The story of the Wright Brothers is not a new one for me. Our summer trips the to Outer Banks have included restless trips to the Wright Brothers Memorial– visits punctuated with sulky complaints of heat and thirst and boredom and time away from the beach. But this year was different. So different that we went twice. There was something pulling us about this story– something that awed us. We walked through the story step by step and listened hard as it was retold by National Park rangers. I’m not sure what was pulling my husband, but I knew that I had something to hear as a teacher and a learner.
It was right in front of me. Wilbur and Orville knew how to get a good idea off the ground. Their success was an alchemy of inspiration, imagination, experience, and determination. Failures were all part of the process. Keeping the plane in the air for 12 seconds was considered a step toward success. Keeping the plane in the air for 59 seconds was world changing. They never finished high school, but they became their own teachers as they lived a comprehensive curriculum of ornithology, environmental science, aeronautics, engineering, art, writing, and play.
Rather than discrediting the process, failure was essential information. Flying kites, tinkering with bikes, experimenting with cameras, drawing, and writing were not data driven tasks, but each had a role in achieving success. Wilbur and Orville knew the value of the beauty around them and let the wind, sand, and sky of the Outer Banks teach them. Wilbur and Orville chose an isolated spot to protect their risky innovation from public scrutiny. They surrounded themselves with people who were not aviators, but who believed in their idea and wanted to help. At no time in the process was flight declared a failure.
All of this teaches me what my students need from me. It also speaks to what teachers need.
Many of us became teachers to step into the tradition of building something great. Not just for our children and not for other people’s children, but for all children. We work hard, think big, and open our doors to everyone. We don’t give up on anyone, but when it doesn’t work, people seem quick to give up on us. Funding is cut. Class size increases. Fingers point. People without experience lead the charge for change and call it improvement, even when it is not. Demoralized, the wrong teachers and leaders leave.
We all need to find constructive ways of dealing with failure; there are no winners in the game of blame and shame.
Sixty-six years after that 59-second flight, the first man walked on the moon. In his pocket Neil Armstrong carried fragments of fabric and wood from the 1903 Wright Flyer — an acknowledgment that it was the footprints that stretched through the years behind him that made his “one small step for man” a “giant leap for mankind.”
I am surrounded by people who want to continue to build something great. There are many of us: teachers, parents, and citizens who care about all children. We’ve been trying to get this right for a long time, and this is no time to stop. Somewhere along the line, reform as verb was reshaped into a top-down (What-do-teachers-know?) noun. When change consorts with cynicism it cheapens the process, but when change partners with hope and respect, innovation soars. It doesn’t happen with a mandate or with politicians who devalue public education and covet the public money that goes towards it. True change happens step by step. It is hard work. It is heart work. We may have lost the word “reform,” but transform is still a verb that is ours for the taking.
Got hope? Bring it.