Treating the Symptoms, II

Less than an hour after I published Monday’s post, I saw an amazing example of what happens when you focus on symptoms.  At  7:00 Monday morning,  three colleagues were already fussing, fretting, and complaining … about a game played at the faculty holiday party …two weeks in the future!  It’s a completely optional game at the end of the party, and you can leave – or just watch – if you don’t want to participate.

But Ms. X was furious, so furious her voice was shaking.  “I just hate it!” she said, and she had a long list of the “bad” $10.00 “gifts”  she’d received.  Poor Mr. Y, who also hates the game, attempted to treat the symptoms, to calm Ms. X down about the game. “Why don’t you do what I do?” he asked.  “Just take the gift you brought, and hope nobody takes it from you.  That way, you might get something you like.”  But Ms. X was too angry to listen – and that was when I left, while I still had some hopes for a happy, productive day.  Before the negativity and passive aggression – the symptoms in that room – started to manifest themselves in me.

But I wondered about it all. Was Ms. X really mad about “Yankee Swap?”  Or was her anger a symptom of something else?  By trying to treat the symptom, had Mr. Y made things better or worse for her, for him, for everyone?  I thought about asking, but decided against it.  I doubt Ms. X could have answered, and poor Mr. Y – who always says “stressed” or “stressed and way behind” when you ask how he is – didn’t need any more stress that day.

Mid-morning, O, U, and C wouldn’t (couldn’t?) stop  talking during a whole-class reading activity.  They’d all come from classes with Ms. X or Mr. Y – so perhaps their teachers’ hidden anger, stress, and sadness had contributed to the impulsive, thoughtless behavior.  That was in the back of my mind, but mainly I wanted the symptoms to go away.

“I really need everyone’s attention for about 10 minutes,” I had said, “because there are some new things in this story.  If we don’t all see them and understand them, the rest of the day will be really difficult.”  O, U, and C are sweet, affable, and intelligent, and they genuinely want to please everyone.  (That’s another reason it’s hard for them to stop talking: the other person might get upset.)  They know me – and themselves – well enough to realize that they do need to focus on “new things.”  But like the impulsive preschoolers in Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiment, they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) restrain themselves.  Factory-model schooling – 11 or 12 years of it – hasn’t helped their self-control.  If anything, it’s undermined the self-restraint they had as preschoolers.

Once I’d addressed some possible causes as well as the symptoms, O, U, and C did stop talking.  They apologized,  too, and did sustained, high-quality work later.  But what if I’d focused on the symptoms – or addressed the causes earlier?

The factory-model approach to such things is clear: apply pain-punishment till the symptoms disappear. When they don’t, apply more pain-punishment.  But the pain-punishment cycle is one of the causes here.  O, U, and C are so used to being bossed around by authority figures that they have no practice at managing themselves.  That’s what we need to focus on.

Last Monday and Tuesday, when so many students were disengaged and upset, those actions and attitudes were also symptoms.  We needed to treat the symptoms – but they needed help with the causes, too.  There were many external factors, but I’d also been controlling the pace too much.  When I acknowledged the causes – and acted on the one in my control – the symptoms improved, just like bad little Quintus Flavius in the story we read Monday.

When you deal with the causes, symptoms generally improve.  That’s why C and F stopped coming to class late, and why B and D tearfully confessed the truth about “going to the bathroom” before lunch.  N and N’s spiteful bravado had sprung from worries about N’s dad.  A Ms. X, years ago, confessed to me (but never to her students, of course) that she was actually concerned about her son, a young Marine deployed to the Middle East.

“But I don’t have time for that kind of nonsense!” whine Ms. X and Mr. Y.  “There’s way too much to cover, and those bad, lazy kids won’t do it anyway.  They won’t even sit down, stop texting, and take my notes from the PowerPoint!  Besides, no one will do that in the Real World or in college.  They need to toughen up and get over it.”

Why does  the factory system make people treat the symptoms – and treat each other – in ways they’d never accept for themselves?

Responding to Monday’s post on Google+, Mary Ann noted

Symptoms are tended to when we fail to get beneath them to find root issues. Often our attempts at mapping complex matters fail.   The most significant action I have found is to remain in the present moment attending to emerging conditions.

And Debbie wrote an amazing post about fitting the instruction into the community, rather than trying to fit the community into the instruction.

When you’re struggling – with the nameless cause of Ms. X’s anger, with your own impulse to talk with a friend right now, with your own impatient eagerness to make them stop it and pay attention – it’s easy to focus on the symptoms, to assume things would be better if those horrible symptoms went away.  But when we focus on the symptoms, ignoring the causes, it’s easy to ask the wrong questions.

How can we ask right questions – and address real causes – in a structure built around measurable speed, not thoughtful reflection?

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Published in: on December 4, 2012 at 11:09 am  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Vision of what we want for children or ourselves will lead the “right questions.” Wondering if the reason the teacher doesn’t like the “game” is that it’s another $10. she’s asked to give when she could really use it for herself or family (curious).

    Last year a boy in my class acted out a lot. I thought a lot about it and I realized he really needed more movement than the average child so instead of complaining, I gave him extra time to play and move outside every day. Luckily there was some extra supervision involved. That boy moved from disgruntled and troublesome to helpful and caring.

    I also noted that his relationships on the playground included a lot of conflict because he was an “advanced athlete” while most of his classmates were average athletes. Instead of just acknowledging his skill, the others were always complaining about the way he played (a way that would be admired for high schoolers). I pointed out the issue and mentioned similar to being “advanced” at academics, one can be “advanced” at athletics, and instead of getting down on him, you can all learn from him, and he can slow down once in a while to help you advance in that area.

    You’re right, rather than complain about the symptoms, let’s look at what message those symptoms are relaying about the work we do and efforts we invest. Thanks Justin.

    • Thanks, Maureen! So much to reflect on … and, having reflected, to act on.

  2. […] After all, treating the cause without the symptoms can be just as foolish and short-sighted as the reverse.  As Debbie put it in her Google+ comment about yesterday’s post, […]

  3. […] Emily put it well in a Google+ comment about Tuesday’s post: […]


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