A Star Trek Captain’s Wisdom for Dedicated Teachers: Avoid Promotions, Stay in Charge of Your Ship, and Stay away from the Nexus

When I think of opportunities I’ve had to become an administrator, I often recall a scene in the 1994 movie Star Trek: Generations where next-generation Captain Picard meets the legendary Captain Kirk of the previous generation through a mysterious, wish-fulfilling, destructive space anomaly called the Nexus. The scene and the space anomaly provide apt analogies for teachers to consider as they face temptations to move to administrative positions beyond the classroom.

Kirk: Captain of the Enterprise, huh?

Picard: That’s right.

Kirk: Close to retirement?

Picard: I’m not planning on it.

Kirk: Well let me tell you something. Don’t! Don’t let them promote you. Don’t let them transfer you. Don’t let them do anything that takes you off the bridge of that ship, because while you’re there… you can make a difference.

Picard: Come back with me. Help me stop Soran. Help make a difference again!

Kirk: Who am I to argue with the captain of the Enterprise?

From Star Trek: Generations (1994)

In my take on that scene, Starfleet captains are analogous to classroom teachers (sorry, not administrators). I often think of that scene each time someone tells me that I should become an administrator. I usually respond sardonically with, “Have I done something to offend you?” The other person’s well-meant comment is usually in response to some knowledge or passion that I have shown better teaching and learning.

When I say this, I am not rejecting the role of administrators for helping us have good schools, and I appreciate their willingness to serve in practical and important leadership positions. But I am sometimes concerned with questionable motives that people might have for becoming administrators. Long ago, one teacher-who-became-a-principal in another district, told me how much he most of all appreciated being able to go to the bathroom whenever he felt like it. I hope that he discovered some greater purpose than that for his work and leadership. But even with enthusiasm, passionate ideas, and commitment, administrators face daunting challenges. All of this is a background issue in any sort of Star Trek analogy.

The antagonism towards the true missions of teachers often comes from too much attention to grants, trendy practices, technocratic influences, PR, political issues, and other instigators of mission drift. If I were trying to become an administrator, I doubt that I would have the patience and tact to not raise shields and fire up the defense systems or just want to warp away to somewhere else.

It is hard to teach and lead in a culture where personal desires overrule common-sense approaches to reality. Picard and Kirk are in conflict with the villain Soran who is willing to destroy entire planets in order to enter into the utopian pleasures of the Nexus. The pleasurable experiences in the Nexus are not really real but merely make the people within it feel good. Picard heroically convinces Kirk to get out of the Nexus with him and rescue reality from the villain’s destructive use of the Nexus. (Philosophically, part of this scenario is something like the “Experience Machine” thought experiment, which invites one to consider pushing a button that will grant one unending pleasure but will also detach one from reality.)

Culturally, teachers face something like a villainous use of the Nexus as a disruptive and destructive trail of school reforms and trends that detract from our missions rather than enhance them. I have found that books such as Tyack’s Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform and Ravitch’s Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms chronicle the larger, disruptive history of these challenges all too well. (“Utopia” is an important word that means “nowhere.” In contrast, we always teach from somewhere.)

As I think about my work as an educator, I think I’ll stay on the bridge of my classroom and try to stay on mission for as long as possible. I hope that many other teachers can do the same in these distracting times as we work our way into the future.

Onward!

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