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Lessons from a Box of Dirt

The cardboard box was tall on the sides so the dirt wouldn’t spill out in the hallway, but Blake, Jeff, and Aidan still carried it like they could lose their grip at any moment. Finally, they plunked it down on the desk in front of us, and we began conferring about their 5th grade Genius Hour project.

            “I don’t understand anything that you are talking about,” I said, truly puzzled.

“Listen,” tried Blake yet again, “Our idea is that if human groups worked more like a mycelial network, you know - the underground network of fungi that brings nutrients to dying trees and can even poison dangerous invader plants - we would be better off.”

“Mycelial network? This is creeping me out, guys. First of all, I have no clue what a mycelial network even is. It feels like some kind of terrifying trap for human beings! I’m not sure this will work. Plus, what are you going to show your classmates in the project?” I sighed, pointing to the bulging box of dirt and worrying how their effort would result in a deepening of academic content.

Aidan tried to help me get it. “Under the earth, about 90% of plants are helped by this gigantic network of fungi which defends them from harm and helps nourish them.”

“Really?” I asked, now listening and feeling less defensive. “How come I never even heard of this?” I mused, muttering, half to myself. “O.K., keep researching and try to help me understand this.”

“You won’t be sorry,” said Jeff, shrugging, “some people think of it as a fungal internet. It’s a good thing, we promise,” they said, nodding in unison.

A few weeks later, the boys presented their findings to their enraptured peers and teachers, teaching all of us about the earth we live on, the way plants understand mutual support, and what people can learn from them.

Fast forward three years.

I was walking in a school building where I was trying to help teacher leaders connect, improve their schools, and learn from each other. Some had joined a statewide program on Teacher Leadership and others were involved in book groups to learn about “Collective Efficacy,” the exciting idea that when teachers do meaningful joint work, schools are energized and student achievement soars.

I had already met so many accomplished teacher leaders who were taking on roles outside of their classrooms, but I was still not satisfied. I confided my worry to Jessica, one of the school’s super teachers.

“I’m looking for, you know, the mycelial network of teachers, the positive and energetic ones who support other teachers’ growth and form a kind of underground support.”

Jessica looked at me quizzically. “Mycelial network?” she repeated, eyebrows raised.

“Yeah, this network exists in every school, but I don’t know where it is! It’s under here,” I said, pointing to the floor. “The way I see it is that it’s made up of those teachers everyone knows they can count on, the ones who bring their best selves to the work and never fail to support the kids.”

“Interesting metaphor,” she said, laughing, “but I get it. I have three teachers to introduce you to right now.”

And so, we walked down the perfectly polished school corridors to meet a math teacher, a social studies teacher who was finishing up his doctorate, and a science teacher who rushed to the door to speak, but had to get back to an entourage of students who were deep into a discussion in his lunchtime club.

I walked away remembering Blake, Jeff, and Aidan and how patiently they had explained the mycelial network and how what they had taught me turned out to be the most useful way for me to understand how teacher leaders really work in schools. At that moment, it hit me that we were still all connected - the boys, me, all of the students I have ever taught and learned from, and all of the teachers that I now support along with their students. It turns out that we are all in a vast, energizing network of support and hope, rushing nutrients to each other just when we need them the most. We live in a vibrant mycelial network, and if I hadn’t listened to the thinking of three 5th grade boys, I never would have known it.

Image attribution: Henk Monster


Maryann Woods-Murphy is an international Talent Development consultant who taught for 38 years in New Jersey schools. She is also the 2010 New Jersey Teacher of the Year, the winner of the Martin Luther King Birthday Celebration Award, a 2011-2012 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow, an America Achieves Fellow (2011-2015), a member of the Board of Directors of the National Education Association Foundation and a former Director of the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Woods-Murphy earned her Ed.D. in Teacher Leadership at Walden University in 2016 with a study on the way New Jersey teachers improve schools. She has co-chaired Teens Talk about Racism for 21 years with retired science teacher and Civil Rights Icon, Theadora Lacey. In her free time, she writes, travels, and spends time with family, especially her grandchildren, Olvyia, Victorya, and Joseph.





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