By Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach

Have you ever woke up and had something burning inside you that you know you are supposed to write or develop and yet you just do not have your mind around it yet? That’s me this morning. So I am being faithful to the urgency and seeing where my fingers are going to take me. First, I’ll set the stage. It was a series of unrelated events that schematically connected and brought me to this post. Two streams of thought at the #naisac11 conference, my daughter Heidi’s letter of application for her physician assistant degree, and ideas shared by Erwin McManus around what it means to become fully human.

Driving motivations – A peek at what makes me tick

Part of what motivates me everyday is legacy. I want to leave education and the world better than I found it. When my children, grandchildren and others look back over my life I want them to do so with an understanding that my intent was to leave them a legacy; to live my life in such a way that it can be admired and modeled. I want my students, both adults and children, to be legacy minded; to consider the generations that come after them.  So I ask you: What is your legacy?

I have been told by my good friend and partner at Powerful Learning Practice that I am an optimist. I think of it more as a pursuit toward excellence. I’ve been told by my friends, family and co-workers that I push people hard to be better, to not accept mediocrity – but please know I push myself harder still.  Unfortunately, when you live your life thinking about legacy, it tends ruffles feathers. That certainly isn’t my intent – quite the opposite.

I have been noticing lately how busy, connected lives create the tendency to give partial attention to ideas and cause one to treat individuals as units or learning objects, rather than precious individuals.  It has a dehumanizing effect. I am trying to understand how to be balanced and fully human, appreciating each person for who they are and for the experiences they bring to our conversations and work,  while at the same time remaining true to the urgency I feel to change education in large and meaningful ways in my lifetime. My understanding lately has me doing some systems thinking about seeing individuals from a holistic perspective. A perspective that in my mind honors, rather than neutralizes, gender, race, circumstance, spirituality, physical presence, and professional well-being. We are complex beings of whom, “The whole is different from the sum of its parts” (Aristotle, Metaphysics).

John Dewey suggests we should think from the direct experience of the situation. In other words, we need to have experiences (schema) from which to draw and then act upon them. I heard Erwin McManus this morning call it, “…being God present in human history”. Making a difference now, with what we know, rather than sometime in the far reaching future of our lives. I call it being otherminded. Doing what it right because it is the right thing to do. Thinking of others, rather than ourselves, as we live our lives and in doing so finding our most heroic self.

The aha moment

My second daughter Heidi has spent most of her adult life helping others through medicine and more specifically nursing. She has worked in records, oncology, as an RN in an emergency room, and currently is seeking to become a physician assistantWhen she was a child I remember how practicing medicine was her favorite role-play game with her siblings. I can see them now arguing. Her brother and sisters would want to play war, house, or school. But Heidi would manipulate, bribe or cajole them into enacting some medical scenario. I’m not suggesting she wanted to play “doctor” – everyone kept their clothes on. But I do recall one particularly embarrassing evening where I had to explain that “birthing babies” (something she had seen by attending the birth of her younger siblings) was a family game and not to be played with visiting children. In this game she would take a towel and throw it over the knees of her fully clothed 7 year old sister and pull a baby doll out as if she had just delivered her baby. Heidi has always wanted to be a doctor.

Last night, she sent me her application letter for the P.A. program, and I have to admit I teared up as I read over the perspectives she has of her childhood that have prepared her for pursuing her passion. As I read, I thought to myself this is part of the legacy I have given to my students, not just my own children. I am sharing a portion of the letter below…

As I sit here and reflect on my incredible journey through life, there are several key moments and experiences that stand out to me as being defining factors for my drive, focus and love for education, people and medicine.

My mother is my best friend and the most influential person in my life. Thanks to her, I was fortunate enough to have the advantage of being homeschooled through the seventh grade. This experience defined me as a student and a person. She took an active role in my education and found the perfect balance between teaching me and encouraging me to learn how to teach myself. The curriculum was self-directed and passion based, but closely aligned with state standards. This gave me a very strong drive to succeed, tempered by integrity and a sophisticated sense of humor. As a result, I am resilient, adaptable, an independent thinker and a voracious reader.  I remember many hours happily spent absorbed in the worlds of great books. A large oak bookshelf in my mother’s home holds fond memories of my education. It shelves dozens of books tattered from many re-readings. They form an eclectic group: The Bible, Harry Potter, 1984, books my siblings and I wrote as children (that my mom had laminated and bound), C.S. Lewis, Practical C++ Programming, Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body, biographies of various scientists and artists mixed in with our favorite textbooks. Reading, followed by reflective writing which described and defended the ideas I found most powerful, helped to shape who I have become.

My affection for and exposure to science played a role as a strong motivator in my pursuit to be a Physician Assistant. I distinctly remember a sunny day during the 4th grade where we went outside and traced each others’ body outlines on large pieces of paper, and made life-sized 3D models of our “insides” to learn human anatomy and organ systems. I was captivated by the days we spent learning science and biology and gawked in amazement as I dissected numerous specimens throughout my elementary and secondary educational experiences. Reading back through my childhood journals, it is clear that even in my formative years I sensed I was made for medicine and “fixing” the human body.

Connecting legacy to the here and now

This morning I woke up and read a little Dewey.  As a result, I started to think about how important it is for us to make what kids do in our classrooms relevant to the now and not just what will happen in the future. I wondered, how  legacy, which is tied to the future, influences our present or our now.

Then, while listening to Erwin McManus, it hit me– the connection is found by touching our most heroic self. Oddly,  this is where the conversation at NAIS comes in. Stay with me – I promise this rambling will come together in the end.  Someone at NAIS asked me, “What is the difference between networks and community?”

Networks vs Community

I responded with the following:

Learning in networks (a collection of individuals, resources and learning objects) is very much about the self and building an individual’s self efficacy. As an individual, I select people (Twitter), objects (RSS feeds), resources (webpages and blogs) and a series of other learning units to be “pulled” to me in some form of reader.  The focus on the networked items is this: What *I* can learn, what am *I* interested in, how can *I* increase *my* visibility, and *my* growth. Networks are about what one does for oneself.

Learning in community (a group of people who have a common interest and make a commitment to each other to grow and improve through the sharing of resources, ideas and innovations) is very much about the *we* or collective identity we make. In communities there is a collective efficacy that grows. Together *we* co-create  knowledge.  None of us is as good or smart as *all* of us together.

Bringing it all together: Finding the Hero in you

For most of us, our most heroic acts are often done in private. As a result they do not bring fame or recognition. However, they do bring greatness.

Fame I associate with those acts of kindness, sharing or goodness done in public or, in the connected world, in the network, are done for oneself. You are sharing, but the result is visibility or recognition for you. It is very much about your own transparent learning with a focus on what you want to learn.

Whereas greatness comes from those acts of kindness, sharing or goodness done in more private spaces on behalf of others. Greatness tends to happen in community. The classroom community, our neighborhood community or the global communities of practice in which we live and to which we belong.

I’ll give you an example. We all have stories like this. I remember doing some last minute shopping at Christmas for a lighted something that could go on my porch. Company was coming and I needed some cute decoration that would make the children’s arrival special. While I was looking through the much picked over selection, I saw there were two lighted moose. They had been marked down but were still a little pricey at $40. I mean after all it was a moose and this is Virginia. I also noticed a precious family also looking through the lighted items. The parents had their eyes on a $20 lit tree, while their little boys wanted the moose. I watched in amusement as they whined and pleaded and then obediently hushed as the parents put the tree in the cart.

I went to check out and noticed the family was in line behind me with the tree. The boys had their eyes fixed on my moose but said nothing. The hero, legacy seeking part of me paid for the moose and turned around and handed it to the parents saying, “Merry Christmas!” and then walked out of the store. The young mother ran after me and with tears in her eyes said she couldn’t accept such generosity. I told her to keep the moose and when you can, pass it on; do something similar for someone else.

I have had lots of opportunities in public to get praise and affirmation. I am visible in the network and speak around the world. But true greatness in my life comes from the small, private things I do for others. That is when I am creating a legacy. It is when I am doing things for others that I am most in touch with my superhero self.  Just think of the legacy we could leave if we all stepped into regular moments of doing selfless acts for others and taught our students to do the same.

School for Speaking and Connected Learning

I guess this is why, as much as I love my network, I believe that true re-culturation of education, the true systemic shift will only come when out of our networks we find others with whom to create communities of common purpose that are focused on collective good. Places where we act collectively to create something greater than ourselves.

Which brings me to my legacy idea. I am seriously looking to address the gender diversity issue by creating an opportunity for women to learn to market themselves as speakers, connected learners and thought leaders. A place where not only will interested women learn from successful men and women about how to become keynoters, authors and visible marketers, but they will be given a paid opportunity, in a TED-like venue, to try out all they learn with a live  audience.

More details to come on that new work soon, but I wanted you – my readers – to be the first to know.

So what do you think? Know any women who could benefit from such an experience? Women who wish they knew how to break into a speaking circuit as a keynoter? Women who wish they weren’t invisible but do not want to have to become like men in order to be seen? Women who want to write books but do not know where or how to begin? Women who want to start their own business, who have a great idea, but just do not know what to do first? If so, please have them read this post and reply so I will know there are women who are interested in growing by networking and community building.

Together, let’s move past radical talk to radical action. Let’s become heroes by being relentless in pursuing excellence, our passions, and in leaving a legacy.

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15 Responses to “Finding your most heroic self: Leaving a legacy”

  1. Nancy Flanagan February 27, 2011 at 7:35 pm #

    How could I NOT be on board with an idea like this?

    I want this experience for myself, and for all the teachers I know, who have great ideas and passions but routinely wait for someone else to push them forward.

    Planning to share widely…

  2. George Couros February 28, 2011 at 4:10 am #

    Awesome idea…I just want to add two names (one you already know) who would be great for this.

    Lyn Hilt who is an awesome principal and does some great work for kids would be great. Shannon Smith, a visionary AP in Ottawa leads by example. They would be two great people for you to consider.

  3. Jerri Davis February 28, 2011 at 4:14 am #

    What a great experience. I would love to participate – to welcome to opportunity to improve myself and to share with the creative teachers who just need the encouragement to move forward with their ideas.

  4. Julie Stockwell February 28, 2011 at 4:35 am #

    Thank you for reminding me of my lifelong mission, which can occasionally be lost after difficult weeks like last week. I am hooked and waiting for the next step!! Thank you!

  5. Shannon Smith February 28, 2011 at 6:41 am #

    Hi Sheryl,

    Wow! I was nudged to read your post by a good friend and I am so glad I did. What you say resonates so strongly with me. I use my blog to articulate what I believe about learning and teaching, as well as to encourage dialogue on a very local level within my own school community. I have noticed a fairly marked gender imbalance in the edublogger world, to be sure. There are many voices missing and I am hopeful that in some small way, my blog demonstrates that women’s voices are crucial. I am not sure why more women in education don’t blog. I have had this discussion with my admin partner and, ultimately, I think that there are a lot of things at play here. Maybe women don’t feel that anyone would be interested in what they write? Maybe women feel shut out when the big thinkers tend to be men and there are fewer role models. And, yes, I think women still feel invisible in many realms.

    All this to say that I think your project sounds fantastic. I would love to be involved.


  6. Peter Skillen February 28, 2011 at 1:23 pm #

    What a beautiful post. Lovely stories. Rich and thought-provoking. Warm and heartfelt.

    And, great for us all to consider what our legacy is to be.

    I was at an event the other day – a participatory one – and the leader of the event had to explicitly ask for more participation from the women. I was, for one, glad he did. The conversation was predominantly male until that point.

    The invitation changed that. I am glad – but sorry it required the intervention.

    I applaud you for your invitation.

    You can guess whom I will be pointing toward this post – although she is likely to read it very soon anyway. :-)

  7. Brenda Sherry February 28, 2011 at 4:08 pm #

    Hi Sheryl,

    Thanks for writing this! It brings tears to my eyes to read your daughter’s letter. What a wonderful childhood she’s had…and I know that as mothers we work hard to make that happen.

    I have been so lucky in my career to have times of really good networking, and mentors along the way that really push me to grow. Peter has been one of those people, as you know, and for that I’m truly grateful! More recently I’m really energized by the sense of helping to build a community of learners and teachers. I’d love to be a part of your project!

    I don’t tend to ‘see’ gender initially, although I’ve been noticing the lack of females in ed tech since I’ve been following your writing about it online and since I’ve been involved in choosing keynotes for our ECOO Conference.

    It would be such a gift if you would share your knowledge to help those of us who might be looking to write, become speakers, or learn more about nurturing community.

    Thanks for mentoring and teaching us, Sheryl! I know it’s not just the women in your network that appreciate it! :)

  8. Lyn Hilt February 28, 2011 at 11:07 pm #

    Sheryl, I really appreciate you taking the time to articulate your feelings on this meaningful topic. I love sharing my passion for connected learning with others. It’s very gratifying to know that someone can listen to/read about my experiences and hopefully find something useful to help transform his/her own learning and practices. But you’re right- it’s those little moments; the way a child looks at you gratefully when you tie a shoe or help with a word problem, or when you model something for an appreciative teacher or take the time to talk to a concerned parent. Those are the accomplishments that matter most!

  9. Karen Szymusiak March 1, 2011 at 12:59 am #

    Your post was so thoughtful and honest. It’s always amazing how much our personal and professional lives intertwine to create the fabric of our lives.
    I would hope that you will include me in your efforts to mentor a group of women who are interested in reaching out to a wider community.

  10. Charmaine March 14, 2011 at 9:35 pm #

    Fantastic post! I spent time with a friend on the weekend and we discussed so many of the same things. Personally, I see the benefits of our networked lives, but I do find the superficiality a bit sad at times. At times it feels like a matter of quantity (followers, posts, …) over quality of the content and relationships. I honestly wonder sometimes how some individuals can positively have rich, ‘real’ lives offline and truly be present in any f2f situation when they are tweeting incessantly about whatever flies in front them. Ranting a bit here but you’re comments really resonated and I’m longing to be apart of a networked that values and honors the human experience. We need to fully attend, listen carefully and respond thoughtfully. This is what will propel educational change. I’m interested in the gender imbalance as well because it does appear like women are less visible and therefore not involved in shaping the discourse specifically around technology and educational change.
    Onward! and thanks!

  11. Barbara Kraus-Blackney March 19, 2011 at 7:03 pm #

    I have been meaning to reply since reading when you first sent the link – I am very interested in participating in this initiative in some way or another – please keep me very much in the loop on this…

  12. Lynette Regede September 21, 2011 at 7:43 am #

    Seeing this for the first time was researching on the topic for my tonight’s presentation. How do I get in and maybe get help to presentations. I am in Youth and Young Adults Ministries.

  13. Elaine May 18, 2012 at 11:29 pm #

    Talk about synchronicity… I am creating a workshop for women on leaving a legacy and wanted more ideas for content. Today is May, 18 2012 and the relevancy of your article struck my attention. Your perspective on who and how we are being as parents, teachers and in our communities resonates with me, especially since your subject was how the impact a father’s relationship with sons fosters shapes legacy.
    I appreciate your distinction between network and community. I can relate to network being oriented toward an individual’s interests whereas community suggests activities for the collective good and interest of all.

    I am a novice speaker and would very much be interested in receiving support to have more exposure. Being a published writer is also on the, horizon for me and I look forward to making connection with you to explore how we might be of benefit to each other.



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