Speaking for Others, IV

“I feel,” said a friend of mine recently, “as though I’ve lost an important part of my voice, and I want it back.” For my friend, the cause was a long-ended, but significant romantic relationship with someone who wanted to be the only voice, who saw others as ornaments at best, hindrances at worst, depending on how “cooperative” and “good” those others were – from his perspective.  It seems his aggressive, controlling demeanor masked an inner core of weakness and insecurity, one that ended up dooming the relationship.

I thought about my friend – and her ex, whom I never knew – several times Wednesday.  At our worst, factory-model schools and those of us who work there can be a lot like That Guy.  We define cooperative and good as doing things our way – and bad and lazy as doing things some other way – and then we employ all sorts of techniques to reward the “good” and shame the “bad.”  At our best, we try to build learning communities – joyful or otherwise.  But, even then, are we seeking authentic communities where everyone has a voice, or controlled communities where we still have the real power?

In a comment on yesterday’s post, Barry asked

Consider the definition of two alternative cultural models:

1. Control-Oriented, Rule-Oriented, Punishment-Oriented, Bureaucratic and Authoritarian Police Culture

2. Observation-Oriented, Function-Oriented, Education-Oriented, Scientific and Authoritative Academic Culture

Now let me pose a very hard problem about those two cultural models.

Please tell me which one is benign and which one is wicked….

You know I hate binary choices, Barry, so my first response was “Options 3 and 4 – all of the above and none of the above.”  I’m not sure these two “cultural models” are really “alternative,” and I want to know who gets to define benign and wicked.  This post is a less-flippant attempt to answer your question, the related ones it sparked, and another, more practical one: how do these issues play out in the day-to-day work of my classroom in spring 2013?

It was warm again on Wednesday, and the sun was shining again after some chilly, gray days. Spring Break draws ever closer, and so do midterm exams.  If they’ve looked at the schedule, Ms. X and Mr. Y may have started “reviewing,” in that fretful, random way we teachers do when we’re not really clear about what – or why – our students need to learn.  “I put the all the exam questions on the review sheet,” someone often says, “but those bad, lazy kids wouldn’t even do the sheet or study.  What’s wrong with them?”

Cooperative and good … or bad and lazy.  Right … and wrong.  Who gets to define the terms?  Who gets to use the labels?

At lunch on Wednesday, One Ms. X was angry at That Student who had been “rude.”   He interrupted her, it seems, to complain loudly about the “boring and irrelevant” class. “Can you believe it?”  she asked.  “I told him he has to take a state test in My Class just like he does in his other classes, and if he doesn’t do well enough, he’ll fail and have to take it again.  That ought to motivate him!”  Other Ms. X and Third Ms. X agreed, then started their own litany of “bad student” stories.

For these three, it’s all crystal clear.  They get to define the terms and use the labels; students don’t.  Since they’re good teachers who really care, students’ authentic, but divergent voices and opinions are rude, bad, and lazy.  Less than ten minutes later, One Ms. X admitted something: she herself sees the content of Her Class as boring and irrelevant. So she “works hard” to find “fun stuff for them to do” to learn “the boring stuff they have to learn for the test.”

Like That Guy, is she trying to hide something about (from?) herself by labeling and controlling others?

After the Ms. X brigade left, Ms. E and I stared at each other. “That was mild,” she said, “compared with earlier.” Then we talked about being a positive example for our students, about not asking them to do things we’re unwilling to do ourselves.

That’s important whether you’re building an authentic community or managing a more benign factory, isn’t it?  In some respects, leadership is the same.

Even in a teaching factory, Powers That Be stress being consistent.  Make the notebook, too, if you ask your students to do it.  Follow the dress code, too. If students don’t get to answer cell phones in class, don’t be answering yours. And on a deeper level, if you want your students to know when to be silent and when to speak, model that, too. Whether it’s a benignly-run factory or a joyful learning community, every organization has boundaries, and the leaders’ work – shared work, of course, in a real community – is to help define and maintain those.

Over the past few years, as I’ve worked on the Tres Columnae Project and become more attuned to students’ voices, I’ve struggled with how, when, whether to intervene in boundary issues.  What’s the best response in this  situation, when students don’t – or won’t – respect boundaries, when they won’t – or can’t –  manage themselves?  While I’m not a big fan of behavior-management systems like Assertive Discipline, I think assertiveness itself is a reasonable goal.  It’s easy to be aggressive, like That One Ms. X, and it’s easy to be “nicey-nice” or “super lenient.”  To find the middle way, the “third alternative,” is a challenge.  I’ve been wanting to help students build more ownership of their learning and their behavior, but it’s easy to let the pendulum swing too far, to take too little ownership myself, to ask them to do more than they’re currently ready to do.

So, Barry, I still haven’t answered your question, have I?  Does that make me bad and lazy?  I’ll try to do better on Friday!

What do you think?

Published in: on March 20, 2013 at 11:57 pm  Leave a Comment  

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