Truly Powerful People (395)

Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

Saul is a great teacher. I meet him in the Dance Underground every Saturday morning to attend his beginners Tai Chi class. He is one of those amazing people who is near 70 years old but looks and moves like someone a quarter century younger than he is. He is filled with the laughter of someone who has nothing to prove and everything to give. I would call him a master and he would tell me to shut up.

He teaches through story. While clarifying a move he’ll stop mid stream and tell a long winding story that usually begins with a foible and ends with a question. Sometimes he gets lost in the maze of his story and re-enters the movement with a shrug and a chuckle yet I have gained something in the journey. Today he stopped mid-cycle and said simply, “Power demonstrations interrupt learning.” When he saw our confused looks he laughed in recognition that the first half of his story was told in his head so he filled us in saying, “I once worked with a teacher that would do impossible feats to show how much better he was than his students. It was impressive but discouraged his students. It took me a long time to realize that this was a demonstration of power for power’s sake. The teacher needed the students to know his superiority. That is not teaching. That interrupts learning.”

I loved the phrase, “power demonstrations interrupt learning,” and repeated it a hundred times so I would remember it after class. It made me wonder how much of our education system is about learning and how much is about power demonstration. The excellent teachers I know and work with are empowering their students. Their focus is not on what they know but on how they serve the bigger questions of their students. The system in which they work is nothing if not a power demonstration – a system designed to control the batches of kid-lumber moving through the mill. I once worked with a group of vice-principals that gave each other high-fives when they successfully expelled a student. That is a power demonstration, an ugly ship sailing without a map or a star to guide them.

Recently I had an email exchange with the executive director of an arts organization. We are collaborating on a grant and the guidelines require us to squeeze our art outreach program into the language of state standards. She wrote, “I loathe these standards, I don’t believe in them and hate that my own children have to learn in a system driven by them.” I hear parents, teachers and administrators use the word “loathe’ a lot in reference to the standards and tests they spawn. I told her how ubiquitous the word loathe is in the education community and wrote back asking, “Then why are we participating by squeezing our big expansive arts program into the minimal lowest common denominator thinking of the standards?” She replied, “Because we have to play the game.” “Do we?” I asked. “If we want to grant money we do.” That’s the rub, isn’t it? If the schools want the funding they must dance the power demonstration dance regardless of its impact on learning.

Repeat this phrase100 times so you remember it after class: power demonstrations interrupt learning.

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