A Quality Story
by Floyd Rumohr
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a book that describes a 17-day motorcycle journey from Minnesota to California by a man, his son, and (for the first nine days) two close friends. Philosophical inquiries about quality are interspersed throughout the journey and are connected through the narrator’s story as a college writing teacher obsessed with what is “good.”
In reading this book over the last few weeks, I saw a striking similarity to Stages of Learning. A motorcycle is a technological machine requiring careful maintenance just as Stages of Learning is a program requiring careful feeding and attention of its own. Quality is the essence that binds the things we care about, whether those things be programs or machines.
As Stages of Learning files for dissolution, I ask that you take a moment to reflect with me about an organization that has impacted the learning experience of over 40,000 public school students for the last 16 years. A strong sense of quality overcomes me when I think of Stages of Learning. Like a motorcycle mechanic who rides the rhythm of maintenance, I have been carried along through the Stages of Learning ebbs and flows that have challenged everything I know about myself and the organization – reinventing both when the quality mantra necessitated doing so.
Quality has been the essence of Stages of Learning since its inception in 1994 and throughout the recent 2009 strategic alliance with Queens Theatre in the Park. When I first approached Jeff Rosenstock about the possibility of working together in 2007, I knew he cared about Queens Theatre in the Park and sincerely wanted to help Stages of Learning sustain itself. Both organizations have worked diligently to sustain that quality – Queens from the presenting side of the performing arts and Stages from the educational side.
Even the best intentions can be subject to operational impediments, however. Despite efforts on both sides to maintain the Stages of Learning program, the economic environment and cultural differences have made the original intention of merging impossible. The arts and education have never been a societal priority and, as it was, Stages of Learning could not become a priority at Queens Theatre in the Park and, as it is, Stages has made cuts to everything except programs. At this point, there isn’t anything left to cut out aside from those things that would erode its quality and impact the experience for children.
Perfection is not what Stages of Learning is about and stakeholders, including myself, are not concerned with mythological perfection. The Stages of Learning community does care about quality, though, and an organization thrives when the details are managed, students are learning, and staff is growing within teaching practices. Akin to a motorcycle’s properly broken in engine purring along the road, Stages of Learning was an effective operation for nearly two decades. Even when we hit bumps in the road, (and we hit plenty that required significant maintenance) we always knew what was driving us.
For sixteen years, Stages of Learning followed its path. Sometimes it swerved and sometimes it hit challenges head-on and had to recover for brief period. But we had a steady quality wind behind us, good mechanics maintaining it, and the children on our minds. Even when stakeholders recently asked, “Can the environment support an organization whose singular focus is to provide collaborative drama instruction to the public schools?” That answer, wholeheartedly, was YES as long as quality is not a concern.
So you know how the Stages of Learning story ends: it’s a story of quality in the hearts, minds, and souls of those connected to it – the classroom teachers, teaching artists, administrators, donors, board members, and ultimately the nearly 40,000 students who have been its heartbeat. It is there, in them, and in us, where the idea will continue to live on.