Authority and Initiative, IV

Wednesday was a good, but fairly uneventful day in my face-to-face teaching world.  Surprisingly uneventful, in fact, because the morning brought our annual Community Service Fair, when representatives from all sorts of community organizations come and talk with students about volunteer opportunities.  I was happy to see how engaged and serious my students were as they visited the tables and talked with the representatives, and I was also happy that the modest amount of gamification that someone added a few years ago (a “community service passport” that gets stamped by a representative from each organization) wasn’t interfering with most students’ intrinsic interest.  If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I’m suspicious of artificially-imposed game mechanisms!

Still, it was a day with an odd schedule when each class was interrupted several times.  So I found I had to exert authority to help my students focus on their tasks and avoid distractions.  Even though they primary task for each class – finishing the first set of stories they’re creating about a “familia novissima” in Latin I, analyzing how cultural and psychological forces drive a character’s behavior in Latin III – was genuinely engaging and interesting for them, it’s hard to stay focused when unusual things are happening around you.  That’s a lesson students learn early in factory-model schools: breaks from the routine – times when teachers and administrators are distracted – give you an opportunity to relax and play.  Another important subliminal lesson: even though teachers and administrators talk about the importance of time management, time is often meant to be wasted, not spent well.

I don’t think anyone intends to send those message – and I’m grateful for the discussion about intentions that grew out of yesterday’s post.  They’re terrible messages for today’s rapidly-changing world, where time is precious and everyone has to find a balance between distractions and focus.  But  the very structure of factory-model schools has delivered those messages to my students since they were in kindergarten.  The messages are as powerful as the one about not taking initiative, about waiting for the authority to tell you what to do, that sparked this series of posts.  And when students expect the authority to intervene and direct them, they feel lost, confused, and upset when the authority is silent.

So it was a day when I had to use authority to help my students build and regain their initiative, to build and regain their focus in the midst of distractions that threatened to overwhelm them.  In the long term, my goal is always to minimize the use of positional authority, but on days like this one – especially so close to the beginning of the year – that can be a real challenge.  It’s a challenge in general, I guess, because the paradigm of authority and initiative in factory-model schools (“take no initiative unless the authority figure tells you to”) is so different from the ones my students experience in their non-school lives.  They often feel like players in a pointless, complicated game – and it’s really hard when the rules change, as they do, from class to class to class.

Whether you’re a parent, a teacher, a student, an administrator, or any combination of these roles, how are you navigating the complex, rapidly-changing waters of authority and initiative in your context of teaching and learning?  And how are you handling the issues of focus and distraction – or the ones around spending and wasting time, or the issues of intentions and subliminal, structural messages?

quid respondētis, amīcī?

Published in: on September 20, 2012 at 9:56 am  Leave a Comment  

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