Apathetic, Uncooperative Coals Won't Burn

Apathetic, Uncooperative Coals Won't Burn

Education December 11, 2014 / By Kathryn P. Haydon
Apathetic, Uncooperative Coals Won't Burn

"Staring at the idling coals—the smoldering log just out of reach—I couldn’t help but think of the children in our schools who are in a similar barren state. They may appear slow, unmotivated, withdrawn, insubordinate, or distracted . . . As fire tenders, it is our job to stoke them, our responsibility to find what ignites the flame."

It’s one degree Fahrenheit outside, if you consider windchill.  Dancing flames in the fireplace that were breathing warmth through the house have vanished for neglect, and only a silent bed of orange coals remains.  Unable to shake a chill, I sit on the cold floor directly in front of the hearth and contemplate the coals.  “This fire is hopeless,” I think, but I try to tease out the last of the heat before escaping to my warm bed.  On second thought, I place a large, dense log above the coals and wait.  The log smolders and the coals don’t budge, but a thought flames up in my mind.

I’ve left the coals too long without fuel, and they weren’t strong enough to reach into the thick log. They need a kindling, a catalyst.  I toss in a few twigs, and sure enough, flames fan up.  This is fleeting; the coals need more encouragement to sustain their strength enough to latch onto the robust fuel.  So I try newspaper, more twigs, a smaller splintered log, and nudge it all with a metal poker.  Finally, the fire is radiant again. Coals are white hot; the chill is gone.  I have done my duty as tender of the fire, and I must stay alert and active if I want to reap the warm rewards.

Staring at the idling coals—the smoldering log just out of reach—I couldn’t help but think of the children in our schools who are in a similar barren state.  They may appear slow, unmotivated, withdrawn, insubordinate, or distracted.  Even when we have the best of intentions, we too often we find ourselves regressing into a mind frame that blames them for their perceived lack of learning: they have a problem that needs to be fixed elsewhere, a learning problem, a behavior problem, a psychological problem.  But it’s almost as unfair to slap children with these terms and labels as it is to say the coals wouldn’t burn because they are apathetic and uncooperative.  How silly to blame the coals for remaining inactive.  As fire tenders, it is our job to stoke them, our responsibility to find what ignites the flame. 

In one of his Ted Talks, Sir Ken Robinson (2013) discusses the lack of natural growth in Death Valley.  However, the spring of 2005 brought complete contrast when it rained so much that the desert was awash with vibrant flowers.  I was there that year; it was exquisite.  Sir Ken’s point was that Death Valley is not dead but it normally does not exist in conditions that make life flourish.  Change the conditions—add rain—and you have a new story of growth.  

Teachers have the power to change the conditions for a student, adding ‘rain’ for new growth.  This is why I believe in teachers as creative leaders.  Puccio, Mance, and Murdock (2011) asserted that creative thinking is a core leadership competency: “Change originates in creative thought, and the ability to engage in creative thinking, or foster it in others, is a skill that separates those who lead from those who follow” (p. xiv).  As teachers, our mandate is to foster new thinking in our students.  If we can engage in such thinking ourselves, we can effectively model this and draw it out in our students.  As teachers, we are leaders, and it is our job to be catalysts for student learning and creativity.  

Sir Ken Robinson wrote (2009), “We all have distinctive talents and passions that can inspire us to achieve far more than we may imagine.  Understanding this changes everything” (p. 8).  Coal has strength, yet in order to create a flame, it must come into contact with a source of potential energy.  This holds true for students as well.  As adults, we must take responsibility to inspire them.  That’s what creative leaders do!  Students need a spark to get them from where they are to where they can be truly on fire with learning.  Start an inventory of what engages them, so you might recognize what doesn’t work and do more of what does.  Ask questions to understand what lights them up, survey their strengths to find foundation stones upon which to build, and ask them about their interests and goals.  If you know a child is a kinesthetic learner, bring in multi-dimensional, hands-on activities to help him to flourish.  

Unfortunately, teachers sometimes feel as undernourished and forgotten as these coals.  There are so many governing forces that make us feel restricted in our ability to apply the teaching practices we know will work for individual students.  Maybe we first have to ask the question, “What supports do we, as teachers, need to keep ourselves inspired so that we might inspire our students?”  When we can find pathways to answering this question, we will build our own store of fresh oxygen that will in turn benefit our students.  Each classroom is a hotbed of possibility. If we as a society can help teachers find the kindling to stoke the love of learning, the radiant glow of engaged students might be restored nationwide.  

Puccio, G. J., Mance, M., & Murdock, M. C.  (2011).  Creative leadership: Skills that drive changeThousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Robinson, K.  (2009).  The element: How finding your passion changes everythingNew York, NY: Penguin.  

Robinson, K.  (2013, April).  Ken Robinson: How to escape education’s death valley[Video file].  Retrieved from TED talks. 

Copyright 2014 Sparkitivity.  

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