As we mature as an educator, we become better at understanding the lived experience of our students. We start to see patterns and we become more nuanced in our ability to predict and pre-empt. We practise and refine our empathic response and we gain perspective.
Perspective empowers us to see the world through a different lens – through the eyes of our students.
Except, it doesn’t, actually.
When artists first started utilising linear perspective in their paintings in the 15th century, they did so to create an illusion of distance and depth. Perspective in art is a trick of the mind – enabling us to ‘see’ three dimensions on a flat surface.
And when we ‘see’ the world through the eyes of our students, this too is an illusion – a trick of the mind. Whilst we can, and should, try as hard as we can to understand the lives of our students, we are constrained by biological and physical realities. We can never really know what it is like inside their worlds.
However, when we accept this paradox – being obliged to strive for something we can never achieve: true perspective – we invite an enhanced level of respect for the individuality of each of our students and remain more present to their reality.
Each student sees their world through the lens of their unique life journey – their unique perspective. But whilst we can never truly ‘take’ their perspective, and they can never truly ‘share’ it, in classrooms characterised by safety, respect, trust and individualised connection, we can come pretty close. Close enough, that we no longer need tricks of the mind.
From the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building, you get an unforgettable view of New York City. At this height, you gain a perspective that is impossible to imagine at ground level. The overall layout of the city is revealed with design features such as the Manhattan road grid coming into clear view. It is both breathtaking and educational. It helps reconfigure your mental map of the city.
But you can no longer see what’s happening at ground level.
You can guess, you can make assumptions – because you’ve been down there. But you can no longer actually see what it’s really like.
This is, often, the cost of perspective. As we get older or more experienced or move up in the hierarchy, it’s easy to forget or to lose sight of what it’s really like ‘down there’.
As we mature as educators, we undoubtedly gain perspective. But with each passing year, we move further away from the tangible experience of childhood and adolescence. And this is why the only choice we have is to partner with students to codesign the educational experience.
Otherwise, we can easily end up with a lovely view that is divorced from the needs and reality of student life ‘down there’.
“When an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.”
Old African proverb
By the time your children or your students are in high school, they will have clocked up nearly 100,000 waking hours of experience. And by the time we’re 40, we have about a quarter of a million waking hours under our belt.
Somehow our incredible brain has the capability to synthesise thousands and thousands of hours of experience containing millions of unique events and piece it all together into a coherent narrative.
We don’t think about ‘our life’ as a list of sequential events. But rather, we synonymise our life with our story.
So what a shame it is, that in the rush of our modern, campfireless life, we give ourselves such limited opportunity to make sense of and to share our stories.
And I wonder how many of our students feel like they are a secondary character in someone else’s story?
As filmmaker Rick Stevenson, a man who has interviewed over 5,500 kids, says: “There is no higher calling than to help our kids fully understand their stories and to learn how to use them…There is an empowerment that comes when kids realise that they are writing their own biography – in real time.”
With this realisation comes a shift in perspective. When we realise that life is about writing our own story, we are compelled to ask: “What story do I want to write?”
It’s hard to think of two more profound, powerful questions to explore with a child than: “What is your story?” and “What story do you want to write?“
Is a one-hour commute to work an obligation or an opportunity? What about coaching a school sport team? What about supervising students in the playground? What about a visit to the dentist? What about writing student reports or marking papers? What about parent meetings or annual performance reviews? Obligation or opportunity?
There are some people who are brilliant at acknowledging an obligation and immediately seeing the latent opportunities. ‘A one-hour commute is a great chance to listen to my favourite podcasts or to call a friend.’ ‘Supervising students in the playground gives me a chance to develop my relationships with them in a situation where they are more open and relaxed.’
And there are others who practise seeing only the obligation.
Every obligation has opportunity hidden inside. Sometimes we need to go looking a little harder to find it. But when we do, the opportunity starts to make the obligation feel less obligatory.
There’s a line that Shaun White, professional skateboarder, snowboarder and Olympian recites to himself before a major run at an event:
“I’m here, I’m going to try my best, and I’m going to go home, and my family’s there.”
Most of us aren’t Olympic athletes but we know that feeling of ‘being at the top of a run’. We know what it feels like just before we ‘drop into’ something at work or at home that matters. Winning feels great, applause is nice, being overlooked hurts and failing sucks.
But humans always see outcomes through a lens, a perspective. And when we change lenses or shift perspective, the world looks different, the world is different.
When we remember that, at the end of the day, despite everything, we go home to our family and our ‘tribe’; our wins are tempered by humility and gratitude. And our failures are cushioned by hope and love.
On the 24th December, 1968, Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders took one of the most iconic photographs of all time. The photo, known as Earthrise, depicts our planet rising above the lunar horizon as the first crewed spacecraft circumnavigated the Moon.
Even today, 50 years later, this beautiful photograph is still very moving. In part this is due to the stark composition and contrast. But more than this, Earthrise forces a potent, altered perspective for the viewer. We see our planet for what it really is; a tiny, fragile, lonely blue rock engulfed by the blackness of the cosmos. Former International Space Station astronaut, Nicole Stott, called this perspective “a beautiful reality check of who and where we all are, together in the universe.”
This ‘reality check’ has had a profound effect on many of the astronauts who have witnessed the view of earth from outer space. In fact, space historian, Frank White, coined the term ‘overview effect’ to describe the permanent cognitive shift that many astronauts have reported. The overview effect is characterised by an increased sense of empathy for and connectedness to all other life on earth, and a greater sense of the ‘big picture’.
Back at home, Earthrise contributed to catalysing the modern environmental movement and gave rise to a growing global sense of responsibility to protect our planet.
In all of our lives, from time to time, we experience our own version of the overview effect. Sometimes it’s a major personal event that shakes our lives and other times, perhaps, it’s a conversation with a trusted friend or a random moment of insight. When that happens, we need to be as mindful and grateful as possible in the experience. The gift of perspective is one of the greatest gifts of all.