Finding the Balance, II

Balance.  It’s an aspirational goal for many, a rare achievement for some.  Folks had a lot to say about it, too, in the Google+ thread about yesterday’s blog post.  Diana, quite possibly the busiest person I know, talked about structures and routines; friends in higher education bewailed the out-of-balance tendencies so many institutions’ structures encourage.  And Emily shared this story:

One of my students just came in and asked me for advice:  He has a History test, a Chem test, and a speech for Speech Class tomorrow…and no time to study, since he has all of this other homework.  How should he work on this?

Poor student.

He commented that I was the only teacher who was able to assign work on a reasonable schedule.

Nothing about traditional schooling promotes balance.  All the teachers have the “MY class is most important!  You MUST do the work for my class, or you get a ZERO!”  So, my students are finding that either they sacrifice their grades or their sleep or their life.  No Balance.

They have reached the point of being what I call Full.  Full is the point where you are so stressed and tired and overwhelmed, that you just cannot deal with absorbing more.

And we wonder why our students are “bad and lazy”?  They aren’t. They are simply tired and Full.

Tired … and Full.  That describes my students – and colleagues – pretty well.  Unfortunately, when teachers are Full, we rarely stop to notice that.  Instead, from our own place of overwhelming stress, we try to cram just a bit more into already Full students.

“Work ’em hard next week,” said a veteran colleague  to some of the younger teachers, “and make sure they stay in class and don’t go roaming the halls.”  My colleague can do that without increasing students’ stress level.  But for Young Ms. X, who knows no difference between complexity and difficulty, “hard” only means “more of the same.”  More worksheets, more notes, more PowerPoint lectures … more yelling and labeling when students are too Full to absorb any more.

Those “all-important” midterm exams started Monday, end today.  My colleagues act convinced of their grave importance.  Ms. X and Mr. Y proudly hand out That Study Guide, containing all the questions from their exams.  Then they seriously ask students to complete the guide (in serious, serious silence), “go over” it, then give their students that identical exam.  Then, predictably, the complaining starts: “those kids can’t think” and “all they want to do is memorize,” or “they’re so bad and lazy that some of them actually failed.”  Then the calls  – “How do you make it be 20% of their overall grade for the grading period?”

Balance … it’s hard to find. Ms. X, seeking Serious Rigor, makes the process a parody by handing out questions in advance. Mr. Y, seeking quiet students to be quiet for an hour so he can “finish grades,” ends up yelling for quiet. And I want my students to have an authentic learning experience, to emerge with a deep sense of strengths as well as weaknesses.

With such different priorities and goals, no wonder it’s confusing! No wonder everyone – teachers and students alike – feels tired, frustrated, angry, Full.

The Ms. X brigade was Full at lunch Monday.  They complained, bitterly, about “bad, lazy students”… and about how they, personally, were “too tired to do anything.” They were so loud, so angry that, if they’d been their own students, they would have been “written up for disrespect” and sent to one of the Powers That Be for punishment.  In their own Fullness, they didn’t seem to see the irony of being “too tired,” of not wanting “to play that review game with those kids,” while they complained about their students’ “laziness” and “apathy.” I thought of Debbie’s story of the little boy who cursed and hit, whose mom had no idea why.

For so many  students – and even colleagues – school seems essentially random. Every so often, things happen: exams, days off, special schedules. They don’t see a bigger picture, don’t believe there is one. They (teachers, administrators, Powers That Be) periodically announce stuff;  the stuff happens; sometimes there’s yelling and labeling , or report cards with numbers and comments. Who would believe that these things might be connected – or that there’s a common thread uniting today’s class-starter about Latin pronouns with the pronoun-filled story we’ll be reading?

I wonder what happens with Ms. X and Mr. Y’s midterms once That Machine has graded them. It has the ability to produce a “summary sheet” with some useful details: how many students missed each question, average scores, things like that. Those summary sheets sit, dusty and unused, in a nearby drawer.  For those classes that use the new online assessment system, I wonder how many teachers actually look at the pretty charts and graphs it generates. “I don’t have time for that nonsense,” scoffed a Ms. X last year, “I’m too busy teaching.” And just yesterday someone told me formative, in-process assessment wouldn’t work in her class, her subject area, because “they never know anything coming in” and “there’s too much to cover, anyway.”

As we strive to build Joyful Learning Communities, the work isn’t easy and the distractions are many. One of the hardest obstacles, I think, is that sense of randomness and apathy so common in factory-model schools. “They,” said an old friend  two decades ago, “are gonna do what They’re gonna do, and so are the kids. Just get used to it, close your door, and hope They leave you alone.” That’s a recipe for both frustration and failure; They, by job description, can’t leave You alone even if They want to. But what’s the best way to invite jaded, angry, Full folks – folks just trying to survive the day –  into a circle around the Fire of Truth? How will we build joyful, connected communities even where disconnected randomness is the paradigm?

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Published in: on March 26, 2013 at 10:48 am  Leave a Comment  

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