Finding True North

After a year on the road as National Teacher of the Year, I returned to my school yesterday.

Officially, I was there to welcome our new staff and introduce them to our mentoring program. But underneath that, I was there to figure out whether I still fit. Whether the place still feels like home.

These experiences I have been lucky enough to have a few times—when I find myself flung out into the world, into a new environment, way out of my comfort zone—these experiences change me in such strange ways. It’s almost like taking a trip in a time machine. When I return, everything looks the same. But there’s something off—the quality of the air, the way the light comes through that window over there, the way my own name sounds in a room I’ve stood in hundreds of times.

I wondered if our new teachers, like me, would feel strange or out of place on their first day inside the school. I was pretty sure they’d feel overwhelmed. I wanted them to remember that they bring so much expertise and strength into the building with them. I wanted to center and honor their experiences and ideas, rather than using the time to review a bunch of bullet points on a slide about the mentoring program.

I decided to lead them through an activity I borrowed from teacher and wonder-person Sarah Brown Wessling. (Find the link to her original blog about it at the bottom of this post.) I asked the teachers to brainstorm about their “true north” using three questions from Sarah:

  • What do I value most?
  • What is central to my work?
  • What am I unwilling to give up?

After teachers thought and wrote and shared, I told them about my hope that their mentors can help them return to this “true north” throughout the year—when things get hard, when it’s the 19th month of Bostonian winter, when, as Sarah writes, “doubt creeps in.”

Then I went back down into my classroom and thought about my own true north.

What do I value most? I value education for its possibility and its hope, for the fact that teaching kids about history and literature and problem-solving and asking questions equips them to make the world a better place. I value schools as sites of community and love. I value my students’ voices and ideas. I value justice.

What is central to my work? Relationships, relationships, relationships. Without strong relationships among the people in a school community, everything else falls apart.

What am I unwilling to give up? Even as I transition back into my normal life, I am unwilling to give up my voice as a teacher leader. I want to continue advocating for teachers and kids and families, for education, for equity.

Sitting there in my classroom, looking around at the piles of books and office supplies and bulletin board borders stacked on every surface, I still felt, acutely, the strangeness of this transition. But I also felt reassured: no matter where I go, my true north is constant.

And now, I need to get back to work. These bulletin boards aren't going to border themselves. 

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If you’ve never learned from Sarah Brown Wessling, you’re missing out. Here’s her original blog post that inspired my “true north” activity with new teachers, “Doubt Creeps In.”

Sydney Chaffee