Pay Attention to the Signs

Pay Attention to the Signs
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After living in and out of Asia over the last decade I’ve learned to appreciate the greater use of symbolism from that region.  Whether it be incense burning at an alter in Thailand, famers lighting their fields on fire on lunar new year in Korea, or the tradition of singing a special song at the opening of the first day of school.  So much can be learned and passed down to newcomers through the use of symbolism.

It would be disingenuous to say my midwestern-American background stripped me of an upbringing rich with symbolism.  After all there are plenty of symbols at church, religious holidays, funerals, weddings, etc.  However, in comparison to some of the place I’ve lived and worked it seems at the very least that what might be missing is the use of symbolism in day-to-day life.

Of course most of us are so busy with our day to day responsibilities that we lose sight of the powerful opportunities for symbolism and instead shift that responsibility to the moments I mentioned earlier like the first school gathering.  Instead we should be looking for opportunities in our classes as teachers and with our community as administrators to increase the use of symbols for community-building.

Recently I moved out of Asia and to Hawai’i, and although I’m technically in the USA it doesn’t feel much like it.  One example has been the rich use of symbolism by my new school (Punahou) to usher in the new school year.  The use of leis and flowers alone has been stunning, but also the time taken at the first faculty chapel to begin the year with song, story, chants, and pictures to help draw a path forward for the year.

I’ll admit as the oldest private school west of the Mississippi with a massive campus that was handed down from Hawaiian royalty to the school’s founders and that has a sacred and natural lily pond at its center, Punahou doesn’t have to work very hard to see opportunities for symbolism.  If you’re looking for that kind of backdrop at your school you may need to wait quite a while.  Still our communities benefit from administrators and teachers taking the time to act intentionally and symbolically.

Of course most of us are so busy with our day to day responsibilities that we lose sight of the powerful opportunities for symbolism and instead shift that responsibility to the moments I mentioned earlier like the first school gathering.  Instead we should be looking for opportunities in our classes as teachers and with our community as administrators to increase the use of symbols for community-building.  For example, I learned the other day that at our school’s community garden the gardening teacher requires every person to first be silent for two minutes before entering the garden.  This time of reflection is meant to help awaken the five senses, but it can also be symbolic in many ways including reminding the worker of the sacred and ancient task of farming that connects us physically to the past.

So in your next meeting, class, or coaching opportunity challenge yourself to add a moment of sacred to your agenda with the use of symbolism.

Author: Andy Aldrich

Andy is a founder of Learn[ed]Leadership as well as a school administrator at Punahou School in Honolulu, HI. In addition to pontificating on ideas in education, Andy stays busy chasing after his daughter and impressing his wife with his big muscles.

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