19-Year Beginner

These past few years, I’ve been very fortunate to see my Sudbury work reaching larger audiences. In addition to a steadily increasing reach on Twitter, I’ve had the pleasure of particulating in a number of shows, such as the Conscious Consumer Network’s For the Love of Learning and L4G.tv’s Education Show. Most gratifying have been the times my colleagues at other Sudbury schools have brought me in for both presentations and longer consulting gigs.

That said, I also feel a fair amount of ambivalence when I’m regarded, especially by other Sudbury schools, as some kind of expert. Mostly this comes from a longstanding habit of self-deprecation, the good Midwestern modesty on which I  was raised. I wonder, how can I be a Sudbury expert when I’m still figuring so much of this out? Even two decades in, the scope of this work is truly daunting: how to operate and grow the small businesses these schools are; how to articulate what we do for audiences conditioned by conventional views and assumptions on education; how to handle the endlessly unique situations that arise when young people enjoy large amounts of both freedom and responsibility. Really, it comes as little surprise that, in some sense, I feel as much a beginner at Sudbury schooling as when I first learned of it.

In working with this paradox of being a 19-year beginner, I did stumble upon one specific reason for my self-consciousness in having the “expert” spotlight trained on me. Being democratically run and non-hierarchical, Sudbury schools work well because they function as teams, as communities. As such, we rely heavily on attracting a variety of personalities and skill sets. I do have some talent for communicating, for organizing, and for being diplomatic in charged situations. I can play well with younger kids and hang out with older ones, teaching both in a formal sense (occasionally) and by example (all the time, like it or not). But my schools would be much the poorer if what I bring to the table weren’t complemented by others with different skills, knowledge, backgrounds, and personalities.

That’s why I feel somewhat on the spot when asked how one goes about doing this or that in running a Sudbury school. My stock answer is that I go to my team, my fellow School Meeting members. Most of the good ideas most of us have for how to run our schools emerge from an ongoing process in which we brainstorm and critique and bounce ideas off each other. I don’t know; we do. I can’t, but we can.

Feeling like a beginner isn’t so bad, really. In fact, the older I get the more I appreciate the value of having things always feel fresh and new (or re-newed). And this brings me to  another passion of mine where thinking like a beginner is quite highly regarded, actually. Some of you may recognize the term Beginner’s Mind, which I most closely associate with the writings of Shunryu Suzuki (particularly his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind). Perhaps you’ve heard this statement of his: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”

It’s just this sort of mind-blowing, refreshing perspective that drew me to Zen, and it’s a big part of what’s always driven me in my Sudbury work. We allow young people to grow up without (or to overcome, if they’ve already suffered) the crippling fear of making mistakes or being negatively judged that’s so endemic to conventional education. Being comfortable with not knowing what one is doing is critical to success in a world that’s changing more and more rapidly.

I think our world needs a lot more confident beginners: people who aren’t bound by conventional points of view, who are willing to question and go beyond what they think they know, thereby opening themselves to new, more humane, and more effective approaches. So here’s to embracing both my experience and my ignorance, to being present for both my knowledge and the constantly replenishing stock of things I do not know.



Filed under Sudbury

2 responses to “19-Year Beginner

  1. Funny that you see the beginner’s mind as confident. My beginner’s mind is mostly confused. Maybe sometime we can talk about this.

  2. I think the word “confident” may be misleading. A better description may be found in the previous sentence: “being comfortable with not knowing what one is doing” seems a more realistic aspiration for me.

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