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Embrace Confusion ... Wrestle With Ideas

May 22, 2017

At the end of this school year, Macon Finley (assistant head of school, director of academics, math teacher, college counselor) will leave Burroughs to become head of The Ellis School in Pittsburgh. During assembly on Monday, May 22, she shared some final thoughts. Her remarks follow:

As Mr. Abbott has told you in the past, I’ll be leaving Burroughs after graduation to go to another great school in Pittsburgh. In preparation for my move, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about this place and why it’s so special. And I’ve also been thinking about how to say goodbye. I decided I had some things I wanted to share with you students, and want to thank Mr. Abbott for giving me the opportunity to do so.

I hope, and sense, that most of you realize this is a special place and that you’re lucky to get to be here. I want you to know that, as an adult, I’ve felt lucky to be here as well — I’ve learned and grown a huge amount. I’ve had incredibly talented, caring, funny colleagues to work with, and have enormous respect for them. But what I’ve felt most lucky about is getting to work with students like you.

Most people who go into teaching love kids — it wouldn’t make much sense otherwise. And I like pretty much all kinds of kids — I’m not really very picky at all. But I especially love Burroughs students.

I love watching you sprawled around your commons areas or the library, often clumped together like puppies in a heap. 

I love hearing you talking in the halls about something you’ve just learned in class — usually you’re asking each other questions to be sure you understand something, or quizzing each other, or arguing about a book or a math problem. 

I love it that you like to tease each other, and that it’s almost always with enormous fondness. 

I love that you know quirky things about each other, and appreciate them.  I love how proud you are — most of the time — of your class, your friends, your teams, your school.

I especially love it that you are nice to substitute teachers and even boring assembly speakers, that you listen respectfully to each other when you sing, and make announcements, and share your own stories in assembly. 

I have loved getting to teach some of you as your math teacher — it always feels to me like we’re on a journey together and that you are game to take the trip with me.   

And I especially love talking with you one-on-one, and hearing details about whatever it is you are really passionate about. You are just such darned good company, and interesting people. Okay, you get the picture…..I think you are amazing young people and I have felt really lucky to get to spend time here at Burroughs with you and the students that came before you.

Because I care a lot about you, I want to share an idea with you that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and that I think might be worth you thinking about. You have lots of really wise people at this school giving you advice. And you probably have parents that give you way more advice than you want.  

My guess is that you have people telling you things like “be yourself,” which is great except who really knows what their self is when they’re your age. Or people say to think hard about what you care about and follow that passion. That is great advice, but that’s not actually very simple and it can take a lot of false starts to figure out what you actually care about and are interested in. Or — here’s one of my favorites that I often found myself saying to my own kids when they were students here….just try hard and give it your best shot — what does that even mean?

So I’m going to say something different to you instead, and it’s this…..try to get more comfortable with being uncertain. That’s kind of a strange thing to say, so let me explain what I mean and why I think it’s important.

Most of us hate the feeling of not knowing something — the feeling of not understanding something, of being uncertain about how to act in a social situation, or not knowing what people think of us, or whether we are good enough at whatever we are trying to do, or not knowing what we are really interested in or what we really believe in. We just do not like the feeling of not being sure of ourselves.

Let me share three specific ways I see this play out. First, let’s think about being a student at Burroughs. I’d wager that most of you have already had the experience of feeling confused in a class here, of not understanding something, or of being uncertain about it. And for many of you, when you experienced this at Burroughs — whether it be as a 7th or 11th grader, it may have been the first time you’d felt that in a significant way — because, let’s face it, you wouldn’t be at Burroughs if you weren’t strong students who had a lot of academic success at your previous schools. So in this moment of uncertainty, you have some choices about how you react. You can ignore the confusion, or try to convince yourself or others that you really do understand everything, in which case you’re clearly not going to understand it. Or you can actually embrace that confusion, and wrestle with the ideas until you get your own understanding of them, maybe even asking someone for help along the way. That’s when real learning happens. One of my sons used to call it getting to the kernel of something. It can feel like a struggle, but it’s really how we can tell we are learning and growing, when we have that tussle in our own heads with ideas, not when things come really easily, or we always get the problem right, or understand a reading right away. I think the trick sometimes for you bright Burroughs students is knowing that the struggle is actually a good thing, and the accompanying discomfort is not something to avoid, but rather to embrace.

Second, let’s think about your social lives. My observation is that kids of any age who try the hardest not to act uncomfortable — to act sure of themselves all the time, to be careful about how they dress and what they do and say — they actually aren’t typically the most certain about things. I bet you’d agree if you think about the people you know. And in reality they don’t usually make the closest friends, or have the most fun, or actually become the most confident. Those really genuine friendships and self-confidence seem to develop for the kids who worry less about appearing confident, who worry less about what people think of them. They seem more able to take in life more fully.

Finally, let me share my own observation of the adults who lead the most interesting lives. Most of them did not have a crystal clear idea of what they wanted to be or do when they were teenagers or young adults. They had to embrace the uncertainty of not knowing what path they would take.  Many of them tried one path — one major in college, or one kind of job — and discovered they didn’t like it, before finding a major or a job that really fit them. But they couldn’t find that good fit without sitting with the discomfort of trying something they weren’t sure of first. I lift up this example now because I think students in this really accomplished school community often feel like they are somehow inadequate or unusual if they don’t know what they want to do in college or be when they’re adults. But really the most satisfying life often comes from a zigzag path rather than a linear one.

I wanted to share this idea of getting comfortable with being uncertain because it’s one of the few things I think Burroughs students aren’t usually that good at. As I said earlier, you’re mostly students who had a lot of success before you even got to Burroughs — in school, in sports, in the arts, with friends. And that success has generally come pretty easily to many of you. Once at Burroughs, lots of students spend a lot of energy here trying to avoid looking or feeling like they don’t know what they are doing. They work really hard and expect that, as long as they do all the right things, they will be able to get good at everything right away, and to have things go the way they hope.  I’m not opposed to working hard — in fact, I laud students for doing so — but my point is that even when we do all the right things there are times when we will need to feel awkward or uncertain or out of our comfort zone if we are going to grow. And learning to be a bit patient with that feeling of not being sure we know what we’re doing, to embrace that state, often is what lets us actually learn and grow the most.  

This may not make sense to you, or you may not actually believe or agree with me. All I’m asking is that you think about it. Pay attention to what you do when you’re uncomfortable or uncertain, and try to sit with that feeling a little bit and not be afraid of it. I have every confidence that you’ll be glad you did.

Thanks for listening, and thanks for being a part of this amazing community.