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.

  • BillIvey

    Loving this dialogue…

    … between two excellent and respected teachers. For one thing, it shows how knowing the right questions to ask, and leaving space for the answers, can be an invaluable teaching/learning technique.

    With that in mind, may I just say that this quote is phenomenal:

    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?

    At first, I made the quick connection to the Dune series, where Frank Herbert has Paul Atreides talk about being at the nexus of threads to the past and to the future and the importance of leveraging that (each) moment. Then I wondered if I was focused too much on the future. Then I realized that I actually am working to create a more fertile past, mostly by trying to leverage every moment of the present. I view the learning my kids are doing now – not just about our subject, but about themselves, and each other, and our society, and the world – as a vitally important part of the flow of their becoming (and, at 54, I’ve realized that flow of becoming continues throughout life). It’s both liberating and energizing.

    Thank you both!

    • SandyMerz

      Flow is the word

      The options in time thing is a great discussion starter, huh?  And practical, too, we had a student a few years ago with diabetes who wasn’t following his diet very well. They kept talking about his options in the future and I said that his options were at lunch, not in the future.  And that his one future would depend on whether he chose pizza or salad.

      Dennis Lehane has a beautiful passage these things in a short story in his collection Coronado :  “About five years back we break down on Route 39, just me and my mother, and we’re standing there in the white heat with the dirt, dying of thirst for a hundred flat miles in every direction and Daddy’s piece of shit truck gone gasping into a coma beside us, and my mother puts a hand over her eyebrows to scan the emptiness and she looks like any fight left in her just up and died with the truck.  She looks like she can remember a time before she got to where she is now, and all those different who-she-could-have-beens fork out like trails before us, branching off and branching off into all that Texas dust until there’s so many of them they just have to fade away to nothing or else she’ll go blind trying to keep count. 

      Her voice is dry and torn when she speaks, and it takes a couple breaths to get the words out: 

      “Remember, Sonny, times like these — remember that somewhere there’s someone worse off than you.  You’re always richer than someone.”  She tries for a smile as she looks over at me. “Right?”

  • JustinMinkel

    Beautiful, Sandy.

    Sandy, kindred spirits like you and Bill are the top reason I love being part of the Collaboratory.

    On “saying yes”: While I have learned to say no since having kids, in order to preserve not just time with them but mental freedom, I love the line that “uncertainty and the possibility of failure are never reasons not to act.”

    I read a simple line once: “You regret the things you don’t do more than you regret the things you do.” There are actions I regret–running 7 additional miles on a hurt ankle which has left me hobbling months later, for example–but I generally find that it’s the paths not taken that haunt me. The time, for example, when a brave woman spoke at the Rotary Club when I was a high school senior and encouraged us to, when we reached college, “get to know people of different races and sexual orientations,” to audible gasps; I wanted to give her a standing ovation at the end but didn’t because I’d have been the only one.

    I’d always rather risk screwing up, then try to fix it, then remain silent out of timidity. I like adventures, and while I’ve become more cautious since becoming a father, I never want to miss an adventure because of fear of uncertainty or failure.


    • SandyMerz

      The default choice, not the only choice

      Oh, yeah, I say no plenty.  I love geocaching, but my kids and wife aren’t really into it so if I go I go alone. But that sometimes leads me to remote areas alone. I don’t mind that at all.  But it’s just not nice to scare them.  And I can’t really say their fears are irrational – hikers get hurt sometimes. Sometimes they die. 

      But people almost always regret their No’s more than their Yes’s.  Bill got Dennis Lehane, so Justin you get Marita Golding in Long Distance Life – the main character looks back on a long hard life and, quoting from memory: “And then she knew why old people say it all the time, that they’d do it all the same.  Because changing one thing changes everything. And you’re only going to get so much of right anyway.”


  • JustinMinkel


    Sandy, the mind-blowing quote that Bill picked out of your piece, as well as your beautiful description of the faith that guides you, made me wonder about this question:

    Is there a meaningful way to discuss these kinds of ontological/spiritual questions in school while respecting boundaries that should be in place?

    My thinking is this:

    On one hand, teachers wield a lot of personality power, and I’d be uncomfortable having my daughter’s kindergarten teacher, for example, share with the students her belief that the Bible is the literal word of God, including the belief that homosexuality is sinful.

    At the same time, our job as teachers is not just to produce “college and career ready students” but to help students go on to lead meaningful lives. If we omit what great religious traditions have to say about the question of leading a meaningful life, are we leaving out tremendous potential for learning?

    In England one summer, I worked at a Development Education Center that provides a kind of education utterly lacking in any school I’ve witnessed in the US, which goes beyond multicultural education to focus on the political and economic links between the UK and the rest of the world.

    One thing I witnessed in these schools is a comfort with teaching students about multiple religious traditions–Hinduism, Judaism, several branches of Christianity, Islam.

    I wonder if, because religion is such a powder keg, we shy away from a chance to teach kids ABOUT various religious beliefs without implying that any particular one is superior to others.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    • BillIvey

      How I try to handle it

      Several years ago, the Diversity Coordinator in my school and I were talking, and somehow the subject of religion in the classroom came up. She said, “You know, for a lot of these kids, they feel religion is a deeply important part of their life, yet they don’t feel comfortable bringing it up.” That seemed somehow off to me, that in a school devoted to teaching the whole child and honoring girls’ voices, we would be setting aside an entire (and, for many, fundamentally important) aspect of the whole child and in so doing, silence that portion of their voices. So I began to think about ways to reintroduce religion into my classroom in a way that made it safe to acknowledge that part of their lives, and realized part of it is that first of all I need to openly acknowledge it along with all the other aspects of our culture that influence these kids. Interestingly, in the process, I’ve often ended up stepping in to explain aspects of Catholicism or Judaism (I was raised in the American Baptist Church) when kids being raised in that tradition aren’t sure what the exact answer is to a friend’s question. I usually begin with, “I’m not an expert, but my understanding is that…” The kids seem to appreciate it.

      Oddly, I think it helps in a way that I am a deeply committed agnostic. I try to remain genuinely open-minded about just about any religious tradition you can imagine (although I’ll confess to having a hard time specifically with the Westboro Baptist Church’s unique version of Christianity), and any of the various takes on each tradition different people hold. So I can pretty easily find myself nodding and saying something supportive when kids express their own deeply held religious/spiritual beliefs. Sometimes, that frees others to speak up as well, and models an accepting behavior for all the kids.

      Last year, in my Humanities 7 class, one of the kids ran in all excited because a sophomore had just asked her, for the first time in her life, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” (as an aside, can I just say this is why I love middle schoolers?!) Anyway, one of the other kids looked up from her book and said, “That’s easy. God made the chicken.” Several kids looked at me to see how I would react, so I said, “That’s absolutely one of the answers you hear a lot.” They relaxed, and someone else said, “But what about evolution?” I said, “Well, what about it?” and she said, “Wouldn’t that mean the genetic, whatever, the mutation would happen in the chicken inside the egg? Before it was born?” I respond, “That’s absolutely another one of the answers you hear a lot.” Then someone asked the first girl if she believed in evolution. She was struggling a bit to answer, so I jumped in and said, “Some people in the Christian tradition believe in evolution and some don’t. Some of the ones that do believe that when God created the Earth, He set events in motion including evolution and, if you think about it that way, created all the animals and plants and everything.” The first girl smiled with relief and nodded and said, “That’s exactly right.” It was just one of a number of discussions we had about what might normally be considered touchy topics (among the others we touched on were homosexuality and transgender people). I worked really hard, and hopefully at least reasonably successfully, to create a space where they could say what they genuinely believed knowing they might not always agree with everyone else on a given point. Respect for all deeply held personal beliefs, including their own, was the given.

      Justin, thanks for asking the question and for your ideas. Sandy, I’m really looking forward to hearing your thoughts as well.

  • SandyMerz

    What would you give up first?

    I never deny my faith to anyone who asks, including students.  I don’t think that crosses any boundaries.  In my content areas – engineering and math – the topic doesn’t come up too much. But it is a tough question because we do carry a lot of weight with our students.  When it does come up, I usually say something along the lines of different disciplines having different standards of truth and different means of discovering it: Science through experiment; Law through testimony and judgment; Art through discovering in media what can’t be expressed in words; Religion through faith and revelation.  And so on.  And every means has limitations.

    I love it when a scientist writing for a popular audience will say something like, “We’re very good at describing what happened a billionth of a second after the birth of the universe, but earlier than that is beyond our methods.”

    If a kid asked me a particular doctrinal question I would probably answer it with what I believed and ask them what they believed and ask them, too, to make sure to discuss it with their loved ones. 

    I wouldn’t believe something unless I thought it were true and in so far as someone else believes something incompatible with what I believe, I think he or she is wrong. That applies to everything – not just spiritual matters, but political, and emprical matters as well. 

    Yet, Elie Wiesel wrote somewhere that he has more in common with sincere and tolerant Christians, as long as they don’t try to convert him, than he does with Jews who are neither sincere not tolerant.  

    So, putting those two thoughts together, I’d rather spend time with people who think I’m wrong, but respect that my beliefs and opinions come from recognizing that mystery exists and can be searched and when I’ve come to a conclusion it’s not random or dogmatic, but it is what I think is right. And I will gladly return the kindness.

    So, what would you give up first – what you know or what you believe? 


    • BillIvey

      I’ve been thinking about this relatively non-stop for four days.

      … and I think I finally know why I can’t decide. For me, what I believe is based to a very great extent on a mix of what I know intellectually and what I feel and sense to be true as I navigate the moments of my life. I think knowing and sensing are simply two different ways of apprehending the world, and you run a serious risk when you rely on just one of them. I also, for the record, believe there are truths you can more or less never grasp with words, and possibly not through any semiotic form of expression.

      Most everything that I believe may shift, therefore, as I learn new things. For example, from my teaching career, I used to believe that being student-centered meant listening for random clues to what kids might like and building off those random clues. Then, I learned about the work of Mark Springer, James A. Beane, and Susan Kurtz, and now I believe student-centered learning needs to be student-directed – and more importantly, I also know how to do that. At least better than before.

      So, I can’t really choose between giving up what I know or what I believe because for me, they are inextricably bound together.

      With that said, though, I suppose I do have one core belief, that all human beings are equally deserving of love and respect. I don’t advocate uncritical acceptance of every behavior by any means, but I do insist on a recognition of our common humanity. That core belief, I don’t see myself ever abandoning.