With the U.S. unemployment rate reportedly around 9%, there is a general tone of conversation pertaining to work that centers around the idea that no matter the conditions of our job, we really should be happy that we have a job at all. I know those words have been spoken several times by my principal and fellow teachers as a response to increased frustrations and concerns voiced by myself or other teachers regarding growing adverse constraints and conditions of American public schools. However, I resent the sentiment that I should just be happy that I have a job. Its not that I am not grateful for my job; its quite the opposite really. Teaching and coaching have been the source of countless blessings for me, both as a person and a professional, and I do not take those blessings for granted. That being said, something is missing for me. Whilst enjoying my job very much, I have struggled to put my finger on what exactly was missing from my professional life. As best I could describe, I felt like I wasn’t teaching to my capability and that limits of my environment inhibited me from being the teacher I imagined myself being. Only recently have I discovered that the missing component was something called flow.
Flow is a psychology term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the mental state of a person who, while performing an activity, is fully immersed in an optimized feeling of connection, clarity, effortless focus, ultimately getting lost in the moment. The result is intrinsic happiness, and success in the activity at high levels. Flow can exist in any sort of activity, and has been described in various terms in many settings.
Athletes have talked about being ‘in the zone’ or in the ‘in a groove’ where their performance seems to peak with seemingly very little effort. I’ve heard them say that the game seems to slow down, allowing them to make all the right decisions. The hoop (basketball) or the cup (golf) seems to be so huge that everything goes in. Of course these things are not really happening, but it seems to be the only way they can describe it. I remember watching Michael Jordan make six 3-pointers in the first half of Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals in a moment where he was experiencing flow on the basketball court. Considered the best player ever, Jordan was not known as a 3-point shooter, and upon making his 6th 3-pointer, he sheepishly looked towards the sideline and sheepishly shrugged, as if to say, “I can’t explain what’s going on here, but this feels amazing.” Below is a clip of that moment, and listen closely to the commentators (former coach Mike Fratello, and Magic Johnson) describe what they are watching.
Moments of flow have been well documented by people in all sorts of fields: artists, musicians, dancers, gamers, spiritualist, speakers, builders, and on and on. Typically they find it difficult to explain to people in terms other than ones of wonder, serene happiness, and satisfaction. I have experienced flow many times in my life in a variety of contexts (from playing sports, to writing a paper), and I want to experience it more regularly in my daily work. The realization I have been coming to is that public school (with increased influence of so-called educational standards, the testing and evaluation that follows, and the limits placed on teachers and students by governmental policy makers) has become a setting that, for me, more readily produces an opportunity to fight than an opportunity to flow. However, there is one last thing I want to make perfectly clear. I think my job dissatisfaction is linked less to a sense of my own flow, and more to the fact that public schools (or traditional schools in general) are not designed for students to have opportunities to flow.
Csikszentmihalyi extensively studied traditional school settings and Montessori school settings and concluded that the students in Montessori schools experienced flow on a regular basis, while those in the traditional setting did not. Some of today’s most successful and innovative people are the products of Montessori education, including the founders of Google, Amazon, and Wikipedia. Before I knew of this study, I was convinced that non-traditional, democratic schools (like the ones I am going to learn about at the AERO conference next week in Portland) would be ideal for producing authentic education and opportunities for flow. In the big picture, I would love to see more students (and parents and teachers) become part of this exciting change in education and find themselves in a regular state of optimized happiness and flow. Ideally, I see myself joining (or building) a school that does it at an amazing level, allowing me, and all involved, to flow together in pursuit of genuine learning in all sorts of ways. Certainly, I feel the pursuit is worthy.