Endings and Beginnings, II

When I went down to the copier Friday afternoon, some frustrated soul had left a (simple) paper jam uncleared, the panel blinking (as copiers’ panels do) with warnings, requests, and reminders unheeded and unnoticed.  It seemed like a perfect symbol for the busy, but purposeless expenditures of time, resources, and energy all week.  Warnings and requests were everywhere on the faces of overwhelmed students, but Ms. X and Mr. Y were too busy “teaching” and “reviewing,” “going over” things one more time in the same old way, to notice.

Endings and beginnings.  Warnings and reminders unheeded.  Doing things the Same Old Way … because that’s the only way you know, and you’re “too busy” to think of alternatives.  The 20th-century way … though the 20th century has been over for years.

In a book I read recently, the author (was it Robert Marzano?) describes a team of elementary teachers planning a science unit about clouds at the end of the year.  “It all seemed very busy and purposeful,” he says, until they realized something.   Despite teaching this unit every year, none of these teachers actually remembered the types of clouds  … and they hadn’t ever noticed the problem.  (If you’ve read the book, please let me know!  I’d like to cite it properly.)

Though the title and author slipped my mind, that vignette encapsulates factory-model teaching.  We jump into the what, choosing stories and “cute activities,” without stopping to think about the why or the how.  And the results are predictable: exhausted, frustrated teachers; disengaged, passive students; low test scores; general anger.  Warnings, requests, and reminders unheeded; “paper jams” unnoticed, recurring, worsening.

The review sheets that Ms. X and Mr. Y spent hours developing (or minutes downloading) lie scattered on the floor, abandoned by students who saw no point or purpose in them.  The special “EXAM review” schedule just gave D, B, and countless others a chance to leave school early.  The tests themselves, originally presented as a “floor,”  minimum standard for proficiency, become an end in themselves; minimum competency becomes an aspirational goal, a “ceiling” many will never reach.  L, who’s always struggled with fear-of-failure failure, tells Ms. H he “knows” he failed her exam … because he didn’t study at all, because failing after effort would be too painful.

There were lots more paper jams in the copier on Monday, the natural consequence of warmth, humidity, and overuse.  There’s a sign on the wall, a reminder to turn on the air conditioner because “the copier likes to be cool,” but no one had.  Young Ms. X came in right as I was clearing one nasty little fan-fold in a difficult place to reach.  “I’m just not good at technology,” she said, in that tone some teachers use when they want to be congratulated – or pitied.  “Can you believe,” Someone Else asked, “that Ms. Such-And-So snapped at me when I asked her how to work a 200-item scan sheet?”

I’m part of a committee that meets monthly (why? because that’s when meetings are scheduled!) to discuss faculty gripes, substantive issues, and various forms of “data.”  Despite a three-item agenda, Monday’s meeting stretched out endlessly, as we started to look at responses from a recent survey.  Different groups looked at different response sets, “coding” them into general categories for a future meeting.  But the coding devolved into complaining:  “Those parents ought to know …” and “Don’t they realize …” and “How can they expect us to …?”  It seems the system exists – “it is what it is” to the extreme – and instead of complaining about it, “they need to” either find somewhere else or get used to the Way Things Are.

Was I in a school in 2013, or at The Phone Company in 1973?  The arrogance of monopoly was everywhere, but no one seemed to notice … and no one seemed to notice how things are changing.  Warnings, requests, and reminders unheeded.  What will happen when, all of a sudden, “they” do find somewhere else to go?

Over on Google+, Debbie shared a great post about highly-effective learning environments.  I read the ten characteristics and wondered how my students – and their parents – would rate our small community.  Then I thought of Ms. X and Mr. Y, of the unheeded warnings and requests, and sighed deeply.  Complacency is easy in a factory world; you assume the copier repair guy will show up, or the other copier won’t break.  But the factory is dying, like the classroom printers our tech department no longer supports.  And, as I realized yesterday, we’re all novices at living in a post-factory world where complacency can kill.

How can we move from complacency to growth?  Debbie had a great answer:

Be the beginning.
What’s that wise saying, “Fake it ’til you make it”.

And how, exactly do we do this as you maneuver through the day filled with the old ways? I’m thinking that we become aware and we constantly ask “why” am I doing this and “how” can I transform this into something more meaningful and more in line with my vision?

George added,

Part of me (the part that is active in G+, for example) is confessing to being a novice, accepting that there are no “guild masters” as such in this environment. Just decision-makers. And society rewards the decision-makers who survive.

Another part (occasionally visible here but I hope not much) is the ego that says “I know how to teach, and the students just have to show up, shut up, sit up straight and act right.”

Buried deep in every expert‘s heart is the novice who can come out and play … and buried not-so-deep in mine is the ego that longs for the expert mantle.  What will happen if – when – we acknowledge that, sit down together, put “the way it is” aside?  Will we heed – will we need – warnings and reminders in a world of joyful community?

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Published in: on January 15, 2013 at 11:25 am  Comments (2)  

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  1. […] on Google+, in response to yesterday’s post, was a thread so rich that it’s impossible to summarize.  In it,  Laura noted that even in […]

  2. […]  They, in turn, will go home and complain about bad, mean, disorganized Ms. X.  On the next district-mandated parent or student survey, when we incentivize participation with a free-dress day or a homework pass, they’ll […]


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