A faculty member at Browning since 2011, Brett Wisniewski teaches Middle and Upper School Latin, as well as an introductory course in Ancient Greek. He is also the coordinator of the Peer Leadership program. Since 2006 he has been an instructor of various subjects, including religion and Latin, at New York University. Dr. Wisniewski also taught at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China. In addition to garnering awards and honors from NYU, he received Browning’s Clair J. Smith Teaching Award, the Lit Award and the Yearbook Dedication. Dr. Wisniewski earned a Ph.D. from New York University and a B.A. from Wayne State University.
My original idea for this article was to follow up on a number of theories drawn from pedagogical luminaries like Jean Piaget, D. W. Winnicott, Maria Montessori, et al., but in the process of writing, it dawned on me that it would be a better project to demonstrate my own learning process, which fundamentally informs my teaching style throughout the course of the essay. In addition, I will do my best to forgo heavy academic prose and use language as clearly as possible, share a story (as it were), and draw some conclusions at the end; this being the same style I use in the classroom. I will try to follow, as always, the dictum of Cato the Elder: “rem tene, verba sequentur” or “hold onto the subject – the words will follow.”
The best way to tackle this essay for me is to think and write about my current challenges as peer leadership coordinator at Browning, a new job that I started just last year. The biggest obstacle to overcome at the beginning was to define for myself a question posed by our Head of School, John Botti. When we were having some discussions about the future of the program, he asked me: “What makes a person a leader?” I’ll admit it – I was stymied. This seemingly simple question is one for which most readers will have a ready response, but like most theories, I am sure those responses will become entangled once they are set in practice. It is this movement – from theory to practice – that models many of the same problems one has when moving from teaching to learning.
There is no dearth of models for leadership, especially in my chosen field of classics. Julius Caesar is probably the first one that pops into mind, or maybe Odysseus or Achilles for those of a more Hellenic bent. Yet in thinking about how to prepare our Browning boys to be better role models, classmates and facilitators of group discussion, I shied away from the obvious classical models. After all, times were different for the Greeks and Romans, and remembering that fact is one of the most daunting tasks for an historian, let alone translating things into modern idiom. How many of the exploits of erstwhile military minds would read as cogent to today’s teenager? Perhaps that’s a question that needs more classroom time to answer, but our peer leaders will be engaged in conversations and life situations that are not well modeled by spending 46 minutes sitting at a desk listening to me talk.
How about the world of business? Any casual perusal of an airport kiosk will render a host of books by the Harvard Business Review, designed to succinctly render the theories and experiences of teachers from the best schools of management. I picked up a bunch. Now I understand how relying on the wisdom of the community saved IBM from nearly going under in the ’90s, how one can employ five steps and change a company’s toxic culture in five years’ time, and how emotional intelligence is the most desired trait of any successful manager. Yet, I am not a businessman, alas, nor are my students (yet!) While some of the anecdotes and models I found there were still applicable, especially the ones on emotional intelligence, I thought it would be difficult to relate these concepts in an abstract or analogical way to students in need of more immediate advice.
So I cast a wider net: books on leadership in general. They come in a dizzying variety. I worked through an annotated bibliography that broke things down into categories: negotiation, neuroscience, ethics, psychology, pedagogy, etc. Again, as in the above examples, there was a great deal of useful information, yet they were not all of equal quality – some were patronizing and some were downright nonsense. While getting through the reading certainly made me feel better about myself, it was a formidable task to sit down and devise a program for teaching leadership from all of it, the good and the bad. So I moved to the next, and probably more important, step: asking for help.
It was my fellow colleagues, Browning teachers and administrators, old and new, and the faculty at nearby schools, who helped a great deal in getting me to see the forest for the trees. After talking with many of them, I was a bit more ready to get together with a group of 10 energetic and impatient high school seniors, with one foot already in college and the other still stuck deeply in the mires of college application, to get them to commit to one more program of study that we all agree is good for them. I knew by then that some of the theories might find fertile ground, some would have to be jettisoned, and some regarded in good humor. I knew that negotiation was in order, as well as meeting developmental needs, creating a solid team, sharing narratives and even perhaps some good old Roman generalship. Beyond these considerations, I am learning that being a good leader is neither a matter of a few months’ reading nor a few weeks’ teaching. I understand that good teaching and learning almost always happens in practice rather than solely in theory – and this belies the idea that there is any real boundary between teaching and learning in the first place.
So this is how I learn and how I model learning for our students: find a subject that fascinates me, gather as much information as possible from as many sources as possible, look to others for guidance, seek out lived experiences, and revise. If I really want the learning to take hold, the best and sometimes most difficult task is to find others and share my work with them, namely, to teach. The Browning peer leaders and I are still working and learning as we go – and it will be up to them to share their experiences with their successors at the end of the year, as well as produce a handbook that outlines their own learning curve to leave for posterity. It is rewarding work for all of us, as we seek a solid answer to the above question that we can share with the Browning community at large: “What makes a person a leader?”