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Thursday, June 30, 2016

An Illusion of Present

An Illusion of Present

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
Dr. Steve Gruenert
Professor and Department Chairperson
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

            Recently in considering notions of past, present, and future, we discussed an undergraduate Philosophy course of Dr. L. Nathan Oaklander at the University of Michigan-Flint, where students discussed whether time traveled from the past, through the present, and toward the future, or conversely, whether the past, present, and future were simply a series of “after this/before this” relationships. 
Deep stuff and an awesome professor!
            This came to our mind as we were traveling while spending a day in northern Indiana with a great group of educators discussing our book, Minds Unleashed. 
            Let us share a bit of unleashing with you today.
            As we reflected on the ride home, we talked of the notion of “the present.”  We’re not really sure the present really exists, …if we really try to point at it on a continuum between the past and future. 
If it does, it is a very short thing, indeed.
            Something fleeting.
            Something very much temporary.
            We often hear, “Be in the present” with others.  “Savor the present, because we won’t know what the future will bring.”
            We’re not sure this is possible.
            The present is actually just a split second, even if that.
            It’s our foot hitting the sand.
            Yet, as soon as the footprint is visible, the present is now the past.

            On a calm day in schools, one present moves to another, to another, to another, without too much urgency or even an awareness of what was happening at each point we were in the present.
            The immediate past is really all we perceive. And in schools, all we profess is the future (being prepared).
            On a harried day, the present is more like our shoe hitting the plank of a suspension bridge as we are running across a canyon, with each plank falling immediately behind us, into the chasm of consequence, as soon as “present” clicks into “past.” 
No do-overs.
What you just read in now in the past.

So, when we hear that we should savor the present, isn’t it more true that we should actually savor what’s immediately in our past (our child’s smile that just resonated with us; the friendly pat on the back of a colleague that felt good, or the opportunity to say something kind to a parent that made a difference), before it gets too far in the past, or before something in the future skews that memory, or the reality of its impact?

What may be more important to us as school leaders is THE NOW, which might differ in a definitional sense from the present. 
“Now” might include something more than that instant of present; it is our active involvement regarding what’s happening, what just came into our mind, and even what might greet us in the next few moments, based on our intuition and that sixth sense that cause school leaders to imagine what’s around that next corner, before we turn it.
To be in the NOW requires a deep respect for what has come before, as well as what we remember and don’t remember about it.  We are humbled that we only have so much capability to deal with NOW, as our existential cup can only hold so much when we are asked to hold so much of everyone else’s. 
The NOW is very slim, though admittedly not as slim as “Present.” 
While slim, however, it is dense, both forgiving and unforgiving.
We envision NOW sort of like a statistical confidence interval around one’s particular score in life at that moment (that score existing as a “Present,” sort of like a student’s standardized test sore, at it is only a flash of what took place at that moment, and nothing more).  In fact, that interval will extend into the past and/or present – it has to since the construct “now” is an illusion and does not really exist.
Yet, the visual is that, indeed . . . confidence interval.
A certain degree of “give,” “flex-potential,” or “play” around a particular moment in time, where we are still savoring the immediate past and interacting with it, as well as going second, footstep-by-footstep, and interacting with what is around the next corner, through both science of leadership and intuition, as that is our immediate future.
It is a dynamic space in which management exists, and at times, leadership as well.  It is where “maybe so” and “might be” happens.

Why is all of this important in schools, even if potentially ridiculous to comprehend?

That moment in the hallway where we have something on our mind that is troubling us, and we look left to see a student who catches the grimace on our face . . . will that student think it was directed at him?  What should we do to mop up that impression that is already in the past of that student’s school experience?
Can NOW still retrieve it and offer a re-do?
We have immediate past, present, and the quickly discernable future within our grasp.  What is the hook?  Let’s examine with an example, regarding that grimace:
“I wonder if my principal likes me.  He didn’t look like it.”
That moment when in conflict, we either choose to take the first step toward amends, or choose to take another direction before reaching out with an olive branch . . . what second of “present,” or better said, WHAT EXISTS IN THE SPACE OF NOW, will make an indelible imprint in someone else’s immediate past, as she thinks about you that evening.
“And to think that once upon a time, I respected her!”
The NOW when a student hands us something completely unacceptable for an assignment, and we choose to make that first mark in ink.  NOW’s interval of our teachership, and the resulting volition involved, will not soon be erased with another’s memory of school, and how one felt when assignments were returned.
Best use of NOW???
“I’m really glad that Mr. Joseph didn’t go off on me for handing that in, like it was!  That really sucked, and he had my back, even when I didn’t have my own.”

If we were honest with ourselves, heading through life is really a matter of looking through the windshield and the rear-view mirror while paying attention to the dashboard as well.  All three comprise the NOW, but we are traveling very quickly. 
Not paying attention to NOW can result in an accident.
While in the interval, as in driving a car, our second-by-second movements, actions, and reactions (the present) are more a product of our training than any conscious decision that we have time to make in heavy traffic.
What has our K-12 educator driver’s training prepared us to do in heavy traffic?  When we’re IN THE NOW?
Will we leave behind us clear lanes and memories of joyful sightseeing, or rather skid marks and a few collisions that make others fearful of getting behind the wheel themselves.  We’ll create memories, either way. 
That’s NOW’s job description, even if the present doesn’t accord us any real opportunity to take action, other than the one that is now a blink behind us.

The present is misunderstood. 
We think we’re in it more often than we are.
We think we can control it. 
Past is where most present is conceived, without our understanding that once something moves into its space, we’re no longer able to get it under control, unless we have a firm grasp on the NOW and a willing invitation from the minds and hearts of those who own it in memory, to give us NOW’s chance, at that point.


Ryan Donlan and Steve Gruenert are becoming more aware of the power of the NOW, and our obligation in K-12 education to pay attention to it.  With continual pressure to think about how the present will affect the future, they think it may be time to bring what is under-rated, or even undiscovered (NOW’s confidence interval) and give it some visibility. Please feel free to contact them at or if you would like to ponder with them sometime.

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