I’ve always loved butterflies for their grace and beauty, but when I found out my name comes from the Greek meaning for “butterfly” and there is a whole genus of “brush footed” butterflies with the name Vanessa, it just created even more interest. If you have ever seen one emerge from their chrysalis, you have to respect their grit as they fight their way out.
So often we look at struggle and change as a negative thing we should avoid, but sometimes it is those very struggles that develop us into the person that we are supposed to become. I love this story about the struggle of the butterfly:
One day, a man saw a cocoon. He loved butterflies and had a craze for its wonderful combination of colors. In fact, he used to spend a lot of time around butterflies. He knew how a butterfly would struggle to transform from an ugly caterpillar into a beautiful one. He saw a cocoon with tiny opening. It meant that the butterfly was trying to make its way to enjoy its world. He decided to sit over and watch how the butterfly would come out of the cocoon. He was watching the butterfly struggling to break the shell for several hours. He spent almost more than 10 hours with the cocoon and the butterfly. The butterfly had been struggling very hard for hours to come out through the tiny opening.
Unfortunately, even after continuous attempts for several hours, there was no progress. It seemed that the butterfly tried its best and could not give any more try.
The man, who had a passion and love for butterflies decided to help the butterfly. He got a pair of scissors and tweaked the cocoon to make larger opening for the butterfly and removed the remaining cocoon. The butterfly emerged without any struggle! Unfortunately, the butterfly looked no longer beautiful and had a swollen body with small and withered wings. The man was happy that he made the butterfly come out of the cocoon without any more struggles. He continued to watch the butterfly and he was quite eager to watch the butterfly fly with its beautiful wings.
He thought that at any time, the butterfly might expand the wings, shrink the body and the wings could support the body. Unfortunately, neither the wings expanded or enlarged nor the swollen body reduced.
Unfortunately, the butterfly just crawled around with withered wings and huge body. It was never able to fly all through its life. Although the man did it with good intention, only going through the struggles the butterfly would have emerged like any other beautiful butterflies! The continuous effort from the butterfly to come out of its cocoon would let the fluid stored in the body convert into wings. Thus, the body would become lighter and smaller and the wings would be beautiful and large.
If we don’t want to undergo any struggle, we won’t be able to fly!
Four years ago, I went through one of the most difficult professional experiences of my life. My work was not valued and my contributions were not appreciated. I experienced being ostracized in ways I would have never imagined by leaders in education. Things became so bad, that I prayed daily for relief. I think if someone would have “cut the “chrysalis”, I would have willingly accepted freedom from the constraints no matter the consequence. Things were so bad, I was ready to leave education altogether even after twenty-one years and not knowing what else I would do. In my mind, if education was only driven by testing and scores with no regard for people and authentic learning, it was no longer a place for me.
Then something wonderful happened. Instead of giving up, I escaped the environment. I found that while some school districts resolve to put standardized testing scores first, there are still others that know that if you teach students well, love them, engage them and meet their needs first, the results on tests will come. Even though I experienced a year and a half of torture, I fought my way out. Today, I wouldn’t give back even a second of the struggle. I take those lessons with me every day. They have shaped who I am as a principal. I know that I will never ignore someone because they may think differently than me. I will never believe that the way to “get test scores” is to “eliminate the number of low-income students in the district by reducing their chances for housing”. It doesn’t mean I’m afraid to have the tough conversations, I absolutely will. Not for my benefit, but for those I lead. When we lead, we have to say what needs to be said. If we care about people, they need to know. But it can always be said out of love and respect.
In addition to justifying the importance of struggle, a butterfly is the perfect mental model when we think about transformation and learning. This creature born from a tiny egg, initially explores the world eating up everything it can find, then closes itself up for a period of digestion and change, to emerge elegant, evolved, and ready to fly. Once reaching their last stage, they serve as pollinators to keep the circle of life moving.
I think the butterfly life cycle epitomizes my recent learning in the areas of grit, growth mindset and poverty. I entered this field of study ready to gorge upon a topic, starved for information so that I could better understand how to create better learning for my students. I spent a year reading books and articles, watching seminars, and attending professional learning on these topics. I wanted to explore every perspective to create deep understanding. Some sources stated that grit and growth mindset is the “game changers” in education, while others claimed these to just be the new “snake oil”. I studied poverty research from sources that took a scientific approach, while other focused mainly on implications for education, while still others drug you through the human element of all the tragedy and pure struggle those in poverty face.
My brain, stuffed with ideas and questions, needed time to ponder and reflect while synthesizing this new learning with my old ways of thinking. I had to resolve my personal beliefs about grit and growth mindset, in addition to how it would change my approach to education, especially when working with my students who were living in poverty. Finally, after much contemplation, I was able to emerge with a plan to share this information with my staff and carry out an intentional plan for our school to strategically teach these skills.
I think we could discover much about successful transformation from the butterfly. Learning is tough. Most things that we truly have to learn or change don’t come easily, or we probably already knew how to do it. Real learning takes hard work, but we can’t give up. We have to have grit and believe in that we can become more than we were yesterday. We have to appreciate the struggle, because it will prepare us for independence. Besides, the struggle never lasts forever. Finally, when new learning occurs and we emerge transformed, we be must ready to pollinate the world and share our new understandings with others. New wisdom doesn’t do anyone much good if we keep it to ourselves. We must spread it to benefit others.
Essentially, with some grit and growth mindset, we can all emerge with the grace of a butterfly if we are just willing to see change as the opportunity to evolve and become better for ourselves and others.