Treating the Symptoms, IV

The primary parking lot at school – the one faculty members and seniors use – has a main entrance connected to the driveway around the school, and there’s a secondary entrance designed to serve the spaces farthest from the building.  The way it’s set up, the logical, polite, safety-enhancing thing for teachers and administrators to do is to use that main entrance.  And the procedures are specified on a handout (a very old handout, typed in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS of course), that every teacher distributes on the first day of school.

But every day, if you’re out there in the morning, you’ll see any number of my colleagues enter the lot through the secondary entrance, cutting across two or three rows of student parking spaces on the way, violating every bit of the CAPITALIZED HANDOUT.  And every few weeks, the same teachers who “rigorously” refuse to take “late work” will get a broadcast “reminder email” about turning in lesson plans.  And Ms. X, who loudly insisted on that we address “those students” wearing capri pants in violation of the Uniform Code, wore capris all the time.

“Do as I say,” we seem to be telling our students, “and not as I do.  Stop being bad and lazy and do your own work – on this worksheet I downloaded for you, without permission, from the Internet.  Follow the procedures – just like I don’t.  Why are you laughing?!!  Stop being rude, you awful little disrespectful …. ”

OK, I’m exaggerating.  A bit.  But those seemingly small symptoms, seemingly insignificant behaviors, send powerful messages – and not always the messages we intend.  Even Ms. X didn’t intend to be rude or hypocritical.

Emily put it well in a Google+ comment about Tuesday’s post:

Ohhh it is the old “do as I say and not as I do” mentality.  That is such a deep part of the factory model.

…I spend a lot of time feeling like the philosopher returning to the Cave when I am talking with colleagues…especially in department meetings.  Ahi. It’s like they think I am insane.  “How can we expect students to LEARN when we are not controlling them?” one of my colleagues honestly asked me once.  She was serious too.  I stared at her.  “No, really.  Students are too lazy and irresponsible to take control of their own learning!”

Labeling, shaming, and blaming.  After weeks, months, and years of that, is it any wonder students then get labeled as disengaged and apathetic, too?  That they wait till the last possible minute, take every possible shortcut, behave just like their shaming and labeling teachers?

In a Google+ response to yesterday’s post, George described the sudden, predictable, end-of-semester higher-education rush when

… suddenly the parking lots are full again, students are actually attending office hours, and everyone is enabling each other like pros. Such an exciting time, especially when some of these folks took off early before Thanksgiving due to “family commitments.”

And Laura applauded

the idea of measuring parking lot fullness as an indicator of student engagement.

Parking lot emptiness can definitely be a symptom and indicator of disengagement. And parking lot behavior, hallway behavior, cafeteria behavior, start-of class behavior, even faculty lounge behavior.  Each is an indicator,symptom, of the underlying culture of an institution.

But symptoms and indicators aren’t simple or straightforward. K, whose military family has moved around a lot, was really impressed that someone held a door open for her when her arms were full of books.  “That would never happen at any of my other schools,” she said.  “They would just laugh at you there.  People are nicer here.”   Niceness and goodness and politeness from students, parents, and colleagues – those are indicators and symptoms, too.  Courtesy reveals some good, positive things in the culture of an institution.

But those flagrant, hypocritical violations of parking lot etiquette are indicators and symptoms, too.  Ms. X, sitting at her desk, several minutes into a class period, as her students slowly pass stuff out, is a living symptom … of something.  Every day, when B, E, and their classmates “forget” to move desks quietly, the loud, screeching, headache-producing noise is an indicator and symptom, too.

But indicators and symptoms are hard to read, easy to misinterpret.  Debbie imagined a conversation with angry Ms. X from yesterday’s post:

Ms X might say, “I want the student to make an effort before coming to me for help.” A good goal.
Next question might be, “What is it that he can do to show you that he has done that?”
Ms X might say, “Well he’d better have SOMETHING on that piece of paper!!”
Question: “I wonder if he knew that is what you expected?”
Ms X “Oh he knew!”
Question: “Hmmm so I wonder what he was really asking when he came to you for help? I love detective work.”
Ms X ” No detective work needed. He’s lazy.”
Question: “How do we help him develop some non-lazy skills? What would a baby step be? This is a good conversation to have with the staff. I think there are many students who struggle with getting that “something” down on paper.”
Ms X. “It won’t help. They are so lazy.”
Question: “But this is what we are here for, right? To Teach? To help them develop skills? I’m not ready to give up on any student – even the lazy ones and I’m sure you aren’t either. You’re just frustrated right now. Together, let’s see what we can come up with!”

What are the indicators and symptoms actually showing?  What course of treatment is best, and who gets to decide, and who’s the doctor, anyway?  And how can we hold on to the real good about an institution – even a factory-model school – when we’re making structural changes or building alternatives?

Published in: on December 6, 2012 at 11:42 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] the factory mindset, Dr. Q, whom I described in yesterday’s post, was “right” in his quest to change attitudes by “making” teachers change […]

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