“Something odd,” I thought to myself, “is going on, and I’m not sure what it is.” If you’ve reached Unconscious Competence in any field, you probably know that feeling. There’s something – and you can’t quite identify it, and you’re not sure why you know it, but you know that you do. I’m still not completely sure of the cause, but the effect was an ugly emotional undercurrent affecting many of my Latin II students on Wednesday. They were concerned, worried, upset … but they didn’t want to talk about it with me, and they didn’t really want to talk about it with each other. They wanted to do a good job in class, to maintain our joyful community … or at least to distract each other from what was bothering them, to help J with her geometry or N with her civics project. But it was hard to stay focused, hard to feel the subtle differences between et and -que, hard to do Paired Reading of the story of the baby mice and the threatening weasel, when there was so much real-life drama. Things got better when the fictional drama increased in the next story, when Sabina the weasel began her “song” to the mice, when Ferox and Medusa began to intervene … and when we shifted from small groups to a whole-class reading.
It’s hard to manage your impulses when Ms. X has always managed them for you! And it’s even harder when you’re wondering if X and Y are really dating, and when you’re wondering about the rumors about the thing that Z may or may not have really said about W on Twitter or Instagram! A joyful learning community requires constant attention – and sometimes, it seems, it requires a guardian or protector or two. It’s all part of the intricate dance of community-building.
But it’s hard to join that dance when you’re Ms. X, when you have the “perfect” lesson plan, and just enough copies of the worksheet, and when you spent hours making (or minutes finding and downloading) the “perfect” PowerPoint for that lecture. It’s hard when you think your job is to show up, give that lecture, assign and grade those worksheets. Dancing is many things, but it’s not always stable or predictable or scalable, the great Industrial Age dream.
If you did crave that false comfort of factory-style stability and predictability, this would have been a difficult week for you in our little world. The visit from the Powers That Be on Tuesday had lots of people stirred up … and I’m sure some of my colleagues responded with what teachers like to call a “dog and pony show” to impress the guests. “Did you get visited?” people whispered to each other. “Did we get an email or a memo with any feedback?” One Ms. X was glad that no one had seen her “nasty” desk, and a Mr. Y was glad he had taken his class to a computer lab Tuesday. “It will get less stressful now that things are back to normal,” Another Ms. X said hopefully. “Or will it?”
Oddly, things started to settle down – at least for many students – after the special presentation about cyber-bullying Wednesday morning. Schools and districts that accept E-Rate funding have to provide such training periodically … and even though Ms. X was worried that the clip from Friday Night Lights might “give some ideas” to “the bad ones,” it seems the discussions were thoughtful, the insights deep and profound. “I guess we all agree,” I said to my group, “that bullying is bad in general … but why do people see online bullying as so much worse than the regular kind?” And we talked about the permanence of our online footprints, and about how ugly words online can come back to haunt both the author and the target, and about what each of us can do to move from “bystander” to “upstander” in the terms of the training materials.
Then, after a productive Preparation day for the upper-level classes, came the pre-meeting for Monday’s half-day training meeting, and then came an unexpectedly peaceful afternoon and evening with the family.
And … today is Valentine’s Day. And there’s a special fundraiser – support a club’s upcoming trip by paying to wear red or pink instead of “normal” uniform dress. And there’s the school-wide field trip to this intriguing exhibit, which will leave Ms. X scratching her head about what to do with her mixed-grade-level classes. There was a sternly-worded email about not losing instructional time, about reminding students they were still “accountable” for any classwork that occurs … but poor Ms. X may still need to complain about the planning and the logistics and the timing. And … tomorrow is Friday, and it’s the day before a three-day weekend for students, and Ms. X won’t remember where her meeting is Monday morning, or she’ll be upset about the one at school Monday afternoon. Or something.
Even if we were trying to be a “perfect” 20th-century factory, there would still be “interruptions” like field trips, announcements, meetings. Even if those were eliminated, as some desperate schools and districts have attempted in futile quests to “raise test scores” by endlessly drilling test-taking strategies, there would still be the “interruptions” of X and Y’s relationship, or the thing Z said about W. In a community, those “interruptions” can become teachable moments, or if that’s not possible right now, we can agree to put them aside for later. But in a factory, what do you do when the raw materials and production workers get restless?
And more to the point, what will I – we – do today to keep moving from factory to community?