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Lessons from La La Land

Finally, I saw La La Land, a movie about pursuing your dreams and the power of perseverance. The La La Land plot parallels, in many ways, what educators experience every day. It’s a story of hope, hard work, disappointment, resilience, creativity, and learning.

La La Land takes viewers on a musical, whimsical journey as it spins the story of an aspiring actress and a struggling jazz pianist chasing their dreams.  Their paths cross in the world of Hollywood movie-making and downtown music clubs.

What was intended as a cinematic escape, became instead a reflection of how the La La Land actors and educators have much in common. The La La Land characters, filled with eternal hope, evoke the spirit of teachers. They weave a tale of promise and possibility that feels completely universal with educators.  Magic emanated from the screen. It’s the same delight that occurs in the classroom when students have that ah-ha learning moment.

The importance of culture and autonomy

The La La Land actors reached fulfillment when they stayed true to their talents and dreams. Likewise, educators are able to maximize their talents when they can practice their craft in a kind, supportive culture. Caring cultures promote creativity, innovation, and learning.

The La La Land characters had the freedom to refine and critique their artistry. Like the film’s characters, educators are more likely to improve their practice when they have autonomy. For teachers, this is the professional independence to make decisions about what and how they teach, based on students’ changing needs. In today’s classrooms, teachers’ autonomy and creativity are often limited by policies related to testing, standards, curriculum, student promotion, and educator evaluation.

Teachers want to have a voice and use their judgment to do what is best for students.  This becomes a challenge with high-stakes testing, scripted curricula, pacing guides, or other mandated directives. Educators are more likely to experience burnout or job dissatisfaction when they are excluded from professional decisions.

Results of a recent study of teacher resignation letters indicated that, “Scripted lessons, an oppressive testing culture, and a punitive evaluation system are the main reasons teachers are heading for the exits” (Iasevoli, 2017).  The teachers’ resignation letters and their interviews with researchers confirm that a lack of agency caused them to leave their profession. With the current critical teacher shortage, it seems counterintuitive to continue with policies that drive educators from their careers.

Leadership and teacher voice matter

La La Land celebrates holding on to your beliefs despite challenges. The career truths represented in the film are relevant in education. When educators are asked to perform tasks that do not align with their aspirations and beliefs, they begin to question their purpose.

Effective leadership is critical for teachers to flourish.  Leadership teams are under immense pressure to demonstrate immediate student results.  Some leaders bring a rolodex of new initiatives with them.  For teachers, this may seem like a clown car arriving with programs spilling out of every door.  Initiative fatigue is the outcome.

Classroom teachers are the heartbeat of education. When teachers lack a voice or a choice about instruction, they become like nomads wandering in a learning desert.

What do the experts say?

According to D. Pink, “the secret to high performance and satisfaction at work is the deeply human need for people to direct their own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better for themselves and the world” (Pink, 2011). This sense of drive is evident in the La La Land characters as well as in teachers.

K. Robinson advocates for the personalization of learning, “The future for education is not in standardizing but in customizing; not in promoting groupthink and ‘deindividuation’ but in cultivating the real depth and dynamism of human abilities of every sort” (Robinson, 2013).

G. Couros speaks to building systemic learning capacity.  “Our job, sometimes, is simply to be the spark, help build confidence, and then get out of the way. If innovation in any school or school division is solely dependent upon one person, it will continue to happen in pockets. In contrast, when we focus on empowering learners to become leaders, they help spread ideas” (Couros, 2015).

Finding La La Land

Finding La La Land can be a long learning arc. The film’s story about hope, hard work, creativity, resilience, and continually improving your craft resonates with educators.  In La La Land, the universe does conspire to help the dreamers. How can teachers find their La La Land?

  • Dream big.  Have hope.
  • Stay true to your beliefs.
  • Be courageous. Take risks.
  • Trust your instincts.
  • Learn with a glad heart.
  • Focus on continuous improvement.
  • Set goals. Assess progress.
  • Listen. Observe. Apply.
  • Spark students’ imagination.
  • Experiment. Innovate.
  • Practice. Persist. Persevere.
  • Celebrate success.

Dreaming is where the movie La La Land begins and ends. For teachers, La La Land is in their classrooms when they are free to dream and create inspired learning environments that spark students’ imaginations.

It’s a simple concept. Keep dreaming. Continue learning. Create a caring learning culture. Change the world…one curious mind at a time. “Here’s to the ones who dream,” the educators who believe in their students and inspire change.

References

Couros, G. (2015) The innovators mindset: Empower learning, unleash talent and lead a culture of creativity. San Diego, CADave Burgess Consulting, Inc.

Iasevoli, B.  (2017, April 14) Teachers Go Public With Their Resignation Letters. Education Week.  Retrieved from URL https://mobile.edweek.org/c.jsp?cid=25920011&item=http%3A%2F%2Fapi.edweek.org%2Fv1%2Fblog%2F62%2F%3Fuuid%3D71822

Pink, D. (2011) Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us.  New York, NY.  Riverhead Books Penguin Books.

Robinson, K. (2013) Finding Your Element: How to discover your talents and passions and transform your Life. New York, NY. Paperback Penguin Books.

Policy, Teacher Agency, Culture, Leadership

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