I, like many of you, relish the summer months. Nothing compares to the longer daylight hours, reconnecting with friends and family, and of course, spending time delving into some good books. Have you ever noticed that it is often the quick and easy reads that turn out to be hidden gems for reflection? A recent book I read was just that. Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is an unassuming little book about an unpretentious and unremarkable character named Harold Fry. A recent retiree, it quickly becomes evident that Harold is content to spend his time in ways that are completely predictable. His existence is nothing if not ordinary. That is until an unexpected letter arrives in the post. As a result, Harold makes a spontaneous decision to walk 600 miles to a hospice facility in order to reconcile with an old acquaintance. This journey becomes his urgent quest to keep his friend alive.
Harold exemplifies my belief that it is far too easy to sleepwalk through the day-to-day responsibility and business of life. Many of us tend to be task-oriented, driven by our need to reach a “destination” that is ever changing and always important at the time. As we set goals to complete certain projects and tasks by the end of the day, the end of the week, the end of the month, our minds often become caught in a frenzy of non-stop chatter and distraction. This self-defeating cycle leads us to feeling satisfied only if we check that last item off our “To Do” list.
The business of education is driven by measurable and tangible outcomes. These targets help us track the progress of student learning, evaluate and rank academic achievement, and ensure compliance as we maintain the health of our facilities. But we also know the value of less tangible measures of success: making a new friend, or taking a risk to audition for the school play or try out for a sport, successfully opening the combination of a locker or navigating busy and seemingly endless hallways to get to class on time.
Reading this little book about Harold Fry reminded me of the importance of paying attention to the ordinary as well as the profound moments that life presents us. In doing so we are better apt to maintain our sense of purpose. And, like Harold’s, our own journey can become a means to awaken our senses and become aware of opportunities to fully immerse ourselves in the present moment. It is these moments that pave the way for authentic connection with others and expanded opportunities for learning and joy.
As we begin a brand new school year, I want to share some of the lessons that Harold taught me.
Begin where we are: Every learner who walks through our doors brings a unique set of knowledge, skills, gifts, culture and perspective. The role of the teacher is to welcome students into a sacred space of learning, encouraging them to be who they are and to be in touch with their inner adventurer. As the community is established, the teacher designs experiences that allow students to have a voice, make choices and contribute to their own learning. The possibilities for growth, exploration and empowerment are endless.
Ask for help: Too often we view asking for help as a sign of weakness. Yet research indicates that successful students ask questions and seek guidance from their teachers and peers. Not only can asking for help assist us in reducing stress and gaining perspective, it also provides others the opportunity to contribute in some way. This give and take builds confidence and strengthens relationships with others.
Appreciate the interruptions: With every unplanned interruption comes an opportunity to listen, assess and adapt. Educators often talk about teachable moments, those unplanned opportunities for learning about a slice of life that otherwise would not have taken place. Teachable moments are not written in lesson plans nor are they in the approved curriculum. Rather they emerge from an unexpected event or occurrence: an unannounced fire drill, a surprise visit from a songbird perched in a tree just outside the classroom window, or a discussion that arises organically when a fellow student shares a favorite memento during show and tell. These spontaneous moments keep learners engaged and mentally present. Paying attention to each unanticipated encounter allows us to view interruptions as opportunities for connection, learning, and discovery.
Stop and rest: In order to function optimally, our brains require substantial downtime in order to be productive and generate innovative ideas. A brain at rest actually boosts its own ability to refuel our stores of motivation. Many studies reveal that rest is a necessary condition to increase brain function. Even as we daydream or take a break, the brain is still actively at work. This is why many teachers incorporate “Brain Breaks” into the daily routine. These short activities increase oxygen and energy flow to the brain, which reduce kid’s stress levels and help them to re-focus on the task at hand.
The upcoming school year begins a new chapter in our pilgrimage. As summer winds down, we hope that you experience even the most ordinary moments as opportunities to wonder, to reconnect with yourself and with others, to see life as a gift. Moments like these do not end when school begins. On the contrary, each moment carries with it the prospect of a new beginning. On behalf of the Robbinsville Board of Education, the administrative team and staff members, I look forward to walking alongside you as we serve the children of the Robbinsville Schools community this year and in the years to come.
Kathie Foster is the superintendent of Robbinsville Schools.