Beyond Pain and Punishment, IV

October, not April, feels like “the cruelest month” in my face-to-face teaching world.  Does it feel that way in yours? For us, since school starts in August or September, October is when disillusionment starts to set in, among teachers and students alike.

Themes of “why don’t we?” and “we ought to be able to” are still prevalent in the Google+ thread where we’ve been discussing yesterday’s post and in this one about the importance of “grit” for all kinds of success.  But I noticed there was much more conversation about grit – about sticking things out, persisting when things get tough.

October is like that.

In August and September, everything felt new.  The new year was a promise, and we made promises, too.  “I’m gonna do better this year,” we said.  “I’ll do all of my homework and make the Honor Roll.”  Or “I’ll grade every paper and give it back the next day.”  But by October, the newness starts to fade.

Promises are harder to keep in October than they seemed in August.  And the call of routine is strong.

Maybe that explains some of the loss of focus I talked about on Tuesday and Wednesday.  Maybe it’s the unsuccessful pattern some of my students have followed for years – the one they promised themselves they’d change, but change was hard.  The old routine they want to break out of, but can’t.

Grit and persistence – do they make it easier or harder to change things?

Routines, in themselves, can be good or bad.  We work a lot on positive routines and procedures in my classes.  If there’s a written assignment, you pick it up there, and you turn it in over there.  This signal means “repeat the Latin,” and this one means “tell me what you understood.”  This one means “I need your attention,” and this one is the “seal of approval.”

Routines save time, and they comfort you in hard times.  They make life easier for everybody.  If you’re lucky, they help you with persistence easier.

But if you’re not careful, routines become the “same old same old” – and that’s why October seems cruel.  Promises and hopes for change start to fade, and  you fall back into the old, unsuccessful patterns.

The patterns of pain and punishment.

The ones you hate – but you find yourself repeating anyway, hoping for a different result.

The ones that never worked, but maybe they will this time?

In factory-model schools, pain and punishment are built into so many routines – and maybe that’s why October seems so cruel.  Early in the year, before the “tardies to class” accumulated, you could promise yourself that things would be different this year.  But now the paperwork has built up, and you’ll be serving – or assigning, or supervising – detention.  Back in August, you promised you’d do – or promptly grade – every assignment.  But now the unfinished, ungraded papers are piling up in notebooks, folders, or desk drawers, and you have a pile to “dig out of” before it’s too late.

“They hate it,” Ms. X said about something else this week, “and I make them do it, but … why?”

We hate it, and we make ourselves do it – but why?

Students, teachers, administrators, everybody – all caught in the pain and punishment cycle.  And that’s why October, when it really starts to kick in, is the cruelest month in factory-model schools.

But imagine a school-world where October felt like the harvest celebration it should be, not the dark, grim “reality check” it often is.  How would schools and classrooms have to change? What’s the connection with grit and persistence?

And what’s one small thing we can do today, this week, this October, to move from cruelest month to harvest joy?

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Published in: on October 4, 2012 at 9:39 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] If you’re reading this post “live,” it’s report card day in my world.  Students are anxiously awaiting grades, and teachers have been desperately grading papers – because waiting till the last moment is one of those things that never worked, that we promised we’d change, that I mentioned in yesterday’s post. […]


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