Being a Catalyst, III

After a good, successful, but certainly not perfect morning, I went to check my faculty mailbox and found several colleagues discussing a particularly needy student.  It wasn’t a Ms. X conversation, either; they were genuinely concerned about her, and even more so about her mom, who, they felt, was making the situation worse by hovering, living her child’s life for her, not allowing her to own or solve her own problems.  I don’t know the child – or the mother – well enough to know if they were right.  But something about the conversation catalyzed a memory of a blog post I’d started, but abandoned, last month.

I kept thinking about judgment and ownership, about who owns the failures and who owns the successes.  It’s a complicated question!  I suppose that Ms. X, on a “real” Ms. X day, would say it was simple: “I teach,” she might intone, “and it’s up to Them whether They want to learn or not.”  According to Ms. X’s words, success and failure belong solely to students; according to educational reformers – the ones whose mantra is that “failure is not an option,” who might quote such Ms. X statements as an indictment of “those bad, lazy teachers” – success and failure really belong to teachers and schools.  But Ms. X and her “enemies” would agree on one thing: if we just make the stakes high enough, if we punish or threaten or yell and label enough, the “bad, lazy” ones will – or should – shape up, get busy, “succeed” according to the terms that “we” have established for “them.”

Of course, the antecedents of “we” and “them” are different!  But the underlying attitude – the factory-model notion that control can bring compliance – is the same,  deeply rooted in the structures of 20th-century society.

But I don’t think it’s that simple.

When teachers make Ms. X proclamations like that, they’re usually coming from a place of deep frustration … because teachers, overwhelmingly, are conscientious, caring people.  We “want what’s best” for our students – but sometimes our definition of best is radically different from theirs, or their parents’, or the one favored by Powers That Be.  And that’s what reminded me of the comment and the half-written post.

A friend of mine, an excellent, veteran, caring teacher, had written something then that bothered me, but I couldn’t quite tell why.  “The professionals,” she said, “know what is best for our students.”  She was contrasting professional, trained educators with “amateur” reformers who lack deep training or experience.  She was committed to the notion that domain expertise means you can – and should – tell non-experts what to do, and she bitterly resented the intrusion of non-experts into “her” professional domain.  If you have an unguarded conversation with any frustrated professional, you might hear something similar: your doctor-friend complaining about patients who return, over and over, with similar medical issues because they won’t take their medicine, won’t follow the diet and exercise regime.  Your lawyer-friend, frustrated that once again, That Client wouldn’t follow advice, then called in a panic about another predictable, preventable legal mess.  Your accountant-friend, who filed yet another extension for That Same Client who won’t get organized.  Your mechanic-friend, frustrated by That Customer who waits till there’s a “Christmas tree” of warning lights on the dashboard, then wants the work done yesterday for free.

And all of us – the teacher, the doctor, the lawyer, the accountant, the mechanic – do know “what is best” in the abstract.  If we take enough time, listen carefully enough, do the hard work of seeking first to understand, we might even know “what is best” for that particular client, customer, student.  But that sentence still bothered me.

It’s been bothering me since January 17, when I started, then abandoned, my post about M’s Facebook comment.  Why?

Maybe it was that phrase “the professionals” – that self-appointed group of experts making decisions based on superior (and secret) knowledge, then imposing those decisions on others.  I had just started reading Daniel Pink’s newest book, To Sell Is Human, and was struck by the contrast he draws between the old paradigm (limited information, caveat emptor) and the new one (a surfeit of information, caveat venditor).  Adding “the” seemed to imply something even more exclusive than just “professionals” –  a self-selected, self-limiting group, looking down from Above at “the amateurs” like Powers That Be, then make pronouncements that ought to be obeyed unquestioningly.  I thought of Parker J. Palmer’s image, in The Courage to Teach, of “experts” serving as “baffles” between the pure, abstract “subject” and the uninformed masses who ought not approach too closely.

Maybe it was the idea of knowing best.  There’s a singularity about best: there’s clearly only one best, and (logically enough) you either know it or you don’t.

And maybe it was the idea of “our” students.  That probably shouldn’t bother me, because – to be fair – I refer to “my” students and “my” alumni all the time.  But in context, there was a sense that “we professionals” might own or control “our” students … and that bothered me, too, as it bothered Debbie when she responded to yesterday’s post:

It is important to remember that A child is not OUR Child. He/she is a unique and separate individual. Everyone is a separate individual walking his or her own path. We observe, we guide, we inform, we question and challenge but in the end we are all on separate paths.
The emotional attachment that you speak of, to me, represents an attempt to walk the path for others, an entanglement of paths…. It took some contemplation but I realized that all I can really do is hold out my hand to help. It is up to them whether or not they choose to grab hold. I learned how to care but still maintain that perspective of separate paths.
Caring, empowerment,support – but separate.

Isn’t that what being a catalyst for learning is all about?

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Published in: on February 27, 2013 at 11:49 am  Leave a Comment  

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