“The day you plant the seed is not the day you eat the fruit.”

George Washington Carver in his lab at Tuskegee

Georgia Tech recently held their STEAM Leadership Conference. It was a virtual event, including presentations from educators around the country sharing their ideas and work around STEAM. Atlanta-based site artist Jeff Mather joined me to discuss the work he has been doing with schools like ours to support STEAM education. Working with Jeff takes me back to my days of being a classroom teacher at Monte Sano Elementary where I first met him in the 2006-2007 school year. Our school was working in collaboration with a local non-profit, The Art Factory, to create sculptures for a nearby park. Jeff would visit our school and lead the students through the process of designing large site art that reflected the themes of the space: wildlife, flight, and birds. It was my first foray into the realm of real project-based learning. At the time, I was a die-hard content-based teacher who saw any deviation from my plan as a distraction. I was in my 5th year as a classroom teacher. Jeff’s work with my students helped me to see that teaching my students deeply meant that I’d have to give up some control of how much noise they made, how much mess they made, and how they resolved some conflicts. Teaching and learning could involve painting, sawing, and sketching. The tools of my trade could include power tools, wooden horses, and lumber. Jeff planted seeds in my mind that would reemerge as I became a school leader.

With Jeff Mather and the students of Monte Sano in 1996 at Pendleton King Park

Like many urban schools, ours is one situated in a food desert. Families in our community have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables due to poverty or the distance from a high-quality grocery store or market. Our community is littered with Dollar Stores, convenience stores, and fast food restaurants. Our campus is expansive, with two gardens behind gates and another in the front of the school. These beautiful spaces serve our school well as areas with “green potential”. Consequently, our school’s focus is urban agriculture. Teaching young people about urban agriculture plants seeds of self-determination in their minds. We help them understand how they can cultivate vegetables in urban spaces. In doing this, there are real implications for teaching them about healthy food choices, economic opportunities, and the Science that applies to cultivating plants. We are planting seeds both literally and figuratively with our scholars by engaging them in urban agriculture projects.

I recently found a third grade class out in our garden with their teacher. I asked them if they’d like a tour of the space. Their faces lit up with excitement. I took them around and explained what was planted in each of the 19 planting boxes.

In the Marbut Traditional Theme School vegetable garden

“This is lettuce, but it’s being overtaken by weeds. So, this is why we have to come out to remove the weeds so they don’t take over the plants we are trying to cultivate.”

“These are collard greens. Notice the flowers on the top. See these bees. They are helping to spread pollen from plant to plant.”

“Do you see the ladybug on this cabbage leaf? It’s important to have certain insects in the garden. The ladybug is the natural predator of aphids which can damage plants.”

It was an impromptu Science lesson for a group of curious third graders. I explained that each plant develops seed pods that could be saved for a new season and produce more of this same plant. We could share the seeds with others so they could produce vegetables like ours in their own gardens.

This idea of “seeds” came up again in our recent faculty meeting. I shared with the staff the concept of managing what seeds are planted in your garden. Our professional lives are like gardens in the sense that we are all planning, planting, and cultivating things we want to grow in our lives. We welcome seeds of innovation, seeds of encouragement, and seeds of celebration. We all want to cultivate more engaging lessons, nurture better organizational skills, or develop new approaches to old challenges. Our interactions with colleagues are moments when they can plant seeds in our professional lives that can grow and produce fruit. Being mindful of your professional garden forces you to take an inventory of what you have grown, what you want to grow, and what seeds are being brought to you. What happens when we don’t remove the weeds that begin to grow in our gardens? They gradually begin to overtake the plants we are nurturing, robbing them of the nutrients they need to grow. Likewise, we have to be mindful of who and what we take into our own professional lives.

“Some time must be invested for this to be manifested.”

-Cee-Lo Green from OutKast’s “Git Up Git Out”

Each day, I ask myself “Who did I help grow today?”. Many members of my team aspire to move into leadership roles in the future. I make it a point to debrief with them about the leadership moves that we are making as a school, shedding light on the psychology of why certain moves are made is my way of planting seeds in their professional gardens. I want them to understand the moves and pivots leaders must make to adjust to the challenges organizations face. I share the books and articles that guide my thinking so they have a sharper perspective on the trends in the profession and the research-base that informs our work. Someone asked me, “Do you think they read all of that stuff you share?” I think about the two pine trees that are on the front lawn of our campus. They are filled with pine cones embedded with seeds. Thousands of seeds are dispersed, but only a fraction of them will grow into mature Georgia pines. But the tree continues to produce the cones and seeds, knowing that its job is to produce the seeds. The development of those seeds into maturity is not the tree’s mission. That depends on the winds, the climate, and the soil those seeds land upon. The rest is up to a higher power.

Keep growing.

Keep producing.

Soundtrack: “Getting Grown” by Cee-Lo Green

Published by Andre Benito Mountain

Andre Benito Mountain is an elementary principal in the metro-Atlanta area. He is the founder of Def-ED Clothing and the author of The Brilliance Beneath (2016), "The Mountain Principles" (2018) and "Principals Don't Walk on Water" (2020) . His forthcoming book is "Virtually Lost" (2021).

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