Humbling, Empowerment

Sudbury staff are not at school to work on themselves and their own personal development: there’s already tons to do in growing our schools, connecting with current and prospective students. Still, there’s no question that we adults fortunate enough to spend time at Sudbury schools derive a great deal from the experience.

Indeed, part of our role is to model how effective adults go about the business of learning and growing, grappling with their own issues while taking responsibility for their communities. So to some small degree, my experience over the past fifteen years of Sudbury staffing echoes that of students. Personally, one of the most critical lessons I’ve experienced is an ongoing, fruitful tension between being humbled and being pushed to grow.

After fifteen years in some careers many people, I think, reach a certain level of expertise and/or boredom. For instance, if I’d remained a high school teacher, I would have gone over survey-level European history so many times, I’d be an unstoppable force at historical trivia. Seriously, though, in that line of work I became accustomed to being an authority, to daily reminders that I more or less knew what I was doing. There, the inevitable frustrations and challenges notwithstanding, I was master of my limited domain. They were my students, my classes. I was Mr. Smith, the teacher, continually honing my expertise, but a recognized expert right now.

In contrast, my Sudbury career reminds me on a daily basis how much I don’t know: the many areas in which I’m not talented, the many subjects of which I am ignorant, the many ways there are of being successful beyond those that come easily to me. Granted, I do have some depth of knowledge and skill in various aspects of the role of Sudbury staff. It’s not that I’m utterly clueless or a perpetual novice: it’s rather that the playing field here is not so stacked in my favor.

This, however, is a very good thing. For starters, those people who aren’t naturally gifted at verbal and numerical gymnastics—who perhaps work better with their hands, or are naturals at relating to people—have a greater likelihood of shining, of having their gifts valued and appreciated. And all of us have role models everywhere we look, people who can do things we can’t. What greater inspiration is there to get better at something than knowing someone can do it better than you? What every small child wants—to be able to do what the bigger people can do—becomes an irresistible motivation to try new things. We also benefit from learning when to let go of the effort and accept that we don’t like some things, that we likely won’t be as good as others are at it.

And so we Sudbury staff members learn, out of necessity, how to become at least competent at things we never thought we’d learn. Whether that’s public speaking, marketing or teaching, communicating in tense situations or learning how to maintain and repair things, we are continuously pushed to learn things at which we not naturally good. As I mentioned in a previous post, Sudbury is all about being stretched, taking on things you didn’t realize you were capable of doing.

It’s the best of both worlds, really: Sudbury people gain a realistic and healthy sense of their talents, their strengths and weaknesses, even as they also come to appreciate that they can always grow and learn new things. Students, staff, and parents alike develop an openness and confidence, a willingness to experiment, to take risks and make mistakes, because we learn that this is the path to growth, to a fulfilled and happy life.

It isn’t easy to forgo predictability and routine, a path that offers a distorted, if comforting, sense of competence and worth. It is quite humbling indeed to be confronted every day with your ignorance, with the limits of your knowledge and skill. At the same time, though, my Sudbury experience proves it’s so much more invigorating, expansive, and empowering. Indeed, as the cliché says, you never know what you can do until you try.


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