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This is the cover of Ridiculously Amazing Schools.

Ridiculously Amazing Schools: Creating a Culture Where Everyone Thrives

How do ridiculously amazing schools navigate toxic environments and nurture with intentionality?

[Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of Ridiculously Amazing Schools, by Tracey Smith and Jeff Waller, republished here with permission.]



Like humans, plants are continually exposed to toxins. While humans fight environmental as well as social and emotional toxins, plants continually defend against new chemicals, gases, and changing environmental conditions. These elements can create stress and threaten the plants’ health and even their existence.

Plants have developed detoxification processes to cleanse and to survive. Many times, however, environmental stressors over- whelm plants, causing death and sometimes even extinction. But life is powerful, and nature has devised an elegant approach, one rooted in community and connection.

Related content: 10 ways we made our school happier

Biologists at the University of California, Berkeley, have conducted some eye-opening research. In an effort to understand a plant’s stress response to various kinds of toxins, they put plants in a closed container and introduced different contaminants in the form of chemicals and gases. They then observed the plants’ responses.

While the plants were able to manage independently when introduced to a minor level of toxins, the release of a heavy dose of poisonous gas into the container would cause the plants to quickly wither and die. It was when the researchers decided to put multiple plants into a container that they could truly understand the power of connection.

When the gas was pumped into the container holding multiple plants, something very different happened: the plants evolved. They pulled different nutrients from the soil and metabolized differently. The community of plants began pumping out new forms of gases that actually detoxified the environment. Alone they could not survive, but together they thrived and transformed the very toxic environment that threatened them.

Like the plants, our schools must often negotiate toxic environments. Anxiety, depression, and apathy permeate the hallways. Educators and students are experiencing trauma. Technology and social media are creating a whole host of new challenges that we seem ill-equipped to handle. These are issues that often seem to have no solutions.

It is our contention that there is a solution. It will come from the same place all solutions come from: our own hearts and minds. We must have the mindset that our role is bigger than our class- room, that we are critical to the collective. Our responsibilities do not stop at the doorway into our classroom or office. We must connect with and nurture everyone in the building, so we can all flourish collectively as well as individually.

We must feed and nurture one another. We must support each other and challenge one another to become better versions of our- selves, to feel excited, comfortable, and confident. If we can do this, just like the plants, we will pull new nutrients from the soil. We will breathe new gases and energy into the environment, so we not only survive but thrive and transform the toxicity that threatens us.

We only have so much time in a day. We can only work so hard and so smart. It is only if we learn to work with, for, and through one another that we can make our lives exponential and accomplish things that will transcend us.


Why It Is Hard

It seems easy to say that we would all be happier if we had each other’s backs more and if we built bridges instead of walls with those with whom we have differences.

So why are we not supporting each other more? Why aren’t we taking a greater vested interest in our colleagues? Why are we allowing dissension to be the sublime saboteur of a great school?

One reason is a narrow perspective on our roles. Many of us see our world contained by the four walls of our classroom. We don’t appreciate our impact on every other teacher and student in the school, that our words and actions matter in a much broader context than with our students in our classroom. We call it the “I’m just a teacher” complex. We have been conditioned to think of our roles far too narrowly. It can also be scary to take greater levels of ownership. Being given responsibility feels great until we understand that we are accountable and that we may experience struggle and disappointment in the process. It’s exciting to be part of a team selecting a new curriculum but not so much fun when the rollout falters and people start complaining.

Another reason is that nurturing ourselves and others is hard. It’s like trying to get yourself to take that early morning run. You know you will feel great all day, but you’re also tempted to stay in the comfort of your bed. It’s like writing that thank you note, get- ting a physical, or seeing a therapist. It’s hard in the moment, and there may not be any real short-term consequences or gratification for the effort. The problem is that the accumulated neglect takes its toll and eventually it catches up to you.

Nurturing takes intentionality. It takes patience and the fortitude to build a connection with others no matter how difficult that may be or regardless of whether or not you get along with a coworker’s personality. Likewise, it’s hard to be kindly constructive with someone, to push them to their very best. It’s much easier to comfort and support someone than to comfort and challenge them, but when there is challenge involved is often when people need us the most. Moreover, there is so much that needs to be done and so many fires that need to be put out. There is conflict and disagreement. It can be nearly impossible to slow down during the chaos and care for ourselves, much less our colleagues. The problem is that if we don’t do the preventative maintenance with ourselves and each other, we eventually won’t be able to deal with the bumps in the road, and our engines will overheat.

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