Right … for Now, II

I thought my three- or four-week battle with the cold, cough, and other respiratory symptoms was bad … until I went to retrieve a copy job during lunch on Monday and happened to talk to Older Ms. X and Younger Ms. X.  It seems Younger Ms. X has been sick, pretty much constantly, since the end of October.  “Stress makes it worse,” she said, wearily attempting to smile.  I can’t now remember how many rounds of antibiotics she’d taken, how many prescription and non-prescription remedies she’d tried over the past three months.  But her symptoms – and the underlying stress that exacerbates them – continue, more or less unabated.

Like factory-model schooling, 20th-century medicine was much more interested in treating the symptoms than exploring the causes.  “Take this,” the archetypal doctor said, his white lab coat (always his, in the 20th-century archetype) silently conveying both authority and expertise.  “It will make you feel better.”  Dr. Archetype, if he ever really existed, retired long ago, but the paradigm of treating the symptoms, providing immediate relief, still has a powerful hold on medicine, law, government, finance, business, education, and all the other big 20th-century institutional structures – the ones that now struggle to adapt to a very different environment.

I thought of Dr. Archetype, and his teacher-equivalent Miss Archetype with her chalkboard and apple-covered desk, several times during a busy, tiring Monday.  What would they make of a world where all the information you could ever want is right there at your fingertips, on a device roughly the size of a deck of cards?  A world where information is abundant, but understanding and wisdom are in as short supply as ever – where too much information is both an over-used phrase and a genuine problem?  They’d probably respond more or less as we’re tempted to: by trying to command and control the new reality, to make it fit our existing paradigms, to slow down the rate of change until we can understand it, adapt to it, get used to it.

In 90 minutes of faculty meeting Monday afternoon, well over an hour was devoted, directly or indirectly, to managing change … except we didn’t use the phrase, and we didn’t address that core issue, and Ms. X and Mr. Y just looked scared and overwhelmed, saying little.  I didn’t talk to them afterwards, but I’m pretty sure they were clinging to the 20th-century teacher’s mantra: “This too shall pass.  Just close my door and let me teach.  This too shall pass.”

But what if it doesn’t pass, Ms. X?  What then?  What if the change-management attempts don’t work?

As a dinosaur-loving child, I remember going to an exhibit about those vast, impressive creatures, though I don’t remember where or when.  I do remember the fossils, the reconstructions, and the sad, quiet end of the exhibit.  “What happened to the dinosaurs?”  the plaque asked – and it told of changing conditions, creatures perfectly adapted to the former environment but ill-suited for the newly developed one.  “They evolved,” it said, “into birds.”  And I went home with a renewed respect for the chickadees, cardinals, even pigeons that gathered each day at my mother’s feeder.

The real fate of the dinosaurs is more complex, of course, than the one presented in that half-remembered exhibit.  But even the simplified picture contains a powerful, important lesson for all of us who still seek to manage change, to slow things down, to keep on doing what we’ve always done.  Maureen put it concisely in a Google+ response to yesterday’s post:

What’s different today is that if the public school system doesn’t change, people will leave for private options now that those options are becoming more readily available and personalized due to the tech evolution.

Ms. X and Mr. Y don’t believe it – can’t believe it? Won’t believe it?  But I was talking with N and U during class earlier in the day, and both of them are so frustrated with being batch-processed that, if they could, they’d homeschool themselves tomorrow.  And a good deal of the change management on Monday related to “parent feedback” – and a lot of that, at least to my ears and eyes, was about parents’ concerns that their children’s individual needs were being ignored, or at least subordinated to the needs of a factory-style system they don’t want.  And it seems that when the Powers That Be visit our school next week, they’ll be trying to figure out why we’ve been “so successful.”  Do we just “have better kids?”  Or are we doing something that can be replicated in other schools?  They’ll be looking – but they’ll also be looking for a prescribed list of things that, they’ve been taught to believe, are responsible for high achievement.  And they’ll find those things, to be sure … and those things are correlated with high achievement in study after study.  In some cases, the things are a deep part of what the school does; in others, they’ll be on display that day, in what teachers disparagingly call a “dog and pony show.”

But do the things cause the “high achievement,” or does the “high achievement” encourage teachers to do the things?  Or do both flow from some deeper spring that correlational studies and statistics can’t easily identify?  I look at my high-achiever students, and all too often I see exhaustion, weariness, a calculated attempt to play the game of school just well enough to get a prize.  I look at my colleagues – and myself – and I wonder if we’re turning into birds or relentlessly clinging to our dinosaur-teacher-selves.

What will we need to do, today, each hour, to help ourselves – and our students and their families – let go of the scales and take hold of the wings?

Published in: on February 5, 2013 at 11:45 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I laughed out loud with regard to some of the comments and connections you made in this post. Thanks again for keeping the conversation going–you’re changing my teaching lens.

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