Making the Grade, III

If you live in the United States, you probably know that Tuesday was Teacher Appreciation Day.  It was also the end of the reporting period for us, and my “Professional Learning Community” group had scheduled a brief meeting after school.  Then there was That Errand, which led me to claim the Buy One, Get One Free burrito offer at the local Chipotle.  The line of hungry, bargain-seeking teachers and their families wrapped entirely around the restaurant; we were colleagues, former colleagues, students, former students, family groups, clusters of young, single teachers.  A temporary community, to be sure, but there was still a sense of connection as we stood in line together.

I think we all felt  appreciated … and full.  For me, Burrito #1 made an excellent dinner, and Burrito #2 will be a delicious lunch today … and possibly tomorrow.  There’s certainly a rote, commercial aspect to all “appreciation” days and weeks … but sometimes, once you get beyond the surface, you encounter something deep and authentic.  Something like a joyful community, or at least the seeds of one.

On Google+ yesterday, Debbie asked:

Does your school have a “student appreciation day”? Just curious. Wondering if they feel appreciated.
As a member of a joyful community everyone, I think, feels appreciated – because everyone is contributing, everyone’s input is important, valuable, and … appreciated.

Sadly, my friend and colleague Ms. C wasn’t feeling very appreciated at all Tuesday afternoon.  The small groups had been told to “read and discuss” a chapter of the book-study book before May 20.  Our group had planned to meet after Monday’s faculty meeting on Monday … but that got rescheduled, so we met on Tuesday.  Ms. C was frustrated and overwhelmed.  She really needed to see the members of the club she sponsors, but none had come to their scheduled meeting.  Ms. H had to meet with a parent and student, but they were running late.   The chapter itself was interesting  – I really like its distinction between formative assessments (in the moment, measuring a particular set of goals, leading to immediate adjustments) and interim ones (periodic and cumulative, leading to medium-term adjustments).  But as Ms. C noted, it’s hard to feel motivated to read and discuss about assessment when the whole assessment process is in flux.  She feels as though people are just going through the motions … and she’s a dedicated, conscientious teacher who hates feeling that way.  Also, she noted, it’s hard to do time-intensive work – like restructuring your whole mindset about assessment – when “They took away all of Our teacher workdays.”

Within the confines of an entirely test-driven curriculum, Ms. C works really hard to make sure  her students learn things deeply and not just for the test.  As I stood in line at Chipotle Tuesday evening, I saw many teachers who work really hard.  It’s an occupational hazard, and sometimes we wear it like a badge of honor.

But something struck me as I thought about all that really hard work, and as I thought about an appreciation I’d received  earlier.  I had challenged my upper-level, afternoon class with a particularly hard set of Major Assessment Individual Response passages: they could choose the opening of De Bello Gallico Book VIII or Cicero’s recommendation letter to Caesar on behalf of his young friend Trebatius.  For those Individual Responses, since they’re a reading-proficiency check, I deliberately don’t allow preparation time or vocabulary help; I read most of a paragraph out loud, they read the last sentence or clause (for a pronunciation check), and then I ask them “What, in general, happened in this passage?”  Without exception, everybody grasped something important – a main idea and some details – from at least part of the difficult passage they’d chosen.  And at the end of the day, when I told them how impressed I was by their work, B told me that without my work, they would have learned nothing.

Talk about appreciation!  Honestly, I still think they did more than I did.  But B was right.  Building a learning community is really hard work, but it’s a different kind from the really hard work factory-model teachers do.  That kind – the factory-kind –  keeps teachers firmly at the center, their students dependent on them for notes and tutoring, for directions and cute little activities, for affirmation  and praise, for yelling and labeling or grades.  Ms. X and Mr. Y like to complain, with words, about  “bad, lazy” students who “don’t know how to think for themselves” and “have to be told exactly what to do all the time.”  But what if, by some miracle, they ended up with classes full of independent thinkers?  What would Ms. X and Mr. Y do?   One Ms. X, now long retired, once got that wish … and she complained bitterly about those students.  “They act like they own the place,” she muttered, filled with fury.  And then the yelling and labeling started: she found them as “horrible and defiant” as the more-passive students were “bad and lazy.”

To be fair to Ms. X, the whole factory-structure is ambivalent about independence and initiative.  We value these traits with our words, enshrine them in mission and vision statements “to be posted in every classroom” by mandate of Powers That Be.  But our actions and structures – and our reactions when someone actually displays these traits?  Those actions, structures, and reactions send a very different message about what we really value.

The joyful community kind of really hard work builds independence and interdependence instead of dependence.  And it is really hard – harder, perhaps, than the really hard work of finding “cute little activities” and typing study guides.  But joyful community work, while hard, is also authentic and important in a way that factory-school hard work just isn’t.

What steps should we take, today and every day, to invite good little hard workers like Ms. X and Mr. Y to try this different, possibly scary, but deeply rewarding kind of work?

Published in: on May 8, 2013 at 10:39 am  Comments (2)  

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  1. […] positive changes?”  D, of course, had regressed – a lot – from his amazing improvement  Tuesday.  K was sick, short-tempered, in an arguing mood, and J, U, and B were somewhat talkative and […]

  2. […] got me thinking about appreciation, a topic I know I’ve addressed in posts like this one and this one from around this time last year.  In lots of schools (and not just in schools), there seems a […]

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