Imagine, if you will. . .
It is the first week of a new school year, and a group of about 50 middle school teachers is lingering around the library having coffee and catching up after summer vacation.
The principal enters the room pushing a cart loaded with what appears to be flower bulbs, glass jars, and dirt. He asks for volunteers to distribute the materials to each of the staff members and informs them of their task.
"Each student who enters your classroom this year is represented by one of these flower bulbs," he says. "The dirt represents your instruction and the glass jar the confines in which you may experiment with that instruction to meet the needs of your students. In other words, the bulb can not leave the jar, but you can add things to it.
"The rules for this year are simple. Today, as you start to think about your instruction and examine your class lists, add the dirt to the jar and plant the bulb. Your first supply of water will be provided, and I expect to see your plants blooming in the windows of your classrooms before our state exam in the spring.
"Your success as an educator will be evaluated based on your ability to force or to encourage your particular bulb to bloom. Please bring your blooming flowers with you to your evaluation conference as a visual means of measuring not only your students' success, but of your own. Questions?"
Nobody had a question.
"Okay, then. Ready, set, grow!" he beamed with excitement—full of the highest expectations and the confidence that those expectations would be met.
The teachers chatted nervously as they scooped out the fresh dirt and filled their glass jars. Many of them were seasoned florists and had been working with a variety of bulbs for years.
Most felt confident about the charge ahead of them, but others looked sadly at their bulbs and wondered if they would ever be able to nurture a blossom. Although some appeared plump and had springs of roots already pushing through the bottom or a promise of green sprouting healthily already through the top, others appeared dried out, withered, and tired. Were these bulbs already dead?
The observant principal reassured the educators that regardless of the appearance of the bulbs, each and every one had the potential to grow, and that the state expected all educators to be immediately successful in creating a garden filled with 100% capacity by spring.
During the school year, those teachers new to education decorated the glass jars with stickers and painted their names with puffy paint around the circumference. Life was good; growing flowers would be easy and fun.
Some of the more veteran teachers went straight to Home Depot and bought a huge supply of Miracle Grow and bug spray and sat down together to formulate a plan of success. Let the competition begin, they thought. There was no way this flower wouldn't bloom under their watch; the stakes where too high.
The year began with jest, enthusiasm, hope, and a bit of worry as the teachers tended the plants they put in their windows, but at around Christmas time, when the weather grew cold and the initial excitement of a new school year waned, many educators forgot about their plants and left them by the windows shivering in a coat of ice. They laughed as the new and veteran teachers brought in ultraviolet lights and wrapped the base of the jars in knitted blankets, giving them time on the heater to stay warm. They giggled harder at those who took the flowers home over the break so they would not be forgotten or left unattended.
Months went by in a similar pattern. Flowers began to peek their gifted heads above the stems that protruded the bulbs. Hope filled the air as even the plants that showed little growth had a chance to develop to their full potential by the spring conference deadline.
For those whose bulbs had died in neglected jars, invisible to the eyes of their owners until the week of the conference, there was little care. Reasons filled the air. "It had no potential for life when it was given to me! Did you see how little and shriveled it was when I got it?" said one.
And another, "Well, no matter what I tried to do with my bulb, it just wouldn't grow. I gave up when it bent its stalk over and never perked back up."
"It's not our fault or our responsibility to grow these flowers anyway," was the general consensus of those who had seen from the start, that moment the bulbs first fit in their hands, what they deemed to be failures.
Except for one.
Called to the principal's office for her evaluation, one teacher picked up her jar that enveloped a plant that had not yet flowered, but showed a bit of green at the top. It was clear that her bulb hadn't died, but she worried that according to her principal, it showed little to no progress and therefore was considered a failure—and so was she.
She placed the jar on the table in his office and sat down with a look of defeat. She described how worried she felt when she was first given her plant—it looked so helpless and different from the others. She went on to painstakingly describe her efforts and her worries that her bulb looked more like an acorn than a bulb. She wondered if it would ever bloom. But she hadn't given up and did the best she could while it was under her care.
"Hold it up to the light," the principal told her, "and turn it around. What do you see?"
With the kind of hope and pride that is still instilled in the hearts and minds of many clever educators, she held her jar to the light and began to twirl it around in front of him.
"Do you see all of those white hair-like strands?" he asked with a look of knowing and confidence. "Those are the roots that you have been nourishing throughout this school year. Notice how they seamlessly separate the dirt and wrap healthily around the sides of the jar, entangling themselves with one another.
"That," he said, "is a sign of success, of natural growth and development. This flower has not bloomed yet, but I'm confident that in time it will. It's time to let the flower go, and to grow independently in a larger environment."
That spring she sent the jar home with one of her students whom she trusted to continue to nurture its growth. He planted it in his garden. By summer his family could see the beginnings of what would soon be a grand oak tree.
As you teach this school year, use your plant as a reminder to do everything you can to ensure its success. One day it may develop into something that even you could not have imagined.
Cecily Anderson is an eighth grade English teacher and the English Department chair at Catonsville Middle School in Baltimore, Maryland. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally published in the August 2011 Middle Level iNSIDER.