schools are built next to creeks; by nurturing a culture of openness to new ideas, and with the support of coaches – whose imprint is often beneath the surface, unseen but felt – we can all contribute to cultures as essential, vital, and adaptable as water.
On second thought, I think I would implement one more Design Principle at my new school – a question and provocation to begin each day of learning, experiencing, and creating: