We all change, when you think about it. We’re all different people all through our lives. And that’s OK, that’s good, you gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.” -The Doctor
A lifetime ago when I was a young teacher fresh out of college I taught a lesson on Essence and Experience that used Jean-Paul Sartre, Gottfried Leibniz, and the Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror” to challenge students to think about what really made them them. I loved the lesson and the conversations it sparked: Would I be “Bjorn” if my name were “Pete?” Is being a teacher, or a husband, or a male, or an Oregonian essential to who I am or an attribute that is really transitory or unimportant? At twenty-three I was a brash young teacher using my degree in philosophy to push my students to think and it felt great.
Some of them dug it. I think.
I hadn’t thought about that lesson for years, just one of the many experiences that time slowly buries under the immediacy of life, until the afternoon after I’d had a great discussion with my assistant principal about the importance of knowing who we are as a school and, later that day, the happenstance of seeing my daughter watching an episode of Dr. Who.
“Regeneration,” she explained to me when we fell into talking about why the 11th Doctor looked so different than the 12th. “They always change …but they’re still The Doctor.”
For those who aren’t familiar with the show, a long running BBC extravaganza that has evolved in the years since my youth from a campy romp through time and space into a plucky, witty, and well crafted experiment of wonder, the premise is simple: A “time lord,” The Doctor, travels through time in a blue police box, often accompanied by a human companion, always game for adventure and usually finding it. His looks, gender, attire, and catchphrases are different with each incarnation (which occur every few seasons when the actor playing The Doctor switches).
That The Doctor is The Doctor is never in question, though David Tennant, Peter Capaldi, and (my daughter’s favorite) Matt Smith are as different as can be.
The Doctor is different in attributes, that is, in experiences, but not different in essence.
And I thought back to that conversation my AP and I had shared earlier in the afternoon. What is the essence of our school?
I’ve been in education long enough to know it isn’t simply the building or the school colors, the principal or any particular program.
When I was in third grade I moved to a brand new elementary school and the administration had the great idea to let the kids choose the mascot and school colors. We chose silver and black for colors and Eagles as our mascot. Our school t-shirts made us look like a miniature biker gang. Within a couple of years the principal made the sensible decision to change the color to blue and made our mascot the dolphins. We were still the same school.
As a teacher I worked in several schools, rural and urban, large and small, affluent and not so much. Each had its own history, its own traditions, and its own attitude. There was a distinctly different feeling walking on the campus of each, an “it” factor that only that school had.
I thought about these experiences when I was talking with my AP, and I’d been prone to say that the essence of our school was not just what we did, or who were are, but why we did what we did as a school, our DNA, our expectations, our fundamental beliefs.
We talked about mission and vision statements, which sometimes capture a sense of a school’s essence, or at least make an attempt to put that essence into the nomenclature of the current day. Yet those statements, so lovingly posted in hallways or appended to a school’s letterhead, so often seem incomplete.
To really understand those fundamental truths that define who we are is a tougher job, and a more important job, than simply listing what we do and how we do it.
Who are we? This is the greater question, and the challenge of discovering a school’s essence may find a part of its answer in the process of inquiry itself, in adding to that question: “Who have we been?” and “Who will we be?”
As we peel away the attributes and experiences that make up a bit of who we are, not unlike The Doctor’s TARDIS, screwdriver, scarf, occasional fez, or sneakers, we are challenged to determine what are fundamental to who we are and what are mere circumstances of our existence.
Put simply, the more we can do to define our best collective self, the essence of the school that will exist even after we’ve individually gone, the more we can push ourselves to be meaningful contributors to that greater self.
And in the end, if there ever is such a thing, the pursuit of understanding who we are as a school, why we do what we do, and what is essential to our existence has the potential to help us embrace both our individual roles in this grand and collective adventure and the importance of each other as we work together to be part of something greater than ourselves.
Schools, like people, are always changing. Sometimes there’s value in pausing and asking:
Who have we been? Who are we now? And who will we be?