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Virginia Journal of Education

By Design

An Arlington teacher suggests ‘carving’ every school day into a work of art.

By Richard Russey
“Carve each day as if it were a sculpture,” is a paraphrase of a brilliant line written by Tennessee Williams for his play Suddenly Last Summer, and he spoke from the soul when he conjured up that phrase. It’s one of the many lines of dialogue that make his play a classic.

It’s also a line we can imagine applying to our personal and professional lives. How might we use it in our daily world professional activities and pursuits?

Artists, be they playwrights, actors, painters, dancers, or sculptors, “carve” their expressive pursuits with habits of heart and mind that we, as teachers and other education professionals, would be smart to emulate.

 What are some concepts that might enable us to “carve” each day as if it were our own personal, living sculpture? Let’s explore a few we might apply to our work each day:

You simply cannot look back on a day’s teaching and call it a success—or a disappointment—if it didn’t begin with a purpose. Time is short, and we may consider the purpose of our work obvious, but to the extent that we consider the purpose of each day, indeed each moment of each day, we are then creating and carving it as if it were a sculpture. The purpose can be simple or complex; it may be riddled with challenges or an easy romp to the finish line. Nonetheless, to start out your day without a sense of purpose is like trying to live without food and water. Purpose provides the basic fuel for our direction forward.
A corollary to purpose is intentionality, but with added specificity. Intention involves complexities, like meaning and objectives—both of which are at the forefront of an educator’s mind every day. What steps must you take to carve your day with both purpose and intentionality? In its most simple application, this may take the form of a “to-do” list. I remember when I was very young, perhaps no older than 9 or 10 years old, I kept copious lists taped to my small bedroom mirror. I began to worry that this was a sign of weakness, that my reliance on notes to myself must be an indication of a lack of memory. Worried enough to go to my father with my concern, I find his wisdom has helped me to this day. He said, “The most successful people work from daily to-do lists … keep your list, check off your successful completion of tasks, and you will be on your way to a lifetime of success.” We’re wise to target each day with intention.
Goals turn our daily ambitions and aspirations into concrete concepts. This is, of course, common practice to most teachers, as we teach from a set of goals related to content and grade level. But working from goals can become rote, so I suggest frequently refreshing your familiarity with your goals and how they relate to a particular place in your school year. By setting into motion the powerful forces of purpose and intent, we allow our complex brains to begin to plan and plot the goals and activities necessary to carry out a successful day, every day. Don’t forget that your own personality and needs (or, your authentic self) should play a part in what your goal blueprint might look like. 
Once you’ve considered your goals, how do you organize your day to meet them? There are about as many ways to organize as there are people on the planet, and the only one that will really lead to success is one that works for you, considering your personality, style, manner, belief system, and approach to life. Time management is a piece of this concept, as well. Consider how you use your time and consider whether each action of your day is serving to move you toward satisfying completion.
Be ready for the unexpected. The ever-present possibility of being taken off track makes some people extremely uncomfortable. It’s here where our “sculpture per diem” is threatened the most, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There will be many external or internal forces at work that will challenge your neatly considered daily concept, purpose, intentionality, and organization. Your response to those forces is what matters most. Be prepared to adapt. You must be willing to change to meet new requirements, to be willing to work the sculpting of your day with a different approach. Adaptability does not mean letting go of your greater purpose, intentions, or organization. It does mean being ready to react to a changing environment, to new conditions, and to the unexpected. When confronted with change, we can either adapt our plan to include it, fight it, or flee to the relative comfort of old patterns.
Intense emotion and enthusiasm are two definitions of passion. Everyone relates to passion in their own way, but it’s important to recognize that a successful day-to-day life must include passion. Can you teach without passion? Sure, you can stand in front of a classroom and share what you know, and even achieve a certain modicum of success. But to be able to close your classroom door and reflect on your day with a sense of deep satisfaction, passion will have had to play a part in the creation and successful realization of that day (or week, or month, or school year).

So, find some aspect of your work that you are truly passionate about. If passion is there, you’ll know it—it shines forth from you like a beacon to others. Passion will give you the fuel to burn away the myriad of distractions that could take you off track. Passion will remind you that each moment is precious, that your goal completion for the day is paramount, and that the clock is ticking. Passion is also a quality of the heart that will allow a tear to come to your eye even after years of working with young people. For example, I recently attended a press event for a major arts education initiative in my community. As the politicians and leaders made their speeches, I began to feel the emotion surge. But when a group of first-graders read their own letters of gratitude to the mayor, the tears flowed. Was I embarrassed? No! Rather, I was deeply grateful to have such strong feeling about my life’s work, even after decades “in the trenches.” Embrace passion; it’s like booster fuel to energize your work and your life.
Finally, there is the elusive element of inspiration. How can you be open to this? Alertness and the willingness to learn from what you see, hear, feel, and experience is all you need. A single word can inspire. A song can inspire. A conversation with a friend or colleague can inspire. Inspiration is often linked with beauty, as in “that beautiful flower inspires me to recognize my own beauty.” Let me be very clear: inspiration can come from just about anything in your life. A difficult day in the classroom is something we experience regularly. Negativity can actually help us find ways to live in a world where all is not necessarily peaceful and beautiful. With the simple intention of being open to inspiration, we allow it to at the very least to drip into our consciousness in a gentle manner. Sometimes you may find a fire hose of powerful inspirations coming at you with such force that you’re knocked off your feet momentarily. In either case, grab a hold of that inspiration to create your reality.
Now, go out and create today, and all of your days!

Russey, a member of the Arlington Education Association, is an art teacher at Carlin Springs Elementary School.


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