ANDREW GARNETT-COOK - METZGER FELLOWSHIP ESSAY

THE WIZARD OF OZ

 

Part I:  Oz­­, the Great and Powerful

I love the Wizard of Oz.  Not just the movie, but the character of the Wizard himself. 

As a child, the most memorable scene from the movie for me was the scene in which Dorothy, Scarecrow, Lion, and the Tin Man enter the Wizard’s inner chamber for the first time.  What awaits them in that scene is a powerful, intimidating, and impressive image of a mighty wizard who supposedly can do most anything.  His spectral appearance and booming voice left an indelible imprint on my mind.  What was eventually revealed, however, was that the Wizard was just an ordinary man behind a curtain, shielding his true self from the world, who found himself thrust into a role for which he was not prepared.  In it, he had to pretend to be something he really wasn’t.  As a teacher, I used to relate to that.  In front of students, parents, and colleagues, I often project this strength as well.  With my physical presence, booming voice, and forceful personality, I can make a classroom as dynamic a place as the Wizard’s inner chamber.  

One of my intangible gifts as a teacher is that I’m a good performer, mixing humor and intensity in a way that can keep a group interested.  Teaching is after all, to some degree, a performance.  Despite this, for much of my early career as a teacher, I felt like the real Wizard of Oz‐ an imposter hiding behind a curtain, fooling people into thinking I was something I really wasn’t.  

I was lost and had a hard time seeing how I was going to find my way home.

Part II:  The Man behind the Curtain

Teaching is hard.  What I've learned over my career is that to do it successfully over a long period of time, you have to have some combination of knowledge of your craft, love and passion for working with kids and adults, and the courage to make your practice public and to admit what you don’t know.  Several years into my own career, I felt woefully lacking in these things.  Looking back on it, I’m still not sure why I became a teacher.  I have no inspiring story to tell of being on a mission to help kids.  Frankly, for much of my own academic life, I felt like a failure.  I achieved only limited academic success in high school, finishing in the bottom half of my high school class.  Once in college, my grades went up and down.  At one point in my sophomore year, my grades were so bad I had to take a leave of absence to avoid the risk of being booted out of school.  By the time I graduated and got to planning my future, I was honestly stuck.  Holding an American Studies degree from a liberal arts college, I had no idea what I wanted to do.  At some point in 1996, I figured “well, I might as well be a teacher.”  My recollection of why was that I thought my degree qualified me to do little else.  Hardly the story of a man on a mission.

I finished graduate school at Northeastern, but I had to delay my degree due to the fact that I failed the language proficiency test.  As fate would have it, when I came to Boston to retake the test, a friend I was staying with told me that a few days before, the Heath School social studies teacher had resigned.  I was given a number to call if I was interested.  The next morning, without a decent set of clothes, no resume or portfolio in hand, I walked in and interviewed for the job.  Three days later, I was hired.

My first few years at Heath were overwhelming.  Not unusual, I know.  But from my point of view, my colleagues seemed so passionate, smart, and willing to take risks. 

I was intimidated and privately jealous of many of them.  

One reason was because I saw myself as not feeling much passion either for my students or my curriculum.  I tended to get angry more than anything else when kids struggled academically or misbehaved.  Most days, I couldn’t wait to go home and I resented having to spend evening and weekend time planning and grading.  Outwardly, I tried to project the same level of passion and excitement I saw in others, but inside, I felt like a fraud.

As a result, I avoided collaboration with colleagues.  At the time, I convinced myself that I didn’t need collaboration with others to succeed, that I could do it all on my own.  But the truth is that I was scared.  I was afraid that, once my room and my practice were opened up to others, the curtain would be pulled back and, like the Wizard of Oz, I would be revealed as the imposter I thought I was. 

Part III:  The Curtain Pulled Back

And still, there’s something amazing that happened when the Wizard was finally exposed for who he really was.  It turned out he had something of value to give after all.  Similarly, I have, over the last decade, discovered a belief in my capacity for making a difference with my students and colleagues.

Six years into my career, I was at a crossroads.  Frustrated and feeling isolated at work, I briefly contemplated moving on to do something else.  But I didn’t.  Instead, I decided in that year that I was tired of feeling this way about my work, like I lacked the intelligence, heart, and courage to succeed.  I finally decided I needed a change of direction and attitude.  A first step for me was to return to being a learner.  I started to sign up for as many learning opportunities as I could find that interested me. 

 

Starting in 2005 and continuing for the next several years, I did all kinds of things.  I applied for NEH summer institutes, Gilder Lehrman American History seminars, and Primary Source classes to enhance my content knowledge.  These experiences awakened in me, for the first time in my life, a genuine love of learning. 

A second important step for me was when I signed up for a weeklong Critical Friends training so I could be a facilitator and coach for other teachers.  The core principles behind Critical Friends work (making your practice public, collaboration, and reflection) were all things I saw as some of my biggest challenges.  This work placed me in positions of facilitating discussions of teaching and learning with my colleagues.  By embracing principles of this work and promoting them, I began to grow and to believe that I could be a good leader.

Finally, and most meaningfully, I decided to become a mentor for 1st year teachers and, for several years, a 2nd and 3rd teacher group mentor, where my CFG training came in handy.  Mentoring is a great experience, allowing me to learn from others, share my teaching knowledge, and support others.   As a mentor, I value the opportunity to support other teachers, to hear their struggles, to offer advice and perspective, and to provide comfort.  That I am far from perfect and have never really mastered the art of teaching, makes me, I believe, an ideal mentor because newer teachers can see that they’re not alone.  In fact, as a mentor, I began to see that what I had been feeling about myself during those difficult early years was something a lot of teachers go through. It’s amazing what you can learn about yourself when you share your experience with others and give them space to do the same.  I also realize that, as I see how much better I’ve gotten, how much I’ve grown, there is still is so much more growing to do.  It took me a long time to acknowledge that.  For many of us, it takes years to grow into the kind of teacher we all want to be.

Part IV:  A Brain, A Heart, The Courage

In the Wizard of Oz, the wizard didn’t really give anything to Dorothy and her friends they didn’t already possess.  What he did do was help them to discover that what they were seeking were things already inside them.  For instance, the Scarecrow already had a brain, the Tin Man a heart, and the Lion courage.

Similarly, over time, I slowly began to accept that I had the brain to do the job, the heart and passion for it, and the courage to grow and to let others help me.  To get to that point, I had to acknowledge my flaws, forgive myself for them, and to commit myself to change what I didn’t like.  I also discovered over the last decade how much at home I feel when I teach.  Every day, I find myself surrounded by students and colleagues who push me to be better and remind me why the work is meaningful.  Today, seventeen years into my career, I love being a teacher and can’t imagine doing anything else.

You don’t have to be a magical wizard to be a good teacher.  I still struggle all the time and there are still times I feel self-doubt creep in, but there are three things I try to remember that help me maintain some perspective, and I offer them here to all of you: 1) it’s okay to fail.  Let yourself off the hook.  I fail all the time, and so will you.  2) There’s always more to learn.  I’ll always have a lot to learn, and so will you.  Finally, 3) It is possible to find in yourself abilities you never realized you had, the passion and heart for teaching and learning you might not have thought were inside you, and the courage to grow you might have convinced yourself was beyond you.  

I should know.  I had to discover that for myself.

Andrew Garnett-Cook teaches 7th and 8th grade social studies at Heath School.