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About the Author

Nora Smith is a second year student in the School Leadership Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Originally from Chicago, Illinois, she has spent the past 13 years living and working in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico. When not fixated on school culture and how to create a system that puts student agency, nonviolent communication and growth mindset at the center of teaching and learning, you can find her spending time with her partner and their dogs or enjoying a good meal and a nice chat.  

A Summer of Systems and Making Peace with Discomfort

Checking-in and a New Vision of Work  

by | Oct 9, 2021

¨A system is a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time. The system may be buffeted, constricted, triggered, or driven by outside forces. But the system’s response to these forces is characteristic of itself, and that response is seldom simple in the real world.¨ (Meadows, D. H.,Thinking in Systems, A Primer. Sustainability Institute. 2008, p.2)

I had never heard of systems thinking before the summer of 2021 and my DRCLAS internship with ALBA Education, an innovative and creative primary school curriculum focused on natural systems and based in Mexico. In fact, my prior lack of knowledge regarding the topic was just one of the many challenges that I would face during the remote summer program, experiences that made me grateful for the time I spent alongside the brilliant and devoted Alba team. 

In many ways, Alba´s thesis is revolutionary, an initiative centered around the observation of and respect for natural systems in the creation and implementation of elementary school curriculum. I had never heard of such a concept, in fact all of my schooling had been exceptionally traditional. From a very early age, I had understood that no time was to be wasted in acquiring the knowledge that educators and policy makers believed would be the key to long-lasting professional success. For many years I toiled over my academic labors, convinced that competing with my peers was necessary to advance my professional agenda and dreams of the future. Needless to say I felt like a fish out of water when I was told that my internship would be with an organization striving to improve the quality of primary education in Mexico through the elaboration of unique, nature-inspired unit planners. There would be no signs of competition, stress or anxiety about grades, rather the learning would reflect each student´s process amidst the backdrop of the pace of patience, not unlike the systems found in nature. 

I´ll go so far as to say that I was flummoxed and a little hesitant about the placement.What could I—a high school teacher at a small independent school in Central Mexico —possibly add to their work?  When I first met the team, I felt intimidated; I had no experience or schooling in primary education and was insecure about the contributions I could make to the project. However, instead of trying to find a place where my talents would fit within the organization, similar to the trope of putting a round peg into a square hole, Natalí, my mentor made me feel as though my perspective was a crucial part of the summer´s objective: create an evaluation rubric that would fit seamlessly into Secretary of Public Education (SEP) curriculum. Again, I was unsure as to how my cyniscim, the product of many years of traditional schooling, could play a productive role in the organization. 

The leadership team at ALBA seemed to view that disenchantment as one of my strengths,  actively seeking out my opinion about the flow and relevancy of the unit planners to draw on my real word experience to bolster the content and placement of the work. An example of this was the check-in process: one of the tangible documents to come out of the internship. If I´ve learned anything through my years of traditional schooling, it is the need to provide students with a moment of stillness to center the learning experience. Much self-awareness and agency can occur when you give students (and teachers) a brief moment to recognize and orient their well-being to their learning journey.  When I told the ALBA team about this idea, they encouraged me to go for it and provided the time and resources necessary to begin to imagine moments that would encourage mindfulness within the work.   

At the time, I also didn’t realize that I would soon be on the receiving end of one of this summer’s gifts: the active listening culture of ALBA. From the very beginning, the leadership team at ALBA set the tone of the summer with the following sentiment. ¨We want to hear your concerns, you are an important part of this moment at ALBA and we want you to feel that you can be honest about the process that you will experience.¨ 

Looking back, I’m not sure if it was the earnestness in his tone or the language he used, but from that moment, I took Matteo, one of the founders of the organization, at his word and spoke openly throughout the summer about aspects of the creative process that worked for me, and others that didn´t as I tried to idealize an assessment rubric that would allow the student agency and compassion to recognize and own her learning journey. While I very much identified with ALBA´s thesis, particularly with the urgency of creating a different approach to learning, I often felt frustrated with the nonlinear process. It was that realization that brought about another gift from this summer’s experience: self-awareness about my own identity as a learner and worker. 

Rarely before this summer had I engaged in iterative processes. My scholastic experiences had almost always reflected the capitalist system on which their success depended.  I was shown consistently that money was time and therefore time was most certainly not to be wasted as I understood the crucial role that efficiency played as an essential part of any task. I realized that over the years I had integrated the notion that work occurred in a straight line; any desire to ruminate over details represented a wasted effort, instead of an integral part of the process itself. My work with ALBA this summer would begin to chip away at that archaic and restrained thought. I would come to understand that there was value in work, so long as I was dedicated to the process itself. At the beginning, the iterative process I was tasked with completing this summer created discomfort for me, in the sense that there wasn’t often a usable product at the end of the effort, a fact that made me increasingly displeased. What was the point of spending hours thinking and creating if there was no usable product to be had at the end? It seemed almost luxurious, thinking and writing and creating solely for the purpose to engage wholeheartedly in the task. This realization hit me hard and forced me to reflect on the purpose behind the work and my personal process. Was I conditioned to understand that the value of any endeavor lay in the creation and application of a tangible product? As I looked back on what I now considered to be an erroneous idea, I thought of much of my leadership studies and the healing sentiment of growth mindset, a beautiful antidote to an obsession with perfection. 

It is with that last idea that I felt myself begin to change, to make peace with my perfectionist ways and engage with the true learning of the summer. My experience at ALBA, while perhaps meant to help them with the creation of a new system, and in turn a profound change in the education structure as we know it, ended up changing me. I didn’t realize it at the moment but the discomfort I felt during the summer as I put pen to paper, only to discard that same sheet, time and time again would be a profound teacher. I would come to understand that there is joy in the discomfort and value in the process of thinking. As a result of my experience in the remote summer program I would learn that it is indeed important to speak up about particular challenges in the hopes of resolving them, however there is also a profound beauty in the experience of learning to sit with those challenges and incorporate them into the process: an authentic reflection on the integration of systems in one’s life and educational experiences. 

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