Directing and Orchestrating

Many years ago, I taught at a Large School where everybody had an Assigned Supervision Duty of some sort.  For quite a while, my task was to direct traffic in the morning in an area where school buses, faculty cars, and students with odd schedules all came together.  When I’ve driven past That School in subsequent years, or been over there for Various Meetings, I’ve noticed that the traffic pattern has been redesigned to make That Person’s job a bit easier.  But in those long-vanished days, it was a daily exercise in applied geometry, hands-on psychology, and personal leadership development – especially when That One Ms. X was running late and didn’t want to stop and let three or four school buses discharge their passengers.

I don’t regularly direct that kind of traffic these days, but this was my “outside afternoon supervision” week at school, and yesterday All The Relevant Powers were delayed by meetings, phone calls, and other things.  When that happens – especially if I’m outside anyway – I know what I need to do!  The traffic pattern is a lot simpler than the one at That Former School: a few students crossing from one side of a driveway to the other, two or three lines of cars (all going the same direction) waiting for someone to let them out.  Within 15 minutes or so, the cars and students are gone.  There’s still some applied geometry and hands-on psychology, of course, especially when A and B are distracted by their conversations or when V’s mom, distracted by a cell-phone conversation, doesn’t notice a signal to go or to stop.

Every time I direct literal traffic, I’m reminded that the teacher’s role in a joyful learning community is very similar to what I’m doing in that driveway … though I’m thankful that I don’t have to wear an orange safety vest in my classroom!  Maureen put it this way on Google+ recently:

I was just commenting to a friend that so many want learning to take on  a predictable structure and flow, but true learning often doesn’t happen that way.  The same is true with good teaching, it’s an orchestra of events and decisions, not a path of same beats and rhythm.

Directing and orchestrating are closely related, of course – and whether you’re directing cars in a driveway or musicians in a performing group, there really is a constant flow of events and decisions.  And no two performances are quite the same!  I guess I’ve always known that, just because I’ve been involved in performances as a musician for so many years, but I remember a really profound comment from C, in whose classroom I did my student-teaching placement almost a quarter-century ago.  “Watch,” he told me on the first day I was there to observe, “and tell me what you see.”  And then there were two Latin I classes, which covered the same material and followed the same lesson plan, but were as different from each other as they could possibly be.  “No two classes will ever be the same,” C told me … and while I sometimes forgot to remember that piece of wisdom, overwhelmed by the factory-mindset directives and opinions that surrounded me, it would come back to me at the most surprising and most needed times.  Thank you, C, for sharing your wisdom and your students with me all those years ago, and thanks for the coffee and conversations over those early years, too!

“No two classes will ever be the same” – and no two performances, either.  I love Big Band music, and back when CD collections and compilations were “a thing,” I bought several different, overlapping sets – some of which featured different recordings of the same piece by the same group.  You can tell it’s the same piece and the same group – but you can also tell the performance itself was different.  And of course the same thing is true if you listen to different orchestras or choirs performing a classical piece, or if you hear your favorite performer live in concert rather than in the commercial recording.  The beats and rhythm are generally the same, but the performance is totally different.

In factory-model schools, I’m afraid we’re so focused on perfecting the plans, the musical score in this analogy, that we forget about the purpose of the plans, the performance itself.  We also forget that the director isn’t the only performer!  Thankfully, no matter how well-planned our traffic patterns are, everybody knows that the person who directs traffic has to adapt constantly!

As I was working on this post, I thought of One Ms. X, whose great desire is to perfect her lesson plans so she can “turn in the same ones each year.”  According to That Ms. X, that’s “just being smart,” and she prides herself on “being smart” that way.  But even That Ms. X knows that her classes are different – it annoys her, of course, but she knows and makes adjustments.  I also thought of a recent conversation with B, who was waiting for his family to pick him up earlier this week on a day when I wasn’t directing traffic.  “How’s the Latin Family this year?” asked B, the fourth or fifth member of his large family I’ve taught. “Things are going pretty well,” I told him, and I mentioned that all the classes have moved faster through the Tres Columnae Project material than his classes had.  He was impressed – but he commented that, after all, you have a chance to refine and improve things every year, so it should get better and smoother and more efficient over time.  B has always wanted to start his own business, and he thinks about processes and systems and leadership in ways that many high-school seniors don’t.

Directing … and orchestrating.  On a November Friday, the day after Halloween, when many students – and colleagues – will be “coming down from a sugar high,” those are vital skills for any teacher.  But they’re vital every day, every second, in a joyful learning community.  As we work to build our first co-created stories of the new reporting period, I’ll be immersed in a structure and flow of events, decisions, and interactions – some predictable, some half-predictable, some totally unpredictable – and so will all the members of the Latin Family.

I wonder what the performances will sound and feel like today!

Published in: on November 1, 2013 at 10:40 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. Hi Justin, Thanks for working with this metaphor and bringing it more wisdom and detail. I love the way you describe the teaching day as your description is one that will resonate with so many teachers, and sadly so few who work outside our sphere, but have a lot to say about how it should be done.

    I’ve started reading “Teach Like a Pirate” by Dave Burgess. I really like Dave’s perspective and writing voice. He discusses the impact that passion has on teaching, and using that passion to orchestrate a lesson, class, or year in a way that’s unique to you–letting your teaching voice come through.

    How do we nurture our teaching voices so that we orchestrate student-centered, joyful learning communities, and how do we keep that voice alive while many on the outside are trying to uniform our voices and actions (remember I’m in a public school driven by standardized test scores).

    Yesterday I played with the metaphor of craftsperson–I like that metaphor for teaching. Here’s my post:

    This summer I was busy working in the world of ideal schools and teaching, making plans, but now that I’m back in the trenches I find myself looking for your posts, posts that focus on language, details, perspective, and craft-the work that makes our daily concert full of spirit, voice, and effect.

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