At lunch on Wednesday – a quiet, quiet time, since my regular lunch buddies weren’t there – young Ms. D came in to retrieve a print job and make some copies. Midway through her second year, she’s a young teacher with all the associated stresses, plus those that go with parenthood (three little girls!) and a husband in the military. I could see she was almost overwhelmed, so I took a break from my not-quite-authentic Cincinnati-Style Chili to ask how she was doing. ”There aren’t enough hours in the day,” she said … and of course I agreed. Like many young teachers (including Younger Me!), she longs to do a perfect job, to craft perfect lessons, to grade and return everything perfectly … and that perfectionistic desire leads directly to her frustrations, her stress, her feeling overwhelmed.
The quest for perfect is also the root of many students’ struggles. ”I can’t do this” – that all-too-familiar cry – usually means “I don’t think I can do this perfectly the first time.” If perfection (zero defects) is the goal, no wonder so many give up without trying. That kind of perfection might work for widgets, but in learning it’s an impossible dream, a recipe for failure and frustration.
“Just take a moment,” I told Ms. D, “and focus on the most important thing for today. Do that. Then, if there’s time, do the next most important thing. I understand that desire for the perfect lesson and the perfect activity. But sometimes, the not-quite-perfect activity is better than the perfect one. I’ve been using some not-quite-perfect activities for years.”
She smiled, and I saw a few tons of stress leave her shoulders. And then I realized something.
As young teachers, Ms. X and Mr. Y were like Ms. D. They started out as caring, committed, perfectionistic teachers too. The toxic, corrosive negativity came later – from disappointment when they couldn’t be perfect. From angry upset when their caring met rejection. From sadness and buried anger when their commitment wasn’t acknowledged. From the natural, human reactions to external mandates and lack of appreciation. From the self-loathing you’ll probably develop if you think, if you’re told, if you believe that zero-defect perfection is the only possible goal.
Eventually they started seeing others as they saw themselves, treating others as they were treated … the factory system’s horrible inversion of the Golden Rule.
Reflecting on Google+ yesterday, Debbie made powerful points:
Two things came to mind as I read your blog today:
1. I saw the victim of abuse becoming the abuser, maintaining the cycle. The teacher, in a compliance situation with the governing bodies, feels the pressures, the uncertainties, the powerlessness… and becomes the power.
2. crossing over to community: do they know about the options? do they know that it is possible? do they know that they can create the joyful community? If they don’t then they aren’t even seeing that bridge, let alone stepping onto it and crossing over from the factory model to the joyful.
Like the cycle of addiction, the cycle of abuse is powerful … and once you experience it, you’re at risk for repeating it. Pushers of zero-defect perfectionism may not intend to be abusive, to start an addiction cycle … but once it starts, people get caught up in it. I watch my young colleagues, so eager, diligent, and positive; I look at poor Ms. X, so tired, passive, and negative. How can we break the cycle, help them keep the positive energy? How can we help Ms. X and Mr. Y find their way back to the teachers they once wanted to be?
The recovery movement will tell you: without an intervention, addicts generally have to hit rock bottom. The pain of not changing has to be greater than the pain of changing. Without an intervention, abusers usually keep abusing until the victim leaves or dies. What’s the equivalent of intervention or rock bottom or leaving in the factory cycle? Is there a marke or need for twelve-step programs for recovering factory-model teachers and schools?
I don’t know. But I do know one thing.
Though it’s painful and difficult, cycles can be broken – abuse cycles, addiction cycles, even the pain-punishment cycle. Even the passive-aggressive make-me-do-it cycle that afflicts “hard-to-teach” students in factory schools. Even the 20th-century bigger-is-better cycle.
Before the industrial age began it was all about community and one-to-one relationships. Big politics and big network TV arrived with the factory industrial way of life. Public education was begun by big government.
Modern technology along with connectivity provided by the internet allow us to dismantle big institutions….
Big is contrary to true democracy where individuals are looking for leadership and personal representation….
Benefits of big when it comes to education are outweighed by the negative impact that come along with our big factory education system and the harm caused by the lack of personalization. This harm has becomes more evident and takes a greater toll on us when life runs at the pace technology has pushed us to today.
Post industrial ownership … may be a Back to the Future kind of thing. Hopefully we can keep the advances of technology and return to a lifestyle of close personal and community relationships. This future will offer the added benefit where community will now include relationships made between people from around the world who interact online. This will offer opportunities that did not exist back in the days when local neighborhoods were the basis for community.
As we break the destructive cycles and find healthy ones, we’ll build bridges to joyful community – bridges that are strong enough, safe enough, wide enough for Ms. X and Mr. Y to cross. We’ll build strong, healthy circles, too, circles big enough for Ms. X, Mr. Y, Ms. D, and everybody.
What do I need to do – what do we need to do – to get started?