Roots and Wings

Roots and Wings. It was almost 40 years ago when I first noted these words on a small sign in a gift shop in Memphis. The sign was one of those inspirational messages that tugs at your emotions, but this one struck particularly hard as my wife and I contemplated becoming parents for the first time. The advice it offered was simple, but effective: “There are two things you give your children, the first is roots, the other is wings.” That sign became our first baby purchase and still resides on the bookshelf beside our bed. It became a recurring reminder of how we approach parenting and child rearing, and served us well.


This morning I was struggling to overcome the loss of an hour’s sleep for Daylight Savings Time when I noticed the trusty little sign still sitting on the shelf, broadcasting its message across the bedroom. And it occurred to me that these simple words communicated the essence of why I teach and what motivates me to reach out to my students and to do my best to help them understand how to achieve success. I lead and I support them as they work to build a new life. And whether I am teaching Corporate Finance or Business Law or College Algebra, my task is the same- roots and wings!

Now I admit that the “roots” part is easier and certainly more evident. In my mind, the concept of roots includes nourishment and support as well as stability and staying power. Solid roots imply that the tools are there to weather the storms. After all, the curriculum, the syllabus, the text and my lectures are all directed to one end- the students’ mastery of the basic fundamentals of the course. I will use lectures, exercises, discussion, role-playing, media presentations and even guest speakers to reinforce the material. I want them to master the content, to wrap themselves around the central concepts and ideas they are grappling. I want them to think critically, to grasp subtleties and nuances, to master the content and its application to the world in which it resides. While doing so I want them to develop skills of communication, collaboration, leadership and intuition. My goal is to expand their minds, to broaden their perspective, to improve their skills, to deepen their knowledge. These are the intellectual “roots” that will provide the foundation, and more importantly, the confidence, to succeed in life. It will also be critically important in helping them deal with the “storms” of life.

It is when I contemplate the “wings” of the saying that I feel much more challenged as a teacher. The advantage of having wings is that one is no longer bound to the limits of the ground. There is suddenly a new way to look at the world, a different perspective on the existing nature of one’s life. Your view is much broader and much longer; it encompasses a greater diversity of thought and action and more ways of responding to the routine challenges of life.

The “roots” are really from the mind, the intellect, and the knowledge base of the student. But when I engage the student in going beyond the expected, in learning about themselves and their dreams, their values and their wishes, their heartaches and their joys, it is much more of a challenge. It is a challenge for me first because it necessitates that I have been able to accomplish the same thing myself. Do I know myself, really know myself? Have I lost touch of my dreams, my passions, my values? Do I understand what my students are feeling when I encourage them to put aside their fears and embrace their own dreams?

Secondly, my challenge is to encourage and motivate my students in “affairs of the heart”. This means that the second part of my challenge will rely on my “Emotional Intelligence” (to use a current management concept) to go beyond the subject matter of the course and touch the student’s emotions and feelings and their relationship to their own lives and future. It is here that I feel less prepared but where I see the greatest need. How can I get my students to consider “what can be” rather than “what is”? My success in every class includes my ability to do so.

A favorite tool of mine in this regard is the telling of stories – my story as well as that of their peers and even their faculty. To some it may seem to be a fairy tale, but most universities are filled with the stories of students who reached out in new direction to follow their own dreams. Another tool is the linkage between knowledge and careers – not the trade school mentality that is running rampant today but the value of written and verbal communication, of exploring the broader questions of mankind through the liberal arts, of the power of quantitative reasoning and scientific problem solving. A third tool is to freely express my passion for lifelong learning, of the permanent journey for self-improvement as well as self knowledge. My passion and commitment can demonstrate the overused “joy of learning”. I can demonstrate this important best by living it.

In some respects I know I am asking a great deal of myself and my students. Especially in working with students with difficult histories and current hardships, it is a significant leap for them to fully embrace the concepts of “roots and wings”. So I know it is a process, a journey that will take time and nourishment. But it is often evident to me that some of my students are having those “aha” moments, those insights into the intellectual demands of the course as well as the impact on their career and also their dreams and aspirations. So it is a question of steps, but the well-being of seeing progress is one of the great rewards I receive for teaching. So I keep on hauling out the fertilizer and water cans, but directing my students to the top branches and courage of flight.

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