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When I was 21, I thought I could make anyone smile. Anyone who was withdrawn, quiet, tired, stressed, angry, annoyed, having an off day, I would make it my personal mission to connect with them and see if I could break their mood, or get a smile from them. I thought it was my business to talk to anyone.
How UTTERLY AUDACIOUS and SIMPLISTIC of me.
And yet, I have been thinking about it a lot this week, and longing for that simplistic, authentic audacity.
Because I realised that I have become safe.
Imperceptibly, and ever-so-surreptitiously, I have become more reasonable, more mature, bounded by rules and frameworks, cautious, and, let’s face it, less happy to give up my energy and time for a possible metaphorical slap in the face if an interaction goes badly. While outwardly I am energised and positive, I have very gradually become safe. I’m on the conveyor belt, and I didn’t even realise it.
Why am I thinking about this?
It’s been an exhausting and challenging few weeks at school, where students are starting to get tired and edgy. Behaviour problems are starting to fully show themselves, assessments are due, encouragement and full support are required where my reservoirs are running low, and I am trying to fit more and more in. And while I get everything competently done, I thought about what total a whack-job I was in my early 20s as a teacher, where a behaviour management or teaching issues were just situations requiring a creative solution. I all but rubbed my hands in glee, ready to embark on a round of solution-mongering.
I was so damn creative, audacious, and fearless.
Why? Because I had no track record. I had absolutely nothing to lose, no history of success or failure, no existing street-cred, and I had classes to teach. And my God, I found ways to connect with those students + staff out of sheer desperation + innovation, keeping up by the day, and sometimes by the minute. And because I had zero behaviour management skills, I behaviour managed like Martina Hingis played tennis: SMART.
I am a featherweight, literally. I am just under 5-foot and about 45-50 kgs, depending upon how may Tim Tams I eat. My voice back then did not carry a metre, let alone a rehearsal room with 70 over-excited students. In my formative teaching days, I had no “older-male-student” presence whatsoever when I behaviour managed; some of those 6-foot-plus boys could have sneezed and I would’ve been annihilated. I had zero ability + knowledge in navigating bitchiness, drugs, alcohol, underhand remarks, social media bullying, in short, no street-cred whatsoever.
And I had classes to teach, and curriculum to get through, and boundaries to set.
So I built connection. I had the audacity to think that if I could make every interaction with each student + staff member as real, authentic, joyful, and positive as possible, I would at least have money in the bank.
It became a game to me; I wonder how I can make that staff member smile? How could I POSSIBLY start a conversation with a kid who has zero interests which overlap with mine? How can I deliver soul-sucking information to students about their grades, their actions, or their poor behaviour in a way that values them?
I spent hours driving home thinking through words and conversations, learning the power of changing one word, or how I chose to deliver something, what order I would say things, where I would say a kid’s name to show value + care, and how I chose to build hope and worthiness where there was such decimation in their self-esteems without taking away from poor work + behaviour.
That was then, when I was “young and scrappy”, and full of energy and front.
Now, I have things in place. I am mid-career, and I have frameworks down, confidence in my abilities, and structures and staff who will support me.
And I realised this week, whilst trudging through a challenging, emotionally draining week, that I have recently forgotten to be audacious. I have been taking the slightly safer option, the path of least resistance. I haven’t started the random conversations, I haven’t given the extra compliment to the kid who is trouble, I have allowed systems to work their systematic magic, and in truth, I have been sapped of energy. I haven’t got what it takes to be full of audacity, engaging with conversations that half the time might elicit a weird or slightly off-centre reaction. I have no time for the quirky, no energy for the playful just to be playful.
And that what I LIVED for in my beginning years.
But, my God, I should. I should, because that is the connection that is missing.
Because some of that unreasonable audacity is what will shake me out of my routine, and back into the fresh and unpredictable present that is teaching, and life.
What if I said hello the the person who perpetually was withdrawn in the morning and made it a challenge to see if I could learn something new about them? Do I need to be mesmerised + completely interested? Well, highly likely I won’t be to that extent. But I can still make a connection. I am not learning anything or connecting with anyone if I have walked past this person for half a year and know nothing about them and continue talking to the same people. How both big-headed and fearful am I that I think someone else is not worth my time, or that my time is THAT limited. There are people in much more demanding jobs and lives who find time. So can I.
What if I did those things for my students + classes which elicit the raised eyebrows, embarrassed yet half-game laughs, and shook them up a little? I’ve been comfortable, with my ensembles, with my thinking, with my support, with my teaching. I wonder what it would be like to do something which is just slightly outside of my current comfort zone, knowing that it will cost me a more courage, time, and energy?
What if I sat still enough that I could find the words to speak to the kid who is being a little shit, and continues to be a little shit in my classes because they are so broken by life? Rather than just letting the behaviour system do its thing, how could I change the script so that the consequences happen, but my WORD resonate with value and worthiness? My instinct right now? I want to kick a few of the kids I teach. That’s how much they are pissing me off. But I wonder, audaciously, how willing I am to think about this creatively. I’m not pinning myself as the next teaching Messiah, God no. I will still want to slap several kids for being completely remorseless, unaffected, Teflon-coated turds, even if my conversations and words are well-received. But let’s play this creativity game a little.
How can I do things differently when I am uncomfortable?
How can I connect with kids who don’t want to be connected with, who refuse everything, and who are going through the motions of a behaviour management plan already? What can I say or do that will actually carry momentum and resonate?
Why the hell would I want to do this?
Because my greatest joys in life have come from the accidental, audacious interactions. When I was 21, I thought I could talk to anyone and affect change. I thought that all my words carried some life and momentum, and I naively and audaciously believed that my setting out to make peoples days a little brighter served a higher purpose.
And the reflection back was threefold; when a risk paid off, I was catapulted out of my comfort zone into new connections, understandings, unexpected moments of joy, learning, and hope. I learned so much from being so naively confident and interested. I was absolutely engrossed in life.
And I would hate to look back and realise that I had become reasonable and normal, colouring within the lines like a good little girl, when I had the imagination, capacity, and ability to be creative, human, and audaciously unreasonable.
It happened before I even knew it. I was in the middle of it all before I realised I had slipped into the cocoon of “safe and ordinary”. There’s nothing wrong with taking time out, or being in second-gear for a little while. But when I held up the way I was interacting with my beautiful students this week, the way I let small things get under my skin, and the way I was taking my choral rehearsals against my 25-year-old self, I realised I had allowed myself to cross the boundary of “commanding and mature” to “safe and ordinary”.
Call it what you will, I was not pushing boundaries because inch by inch, I had gone into energy conservation mode. This has worked for a while, so let’s keep doing it. The kids won’t respond to that. There will be discomfort, noise, and chaos, so let’s stick with the familiar. And worse still, That formula works, they can’t possibly do more than that right now.
I used to be unashamed in my haphazard ways of pushing up against boundaries. I did it just by existing. When I was making my way as a new teacher and choral director, I would throw ideas around like beads, with the wayward and infinitely optimistic view that some of them would land on the bullseye. It wasn’t that I was fearless, it was that I was so utterly unaware of what conventions were that I had to build them every day. There was no “way that it was done”. There was only “here and now, let’s find a solution!”
And yes, it cost me energy, pride, ego, time, and caused regular discomfort to my choirs, my classes, my colleagues and my students. But I just took it as the norm. I didn’t set out to be a hell-raiser, I was just in a glorious journey of joyful, addictive discovery and creativity.
And I look back and marvel at how brave I was.
Let me look back and take a moment to imbue my current, confident, joyful self with some of that haphazard fearlessness. Rock the boat. Walk the unseen path. Let’s get curious and daringly uncomfortable because there is so much to discover. Don’t choose “safe” just because it’s easy; choose with clarity and consciousness as to what the situation needs.
From Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic. This paragraph makes me “smile out loud” every time I read it.
Her word resonate with surprising urgency for us to embrace our creativity. So powerful for me to read now as I am in a period of intense writing + composing.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” you darkest interior voices will demand.
“It’s funny you should ask,” you can reply. “I’ll tell you who I am: I am a child of God, just like anyone else. I am I constituent of this universe. I have invisible spirit benefactors who believe in me, and who labour alongside me. The fact that I am here at all is evidence that I have the right to be here. I have a right to my own voice and a right to my own vision. I have a right to collaborate with creativity, because I myself am a product and a consequence of Creation. I’m on a mission of artistic liberation, so let the girl go.”
Now you’re the one doing the talking.
Yes, I’m a Year 6-12 Specialist Classroom Music teacher, but being in a secondary school comes with hilarious and awesome benefits. Like being asked to RIDE A STUDENT-BUILT HOVERCRAFT!
This was the coolest thing ever. We had Year 8 Science Week and a KID BUILT A HOVERCRAFT, from a leaf-blower, piece of wood, and a lightweight plastic chair.
WHAT. A. CHAMP.
The gala piece that became the Olympic free skate for Adam Rippon.
And the story behind it which I never knew until now; a strong capable leader of the flock injured and in recovery, creating a new strength + redefining themselves.
A reflection of Adam’s own personal journey and his confidence in defining his own artistry, which in my opinion stands him apart from the crowd despite not having the technical merit of the top contenders.
Amazing, the light that shines when we each of us commit to being authentic.
I have just finished reading Stretch, by Scott Sonenshein. And yes, it stretched my understanding of what is possible!
The premise of the book is that the less you have, the more you are likely to maximise it and use it well. I am inspired, as I can see parallels in my own life + goals this year!
For example, I have always been a thrifty cook. I industrial cook like a teacher who is going into hiding for a month, just in case I come home and even have an inkling that I might be too tired to cook, so that I have absolutely no excuse to eat badly. But the excellent off-shoot is that I’m also saving and able to put this money somewhere else. The fear factor kicks in as well; in terms such as this one coming up, where it will take every ounce of energy just to beach myself on the couch at the end of the day, industrial cooking is KING. Something interesting I’ve noticed in this cook-fest is that I get very creative with what’s in the pantry and fridge. I have created the most wonderful “accidental masterpieces” from using only the spices available, stock in the freezer, canned goods, and leftover bits and pieces. Part of this fires up my creativity, the other is because I’m determined to use only what’s available and not spend any more money. AND be healthy. So I am stretching in many different directions in a wholly satisfying manner.
And this all leads to the real reason why I’m stretching in my cooking; I am saving for a very special retreat in the middle of the year, the one holidays where I allow myself to go off the grid for a bit, abandon my Year 12s to let them fend for themselves, and be totally nomadic and uncontactable. This is more money than I’d normally spend on a mid-year, non-overseas holiday. But, determined not to dip into my savings, I am stretching…and far more easily than I thought I would be. Flights, accommodation, and the retreat itself are all paid for. I’ve even managed to put aside some cash for spending money. I’ve not touched my savings, or even thought about abating my usual savings rate over and above my mortgage. I’m stretching, in the most satisfying way.
And finally, I see it in my teaching. The kid that doesn’t come blessed with “natural talent”, which I actually think is a total and absolute curse, stretches. Coupled with determination and grit, and a complete love for what they do, it’s impossible to predict how much. When they are on that path, stretching and getting creative over what capabilities and skills they DO have, and maximising them, is far more satisfying than watching the kid with “talent” who squanders the opportunities to develop. And sometimes, even more frustrating, the “half-arsed” develop”. The sort of development that happens in a flurry just before assessment time. That’s not stretching, that’s academic bleating.
Stretching. It’s satisfying!
The magic and messiness of creativity.
My goodness, I cannot tell you how much this resonated with me, as a person, and as a teacher. I felt like I was on the edge of a marvellous precipice of understanding, looking in, hearing the things I’d been thinking, living, doing, and trying to generate in my classroom, put into definitive words. And that is refreshing!
What the speaker, Linda Hill, so beautifully confirmed was the extreme paradox of creativity, the creative process, and how to plant the seed of creativity in a group of potential creators – in my case, my students.
Here are the paradoxes I heard that need to co-exist in equal force for creativity to be truly at work:
And now my mind is buzzing as to how this actually looks in my classroom when my students are tackling a composition assignment, when they are collaborating to create choreography for a choral number, or when they are trying to stylise a piece for a small-group ensemble.
So much which resonates!