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Sticks to the Fire

I have often wondered why educational leaders and teachers do not spend at least some time together identifying what they see as the “big picture” potential of education and sharing their own hopes and expectations about what they might contribute to the overall project.


Teachers and administrators typically get so quickly swept up with the day-to-day survival of lesson preparation, class management, student assessment, supervision duties, and extra-curricular events, however, that they understandably sometimes lose the forest for the trees. This is unfortunate because if we want to create a better forest, then this kind of reflection is essential.

In attempt to explore how on-the-ground practice fits within overall purpose, I remember once  presenting teachers with the image of a fire beneath a boiling cauldron as a metaphor to better understand our project. The cauldron was the form of our program, i.e. the class sizes, the schedule, the very structure of our school. The liquid in the cauldron was the curriculum, which included both academic subjects and extra-curricular opportunities for challenge and responsibility. The active boiling within the cauldron was the interaction of our students with the content of our school.

What was most important in this particular session were the sticks on the fire beneath the cauldron, for these were the teachers -- or more precisely the qualities and the commitments that they brought to the project. The idea was that each individual stick makes a unique contribution to the combined inferno that activates the entire operation. The question we were then required to ask ourselves was, “What sticks do we bring to the fire?”.

In asking this question we had to confront the basic issue of purpose:  What are we trying to accomplish here and why? What do we think the point of this school’s program is in the context of an overall education? How does the work we do contribute to this larger picture?

Asking these questions amounts to an invitation to become guardians of all that is worthwhile in education -- to speak up when stupidity arises, yet at the same time be willing to do the hard work to create better solutions. It also invites us to understand our jobs not simply as a profession, but instead as a calling.

What sticks do you bring to the fire?

Dr. Ted Spear is the founding Principal of two independent schools in British Columbia, Canada. Using research on contemporary educational innovation, and drawing on 25 years of teaching and administrative experience in public and independent schools, he is currently writing a book on the future of grade school education.