Thursday was an oddly disjointed day, with standardized testing for all of our tenth-graders in the morning and Parent-Teacher Conferences in the late afternoon … and Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y frantic, too, because Progress Reports for the current reporting period go out on Friday and The System, predictably, was slower than usual – and more prone to crashes – due to the heavy use. If you’ve ever taken or given a standardized test, you know the process involves a lot of telling. There are standardized directions, of course, which have to be read verbatim, and then there’s a lot of hurrying and waiting as the various subtests proceed. What with all that telling, all the telling they’d normally do anyway, and the prospect of telling parents about their students’ performance during the conferences, it was a tiring day for many people.
I wasn’t involved in giving the test, but a lot of my morning students are tenth-graders. We were relocated, as The School often aims to do, so that testing rooms could be near each other and disruptions could be minimized in that area. For once, everyone remembered to tell the students with lockers in that area that they’d need to bring two classes’ worth of materials with them, since the lockers would be inaccessible during the test period. In years past, I think there was an assumption that “they should know.” The large Latin I class enjoyed being a medium-sized class, and the small class (relocated to the school library along with a couple of other groups) enjoyed a different environment. A student in Ms. X’s class commented, as we all were leaving, that “your class seems like a family because you all sat around that table together” – and I think we all were glad (I know I was!) that someone had noticed that element of the “Latin Family.”
The school traditionally provides a meal (and traditionally calls it “dinner”) in mid-afternoon for the faculty, and the Parent-Teacher Conferences run for a couple of hours in late afternoon and early evening. One Mr. Y remarked over his pasta that he was looking forward to a conference with One Mom he’s spoken with several times – and that triggered a plethora of helpful suggestions for dealing with That Particular Student. Oddly enough, Ms. X and Mr. Y were less interested in labeling That Student than in helping him, and the conversation – which had concerned me when it started – went in a much more positive direction than I’d feared. Mr. Y, it seems, had done a lot more hearing than telling, both in his interactions with That Student’s Mom and with That Student himself.
Finding the balance of hearing and telling is hard, especially if you became a teacher because you loved Schools As They Are And Were. In factory-schools, at least in teachers’ imaginations and burnished memories, teachers are supposed to do the telling.
I’ve always aimed to hear as well as tell, especially on these conference days. “What would you say is the problem?” I asked E, who had such a strong start but has been tuning out and looking sad for a week or so. At first he just wanted to repeat what I’d told his mom earlier: he didn’t do a few assignments, half-did some others. “But E, why?” his mother asked, and then he admitted he “gets lost sometimes” but doesn’t want to ask questions. E has a label that entitles him to extra services, and the coordinating teacher had emailed me earlier in the year to find out the Latin Family’s tutoring schedule. “He will be there,” she’d said … but apparently she’d never told E about the conversation, and he’d never asked. I’m not sure what the balance was of hearing and telling between E and his mother after they left, but I hope he’ll start to believe, once again, that there’s no need to “get lost sometimes.” Hearing E is a lot more important than telling him, especially as he navigates those difficult waters of transition between childhood and adulthood.
Both Ms. X and I were surprised and delighted when D’s grandmother arrived. D, who’s one of my upper-level students, had a difficult early life, but his grandmother was a constant supportive presence. “I have his back,” she told me, “and he knows that, and we all have each other’s back.” And we talked about D, about his promise and potential and power, about how he’s trapped between childhood and adulthood, craving the one but not quite ready to leave the other. “Why do boys mature at such different rates?” she asked … and I don’t know why, either, of course, but I know they do, and we celebrated the progress we’ve been seeing with D over the past few years. Over the years, D has experienced a lot of telling, and he reacts at times by insisting on being heard. It’s good to know that we all “have each other’s back” as we work with, not for him and help him find a balance.
At the end of the day, Ms. X and I had a few moments to debrief, and I was able to hear her teaching-journey story, and she was able to tell me. They, it seems, had told Ms. X that she “needed to” teach young children “because you’re really good with them” – and she is, but her heart lay with teaching Her Subject to older students, and One Professor (whom I happen to know) had encouraged her to follow that dream, to ignore what They said, to grow in her knowledge and skill over the years. “I need to find time,” she said, “to find out what D wants to do about college and career” – and I realized that D and I have talked briefly about it, but I don’t know his current plans, either.
When you’re building a joyful learning community, telling doesn’t magically disappear, but the balance of telling and hearing shifts dramatically. Learners do more telling, and teachers do more hearing, and everyone works with, not for each other. I wonder what I can do, today and in days to come, to work with, not for Ms. X, Mr. Y, and the others as our journey toward learning community continues. And I wonder what new adventures await us today!