Since I was at a Curriculum Development Team planning meeting all day Thursday, I don’t have any reports from the classroom. Someone did share this advice about handling students who “call out” as I was writing a draft of this post, though, and as I read it, I thought of D, T, and K. The image of needy child as “hungry lion cub” desperately seeking attention is powerful, but I was less thrilled with the 20th-century classroom paradigm implied in the advice. I felt the same way about the author’s posts on handling students who interrupt and those who behave disrespectfully or are “outrageously immature.” Great insights into why, good suggestions about how to handle oneself emotionally, but a very different paradigm of what to do from mine. My colleague who says “nothing has changed” about classroom management would disagree with me, I’m sure. And I have a feeling Ms. X and Mr. Y would have a different complaint: “too much work” or “so much trouble” or “too much to cover” or “I don’t have time for that!”
In the immortal (?) words of Sweet Brown, “ain’t nobody got time for that!” But what do you think?
We didn’t talk much about classroom management or its 21st-century equivalent on Thursday; school culture and expectations and building relationships were listed as themes for others’ presentations. But we had a good, productive day. We’re a congenial group, and we know each other – and trust each other – well enough to speak uncomfortable, but necessary truths. With an agenda that would have taken days to complete, we’d decided to focus on planning the staff-development sessions assigned to us for the upcoming school year, a task made more difficult three different calendars requiring three different sets of training. By the end of the day, we’d managed to set an overall goal for the training sessions, to make general decisions about what should happen at each one, and to make detailed plans for the July/August and September/October dates.
The task was complicated, at first, by an uncomfortable truth we didn’t want to talk about. But then Ms. N and Ms. T brought it up together. “Those older ladies,” they said, “who don’t want to change. They’ve been a problem for a while, but now they’re a big problem.” And then, after we’d confessed Sra. X and Mme. Y’s sins for a while, someone made the other uncomfortable, necessary point: “It isn’t fair to the kids,” she said.
That led to a long, heart-felt conversation, and that led to the well-formed plan for July and August. “How can we make them change?” asked someone, and we agreed that you can’t make people change. But you can change the conditions around them, make the status quo uncomfortable enough that people want to change. Perhaps the changes that Powers That Be are planning will have that effect, too … but the status quo is powerful, and complex systems have ways of resisting – and subverting – those unwelcome, potentially disruptive changes. “Just close my door,” one of my oldest teacher-friends said, “and let me teach, and I’ll put on a dog-and-pony show when They want me to. And remember, this too shall pass.”
Powerful Wisdom to live by – if the factory is all there is. As I was leaving school Wednesday afternoon, I passed a classroom where two colleagues were talking. “You know,” one of them said, “these unhappy new teachers – the ones that leave – don’t know how good they’ve got it here.” That was powerful Wisdom, too – if the factory is all there is. Things are “good,” in factory-school terms, when most students are “good little workers,” when discipline-related complaints focus on dress-code violations and tardiness to class. They’re “good” when most students, most of the time, mindlessly but compliantly finish That Packet and turn it in on time. They’re “good” when students worry about grades, when parents call and email to ask if Little N, age 17 or 18, has any missing assignments.
But good, as Jim Collins famously says, is the enemy of great. In this highly-relevant post from 2006, Scott McLeod explores the implications for schools. And seven years later, wave after wave of “reform” having crashed against Ms. X’s closed door, that kind of good is still the unstated factory-school goal. iDespite all the angry rhetoric, teachers, parents, administrators, community members usually think their own schools are pretty good. Or good enough. Or not that bad under the circumstances. Or something. Ms. X and Mr. Y, for all their whining and complaining about “bad and lazy” kids, usually come to believe that their classes are not so terrible or as good as you can expect by this time of the year. “How many more days?” they ask. “But it wasn’t that bad of a year, I guess.”
What a sad, inadequate standard! Not so terrible. As good as you can expect. Not that bad. At the beginning of the school year, when I asked students about their goals, I got lots of somewhat adequate responses like “pass all my classes” or “do good in school” or “not fail any classes this year.” And in Ms. X and Mr. Y’s classes, and on days when the Mr. Y in me is strong, perhaps that’s enough. Even Ms. X and Mr. Y “work hard,” if not always effectively, to make sure students get generally competent instruction and somewhat helpful assignments. And when their students exceed the goal of minimal proficiency on a standardized test, we all respond with “incentives” and “celebrations.”
But is that all we want? To be minimally competent on a factory-model scale? Debbie tells a powerful story about a teacher who did change:
I am reminded of the Grade 7/8 teacher that my daughter had.. She (the teacher) was a yeller and often sent students out in the hall for petty little things.
By month #2, the kids had had enough and wanted to do something about it. It so happened that another mother and I were having similar conversations with each of our children – address the issue with the teacher, as a class. Be respectful, be specific, be solution-oriented. Don’t attack her, don’t label her, don’t let emotions take over.
And the class did indeed ask the teacher if they could meet with her. They spoke clearly and respectfully. The teacher wasn’t aware that this is how she was acting but they had specific examples to back up their statements.
The teacher took charge of her behaviour and the kids then said that she was the best teacher they ever had!
If twenty-some seventh-graders could build a joyful community with a teacher who initially resisted and yelled, just think of what each of us can do in our little corners of the factory! I wonder what opportunities – cleverly disguised as unsolvable problems – will present themselves today! How will we use them to build and strengthen the joyful communities where we are?