“How are things going for you this year?” Ms. T asked me the other day, when we both happened to be in the same place at the same time. “So much better,” I told her, “than last year” – and Ms. T, who’s known me for so many years, was glad to know that. Over the years, as we’ve taught different-but-related subjects in different parts of That Old Building, Ms. T and I have each given and received support. “Have you felt a different spirit – or something – this year?” I asked … and she had, and like me, she was glad and grateful for the change.
Sometimes signs of progress are easy to see; sometimes they’re quieter, smaller, easily overlooked. In the busy rush of the “important things” in any factory-model workplace, those small, quiet signs of progress can pass us by unnoticed – and so can equally quiet, small signs of decay, warning signs that went unnoticed at the time but seem blazingly obvious in hindsight. Every institution, every organization always has the potential for both progress and decay … and if you don’t pay attention to the small, quiet signs, you may just find yourself with a big, loud, unsolvable-looking problem down the road.
As I look back over old blog posts, and as I think of the things I didn’t write about at those times, I can see places over the past few years where signs of decay were showing up. But I don’t want to dwell on them. When we were driving to one of our Many Wednesday Events yesterday, The Boy and The Girl and I started talking about living in the present rather than the past or the future. Wise beyond his eleven years, The Boy told me he’s sure that everybody has “at least five things” they regret about the past … but it’s foolish to dwell on them because you can’t change them. The Boy has always been fascinated by the past – which I suppose isn’t surprising; it’s a family tradition, after all. But he already knows – and I hope he’ll remember – that the past isn’t a place you can live. You can draw inspiration from it, lessons and warnings and principles and guidelines. But you can’t live in the past any more than you can live in the future.
I’m seeing more of a present focus among my colleagues, and I think that’s a sign of progress, too. One Ms. X, who used to fearfully avoid The Computer except when They made her use it, had some friends from church over for a meal this week – and when she’d decided on a Chinese menu, she used The Computer to learn (and teach her friends) how to say something relevant in Chinese. I’m not sure what she used, or how accurately she and her friends said Whatever It Was … but that’s not the point. Even a year ago, That Ms. X would never have thought of such a thing; even six months ago, she felt strongly that paper dictionaries, not “The Internet,” should be used by World Language students “to look up the words they don’t know.” She’d look at my students’ work in amazement, but she was sure it was an anomaly somehow. And now, somehow, she’s embraced The Computer (and presumably The Internet, too) as a language learning tool for herself! That’s surely a sign of progress!
Another Ms. X, who still bans “calculators on their phones” from her math classes on test days because “they could cheat and look up the answer on Those Websites,” now recommends Those Websites as homework help for her students. “They can see how the problems are worked out,” she said, “and that can really help them.” That’s a definite sign of progress – especially since The Test (on which “they’re going to have to be able to do the work without Those Websites”) is the main factor holding her back from a fuller embrace of technology. If The Tests changed – or if Ms. X found a way to assess her students’ progress without printed, paper-pencil, algorithmic tests developed years ago by The Publisher of The Book – That Ms. X, of all people, might just embrace mobile technology as a learning tool.
And if Ms. X and Ms. X are that far along the journey, that’s an amazing sign of progress.
But Young Mr. Y and The Other Mr. Y aren’t quite that far on their journeys just yet. “I used a lot of technology this week,” said One Mr. Y at lunch, “so I probably won’t use any next week.” Another Mr. Y, arms wrapped around a huge stack of worksheet packets, asked plaintively whether anyone else had ever made more copies than he or she could carry. “I used to feel that way,” I told him, “until I realized that paper isn’t always the best tool for every student. Some of us need paper, but some of us don’t. And when I realized that, it changed everything – but I had been teaching for a lot longer than you have before I realized that.” Mr. Y looked at me … and I remember being the giver of such a look when I was Where He Is, secure in the knowledge that I’d found the One Right Way to teach things. But just as I moved forward on my journey, he probably will, too – and I can see the signs of progress when I look closely.
B and T, who had been so distractingly distracted on Tuesday morning, were eager to help others stay focused on Wednesday – and that was a sign of progress, since they’re now attuned to the effects of distracting distractions on themselves and on others. Later in the day, B and U were “working harder” as they’d promised – though they were working on Ms. X’s worksheet packet rather than on reading the Latin story or analyzing the cultural products, practices, and perspectives relevant to one of the characters. D, D, E, and C were “working harder,” too – they accomplished a bit, rather than hardly anything, and that’s surely a sign of progress.
Building a joyful learning community is hard, slow work – and it’s surely harder when you’re trying to build one in the powerful, but decaying shadow of the factory mindset. It can be frustrating to work within institutions at the best of times, more frustrating still when the institution hasn’t quite decided what it wants to be or how to get there. But somehow, even in the midst of those difficulties and frustrations, there can still be signs of progress. I suppose the trick is to notice them and to work with, not for others as the progress continues.
I wonder what new signs we’ll notice today!