Building Up the Team

Thursday was another imperfect but excellent day – and the sequence of days like that caused Brendan and Debbie to wonder what, if anything, has changed for me since this time last year, when a school year also began with hope but  quickly devolved into pain-punishment cycles and factory-routine.  Debbie asked,

I wonder what all has changed? Is it just you, your perspective, or has there indeed been changes at the school?

And Brendan added,

I’ve been wondering that, too.  It’s a great question, and exploring it a bit could help keep the momentum going.

I thought about it for a minute, and then I thought, why not make a comparison with posts from a year ago.  You can see the positive vibes in those, as well.  I think part of what’s going on, is that a fresh start gives everyone more energy, including the teachers and the students, and that helps set things up on the right track.

For example, “Day 2 and 3,” _”So all three classes, at this point, are really feeling like joyful learning communities.”_

“Friends who know of my struggle with factory-model schooling may be wondering where my change of heart came from! And I’m not entirely sure myself. But I did realize a few things…”

Fascinating, isn’t it?  There are so many parallel themes in those August, 2012 posts from the first days of class.  Maybe by continuing to look for the underlying factors, including signs of trouble, even more insight can be had into what’s going on.

I know in my case, from junior high, to high school, to college, I generally have had a pattern of doing at least decently well at the start of a year or when there’s a start at a new school, and my grades, performance, and quality of experience have dropped off through the subsequent months, and definitely year.

Why is that?  Is it because what’s presented through these entire years could be presented in a much more compressed way?  Maybe a lot of it is just the feeling of newness, and the sense of open-endedness?

What, if anything, is different now from last year?  For one thing, the students are different.  That senior class, an especially bitter and unhappy group, has graduated, and the current seniors are –  have always been – more positive, more willing to set a tone and be an example.  By Day 4 last August, I could see some troubling signs: between a third and a quarter of the students in those Latin I classes simply could not – or would not – create a question about a Latin passage they’d read, let alone share it or answer one from someone else.  For the most part, they could handle questions I asked.  But having a voice, having ownership, having some power? That was foreign to them, and they resisted.  “Why won’t you just give us a worksheet and tell us what to put on it?” they silently (or loudly) pleaded.  The current Latin I classes, by contrast, have embraced creating questions, and they generally enjoyed their deep dive into the endless ocean of online information about Roman families yesterday.  Demographically, if you looked at statistics and data, they look similar to last year’s group; when you look at personalities, they’re utterly different.

Different and hopeful.  As hopeful as last year’s group was cynical.

It’s a very different faculty, too.  At least three of the Young Ms. X brigade are gone, replaced with more seasoned, kindly, positive teachers.  Our Current Principal, who got the job mid-year after her predecessor was promoted to Greater Power, sees the problems and perils of factory-thinking and is slowly, carefully, deliberately working to turn the ship and send it in a more positive direction.  I see smiles, even at the end of a long, tiring day, where I saw sad, frustrated faces a year ago.

Leadership, we all know, is vital … but what does a leader do in entrenched, bureaucratic systems?  One vital role is setting the tone, helping to build, strengthen, and support community … because fragile, fleeting forms of community do emerge even in the most entrenched factory systems. As a formal or informal leader, you can help it grow or help it die.

That’s a humbling realization.

Without spending much money, without making a fuss, our Current Principal has been helping the community grow … and that encourages others to do likewise, to build up the team rather than tear it down.   Last year, when my students struggled to focus after a small-group activity, I would get frustrated and emphasize the negative: “Do you realize we took 24 seconds to end the conversations after we started making the signum?  That’s not acceptable!”  Why? Because I heard and internalized negative messages.  This year I’ve made the signum less obvious – I just put my hand to my ear and silently count the time – but responses are faster and the mood is positive.  Why?  Because my feedback is different: “I’m really impressed!  We were in the midst of a complicated small-group task, but we were still all focused in less than 15 seconds!”

It helps – so much – to hear positive messages.  And it’s easier to send them when you’re receiving them.  How can you give what you don’t have?

Ms. X, Mr. Y, and I tried to give what we didn’t have last year.  Feeling students’ silent judgments of bad, lazy teachers, we over-corrected frustrated everyone.  Feeling their teachers’ judgments, students reacted predictably … and the pain-punishment cycle continued.

An old friend loves to say that (factory-model) education is special because “you can reinvent yourself and get a fresh start every year.”  That’s true … to an extent.  But to keep the fresh start going after the “honeymoon period” –  that takes leadership and effortcommunity and shared vision.  You can’t just assume or mandate or ignore and hope.

There’s a lesson – many lessons – for us builders and sustainers of joyful communities.  Starting them is hard; sustaining them is hard; watching them die of neglect is hard and painful.  Keeping them going, building them together – it’s definitely worth the effort.

What will we all need to do to keep our joyful communities going today?

Published in: on August 30, 2013 at 10:36 am  Leave a Comment  

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