In a few weeks, one of the authors of this book will spend an afternoon with my colleagues and me. When I found out, right before school started, I was amazed and delighted. Achievement, caring, and safety, all flowing from a web of relationships, an understanding that the world is a network of networks rather than a hierarchy, and an understanding that people are much more like “plants” than “rocks!” Go and read the book, or check out the related website, and you’ll probably see why I was so excited. My biggest concern, several weeks ago, was that Ms. X and Mr. Y would see that upcoming October afternoon as another thing to do, one of Those Programs that They tell Us to go to. I also had visions of Some Ms. X rolling her eyes and complaining about touchy-feely or unrealistic, about her bad, lazy students whom she “has to” control because, as she sees it, they “can’t control themselves.” I’m hoping our session will help Ms. X, Mr. Y, all of our colleagues, and me go deeper, get past the easy excuses, and build more authentic, more joyful learning communities together with our students.
To be honest, I could also hear a side of myself, a side more prominent when I was a young teacher, half-secretly sympathizing with That Ms. X. I’m not proud of that side of myself, and I try not to let it control me or even influence me very much. But after more than two decades working within the factory-system of Schools As They Are And Were, plus all those years as a student, I guess it would be hard not to develop such a side. And if you pretend it’s not there, if you try to avoid that shadow side of yourself, what happens? Those efforts to avoid and deny end up giving more power and influence to the very thing you wanted to minimize or deny.
Going deeper is important, but you have to be careful how and where you do it. As Thomas Merton points out in the third chapter of No Man Is an Island, the section we talked about at Book Group Monday evening, your “psychological conscience” or consciousness works best when you look through it, not at it. If we spend all our time on self-examination, it’s like spending all your class time on assessment: you get so busy weighing the pig, as the old saying goes, that you forget to feed it. You might also forget that the pig itself has a perspective, that it isn’t just a “rock” (to borrow that term from A Connected School again), but a living thing with needs, desires, and perspectives of its own.
Ms. X, Mr. Y, and That Side of me sometimes forget about that. So do politicians who see programs rather than people, or anyone who sees categories or subgroups rather than this person and that person.
I kept getting reminders on Wednesday. It’s a difficult time in our military- and government-dependent part of the world, as the uncertainty of the partial government shutdown continues and the implications begin to be clear. T was crying in the middle of class, and B went out in the hallway to comfort her, and at the end of the period, T apologized for being distracted. “It’s just that my mom got her furlough notice yesterday, and my dad will probably get his today,” and T understandably sees a world of financial ruin and chaos ahead. If I were Ms. X, I probably would have snapped or yelled or labeled or threatened or promised or something; instead, more secure in the notion that we really are becoming a joyful learning community together, I waited … and when the time was right, I listened and learned. I wasn’t sure how much Paired Reading First the groups would be able to do with those last two stories in Tres Columnae Lectio V, the ones we read yesterday and will be creating questions about today. But when I stopped fretting over task compliance and trying to control the process, I was pleasantly surprised – and H, who’s been distracted for the past few days, told me he was “going to do work today,” and he did. And N, who’s been sick, was back and feeling better. And B, U, and B in the upper-level class, who’d been very distracted for days, seemed more focused, too.
That’s the thing about joyful learning communities: they’re deeper than you realize. Sometimes the growth is obvious, like the growth of that (literal or metaphorical) plant above the surface, where you can see it. But sometimes the growth is below the surface, invisible and unperceived, like the spreading roots that will support those new leaves and stems. Ms. X and Mr. Y, well-trained in the factory mindset, seek a linear growth pattern and believe they can control the rate; builders and sustainers of joyful communities know that, in the end, we can only control ourselves. And when we focus on what we can control and influence, and leave other things to those who can control and influence them, just look what happens!
I wonder what unexpected, joyful, deeper things will happen today!