Are you a river-wader or a bridge builder? | Living root bridges and professional development

Towards the end of May, I travelled to Meghalaya, a tiny state in the remote north-east of India. Meghalaya sits on a mountainous plateau that rises sharply from the swampy flatland of Bangladesh so when the monsoon clouds hit the Khasi-Jaintia hills, they release their cargo in torrents that have no parallel elsewhere in the world. Two of the rainiest places on Earth, Cherrapunjee and Mawsynram are in the state.  All that rain contributes to some really fast-moving, angry rivers. Conventional wooden bridges don’t stand a chance and even modern concrete ones require constant maintenance to prevent their collapse in the ever-damp air. However since ancient times, the Khasis, a fascinating matrilineal tribe that dominate these hills, have been creating living root bridges usually with the roots and branches of fig trees.  The process takes hundreds of years and the span is created and strengthened by four or five generations of the same family.  The root bridge at Rewai is among the simpler ones; there are others that span fairly wide rivulets with a double-decker arrangement of walking paths.

Wading across these rivers is generally easy but building a root bridge is time consuming, painful and involves making sacrifices.  To commit to creating a root bridge is a goal that has little immediacy in terms of results and the person who conceived the idea probably had a strong future-focus orientation.  I find this not very different from our own professional development as teachers. Many of our colleagues are river-waders. They get by – by studying and delivering lesson plans without any real understanding of what they are doing. They have no interest in trying out new things that are happening in the field, unless a diktat comes from above.  They see research as the domain of those who don’t have to teach and professional development means career progression and change in designation. To be honest, they seem to manage the proverbial river-crossing in a fairly efficient way.

Then, there are a couple of others who spend a lot of their personal time developing themselves professionally; attending webinars, conferences, taking courses, reading journals, blogging, tweeting, action research etc. Each activity is another knotted root or entwined branch, strengthening the bridge and transforming it into something that not just spans the river but also enables others to cross it.

When the monsoon arrives with its raging waters, it’s business as usual for the living root bridge, undisturbed albeit dripping wet. With the cyclical pattern of recession that the global economy seems to have developed and disruptive innovation changing the very nature of education, will all our colleagues survive the oncoming monsoon in our profession and its associated disruptions?  Those of us who have invested time and effort in creating our PD bridges can stand tall while others get washed away or can we?  The nature of the root bridge is that it helps others cross and thereby hopefully see the value in building their own bridges.  As we continue to invest in our development, I think it’s critical to encourage our colleagues to take steps in that direction (however discouraging the response may be) so that they too start building bridges.

So, are you a river-wader or a bridge builder?

You can read more about the fascinating root bridges of Meghalaya here.  If you’d like to visit the bridges, you can fly into Guwahati Airport from any of India’s major cities. Guwahati is on the banks of the Bramhaputra in the neighboring state of Assam. It’s a three hour drive to Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, a pleasant colonial-style town with shocking traffic. The root bridges can be visited as day trips from Shillong but some of them are off any motorable road and require a hike of several hours.