Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Popeye Challenge

What follows are the remarks I delivered at the 2013 Indiana's Future Conference, hosted by CELL, the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning .  Special thanks to 2013 INTOY Suzanne Whitton for encouraging me to attend for introducing me to some of the educational leaders in our state.

I want to thank Dr. Janet Boyle, the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning, and the University of Indianapolis for inviting me to the 2013 conference.
He began as many leaders do.  He came from a humble background and through raw perseverance achieved greatness.  After growing up an orphan, he found a career in the navy, eventually leaving the service, finding love, and caring for a young boy of his own.  He had a special kind of strength he could tap when facing the toughest challenges, a power that always seemed ready to help him achieve success.  I’m sure by now you have identified this person, one of the most famous people of the 20th century.  I am, of course, talking about Popeye the Sailor Man.
I first came to understand that Popeye had uttered one of the greatest leadership principles when I was at the Global Leadership Summit at Willow Creek a few years ago.  Leadership author and pastor of one of the largest churches in America, Bill Hybels observed that when he was being attacked by Bluto and things seemed at their darkest, Popeye would say, “That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more.”  At that point he would obtain a can of spinach, often inhaling it through his pipe, and the result would become cartoon history. 
As leaders, we are motivated by the things we can’t stands no more.  We observe a wrong, an injustice, an inequality, and it sticks in our minds.  An issue becomes a cause, and we are off and running.  When I consider the Popeye challenge and pause to ask what it is that I can’t stand, I know immediately the answer.  As a Latin teacher, it is true that I love Classical Studies, the academic engagement with the languages and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.  I thrill to the literature, philosophy, and deeds that have captivated the world’s attention for thousands of years, but my answer to the Popeye challenge is not about that.  What I can’t stand is to see someone not operating to his or her potential, someone who is not living from the sweet spot of his or her giftedness.  The reason this sets me ablaze and motivates me is that as a teacher I have been blessed to see so many who were operating in that sweet spot, and as Macaulay said in his famous poem “Horatius,” it is “right glorious to behold.”
My most recent opportunity to see this in students was just last week.  The high school where I teach has the largest chapter of the Junior Classical League in the state of Indiana.  Our students work through this organization to learn more about the Classical world, participate in academic and artistic competitions, and serve our community.  When we returned to school this fall, I was excited to put into practice what I had read in Liz Wiseman’s and Elise Foster’s book The Multiplier Effect, which you heard about yesterday.  Rather than direct much of their efforts, I turned our officers loose to see where their genius would take us.  The result has been, as the Romans would have said, mirabile visu, wonderful to see.  Two of our seniors, Samantha and Paige, inspired by our commitment to annual community service projects, decided to seek a grant from the United Way of Central Indiana.  Their plan is to establish a literacy garden at one of our elementary schools, complete with landscaping inspired by descriptions in Classical literature, a mural depicting Classical myths, and weather-proof bookcases that will allow the school community to take a book, leave a book as they share in the adventures of reading.  Watching these two young women present their plan with professionalism, passion, and persuasion before the grant committee was a highlight of my career, although they are but the most recent in a long history of working with capable teens.
I have also watched colleagues living out the full capacity of their giftedness.  I think of Ed in Virginia.  To see him teaching Dante or a Japanese Noh play is to see a true master teacher at work.  I think of Bill, who not only teaches history but lives it as a published historian and restorer of homes in the Irvington area of Indianapolis.  There is Jeannie, who after retirement from teaching English and Theory of Knowledge for the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, returns once a week in the afternoons because she was asked by a student to sponsor the philosophy club.  There is Jill, another retired English teacher whose gifts continue to serve students as a literacy specialist with the Indiana Department of Education.
Those of us in education have the best perspective from which to watch amazing people operating from their areas of genius.  If you see it even once, you will want to see it again and again.  You will find that you cannot stand to see an ounce of potential, a hint of creativity, a flicker of genius go undeveloped.  Fortunately for us, developing gifts is what educators do best.  It is written into our name.  From its Latin roots, we see that educators are literally those who lead forth.  We are the ones who see what others may not see in themselves.  We are the ones who lead latent gifts out of the darkness so they can light the world.
I am humbled and honored to have been chosen as the 2014 Indiana Teacher of the Year.  I was not selected because I am the best teacher in Indiana, but rather to represent the best, to help shine the light of public attention on educational leaders who are discovering and developing genius all around them.  Thank you again to CELL for doing just this kind of work, and thank you again for the opportunity to join you today.

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