Stepping Into the River: Lessons From My Kindergarten Teacher on Learning, Living, and Hope

February 6, 2009 at 8:19 pm 12 comments

posted by Alisa Algava ’08, leader of a small Hudson Valley progressive school

alisaocean

alisa

“You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.”
Heraclitus, On the Universe
Greek philosopher (c. 535 BC – 475 BC)

Sitting backwards on the train has never bothered me.  I can look out the window and see where we’ve been.  And whether looking forward or back, I always appreciate watching the Hudson River go by–right now I’m struck by the ice cracking and buckling near the shore, the glassy surface in the middle, and a current I can’t see even though I know it’s there.

Circles

Last week I started a new old job at a school 60 miles north of New York City where I have lived and learned in different moments throughout my life.  As a four year old I walked onto the school’s wooden front porch and through the door painted with children’s handprints for my first day of kindergarten.  I made movies, explored the woods and the stream, and wrote books in elementary school.  During college I returned for a few months to do an informal internship with the teachers and students.  I taught art for a year, my first job, before venturing out into the world of public schools.  During the next five years, as a member of the Board of Trustees, I stayed in touch and stayed involved.  And when they asked, I returned to start a brand-new high school program and to participate as a co-administrator and teacher in the running of the school.  Three years ago, I journeyed away again–this time to live and teach in Brooklyn while I finished studying at Bank Street.  I graduated in December and had new visions and a new plan for my life in NYC.  A month ago, all that changed.

Mirrors

One of my kindergarten teachers from the days I spent woodworking, learning to read, and playing with dinosaurs is still one of the most important people in my life.  Eric Tomlins has lived and learned and helped countless others do the same at the school for more than thirty years.  He is one of those singular people in this world who blesses everyone he knows with understanding.  A magical teacher, Eric sees and values every child for who she is, for the gifts he shares, for the struggles she experiences.  He looks deeply and sees what is unique and beautiful inside each one of us.  And then he holds up a mirror.  Through his words, actions, interactions, and love, Eric helps each of us to begin to see and understand and appreciate ourselves.  And in his presence, we become more of who we are.

Hope

ericFor the last three years, Eric has been struggling with an illness, first unknown and undiagnosed and eventually called ALS by experts from the best NYC hospitals.  Lou Gehrig’s disease has paralyzed him from the neck down.  And it is now affecting his ability to breathe and talk.  Throughout this time and this experience, Eric continues to teach everyone he knows.  He comes to school to teach a high school class two mornings each week, participates in administrative meetings, and talks and listens with the students and teachers.  In the way he has approached the illness–always hopeful, seeking out non-traditional medicines and approaches, continuing to read and write poetry, committed to each day and also to the future–Eric shows us what it means to be alive.  Although his body is compromised and his presence at the school is diminished, his spirit is strong.  He is still Eric and he still shares all of who he is so we can share all of who we are.

Guides

The school has never had a single person in charge.  There is no principal or head of school.  While a team of co-administrators (who are also full-time teachers) contends with the many administrative tasks and responsibilities, the school is very much run by the community of teachers.  But, in truth, Eric was the leader.  His voice and his opinions nurtured, questioned, and when necessary, influenced us.  He sustained a respectful community where students, teachers, and families could ask questions, take risks, try our best, reflect on our experiences, and listen to each other.  While the school was not perfect, Eric held the place safe and strong for thirty years with his wisdom, his appreciation for each child, teacher, parent, grandparent, and his deep philosophical and personal commitment to progressive education.  It is clear to me now that he never could have done it alone, but that is the essence of his leadership.  No one realized how we were being guided, that he created the opportunity for us all to share our strengths.  In many ways, Eric wasn’t even aware of his immeasurable impact as a leader without a title.

Cracks

And now, during the past two years, a complex unraveling among the faculty and administrators at the school seems to have mirrored Eric’s physical illness.  People speak about not being heard or seen or understood.  No one feels like they have a voice anymore.  There have been arguments and even tears in faculty meetings.  They are stuck, frozen.

Openings

Eric called me in December and asked me to return to lead the school through this difficult time.  And so, here I am, director of a school that has never before had a designated leader.  As a non-teaching member of the administrative committee, my first priority is to focus on the big picture and to support teachers in their work with kids, families, and each other.  I will work closely with the co-administrators as partners in leadership.  I hope to guide, facilitate, support, learn, nudge, talk, listen, and help renew a sense of shared vision among all of the members of the school community.  I want to be able to approach one another from a place of we’re in it together, learning together.  How can I support you?  What do you need or want from me?  What can I learn from you?  I want everyone in the school community to know that each of us is understood and valued for who we are, and that we are, in fact, all in it together.

Spirals

alisaericEric has seen and loved me since I was four.  While I still have a long way to go and a lot to learn, I’m determined to share his lesson with those around me.  I may be returning, but I’m also traveling on.  Circling around again, spiraling forward with new skills and insights and passions.  The light on the ice is full of possibility.  To revisit and reflect.  To renew.  The river sliding by inspires movement and change.  To learn.  To grow.

Alisa Algava graduated from Bank Street’s Leadership for Educational Change program in December.  For the past 14 years, she has taught and learned in public, private, and charter schools in NY, NJ, and RI.  She loves learning.

Entry filed under: collaboration, dialogue, early childhood, leadership, our teachers, philosophy, school reform, social-emotional learning.

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Barbara Silver  |  February 7, 2009 at 9:02 am

    Well done, Alisa!!! I am happy and proud to say that I have known and loved you even longer than Eric has. I have no doubt that you will succeed in this new adventure and bring your sensitivity, intelligence and intense desire to follow in Eric’s very large footprints to bear as you meet the challenges ahead.

  • 2. ellen k. jacobs  |  February 8, 2009 at 8:21 am

    Eric is indeed a wise man to turn to you for assistance. Your creativity and caring for Eric and others shine through in your first-ever post. You are clearly the right person to carry on. Eric sounds so inspirational–I am glad to know of him and his work.
    P.S. This is my first-ever blog post.

  • 3. Ann Sisko  |  February 8, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    Walking along the canal towpath today, Alisa, I was thinking about you and wondering how you were handling the direction that education seems to be taking these days.

    The question I was pondering was — in today’s classrooms, what happens to a teacher committed to “seeing and valuing every child for who she is, for the gifts he shares, for the struggles she experiences; looking deeply and seeing what is unique and beautiful inside each one of us, holding up a mirror; through words, actions, interactions, and love, helping each of us to begin to see and understand and appreciate ourselves; being the presence in which we become more of who we are?”

    I came home to find your wonderful blog posting — your heartfelt and deeply moving tribute to Eric and your exciting announcement.

    I am thrilled to learn what you’re doing and where you intend to go with it.

    Barbara and Ellen said it all so well — I echo their thoughts and I add my love, my support and my very best wishes as you spiral forward.

  • 4. Lisa  |  February 8, 2009 at 6:24 pm

    What a beautiful tribute to your teacher and friend as well as a reflection on what your school is going through. Best of luck in pulling it all together!

    By the way, would love to visit the school sometime!

  • 5. Cynthia  |  February 8, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    My son was truly blessed to have you as “the Greatest Science Teacher” ever…not only did you bring out his creative mind of Science but you Knew him which made the year even more special because he felt safer and he could be himself and grow in your classroom. You are going to be great in your next endeavor because you listen well and you care!

  • 6. Christina  |  February 9, 2009 at 10:37 am

    Listening to you speak about teaching was always a great privilege. It is great to have this blog as you continue to communicate your experiences in this new role. I look forward to hearing more about your impact on education! It sounds like a challenging environment to step into, but I know you have the ability to navigate it in a way that works for all those involved. They are very lucky to have you!!

  • 7. Susan Jane Appollo  |  February 27, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    Dear Alisa, Thanks so much for your beautiful and poetric tribute of Eric and for expressing so poignantly his influence on so many lives. I love the entire piece but I was particularly struck by the mirrors section. It is as good as a piece of writing by Lincoln and captures the essence of Eric’s gift as an educator. Randolph is blessed beyond measure to have your leadership. I know Eric is very proud of you. I look forward to your tenure and know that I will see in you Eric’s teaching and spirit and that it will comfort and heal the entire community. Bests and love, susan

  • 8. Kate Abell  |  March 2, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    Alisa:

    What a wonderful surprise to venture for my first time onto Bank Street’s Alumni blog and see your picture and read your words. What a picture you paint of what is important in a teacher and in a school. It was a pleasure working with you, albeit tangentially, in Brooklyn and reading something of your past and your relationship with Eric and the rest of the school, I see the footprints which made you an educator and leader.

    I enjoyed the imagery in your writing. Your opening paragraph conjured up memories of taking my second class to write about the ice on the Hudson one winter when it almost got cold enough to walk across to New Jersey. We watched the ice heave and break, slabs piled in impossible chaos, and felt we were witnesses at the edge of the polar ice cap.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Kate

  • […] and charter schools in NY, NJ, and RI.  Last month she wrote a posting on the Alumni Blog – Stepping into the River – about what she has learned from her own kindergarten teacher. She loves […]

  • […] Under Foot describes an eye-opening experience with the 3, 4, and 5 year olds at her school and Stepping into the River shares what she has learned from her own kindergarten teacher. Alisa loves learning.  She loves […]

  • 11. Tracy  |  April 2, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    Dear Alisa,

    I was moved by your beautiful tribute to Eric, a truly inspirational man who will hold a place in my family’s hearts forever. There is no better choice for the new position than you- proving Eric’s insight and wisdom.

    Best-

  • 12. Sophie Allen  |  September 22, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    I went to Bank Street as a very small child.

    Too bad this version never matched up.

    Perhaps the next “visionary” will do better.

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