Rethinking the Metaphors

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

— Michaelangelo

I recently experienced a moment of serendipity.  I was in typical mid-February reflection mode trying to refocus and appreciate gains made thus far, but feeling a tad frustrated and far too caught up in the busy-ness that can sneak up and swallow entire days.

In previous years when staff members have come to me to express frustration and looking for positives to recharge their efforts with challenging students, I have often recounted the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel.  It isn’t that I have spent much time studying the bible, but this story has always appealed to me as a metaphor for perseverance and the reward that comes with fighting the good fight.  You will have to pardon any flaws in my interpretation of the story, but it goes essentially like this:  Jacob struggles with an angel throughout an entire night and in the morning, the angel realizes Jacob’s strength and bestows upon him a blessing.  It always seemed a very appropriate metaphor for the work that teachers do when they persevere with students who present serious challenges within the classroom.  The message is, “stick with it.  Don’t give up.  The rewards will come.”  I think for the teacher the metaphor held some value.  I know that it got me through a few difficult stretches.

But the metaphor wasn’t working for me this time.  It occured to me, for the first time, that the focus was too heavily on the reward promised for “sticking to it.”  Also, the emphasis on the combative nature of the struggle wasn’t sitting well with me – it isn’t a productive or creative endeavour.  I started to feel that the struggle was self-perpetuating.  What I mean is that if I see it as a struggle, it is bound to be so.

I was looking for another way to imagine what it was that we do when we dig in and work tirelessly to make things better for students.  The task is arduous to be sure, but it is constructive and creative, asking us to rethink old perceptions and create space for new possibilities to find ground.  I was reminded of a famous quote by Michelangelo, explaining how he created his masterpiece “David”.  Picking up a project unfinished or cast off by previous artists, Michelangelo states that, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”  Now, is this not exactly what we do when we see the potential and promise in each student and work to create the conditions within which students thrive?

Here is where the serendipity comes in.   At about the same time, I was approached to lead the planning of an event to take place this spring that would be based on Appreciative Inquiry and an Open Space Technology format.  In my typical fashion, I agreed without having a clue about either concept.  I knew that I could figure it out and, more importantly, bring together a dynamic group of people who could make it happen.  I started with the book “Appreciative Inquiry:  A Positive Approach to Building Cooperative Capacity” by Frank Barrett and Ronald Fry.  Within the opening chapter, Barrett and Fry use the example of Michelangelo creating David to illustrate the premise of the Appreciative Inquiry appraoch.

Appreciative Inquiry

While wrapping my head around the concept of appreciative inquiry — starting with discovering and valuing what is truly great about what we are doing, I have found a fresh perspective to bring into everything I do.  The timing, coming at the end of February, couldn’t be more welcome.  I have put the Michelangelo quote above the door of my office at school so that I pass underneath it every time I go out into the school.  It serves as a reminder to me to see what is great first, and to look for ways to tap into what is great in order to make things better.  It also reminds me that starting from a position of empathy is key when building the relationships that sustain us and make the school work.  In two weeks we head off for a week of March Break holidays and I cannot wait for the time to relax and quiet my mind a little.  Until then, I will enjoy this new perspective and the process of seeing the angel in the marble every single day.

image “Michelangelo’s David” cc by  J. Mark  Bertrand on flickr

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