Ownership and Decisions

By Thursday afternoon, it had been a long, exhausting week, and then there was the Special Called Meeting to reveal last year’s All-Important Scores.  They were good under the circumstances – significantly higher than both the state and district averages in a year when scores were “expected to fall significantly” due to new tests and a new curriculum.   Our scores were pretty good!  Ms. X rejoiced, even though she doesn’t teach any of the subjects with reported scores, and even though she certainly didn’t take any of the tests.  What does That Other School do to get better scores? Mr. Y asked suspiciously, and he didn’t seem all that interested in hearing from Mr. N, who has actually taught Over There and was glad to tell him.  There was a lot of murmuring and muttering, even some grumbling and groaning, when someone pointed out that middle-school test scores – which were particularly problematic last year, it seems – might “be a problem” or “cause some problems” when those students arrive at high-school doors over the next few years.

Ms. X and Mr. Y are happy to take ownership of the good stuff, even when they didn’t directly contribute to it.  (To be fair, “their” scores – which weren’t included on the special chart – were also pretty good as they normally are.)  But when the less pleasant stuff happens, it’s only natural to look for somebody else to take the blame, to shift the ownership and the fault away from yourself.

And yet, when you do that, pretty good is where you’ll stay.  Great requires a very different mindset.

Anyway, there was a small celebration at the end of the meeting, and then I went home and took a much-needed nap.  But in the ten or fifteen minutes encompassed by “and then,” I saw two seemingly tiny incidents that really got me thinking about ownership and decisions and blame and responsibility.   I’d been thinking about these issues anyway, ever since I got an email from One Youngish Ms. X whose teaching assignment spans several different schools.  Apparently the Relevant Person at her “base” school hadn’t quite explained an important aspect of the New Student Information System … but fortunately, she’d realized there might be a problem and had contacted me, as the Relevant Person at our school.  She’ll be coming in this morning to fix the problem, which won’t take long at all … but then, depending on what that Relevant Person did or didn’t tell her, it may require some follow-up with Various Powers.  Ms. X, unlike her Relevant Person, had a sense of ownership and responsibility; she took action – sending me that email, arranging a time to meet, fixing the issue (once she knows how) – instead of shifting blame.  And that seemed like a small, hopeful sign.  So did the request from B and U to go and work on their unfinished Minor Assessment product – “we know there are two things we didn’t do, and we need to get them done,” they said.

But progress isn’t constant, and after a long, hard day, those two incidents reminded me of how strong the factory mindset’s influence still is.  It was a rainy, chilly afternoon, and ten or fifteen students who would normally be outside, waiting to be picked up, or in the school library, which is open for them on Thursday afternoons, were waiting in the lobby; it was too wet and chilly to be outside, and the library had been in use for that Special Called Meeting.  Anyway, they were sitting and chatting – and all of a sudden, One Ms. X rushed out and started screaming at them to be quiet.  “I can’t hear myself on the phone!” she screamed … and, unfortunately, they started laughing nervously, and you can probably imagine the rest of the conversation.

If she’d had the authority, That Ms. X certainly would have thrown everybody out, rain or no rain … because she was receiving a message of disrespect and thoughtlessness, while the students were just hanging out or something.  Like many young people I’ve known over the past few years, they haven’t had much experience modulating their voices!  In class, Ms. X tells them to sit down and shut up, or she screams at them for being too loud … and when they’re with friends, there’s no one around to talk about loudness except the occasional out-of-control, screaming adult who can be safely ignored.  When you live in a world like that, a world where decisions are out of your hands and where ownership seems distant or absent, the yelling and labeling cycle is utterly predictable.

Sad, but utterly predictable.

After Ms. X had rushed back to her phone call, her fury still palpable, I went to pick up a print job in the faculty workroom and ran into One Mr. Y.  “It’s those freshmen!” he and Another Ms. X agreed, “that are the problem.”  It seems that one of Mr. Y’s students had asked him a question or made a request – and whatever it was, Mr. Y had taken it as a direct challenge to his authority.  “You don’t have a degree in My Subject,” he said he’d told the student, “and your name isn’t on the door, so you don’t have a voice.”  Evidently Mr. Y, who teaches a subject where students do, in fact, use their voices pretty regularly, is stuck – like all of us – between the old paradigm of teacher as Information Transmitter and the emerging new one where teachers help students build skills and understandings.  And by the end of a long, frustrating Thursday, Mr. Y just wanted to transmit some information.

I understand that desire, believe me.  But we’re rapidly moving toward a world where the degree is less important than the ability, where skills and understandings are vital but information is cheap or free.  A world where getting along with each other is essential, but where the vast diversity of expectations means that negotiation and missteps and misunderstandings are constant.  A world where the factory model of sit down, shut up, do the worksheet is ridiculously out of place, where joyful learning community isn’t a nice aspiration, but an essential daily reality.  A world where ownership of your decisions and their consequences is vital … but a world for which all of us, from Ms. X and Mr. Y to those “bad, disrespectful students” in the hallway, are woefully unprepared.

I wonder what new preparations await us today!

Published in: on November 8, 2013 at 11:33 am  Leave a Comment  

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