Not All Ivy is Poison

Separating the patch from the climbers

My grandmother’s house, in which she’s lived for over fifty years, is full of ivy. The kind of ivy that crawls up toward the roof with an equal parts majestic and menacing trajectory. It’s earned the right to travel in whichever direction it chooses, and it’s defiant should you suggest otherwise. Like all ivy, her climbers started as part of a patch at the base of her two-story brick and mortar home. 

Ivy’s trick is that it secretes tiny globules with extraordinary sticking power, which allows it to adhere to even the roughest of surfaces. If that weren’t enough, removing ivy is a methodical and painstaking proposition that, even when finished, can cause permanent damage to the brick to which it’s attached. In a worst case scenario, it may be necessary to torch the old roots to totally eradicate them.

Still,  there’s something beautiful and comforting about the ivy. Drive by an old house, particularly one in a neighborhood in which that house has withstood surrounding construction, and you’re bound to respect its consistency.  Look at that house just a little longer and you’ll be convinced that the ivy is supposed to be there, that without the ivy the house would look naked and vulnerable. Like visible veins leading to the house’s heart, the ivy gives the house character, panache, stateliness.

Moreover, ivy doesn’t magically appear on walls and dare you to remove it. Rather, like I mentioned, it begins as part of a large patch at the base of a home. We can picture that patch holding its own meetings to decide which tendrils should begin to climb the walls “just to see if it’s safe.” Then, when those first few strands prove they can indeed adhere to that rough surface, we can envision the patch cheering those strands on even as most of the patch has already resigned itself to remaining in the relative comfort of the base.

But then a curious thing happens. As those devil-may-care early risers continue to climb, they often look down at the patch wondering why it looks very much the same as when it left. Similarly, the higher and more adhesive those tendrils become, the more resentful the patch becomes because, after all, we all started in the same patch, right? Perhaps that’s why ivy is so stubborn: regardless of where it is, of where it chooses to be, ivy is in constant competition with itself.


Most of our schools, in theory or in practice, are good ol’ fashioned brick and mortar structures. Sure, some are shinier, brighter, more expensive, or prioritized differently, but in the end, our schools are filled with kids eager to learn from teachers eager to teach.

The ivy analogy, then, is a reflection of how that school views itself. Does it encourage its staff to remain part of the patch so long as the patch is maintained, or controlled, by leadership? Does it encourage its staff to remain part of the patch until such time that it is prepared to leave? Then, how does the school juxtapose reticence with ambition? Surely, the entire patch can’t rise at once, nor can one bold tendril make its way toward the roof without any reassurance from whence it came.

Let’s say we identify a small group of teachers, still existing in the patch, who we would like to see begin the slow ascent to the roof. Maybe they’re veterans who have become comfortable to the point at which leaving the patch seems ill-advised. Maybe they’re terrified newbies who have been so crammed full of theory during their undergrad experience that the practice of teaching is simply too much, too soon for them to leave the patch. In either case, we need to support their growth in a way that’s both genuine and specific. That’s where the rest of the ivy comes in.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to our best teachers, or their supervisors, and asked for their help. At some point, whether by evaluation protocol or by word of mouth, our best teachers have been labeled as such for specific reasons.

Tap into those teachers.

  1. Start your conversation by calling attention to their excellence and let that be the segue into how they can help a colleague. Lead with questions that begin with “how do you…” and then really listen.  Offer to pair the climber with the patch, step back, and allow each to grow.
  2. Create localized professional development opportunities led by high risers. Just because we only have a finite amount of district in-service days doesn’t mean those are the only days on which professional development can take place.  If presented by the voices of teachers you value most, you’re already doing more than most schools.
  3. Invest in your teachers’ growth by creating opportunities for them to see each other work without administrative oversight.  Such creativity takes improving teacher efficacy from theory to practice.
  4. Hire and train coaches, who straddle a tenuous but necessary line between staff and administration, and allow them to support teachers in a systematic, collaborative, and mutually beneficial way.

Of course, without a commitment to each other and to our kids, our collective ivy is nothing more than a nuisance, an eyesore, a distraction. Planning for its inevitable growth, tending to it, and shaping it will ensure that we all continue to grow.

Ultimately, we all need to be reminded that, like ivy, together we have “extraordinary sticking power.”