Friday, October 31, 2014

The Countdown, Part 1: Next Steps, Grounds for Sculpture, and Chambers of Internal Dialogue

The buzzer sounds. Everything's a watercolor blur. A countdown begins as the blazing red digits flash by on the clock.

Or at least that's what it felt like as I drove to the last convening of the 2014 state teachers of the year for the Next Steps Conference, held in Princeton, New Jersey. Maybe it just reminded me of the final quarter of a basketball game because I had two speeches to write when I returned in 2 and-a-half days (and another 4+ hour drive to Charleston). And's because this truly signaled the end - an end that, at this point, I welcomed but dreaded because of the uncertainty that lies ahead.

Once I had woven my way up into the Garden State and successfully found the conference center with no GPS snafus, I started to relax. New England is beautiful in the fall. It was comforting to be among familiar faces again who understood the insurmountable joy and crushing stress this year had bestowed. The countdown clock slowed down, at least momentarily.

Chauncey Conference Center
Inside Chauncey Conference Center, part of the ETS campus
The purpose of the Next Steps conference was to give us time to reflect on our year and to think about what we would like to have happen next - with emphasis on the what we would like. Trying to conceive of having any type of balance in life, when your schedule evolves on a whim and often for reasons that are not of a personal priority, has been futile. You get use to it and accept the chaos.

But no one can keep living like that forever. It wears you down and renders you unable to pursue the things that matter because there's no energy to spare - which is why, more than anything, it's time for the next step.

Several former National Teachers of the Year led the sessions over the following two days. They discussed returning to reality, their classrooms, and ultimately choosing the path that best allowed them to pursue the things they were passionate about - while also having a life. While saddened that this was our last official time together as a group, I think we all heard a lot of things from each other and from the presenters that reassured us that the exhaustion we felt was warranted and that we would each, in our own time, find our next path.

The outgoing National Teacher of the Year, Jeff Charbonneau, has spoken to our group several times this year, and his message was just as stellar this time as it has been in the past. Some quotes from Jeff that have continued to resonate three weeks later:

"Just because other people aren't, doesn't mean that you can't be."

"You're done climbing this mountain - [and] it's time for another. [You're] going down into a new valley."

"It's made you a better educator."
Jeff Charbonneau presenting at Next Steps. The bottom ratio is the approximate likelihood of being selected as a state teacher of the year. 

On the second evening of our conference, we visited the nearby Grounds for Sculpture, a unique sculpture park and museum. It is located on the former New Jersey State Fairgrounds. Not only is the setting stunningly beautiful, the works of art were all too lifelike - and occasionally larger than life.

Seward Johnson Center, named the artist who founded the Grounds for Sculpture in 1992.
Looks like Pi to me!

Where there are statues, there are loads of Berkeley photo-ops.

Why, yes; that is a 26 foot sculpture of Marilyn Monroe.

The table's a sculpture, but not the teachers/

Where's Berkeley?

Like I said...some of them were very true to life.

Chamber of Internal Dialogue - it looks like a little house, but...

One side depicts "The Scream"...
The other side is "Silencio"

Berkeley thought a nap sounded like a good idea at this point.
Dinner with Ohio, Maine, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Delaware.
Although the evening was for fellowship and celebrating our accomplishments as our year came to a close, to have it in such a place was truly fitting.  Much like Seward Johnson's Chamber of Internal Dialogue, we as teachers are in contention with two variations of extreme emotion - silence of peace or (most likely) exhaustion, and the raging fury of angst, frustration, and fear of the unknown. In between those conflicting places of thought, we're handed each year...a ball of clay. A classroom. Responsibilities. The distinction and confusion of being named a leader in the profession. While we teeter between the two extremes in search of answers and balance, there's the expectation to perform and create. There are no directions, only your insight and the option to seek answers and help along the path you choose to travel - although the greatest help you'll find comes from within yourself.

I was given a ball of clay this year, to shape and mold, to squish back down when it didn't look right and start with the same blob that, in spite of being malleable, consisted of potential. What I shaped this year to be is truly the best that I could physically and mentally create. How fitting is it that, inside the Chamber of Internal Dialogue, is a small couch between the imprints of the two emotional works of art. It is that place in between that we all need to seek for rest and guidance. You can only see what you've created when you sit down and reflect.

Lotus Pond and Bridge created to resemble Claude Monet's "Bridge over a Pond of Water Lillies"

Sometimes the imprint we create is an improvement on the simpler aspects of real life, while other times our efforts reveal iconic-seeming achievement that's size and scope threaten to overwhelm. Yet it's the drive to continue creating, past the time to perfect the project you've been given, that serves as the inspiration to continue moving forward - even when you're down to just a handful of seconds on the clock.

The Class of 2014 - works of progress.