Change is Still Hard

Sometime on Wednesday afternoon, I went to pick up a print job from the Great Big Copier/Printer downstairs.  It was a small job – one copy per upper-level student of a self-assessment rubric for the “Bridging Minor Assessment” they’ve been working on.  A few years ago, back when I was still trying to make textbooks work for my students,  there would have been a lot more copies!  I used to spend hour after hour, year after year, creating and refining the “perfect” materials, “perfecting” a System that would help every student excel.

You can probably see why I’ve needed place and time to work on my own factory mindset!  As Seth Godin pointed out recently,  they never were my students to begin with.  And Systems can’t be perfect.  And if you try to do things for, not with those you aim to serve, it never really works.  These days, I aim for fewer copies and more interaction, less System and more collaborative creation.  We had some almost paperless days this week in every class, and I apologized to the Latin I classes for “burying them in paper” on Monday, when there were three separate handouts.

But change is still hard.  I had to wait a while to pick up those self-assessment forms.  When I arrived, Young Mr. Y was standing there, making copy after copy of what must have been a 45- or 50-page packet.

Fortunately, he was almost done.  And  he told me the packet was supposed to last for two or three weeks.  But still!

Even Mr. Y was a bit uneasy with the size of the packet.  At his Former School, it seems, he had “been to” a professional-development training called “Worksheets Don’t Grow Dendrites.”  I haven’t experienced that particular training, but I’ve heard great things about the book and the author.  And I would think that at least one of her “20 instructional strategies that engage the brain” would have sparked Mr. Y’s interest, especially since they’re said to “maximize memory, engagement, and learning for every student.”   That’s the goal I tried to meet with my former process of perfecting materials, and if you asked most teachers, they’d probably say they’d love to have maximum “memory, engagement, and learning” from their students.

Or at least that’s what they’d say in theory!  In practice, when Ms. X and Mr. Y have students who ask too many questions or ask the wrong questions, who deviate from the perfect schedule or already know what was on today’s lesson plan, Ms. X and Mr. Y often aren’t all that pleased.

But despite all the trainings and, it seems, a few directives from Former Powers he’d worked for, there stood Mr. Y, methodically copying those packets.  To be fair, it’s clear that he knows – at least intellectually – that Giant Worksheet Packets aren’t the best way to teach.  “But the thing about it is,” he said, “I can either do this, or we can waste 45 minutes while they copy the information from the PowerPoint.”

Change is still hard for Mr. Y.  No matter what his workshop presenter said, no matter what any Power might tell him, Mr. Y just knows what teaching really is, even though he might not verbalize it.  For him, for so many teachers everywhere, teaching really is the transfer of pre-packaged information.  And as The Teacher, Mr. Y is in charge of both the packaging and the transfer.  I suppose that’s why he, and all those others, became a teacher, too – because he liked being in charge of packaging and transfer.  That view of teaching as packaging and transfer is at the heart of everything from “teacher observations” to value-added measurement of teachers’ “effectiveness,” from scripted curricula to myriad labels and interventions developed for students who, for whatever reason, can’t or won’t handle the packaging and transfer process their teachers “normally” use.

Ms. X, Mr. Y, and the others often talk about how much they hate cell phones and devices, about students getting distracted and being off task.  I think what they really hate is not being in charge of the packaging and transfer of information.  “What if that bad, lazy kid misses something important?” Ms. X asks.  “What if there’s something more important – at least to That Kid – than what I packaged and transferred?” is the unasked question.  If teaching really is packaging and transfer to you, and all of a sudden nobody wants or needs that anymore, where does it leave you?  Change is still hard when it strikes at the core of your professional – and personal – identity.

D and his friends hate the packaging and transfer process, but change is still hard for them, too.  They hate it, but it’s what they know, what they associate with school.  Confronted with an environment like the “Latin Family,” one deliberately designed to be different from transfer-focused, factory-model school, D and the others are intrigued and scared and surprised and annoyed.  Their friend K, who didn’t take more Latin, is the one who begged me to “give us a worksheet and tell us what to put on it” that time.  D wouldn’t do the worksheet if you gave it to him, but he’s not sure what – or how –  to do without one.

On Thursday, D wanted to share some food with a friend of his, and he needed a plastic sandwich bag.  “Do you have one, Mr. S?” he asked – and I remembered that yes, there were some in the plastic storage drawers under the table.  D wasn’t obviously different in class after that, but after class, he asked if he could have another bag to share another cupcake with another friend.  And when he received it, he thanked me … with his deep, natural, mature voice, not the high-pitched half-scream he often uses in the hallway.

Change is still hard for D, but maybe it’s starting …  maybe it’s been under way and I just haven’t noticed it.  B, who’s been balancing a tremendous load of obligations, asked if he could take an assignment home and finish it; has he ever done that before?  B, B, and U were more involved than usual in their work, too.  And O and K, who sometimes get distracted, worked diligently on the “Bridging Minor Assessment,” which can either replace a poor score on the one from last week or set a floor for the next one.  Everyone seemed grateful for the voice and choice opportunity, even though change was still hard and they got off task sometimes and the results weren’t as “perfect” as we wanted them to be.

Change is still hard when you’re building a joyful learning community together, but it’s a lot less hard when you’re building it with, not for its members.  It’s a lot less hard when you’re building meaningful things together than when you’re packaging and transferring information in a world where information is abundant and free.  I wonder what hard changes we’ll work on together today!

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Published in: on September 13, 2013 at 10:30 am  Leave a Comment  

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