By Rex Ryker
Doctoral Student of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
Firefighters have inspired us -- at times, as heroes.
For one of us, it was a grandfather. Visits to the fire station provided fascinating acts of imagination – Imagine a young child cloaked in his grandfather’s fire jacket and helmet, climbing into the massive fire engine ensuring not to besmudge the mirror-like chrome … dreaming of the day that would bring that first slide down the pole.
For the other, it was a fictitious friend who lived at-the-ready by a small-town’s racing river – Imagine a towering figure of selfless dedication, who as the siren called, would ride valiantly over the bridge and across town, saving many-a-family from certain demise through acts of superhuman chivalry.
Interesting that as we had similar heroes in our formative years, we have grown up to be much like them as K-12 leaders, often regaling our battles against the spontaneously-combustive daily incidents as “putting out fires.” Educational leadership has called us on many runs to encounter highly flammable, and at times toxic, situations. While many assume we are fireproof, we have been “burnt” intermittently, whether by teacher, student, or parent. At times, when trying to help, we feel the frustration of hanging from the edge of the ladder reaching for those that are resistant, but in need. We could extend the metaphor on and on.
In a literal sense, K-12 leadership requires us at times to operate as firefighters as we conduct building inspections, provide emergency management training, don safety vests, utilize our red med bags, and wield that all-powerful fire-alarm-system key. We operate as firefighters in a figurative sense, when we work to make the world a better place through fire suppression.
Yet, rather than dedicating ourselves toward notions of fire-fighting, which can preoccupy even the best in our profession, shouldn’t we instead focus efforts toward fire-building?
Let us introduce a Latin phrase, Alere Flammam, which means to feed the flame. As fire needs oxygen and a source of fuel, our profession could use a bit of something to fuel itself as well. How can we call all units to assist in fire building? How could fire-building help? And … what could it prevent?
Fire-Building in Feeding Our Faculty and Staff – Alere Flammam
A quick on-line search of Current Perspective on American Education reveals such quick hits as the following: “… morale sinks,” “…lowest point in 25 years,” etc. We can’t escape stories declaring the need for heightened teacher accountability through rigorous evaluation, or the in-vogue and oft-used headlines regarding educational underachievement and our failing in obligation. Our profession is under attack by party-line pundits and large, donor-for-profits who decry the abject failure in American classrooms. They’re extinguishing the morale in education; yet, are we as K-12 leaders responding with efforts to stoke our own fires? Fire needs oxygen. Teachers and staff need to work in a profession with an air rich with purpose … with acknowledgement and support for their craft. While the heat of accountability requires data for policy making, ironically, with professional learning communities we can learn to use this very data to strengthen our efforts and praise our teachers. We can fight fire with fire by using praise of true teacher success to breathe purpose within those we serve. Further, we must.
Fire-Building in Feeding Our Students – Alere Flammam
Student motivation is of critical importance, a premiere responsibility of educational leadership. Yet with ignition in mind, we must focus motivation beyond the need for students to do school or do school well; we must be more concerned with feeding the fire of educational desire, as that of paying it forward in our great profession, one worthy of their burning passion and life trek. In other words, we must get beyond creating test-takers and school-do’ers and toward creating life-long learners and educational champions. If our most-talented students hear, “Don’t go into education; you’ll never make any money” or “Teaching isn’t what it used to be,” then who will carry the torch forward to spread our flame? We need these very students to soon fill our openings, to trust and choose us to educate their children, and to vote to support our efforts. Can we serve in a way that those we are serving can serve beyond themselves … with a fire for education inside?
Fire-Building in Feeding Our Parents – Alere Flammam
Year in and year out, Gallop Polls show that people report a belief that their local schools are doing well but that others are not. The micro-perspective, local, is on target; the macro-perspective, state-wide or national, has a blind spot for our cause. How do we re-kindle the macro-perspective? Fuel would help, of course, yet the art and science of fueling our community’s support for education beyond their local doorsteps is a multifaceted task. Our communities must know our achievements; they must know how they contribute to and receive from “the whole” of state and nation. Communities must be educated on the truth of our efforts, and those hither and yon, and they must trust that we are good stewards of their monies. Communities a-fueled do not hesitate to support referendums; they actively embrace their teachers and leaders, and they serve as the best educators of our students during the other 18 hours of each day. We have seen that if we provide vibrant fires in our communities, their brilliance is quite hard, indeed, to extinguish, and the light of the path ahead is visible to all.
Fire-Building in Feeding Ourselves – Alere Flammam
Finally, we must realize as we feed the fires of others, we must ensure to fuel our own. We must tend to the tinder – to the valued building blocks and materials that help to start our fires in the first place, so that at times, we can use these to rekindle our own passion. How can we stoke the passion of others if we cannot en-fuel ourselves? It’s more than role modeling; it is a personal and professional necessity. When we are able to serve as first responders-to-self … when we are able to sustain our own efforts as accelerants in lighting fires to serve current educators, future teachers, and local communities … then we can serve as champions of an illuminated path toward a greater school and society for all.
Rex Ryker and Ryan Donlan are on-campus in Terre Haute, Indiana, each Wednesday in the Ph.D. Residency program. Dr. Donlan's imaginary friend and hero was named "Siday Piday Sparks," of all things ("Sparks" tying in with the fireman thing). His hero's imaginary girlfriend, as a 10-year-old imagination would envision (and Dr. Donlan's mom would remind him), would be "Seedy Peedy." Alliteration at an early age, onc could assume. :-) This may explain a lot about Dr. Donlan, or NOT, but we'll bet you are the best judge of that (and/or of him). If you have comments or helpful suggestions in how we can fan the flames of educational inspiration, please consider writing them at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, particularly if you wish to connect on those days when they are working together.