Serenity, Courage, and the Wisdom to Know the Difference: Q and A with Sandy Merz, Part I

Arizona educator Sandy Merz is one of the most thoughtful teachers I have ever met. I asked him if he’d be up for doing an exchange of Q and A on our respective blogs, in the style of David Brooks and Gail Collins in the New York Times. This collaboration is the result. Part I includes Sandy’s thoughtful musings on the Serenity Prayer in the context of teacher-led change.

Arizona educator Sandy Merz is one of the most thoughtful teachers I have ever met. I asked him if he’d be up for doing an exchange of Q and A on our respective blogs, in the style of David Brooks and Gail Collins in the New York Times. This collaboration is the result.

He published my answers to his questions here and here on his blog Digressive Discourse last month; what follows are his responses to the first questions I asked him about how teachers balance serenity and courage to lead change.

 

Every teacher I know has had to grapple with the distinction involved in the prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

What do you see as the aspects of education (in your classroom, school, district, state, or the nation) that you can change?

I think it’s best for others to identify the difference one makes. The best I can do is say what influence I hope to have.

Students in my engineering classes learn four ways to change a material: add to it, subtract from it, change its outside, and change its inside. That’s also a good framework for writing about change in education.

From the classroom to the nation I try to add twists to our thinking about issues from the Common Core to teacher leadership. For example, every time someone says we need to think outside the box, I want ask whether we’ve exhausted the potential of the box. Sometimes the best route is to find a different exploitation of the resources contained in box. Maybe the constraints of the box serve us more than limit us.

In my writing it’s fun to attempt subtract, or at least refine, some professional “givens”. For example, I want to ask the next teacher who alleges we make thousands of decisions a day to name them. A claim like that trivializes the analysis of what, when, and how accomplished teachers do make decisions.

The outside of a material is that part that we see and touch and know best. But the outside also protects the core while hinting at its inner state. I think I can help change the outside of education by being as open and direct as my friend Robbie Ramirez, who discusses pay, unions, etc in an interview with Stories from School Arizona blogger Amethyst Hinton Sainz. I told Robbie I admired her candor. She replied that if we demand transparency from administrations, we must be transparent ourselves.

An anecdote here. A while back a singularly toxic teacher had a problem with a student. His parents requested a conference. Guess which teacher didn’t attend? The mother said the faces that showed told her everything. I kept that in mind a couple of years ago when a student’s parents disagreed with my assessment of their child’s work. They went to the principal and threatened to go to the district administration. The parents often came to school for various reasons. Whenever I saw them I made a point to go over and greet them.

Another teacher often observed that kids who don’t have defenses seem to get along with everyone. After all, defense mechanisms create, by design, barriers. (My own observation is that those same kids are often delightful eccentrics and top academics. Plus, a single such student improves the climate of an entire grade.)

To the extent that I can influence teachers to show our faces and drop our guards, I can help reveal and also protect what lies beneath. That can only be good for the public perception of teaching.

You have to go to the core to change the inside. To that end I keep in mind two beliefs of Edmund Burke (18th century conservative political philosopher): 1) a disposition to preserve and an ability to improve are high standards for a statesman; and 2) a society without the means to change is without the means to survive. To me that means first discovering for myself and perfecting in my practice the means to equip our youth with the tools to build and maintain and live free in a just society. Second, it means promoting those means within and beyond the profession.

 

What can’t you change, in your view?

That’s a largely irrelevant question. One of my favorite thoughts, influenced by a movie I saw on physics, is that it’s not the future that has options, but the past. The present, therefore, is the point at which the many options of the past become the one reality of the future. So I ask: What can I do right now to create a more fertile past from which future colleagues and students may extract the one reality of their future?

 

How do you find the courage to attempt to make those changes? And how do you find the serenity to accept what you can’t? Finally, what wisdom have you gained over the course of your career about distinguishing between the two?

Those questions overlap so I’ll bundle my answers.

Here is a true and valid and insincere answer. In college I read Stained Glass, a spy novel by William F. Buckley, Jr. The hero, Blackford Oakes, struggles to decide what to do when his mission runs counter to his conscience. Oakes learns that uncertainty and the possibility of failure are never reasons not to act. Since then, my default choice for every big decision, from travelling the world to getting married to applying for a teacherpreneurship, has been: Yes!

I’ve discovered that things that seem to take courage, like working with adversaries, get easier the more you do them. A few weeks ago I moderated my first webinar and was a nervous wreck. The other night I moderated my third and had only butterflies. It’s like that with writing, public speaking, and best of all – working with adversaries.

All of that is true, but without what follows is an empty shell. Quite simply, I believe in God and I believe in prayer. And most of all I pray to give gratitude – first for life and second for love. All that follows is impermanent. That is the true source of my serenity and to leave it out would be to fail Robbie’s call to transparency.