Life on the Balcony


By our guest blogger, Jack Wolfe

We have a rule in City Year called “Get to the Balcony, Get on the Dance Floor,” which more or less means that great leaders alternate between action and reflection.   For our purposes, the “dance floor” is in-school service, and the “balcony” is everything else: the after school debriefs, the Idealist’s Journey, training sessions, and the conversations we have with each other between projects.  The Idealist’s Journey workbook states, “The best leaders will make a move on the dance floor, then quickly get to the balcony to observe how their actions influence the situation and then get right back on the dance floor to make their next move.”

Last year, as a first-time Corps Member, I got plenty of “dance floor.”  Oh yes.  I danced my socks off at LMSA.  There was constant action at the school… my 7th grade science classroom was always itching for assistance, whether it took the form of 1-on-1 instruction or larger-scale behavior management.   I didn’t need coffee, or even much sleep: adrenaline was my drug of choice.  I gave that school most of what I had… which didn’t leave a lot for reflection.   My LMSA days were some of the most profound in my life, but they were also isolated, in a way, from the “big picture” of educational issues in America.

This year is very different.  I’m a Project Leader now, which means less school time, and far more opportunities to just sit and think.  And sit.  And think.  I’m in the office five days a week.  I no longer have to chase kids, or raise my voice, or step into fights in desperate attempt to prevent any major facial injuries.   There are times when I’m dancing with rest of the Corps— I go to the afterschool programs every so often, and I spearhead our monthly Saturday programs— but for the most part, I’m stuck on the balcony.  I’m watching and wondering at my school-bound buddies, thinking about how to improve their experiences.

It’s a privilege, in a lot of ways.  I’m just far enough from the “daily grind” of tutoring and mentoring to read extensively about education… I’m submerging myself in the work of Diane Ravitch and Jonathan Kozol and Jeanne Chall.  I’m never too exhausted to remember exactly what I’m doing and why.  But it’s a pretty weird experience, too.  I know our service partners and a lot of the students we work with, so I can relate to our first-year Corps.  But I’m not there with them.   It’s one thing to talk and think about our work— to plan LACY events and service projects— and it’s quite another to actually do it.  It takes serious guts to get up and go to school every day.  For me, the mornings prior to LMSA were filled with an anxious dread, a feeling I didn’t get over until I was with my team and ready to go.  These days, I just get up, and things are peachy keen.

The balance of “balcony” and “dance floor” is difficult to maintain in this organization.  When you’re at school, the kids are your life; when you’re at the office, ideas, plans, and logistics rule.   As someone pretty firmly entrenched in the latter location, I relish the chance to be with our Corps and hear their stories.  My position can be awfully amorphous: some days, I’m scanning a million documents; other days, I’m manning tables for our sponsors; some other days, I help out LMSA with their after-school insanity.  Our first-years define my work: they remind me of our organization’s purpose, as well as what I can do to inspire more effective, more educated, and more involved leaders.

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