Tuesday, as I’d expected, was a day of low attendance. For many students, the right time and right place were somewhere else, sometime else, not where we school people claim they’re “supposed to” be. I have a “planning period” (deliberate quotes, because so many teachers seem to use that time for every purpose except planning) at the end of the day, so I happened to be in the office when U came down to check out of school. “I have a headache,” she said, “so I’m going home.” We teased her a bit, because U is sweet-natured and rarely comes to school. “I have one too,” I told her, “but I’m still here.” “Yes,” she retorted, “but they pay you.”
Touché, U. And Happy Thanksgiving. Get some much-needed rest, feel better, and enjoy doing things you choose. Enjoy a few days away from Ms. X, who would label you as “one of those reading girls who won’t do anything.” Of course, by anything, Ms. X means my worksheet, my note-taking, my activities.
Back in middle school, of course, U was told to “bring a book, finish your work, read quietly, don’t bother me.”
It troubles me that schools are so inconsistent about providing a right time and right place for self-directed learning. That, as a Facebook friend noted, we label and reject self-directed learners: bad and lazy, rude and disruptive, “addled” (like Thomas Edison), slow and rebellious (like Albert Einstein).
My headache went away after some sinus medicine, a long nap, and some coffee. I guess it was weather-related. I hope U’s was too – because “bad, lazy” U has been battling mysterious health issues. For some colleagues, though, the social-emotional climate caused headaches on Tuesday.
“Did you have a lot of students absent today?” asked one Ms. X mid-morning. “It feels more like babysitting than teaching on a day like this.” Another Ms. X, at the Faculty Thanksgiving potluck lunch, was fretful. “It’s so frustrating, because you can’t really do anything on a day like today,” she said. “You just have to find something for them to do and keep them quiet.”
I could say a few things about pronouns … but I’ve addressed that topic recently. The word babysitting grabbed my attention, along with finding something for them to do. On other days, you see, Ms. X and Ms. X yell and label about students being dependent.
Now, if the Ms. X brigade really wanted students less dependent, would they ever conceptualize their work as babysitting? Independent people don’t need babysitters – or someone to find something for them to do. Even five-year-olds – who do need babysitters – usually find something to do without help.
Are factory-model schools and teachers bad at helping students become independent? Or are we actually bad at helping them stay independent? Most four- and five-year-olds I’ve known are quite self-directed; many fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds act – at least in school – as though they’d never heard of self-direction. “Are we doing anything today?” they ask plaintively. “Could you tell me what you want me to do?”
What’s up with that? Are U, M, N, and their friends actually that helpless everywhere? Is it that they “don’t know how to learn,” as one education blogger put it in a post that generated a great deal of pushback? Do they not see school as important enough for self-direction? Or, expecting to be treated as helpless and dependent in school, do they live down to the expectation?
Is helpless dependency a self-fulfilling prophecy, a vicious circle or vicious cycle?
Ms. X and Mr. Y say they want their students self-directed and independent. But what does that mean to them? Instantly compliant students who “sit down and shut up” by themselves? Silent worker bees finishing the worksheet without questions? Ms. X and Mr. Y have “too much to cover” to answer, and they’re “too busy for all that philosophical nonsense” anyway, bless their hearts. Besides, it’s not really about them anyway; it’s about the system that shapes and molds behaviors and attitudes. The system that sends those message about too much to cover and too busy. About bad, lazy students and hard-working, misunderstood teachers. Teachers like “rigorous” Ms. X and Mr. Y, who send worksheet packets home over Thanksgiving Break and gave tests on Tuesday “to keep them quiet” … to punish the “bad, lazy” students who didn’t come to school or the ones who did.
When they’re still young, our students learn the system thoroughly – from what we do, not what we say. They quickly conclude that fine words about self-direction and independence are just that: fine, meaningless words. Come February or March, when elective classes turned into test-prep sessions, it was crystal-clear what prior schools really valued, really wanted, really needed from them: test scores and compliance.
“Just give me a worksheet,” someone (was it D?) pleaded last year. “I know what to do with a worksheet and a test.”
Outside school, D acts like the highly capable, independent, entrepreneurial thinker and responsible older brother he is. In school, he acts like an eight-year-old. Why? Because school isn’t the right time or right place for independence? Because we treated him like a small child, a distraction, a problem?
To be fair, I work hard not to treat D – or anyone else – like a distracting problem. But that made D really uncomfortable. Following his well-rehearsed school script, he would act like an irritating small child until he got treated that way.
Did he want the treatment? Or did he just expect it?
How do you break the vicious circle (or cycle) of dependency? How do you build a joyful community of independent – or interdependent – learners in a busy, clattering dependency factory?