Right … for Now, III

I know I’ve mentioned it several times, but I keep coming back to the notion – expressed to me by a veteran fellow educator just about a year ago – that a teacher might stop a student from misbehaving in class by telling him (or her) “Stop it, you’re making me look bad.”  To be fair, there are some (limited) times and places where “Stop it!” or even “Stop it right now!” could be appropriate – for example, a child is heedlessly rushing into imminent danger, and has no idea that the danger is there.  But it’s the second clause, and the implications behind it, that I keep thinking about at odd times.

What is it about “You’re making me look bad” that bothers me so much?  Why do I keep returning to it, like a dog chewing on an old (but still chewable) bone?  There’s something about it that perfectly encapsulates the 20th-century factory-school mindset, I think.

For one thing, “you’re making me” gives power away.  It implies that someone else (the “bad, lazy child” as Ms. X would say) controls my behavior, my reactions, my thought process … and even other people’s perceptions of me.  I’m sure that’s not what Mr. Y intended in what was, after all, one throwaway sentence in a long, productive conversation we had.  But the implication is there … and suppose Mr. Y ever actually said that to a “bad, lazy” child!  “Z, you bad, lazy child, stop talking now, you’re making me look bad!”  Z, who certainly hates Ms. X and Mr. Y for the “bad, lazy” label, suddenly realizes, “Oh, I have power!  I can make Ms. X and Mr. Y look bad … and I’d love to do that, because they make me look bad all the time … and all I have to do is keep talking, which I want to do anyway!  Cool!”

Imagine the death-spiral of pain and punishment!  Z keeps talking; Ms. X gets angry; Z pushes her buttons; Ms. X explodes with rage; Z gets sent to the office … but Z’s friends recorded the whole thing, posted the video to YouTube, and created a viral sensation.  Stern memos from Powers That Be might even ensue, “reminding” students and teachers … not to take video footage at school without permission.   After all, such videos might … make you look bad.

And the looking bad part bothers me too, at least as much as the making.  To be fair, I’m very much in favor of being and acting as good as you can, of aiming for world-class, of striving for excellence.  When you do that consistently, looking good will probably follow, whether you’re building a learning community or just working out and eating properly for a change.  If it doesn’t, maybe you’re seeking approval from the wrong audience.  But looking good – or not looking bad – is a terrible goal to set for yourself.  It enshrines appearance over reality.  Who cares if I am good or bad?  All that matters is how I look.  And the path from there to “simple little shortcuts” (like lying and cheating) is a wide, gentle, easy slope.  No time to get in shape?  Take this pill and magically lose weight.  No time to get tan?  Take these pills, or use this “harmless” little machine.  Test scores too low?  Well, lots of schools find “creative” ways to raise those….

In preparation for our visit from the Powers That Be next week, we’ve been taking care to make the physical surroundings look good … and I don’t really see anything wrong with putting your best foot forward, straightening those posters, replacing tired-out bulletin boards, making sure that items that should be on display really are on display.    Even Ms. X will probably manage to write “I can” rather than “The Learner Will” when she puts up her daily objectives or learning goals that day … and that’s probably a good thing. There’s nothing wrong with behavioral compliance per se … but there would be something wrong if it was all for show, all about “making us look good” or, worse, “making us not look bad.”  I can’t read my colleagues’ hearts, or my students’, so I don’t know what motivates any of them in their busy preparations.

I think a joyful community would focus on being and acting good, not looking good, and I think it would focus on taking personal responsibility, not “making me”.  What do you think?  And how will that influence what you – what we – do today in our teaching and learning work?

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Published in: on February 6, 2013 at 11:50 am  Leave a Comment  

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