Who Gets to Decide? II

The spring musical at the school my daughter attends will be How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, so we’ve been watching the movie version from time to time as she prepared for auditions.  Every time I see it, I’m reminded that even at the (perceived) height of 20th-century industrial society, people could see the shallowness and the hollowness of its central tenets – not just see them, but laugh at them, and make a lot of money doing so.  One of the main plot devices of the show, if you aren’t familiar with it, is the idea of a company “large enough” so that no one really understands what’s going on … so that no one is really in control.  So that, in essence, no one owns it, and no one really gets to decide.  So that things “just happen,” things “get announced,” and there’s really no way to find out where they came from or why.

A great recipe for a Tony Award-winning musical, in part because so many people – in 1961, 1967, 1995, 2011, and all the years in between –  saw their own experiences reflected in the “World-Wide Wicket Company.”  But a terrible recipe for an effective. successful organization.

When things “get announced” and new policies “get implemented,” it’s easy for folks on the receiving end to feel disaffected, disrespected, disempowered.  I think of so many students – the ones who get labeled bad and lazy by angry Ms. X and frustrated Mr. Y – and, of course, I think of Ms. X and Mr. Y themselves.  Autonomy, mastery, and purpose – the three key factors of intrinsic motivation according to Daniel Pink and others – are often hard to find … and that’s a problem.  As Marie Bjerede points out here,

To create the personalized learning environments that we aspire to for our students, we must first create personalized teaching and work environments. To develop independent learners, we need educators who model independent work. To ignite the intrinsic motivators inside each child, we need intrinsically motivated teachers.

I don’t think Ms. X and Mr. Y deliberately set out to destroy their students’ intrinsic motivation, anymore than I think the folks in school-district offices (or, for that matter, corporate headquarters or legislative chambers) deliberately set out to eliminate employees’ (or citizens’) intrinsic motivation.  But it happens … in subtle and obvious ways.  And I think it happens, in part, because no one really decides.  Because it’s easy to keep doing what we’ve always done, especially when that looks like but really isn’t making bold changes.

Midway through a long day, I opened an email called “Faculty Meeting Agenda” and counted eleven (!!) distinct agenda items, plus some announcements.  Three or four of them probably seemed like bold, aggressive changes to the folks who had disseminated them: a new professional-development program, a new plan for an upcoming teacher workday, an initiative to help district personnel see what’s “really” happening in schools.  No one intended to demotivate or frustrate anyone … but as I looked around at my colleagues, I saw slumping shoulders, heard murmurs and complaints.  By the time I left the meeting, I was angry and frustrated too, just from my colleagues’ reactions.

The day had started off well, with a happy, mostly productive group of Latin I students eagerly planning their stories of why, at the start of Tres Columnae Lectio XIV, Valerius is scrambling to find a marītum … aptum for his eldest daughter.  My first-period class, who start their day with me, haven’t been affected by atmospheric conditions outside our small community unless there’s stuff going on at home or in the hallway.  Why are things so different for the formerly “problem” class right after them?  Partly, I suppose, because of personalities; partly because of the time of day; partly because it’s hard for them to stay positive and focused after Ms. X and Mr. Y have yelled and labeled for 95 minutes.  My Latin III class, who arrive just before lunchtime, were working on an equivalent set of stories about the letters that are sent in Tres Columnae Lectio XXXVII.  They were trying to stay focused … but they, too, were tired.   Their brains  crammed full to bursting with information, their notebooks overflowing with Ms. X’s detailed review sheets, they struggled with the transition from memorize-and-forget to apply-and-remember, from teaching factory to joyful community.

It was a day of contrasts.  There was joyful community at times, exhausted compliance at others, fearful whispering along the way.  N and N, who had been to Europe over Winter Break, were finally back, happy, relaxed, with pictures to share.  B and B worked hard for a while and apologized for a time when they were briefly off-task.  But then Mr. Y stopped me at lunch with a question about an ill-defined task: “What are we supposed to do?  When is it due?  What should it look like?”  There were multiple emails about  “could you send me this” and “what do you think of that” and “when can we schedule the other.”  And then, of course, that eleven-agenda-item meeting.  I desperately needed the quiet cup of coffee,  the chance encounter with an old friend, the phone call from another, my Monday evening book group, dinner with friends.

Balance helps – and perspective helps, and stepping away is important.  When we’re caught in an endless, horrible grind, it’s hardest – but most necessary – to take time, slow down, listen.

Responding on Google+ to yesterday’s post, Debbie noted that

Empathy is about putting one’s self in someone else’s shoes to see through their eyes, to see their perspective, their interpretation of experiences, to see with their abilities and their challenges. It is about recognizing that we are all the same yet all completely different, with different pasts, different skills, different interests, different motivators, and different emotions related to the same events.

How can we build – and, more important, maintain – empathy and joyful community on the most frustrating days?

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Published in: on January 8, 2013 at 11:45 am  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Just a note — I was reading an article in the Times Ed Supplement today, about dealing with students who hum; firm edicts and consistent punishment would “grind them down into civility” — I quote. Oh dear.

  2. […] in the middle of the agenda I mentioned in yesterday’s post was an innocuous-looking item that sparked firestorms of raging protest.  In preparation for the […]

  3. […] expressing exhaustion and disengagement.  The end of the semester is difficult anyway, and the mandates I mentioned on Tuesday and Wednesday certainly didn’t help.  As Debbie put it in a Google+ […]

  4. […] on Google+ to Tuesday’s post, Mark noted […]


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