Last summer I went to a rather unique conference. Unplug’d is an experience unto itself… a bunch of edtech types heading out to a lodge on the edge of Algonquin Park, and just out of range of cell service… truly unplugged! Before going to the conference, we were asked to write a letter to anyone we wanted, related to education. I wrote mine to a couple of lone wolves that had touched me with their stories of frustration.

Here are the letters that we wrote, edited by our peers. Here is my edited letter. And below you’ll find the full (unedited) version of the letter. I want to share this version too because it is one of the few times recently that I’ve written something that just flowed from my fingers, seemingly without much thought, yet for me quite mindful.

Read some of the other letters too. (Just click on a person to see their peer edited letters.)

"Vast by Jeff Delp @azjd"
Photo: Vast by Jeff Delp (@azjd on Instagram)

Dear Lone Wolf,

It seems odd to speak of lone wolves to you, a person that is so intricately… connected. And yet, as you read on, you will relate to the loneliness that I describe, that I too have shared. Sometimes it is surprisingly easy to ignore. Other times it seems as though you are truly the lone wolf. You can hear the distant cries of other wolves through the night air, but your days are spent in solitude. Alone.
It is a geographical solitude that can disappear in seconds via a distant, digital connection… and return moments later when, within a local context you are faced by those who:

…challenge your philosophical approach,

…question your different perspectives,

…disregard your passion,

…constrain your openness,

…contradict your principles,

…ignore your offers to share.

The loneliness manifests in different ways, we are unique and our contexts are so different. Yet the loneliness remains a commonly understood experience. It seeps into our being and makes us waiver, and question: Why am I so misunderstood? Why are the challenges so big? Why aren’t things moving faster? Why are so many barriers still being put up? Why is it so hard? Why… must… I… do… this… alone?

Am I speaking to YOU yet? Have you felt like the lone wolf? If the answer is ‘no’, then you need only read the next sentence, for the rest of this letter is not for you, and if the answer is yes, then I do hope you read on, for hope is what I wish to share.

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” ~Barack Obama

And so now, if you are still reading this, I am speaking only to you. I have written this letter for you. And I’ll start by telling you one important message that my good friend Angela likes to share: YOU MATTER! It’s true. You really do. More than you know! Margaret Mead said, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” You are part of that small group. And as the word ‘group’ infers, you are not alone.

I’ve been where you are now, or hopefully like me, where you have been. I’ll prove it to you. Go ahead and check off the following experiences if you can relate to them. Please do note that I’m switching these statements from the third person ‘you’ to the first person ‘I’, because many of these, though perhaps not all, will indeed be something to which you can probably say, “I can totally relate”:

  •  “I’ve been deemed an evangelical preacher of web2.0 tools.”
  •   “I know more about some teachers in other countries, and their teaching practice, than I know about the teacher down the hall.”
  •   “I’ve been accused of being a self-promoter in my efforts to share.”
  •   “I do things that other people talk about, adding “finger quotes” to their statements; you know that “blogging” and “tweeting” stuff.
  •   “I’ve either heard ‘Where do you find the time?’ or ‘I really don’t have time for this extra stuff’ more times than I can count.
  •   “I have watched others come from ‘the outside’ to share my same message, and it seems they are heard, whereas I am not.”

I’m sure you could add to the list. I’m sure that if you did, there would be many a lone wolf that could relate. How is it that so many that feel alone, can share such common experiences? It comes back to geography. While we live in an incredibly connected world, where ideas can ‘trend’ and spread in reformatted zeros and ones, from a fingertip on a keyboard to a screen across the globe, we will still wake up tomorrow at the same latitude and longitude as we did today. We still find ourselves in structures, and schedules, and schools that have not fully embraced the connected world that exists outside of dated educational paradigms.

But here is a wonderful little secret that I want to share with you. I share it with much excitement and a little caution. It may not seem like it is reaching you, but it is… it’s closer than you think. It approaches you both digitally and geographically. Are you ready? Here it is: Things are getting better! Really! It took me more than five years to see it, but I see it and I need to share that with you. Do you know what else? It is a really exciting time to be an educator! There is a transformation happening and it is happening at an exponential rate. What that means is that even if you are reading this and thinking ‘Dave, you silly little optimist, you haven’t had to deal with what I’m facing’, well even then, the transformation is closer than you think. That’s why I share this with a little caution, because I fear that I may lose you with my optimism. Do not treat this message the way you have been treated by others. Hear it. Believe it. You may not be seeing it yet, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t close, and inevitable.

Things are indeed getting better! I have spoken for years about ‘pockets of brilliance’ that I have seen. Isolated, lone wolves, who have aspired and inspired because they perspired and desired to do something that went against all odds of success. Lone wolves that could have done more, had they had a local support system, a community of learners to bounce ideas off of and to share the burden of innovation with. And now I see it… I see enough of these ‘pockets of brilliance’ that are coming together, and through a combination of connectivity and serendipity they are spreading. Where I would have seen a lone wolf, a lone educator working in isolation, before, I now see a teaching team, and I even see a whole school working together. Where I’ve seen policies filled with ‘Thou shalt not…’, I now see, ‘We believe…’. Where I’ve seen my network grow primarily in distant lands, I now see local, digitally connected communities. Where I’ve nearly pulled my hair out in frustration at the slow pace of change, I now see educational leaders not just helping me, but pointing the way and guiding me. I have local mentors and supporters. I have people seeking guidance, listening to me, and thankfully pushing back… I’m engaged in learning dialogs… locally. I don’t know if I joined a pack, or the pack joined me, but it is a lot less lonely now.

Look carefully and you will see the transformation happening. Look to your local community and seek out those who are also seeking others to work with. We need to be cognizant of the person across the hall, or in a neighbouring school, and know that some of them are looking for us, for a local connection who ‘gets’ what is happening. We also need to continue to share what we are doing online and ‘out loud’. Not everyone has a vision of education rooted in empowering teachers and students. There are some that think technology is an ‘answer’ to what ails the old models and paradigms; Some who believe that we can replace teachers with class monitors, and computer monitors as well as test markers and digital marking. We need for the transformation we seek to be shared openly, and articulately, so that good pedagogy is explicitly analyzed, questioned reflectively, and improved upon by a community of learners. We can not do that as lone wolves.

And so in conclusion, I ask that you change the very metaphor I have shared with you. I do not ask you to abandon the lone wolves that you see, but only to shift your perception of yourself as a lone wolf. It is time for your very own transformation. It is time to leave the solitude and… take flight! It is time to become a bird that soars free of the constraints of geography. Take flight and share in the great heights with others. But do not lose sight of your nest. Nurture those around you and help them fly too. There are enough who want to spread their wings that you need not be burdened by those who are grounded, wingless.

“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” ~Maya Angelou

I invite you to sing your song, and know that it fits within a greater melody. And take flight, knowing that others will join you. Like Canadian Geese that take turns leading the flock, there will be times when you must take the lead and the brunt of the resistance that you face. But others will take the lead when you are weary, and if you need to rest, you will not be left alone. You will not be left alone.

Sing because you have a song.
Soar because you have wings.
Share because you know that you must.
Seek others like you, because like you, they need to know they are not alone.
Shine because I know you can!

21 comments on “The Lone Wolf and the Unplug’d Conference Letters

    1. Rodd,
      You inspired this with the first online meeting we had before Unplug’d. You told us to write a letter and I sat down that night and just wrote… missed the point that is should have been under 450 words somewhere along the way! 🙂
      Thanks for the inspiration, it really was a pleasure to write, and thus something I felt compelled to share, unedited. See my note to Karen, below, for more on that thought.

  1. I think what’s interesting when I read my edited letter is that it no longer feels like my letter. Maybe it’s because I’ve changed so much since I wrote that letter last summer, or maybe because it was so edited that it really isn’t my letter any more. It is an interesting feeling though now that it has gone to publication.


    1. Karen,
      I know exactly what you mean! At the end of next month, I will have had my blog for 7 years… That’s 7 years of writing WITHOUT an editor looking over my shoulder. I still pause and even have pangs before hitting publish, and spend a lot of time editing my own work. But that’s a lot different than having other people scrutinize your writing.

      That said, I loved the process at Unplug’d and really enjoyed my team working with me, especially Lorna who was (kindly) ruthless in her editing. It wasn’t painful to be edited at the time… but afterwards, I couldn’t let go of my original piece. Thus, I shared it here.

      And I’m so glad that I did! I just got this in an email from my dad (who subscribes to my blog via email and never actually visits me here):
      “Dave; thoughtful, insightful and empowering; unequivocally, one of your best. Dad”
      Doesn’t matter how old you are, that’s a beautiful thing to see from your dad! 🙂

      On a somewhat related topic: I wonder if in our attempt to help students edit their work, do we sometimes make it so that they no longer feels like it is their words and their work?

      1. I need to find my original piece too. What I find interesting about my blog is that for the most part I write it for me, mistakes and all. I love reading my older posts and seeing where my thinking was then and how it has changed, and will continue to change. It’s a part of who I am.

        Unplug’d was an incredible opportunity and I still smile when I think about the conversations I had with some incredible people. My biggest regret was that I didn’t have 1:1 conversations with more people.

        And like you, I too enjoyed the editing process and loved the group that I worked with. I felt safe and cared for so the editing didn’t feel like a personal attack.
        I think in grade one editing may look a whole lot different than in a higher grade. We celebrate attempts to write, and share a story and while conventions are important the focus is on the sharing a story. You should come over to my class one day to see what my grade one students are capable of doing independently. 🙂

  2. Sir, thank you for sharing. I agree with all the above comments. Anything that comes from the heart will touch other hearts.

    Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.

  3. Thank you for this insightful and inspiring post David. It has captured so much of the conflict between despair and hope experienced by educators trying to make a difference.

    How ironic that the same education system that compelled us to read “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” tends to shun innovative thinking and practices. Is it instinctive for our species? Certainly not amongst our youth who cannot wait for the next “big thing.” Even the world of business has realized that new technology compels them to abandon familiar territory for more productive practices. Perhaps it’s a school model so permeated by a need for compliance that makes the thought of change so problematic within education?

    Things ARE changing though. The connections you speak of are drawing innovators into packs. The threat now becomes the nature of these packs. Will they be wolf packs where each becomes subservient to the wisdom and will of the alphas? Or will they become packs of African Wild Dogs, where it is demanded that each explores the possibilities while hunting? Why is this important? The success rate of wolf packs on a hunt is around 10%, compared to 80% for their African cousins. The hunting method of the latter necessitates an openness to the discoveries of others.

    Adopting a mindset that supports a diversity of thought rather than the dominance of a singular way of thinking will not be easy. It necessitates contending with our own immersion in the latter during our early formative years. To be a more creative and successful culture of educators, we’ll need to acknowledge and subvert this counterproductive tendency. This will be especially crucial within those connections of lone wolves. They will need guard against a hierarchical model of leadership if they wish to truly demonstrate the power and efficacy held by a wide variety of innovative practices.

  4. “I’ve been accused of being a self-promoter in my efforts to share.”
    “I do things that other people talk about, adding “finger quotes” to their statements; you know that “blogging” and “tweeting” stuff.
    “I’ve either heard ‘Where do you find the time?’ or ‘I really don’t have time for this extra stuff’ more times than I can count.

    It’s like you listened to what people say when I walk into a room, 😉 Thank you for this great post! It’s almost as if the mentality of wanting to share or support others is unheard of…and I truly altruistically WANT to do those things!
    I know that there are people who don’t think those things about me, but ya know? It’s people like Carrie Jackson or Jessica J…other confident like minded admin folk who don’t think I’m competition, 🙂 Thanks DT!

  5. Dear David,

    That was an amazing, moving piece of writing! It reads like poetry and maybe you should be thinking about sharing it more widely than just through this blogpost. Dad is right!

    I have two quotes to share with you. The ideas behind them aren’t just for my life as an educator. They are for my life “in general”.

    “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” Winston Churchill

    “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Mahatma Gandhi (Got this from Doug Johnson)

    It’s very interesting because I feel like a backward country-bumpkin in Education Twittersphere and Blogsphere.

    I consider myself a “moderate” in terms of all things IT.

    Yet, when I’m in the regular, mainstream community of educators, they look at me like I’m some sort of radical.

    I asked Jeff once if he feels like a travelling salesman trying to sell people snake oil because of the pushback he gets. 🙂

    Well, I think we all are “radicals” but we’re not radicals about ICT. We’re radicals about authentic education and building children’s self-esteem. If IT helps us get there, then bring it on.

    Here’s my quote: “I teach and mentor children and adults. Sometimes I use technology to get there.” 🙂


  6. Woops. I just remembered that I got that Ghandi quote from something that Coetail posted and not from Doug Johnson. It was mentioned in this Youtube Video:

    Doug has so many great “quotes” that I thought I got it from him!

    Anyway, the Youtube video talks about finding and doing the work that you love. If there’s a connection to be made, I would say that doing the work that you love doesn’t mean that it will be easy. If it was too easy, I’m not too sure we would love the work anymore. 🙂

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