Timing is Everything, II

In her post yesterday, Emily talked about the importance of grit and persistence, of Holding Things Together even when you don’t want to:

If you’re like any other person, you have occasionally had to hold it together when you just wanted to fall apart.  You might have been tired, sick, hurting, dealing with family crises, friend drama, whatever.

Whatever it was, you had to keep yourself together and give the appearance of being OK when, inside you are so…well…not. Like everything else you might learn, this is a skill, for better or worse.  Sometimes, it’s a coping mechanism for children with rough home lives, and sometimes it’s just something that some people are better at than others.  Especially these days, when people have so much going on, Keeping It Together is a necessary skill.

Decades ago, in a Methods of Foreign Language Education course, our professor told us about a teacher she’d known, who, in one school year, had been diagnosed with cancer and been painfully divorced.  But she always greeted her students with a smile, giving them her best each day. We never knew her, but her story inspired all of us to Keep It Together in our own crises.

I thought of her – and of Younger Me, the year my mother died unexpectedly and my daughter was born.  And of Slightly Less Young Me, battling health issues, dark moments, family drama.  Keeping It Together was the only way I could possibly have coped.

And I was sad for my exhausted students who’ve never learned the skills – or the mindset.

Monday wasn’t a bad day, but many of my students were Totally Done.  Not “Full”  the way Emily’s students sometimes are, their heads so crammed with facts and study guides that there isn’t room for new learning.  Not Full; just Done.  Done with Ms. X’s study guides and PowerPoints; done with Mr. Y’s packets and “just one more chapter.”  Done, distracted, ready to stop “learning” – because “learning,” for them, means filling out packets and study guides.  So Done that, even though the Latin Family’s shared work is very different,  they don’t know how to engage in it.  So Done, because no one has helped them learn how to Keep It Together,  how to persist when you just want to stop.

Was that kind of persistence really necessary?  For many of my students, One More Story wouldn’t have made much difference.  For others, it might have been the key that unlocked everything.  For still others, one last round of “Analyze and Make the Sentence” might have solidified something.  But there seemed to be an inverse relationship between the practice we appeared to need and the willingness, even ability, to engage in it on Monday.

That’s not really surprising.

After all, in Other Classes, Ms. X Holds Things Together whether you like it or not.  She yells and labels, threatens and cajoles, insists and begs, downloads the packets for you.  And when she’s tired and overwhelmed, she models excuse-finding, too.  She’ll take a “mental health day,” seeing no irony as she puts the comment “failed due to absences” on a “bad, lazy” student’s grade … 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 late homework assignments, unfinished packets, tests “too late to make up” now.  “Be responsible,” she yells, “you bad, lazy child!  No one will put up with your excuses in the Real World or in college!”

At lunch on Monday, I was talking with the “science ladies” – a remarkable joyful community themselves – about the messages schools send students.  Ms. S, who had been at That Committee Meeting last week, had just told her colleagues about that – and she thanked me for a comment I’d made.  So we talked about how faculty dress affects students’ dress, and about how teachers’ modeling sends messages to students.  We agreed that it’s hard to ask students to do things when they see teachersdo the opposite.

I love conversations with the “science ladies!”  But at this time of year, we’re all So Busy.  Their classrooms are far from mine; their schedules are different; we rarely eat at the same time.  Days go by with only a hurried greeting.  So our conversation – about the standards we set for ourselves and for others – felt like an amazing gift.

In a comment on yesterday’s post, Ann mused about the two-edged sword of standards:

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.

I don’t think you’re over-sensitive at all, Ann!  But the problem isn’t the standards themselves; it’s that “we” are “in charge” of the standards, setting and imposing and getting them from passive, infantile students.  “We” thereby encourage the very behaviors we (claim to) deplore with our empty words.  As Debbie put it,

As an ECE my training was about natural consequences — the natural consequence of X is time out. What? That’s “natural”? No it isn’t — it’s “imposed”.
What is the natural consequence of spilling your milk — that you have to clean it up. No, that would be imposed. The natural consequence is that there is no milk in the glass, the floor is wet, and probably, if left unattended, the floor will become sticky and the ants will come to check out the free food.

Natural consequences teach about life, about .. hmmm consequences of one’s actions. Isn’t that fascinating – consequences teach consequences.
Imposed consequences teach… well, don’t get caught? So-and-so is mean and unfair? That you should avoid the consequence at all costs but don’t really worry about the action itself.

For example, during one of my parenting programs a participant (who happened to be a social worker) proudly told of the consequences she imposed on her teenage daughter.
The daughter had attended a party on the weekend and one of her friends drank so much she was in serious trouble. The daughter (who was not drinking), instead of going home to meet curfew, assessed the situation with her friend, drove her to the hospital and stayed at her side until she pulled through the critical period of her care.

But .. she didn’t meet curfew and she didn’t call home until the friend was safely in the hands of the doctors. So, “obviously” she needed a punishment, a consequence of her actions. And she was grounded for some predetermined appropriate amount of time.

And I shake my head. What did the daughter learn? Well, she should have learned that she is responsible, a good problem-solver, caring, compassionate and so on and so on. She should have learned that she did exactly the right thing. She should have learned that she was an extraordinary person – and friend.

I wonder what was on her mind instead? Could it have been not about the party but that her mother wasn’t fair, that she didn’t listen, that curfew is more important than saving someone’s life, that in a life and death situation one’s curfew should be the #1 priority and you should be thinking about your mother instead of the dying person?

I can imagine Many A Ms. X rejoicing – congratulated by her colleagues – after “being tough” with an “irresponsible” child like the daughter.  After all, Many A Ms. X has “given a consequence” to students who prioritized family relationships, or Keeping Things Together, or other real responsibilities over Ms. X’s All-Important Packet.  Aiming for compliance, Ms. X forgets about greater lessons; aiming for an orderly teaching factory, she forgets about learning.  When will the time be right for Fearful Ms. X, Angry Mr. Y, and our Full, Done students to leave the factory and enter joyful community?  And how will we prepare to welcome them?

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Published in: on May 21, 2013 at 10:01 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] to yesterday’s post, Debbie […]


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