Timing is Everything, I

On the very first day of school, and on the first hot day each spring, we take a moment or two to talk about the odd little sign I made to hang under the (window unit) air conditioner in my classroom.  With a (lovely?) clip-art watermark of a stop sign, it reminds us all that, if you use the wall switch rather than the buttons on the control panel, the circuit-breaker will probably trip.

Most classrooms in our Rather Old Building have similar signs.  But most just say “Don’t Touch the Switch.”  Ms. X and Mr. Y have “too much to cover,” and – understandably enough, I guess – they think students should Obey Instructions and Follow Directions.

On Thursday, while I was at that really productive meeting, somebody in the mid-morning class – everyone says it was U, but he insists it wasn’t  – ignored that sign.  And, to her everlasting credit, the substitute teacher called the office to have someone flip the breaker back … as soon as the class was over.  For  between 60 and 90 miserable minutes, U had a first-hand, practical, hands-on lesson in the natural consequences of one’s actions.  Angry, upset classmates too hot to concentrate.  B, his friend, with a nosebleed from the heat.  J, The Other B, everyone he wanted to impress  … decidedly unimpressed.

U, a senior, will graduate from high school next month.  And yet he’s never learned about actions and consequences.  Ms. X, and factory-schools in general, like to talk about them (“You bad, lazy child!  I’m going to give you a consequence if you do that again!  Now, let me think what that should be ….”).  But by misusing the word, we do great harm!  You don’t “give” a consequence; consequences happen.  By “giving” artificial ones, we actually shield young people from real ones, infantilizing them in the name of making them behave or getting through the day.

On Friday morning, when I arrived at school and read the substitute’s note about the incident, I wasn’t sure how to respond.  Both other classes, she said, had been wonderful – and she didn’t say the mid-morning class had been terrible; she just described, in a  matter-of-fact way, what had happened.  So, while the early-morning class was reading  stories, creating Question Cubes and Question Booklets, and – in a few cases – making their first Minor Assessment Products of this reporting period, I turned my response over to the intuitive, subconscious side of my mind.  It wasn’t until the mid-morning group began to arrive – and two or three students asked “Are you mad?” or “Are you upset?” – that I knew what to say.

After That Bell rang, and after we exchanged our customary Latin greetings, everyone was unusually silent.  Had I been Ms. X, a storm of yelling and labeling would certainly have followed.  “How dare you make me look bad?!” she would have screamed.  “You are so bad, lazy, and disrespectful!  I’m going to give you three quizzes and seven tests every day for the rest of the year until you learn some manners and respect!”  With those angry words and empty threats, Ms. X would have made everything her problem. U, or Whoever It Was, would have gained some sympathy, even some admiration.

But that’s not what anybody needed – especially U, or Whoever It Was.

“I gather,” I said, “that yesterday was a day of really important learnings.  Some of us learned that our actions have real consequences, that they affect people outside of ourselves.  Some of us [this is when everybody said “U!” and he said “It wasn’t me!”] learned why that sign is on the air conditioner.  And a lot of us learned that it’s really hard to concentrate or work when we’re hot and physically uncomfortable.”

By this point, everyone was quiet.  Usually someone has something to say to somebody, or somebody wants to play the “let’s make Ms. X mad” game and see if it will work.  But not then.  “So,” I continued, “the good news is that there was more work than you would have been able to finish on Thursday anyway, and we have some time to finish reading the stories and making the Cubes and Booklets today.  So let me get out of your way.”

It was the quietest, most productive Friday I can remember for them.  First they were stunned; then they were amazed, or something; then they were busy reading Latin stories and writing questions about them.  I’m sure U desperately wanted some yelling and labeling; he was unusually subdued, partly out of fear for What Might Happen and partly out of real regret for what he’d thoughtlessly, impulsively done to his friends.  Had I yielded to my yelling and labeling impulse, had I jumped into the pain-punishment cycle, U would have been as (temporarily) relieved as any addict with a fix.

But a fix is the last thing addicts need, even though it’s what they crave.  Denied his pain-punishment fix, U had to confront the hard reality of what he’d done … and I hope that unwelcome gift was a good graduation present.

On Friday morning, before I knew about The Incident, Debbie had these thoughts:

I’m curious … in your very productive meeting yesterday did people raise their hand when they wanted to speak? Just curious.

re: good enough, I am reminded of my parenting programs. We always began by painting a picture of what we wanted our children to be like at “age 16” and the comment was always made, “well in this day and age, if only….”
I would tell the parents to reach for the sky. They might only hit the tops of the trees once they get there but if they only aimed for the tree tops then they may only hit the lower branches. Strive for “pie in the sky” and do your best at giving the children the best beginnings that they can get.

I hadn’t thought about it until now but by lowering our standards for our kids we are also lowering our standards for ourselves — we don’t have to be our best; we don’t have to strive for that A+ for our own actions. Byexpecting mediocracy we get to BE “mediocracy”. Bad, lazy adults!

What a wonderful insight!  Ms. X likes to talk about high standards, but for her those “standards” mean high failure rates or high numbers of “discipline write-ups.”  Poor teaching, in other words, and poor relationships with learners … astonishingly, pervasively, mislabeled as excellence.  In the factory-world, perhaps that re-labeling made sense.  But the factory-world is dead and the natural consequences of factory-thinking are increasingly becoming as unpleasant as U’s impulsive flipping of The Switch.  How long will it take before the consequences sink in, even for U and Ms. X?  And when they, too, are ready to leave factory-thinking behind, how will we welcome them into the better, utterly different world of joyful community?

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Published in: on May 20, 2013 at 10:05 am  Comments (5)  

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  1. Not sure why this is such a big deal. The kid forgot something — not to flip the switch. He didn’t do it on purpose to make everyone hot. Why didn’t people just say, “Oops, someone forgot and flipped the switch, let’s tell the office about it” — end of story? I forget such things every day, first and foremost NOT to write on the smart board with a whiteboard pen! Luckily my students don’t point out the consequences of my foolishness! They laugh and tell me that the spray can might help.

    • If it had been a question of actual forgetting, I don’t think anyone would have minded that much, and I have a feeling The Substitute would have promptly called the office. But that’s not what it was. U, bless his heart, “forgets” things all the time. He “forgets” that it’s rude to start a loud conversation across the classroom when the class is doing something all together. He “forgets” that not everyone wants to hear about his favorite conversation topics. He “forgets” how easily led and easily distracted his friends B and J are. According to the rest of the class, they all yelled at him, “No! Don’t touch the switch!” but he did it anyway. Deliberately. Heedlessly. Because he thought it would be funny, or cool, or something. Because he’s never learned that his “funny and cool” impulses can have real, lasting, hurtful consequences for people he cares about.

      For U’s sake, I’m really glad it was a relatively minor thing like this. It had a profound effect on him; he’s been quiet, almost pensive, and it really seems to have hit him that he hurt a lot of people. And that’s why it was a big deal.

      Does that make sense?

  2. On standards, there’s a sign at my school: “The standards we set are the standards we get.” It makes me uneasy (like so many things in the world of education!). How about “The standards our students set for themselves are the only ones that matter”? How about “The standards we set for ourselves may eventually be noticed by the students”? Am I getting over-sensitive to every suggestion that we are there to nag, poke and prod our students into achieving what we have planned for them? Probably.

  3. […] or  calls me, interrupting a class, to ask how to do that.  She “forgets” – the way U “forgot” about the air-conditioner switch – and thinks “forgetting” should be an excuse – for her.  But she screams about […]

  4. […] needed to be done and explained it to B and M.  There was the quiet, thoughtful way that U (of the Switch Incident last week) asked for permission to do something.  In the afternoon, there was the celebration when […]


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