Building Up Capacity

In several of his books, Stephen Covey talks about maintaining a balance between production and production capacity, or between the work of your organization and your skills, strengths, and stamina to keep doing – and improving – that work over time.  It’s hard to keep that balance, of course, because short-term needs (the urgent) can easily take up all your available time – and more, if you let them – leaving no time at all for the longer-term needs (the important) like building up your skills, strength, and stamina.  Building up capacity is important because, if you don’t, you get less effective at those short-term, urgent tasks over time.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot, as the Thanksgiving holidays approached – and as I saw the exhausted faces of students and colleagues and felt my own inner resources dwindling.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of giving a little bit more, of seeking perfection and trying harder and then, inevitably, falling into yelling and labeling (at others, and at yourself in the end) when perfect and harder are still out of reach.

At That Meeting on Monday afternoon, the one I described in yesterday’s post, there was a lot of talk about the sense of privilege and entitlement that Certain Students display.  “I always get good grades,” several had told One Ms. X, “so I should get good grades in your class, too.”  Yes, she had told them, you probably should … if you would “do the work and learn the material.”  This Ms. X, teaching a new subject area, is convinced her students will all do terribly on The Test; they “can’t think, can’t analyze, can’t reason, can’t focus, won’t do work, won’t pay attention,” and of course the list of can’t and won’t went on and on.  Mr. U and I, who teach many of the same students, reassured her that they can, and given the school’s history of good test scores, we were doubtful that The Test would be the problem This Ms. X envisions.  But there is a problem – a whole host of problems – and after a while, I think we all agreed on a problem statement, if not a solution.

And the problem is closely related to that balance of production and production capacity.  Like other organizations, schools naturally focus on production – they seek to improve the numbers by which they’re measured and judged, things like test scores and graduation rates.  But things that are hard to measure – or things that just don’t get measured very often – get less emphasis.  So Ms. X’s students, after years of getting good test scores with minimal effort, haven’t been building or exercising the skills, strengths, and stamina she knows they’ll need for next-level courses in Her Content Area or for long-term success (she was talking about college readiness, but I’m sure she’d agree that life readiness is an issue, too).

But the focus on production isn’t just a problem for students.   Teachers, too, tend to focus on production – everything from lesson planning to professional development to the structure of the school day and school year can encourage us to focus on those short-term numbers rather than the longer-term work that (in a bitter irony) would make the short-term tasks less burdensome.  That was utterly clear when we started talking about developing skills and mindsets, and about types of motivation and how to build (or get in touch with) intrinsic interests. Ms. X knew the terms, but she’d never heard of Carol Dweck and was absolutely convinced that “my kids don’t have any intrinsic motivation.”  To her credit, Ms. X knows that purely extrinsic motivators don’t work; “I’m not going to bribe them with candy,” she intoned proudly.  Mr. U has a non-candy-based, game-like structure that initially harnesses extrinsic interests, then lets them fade as intrinsic forces take over … and eventually, after much discussion, Ms. X wanted to know more about it.

After the meeting, Mr. U and I happened to run into each other, and we talked for a moment about what The Young Teachers don’t know and should know.  He’s at that early mid-career point where he still painfully remembers the struggles of new teachers, but has found his own successful strategies and is willing – even eager – to share them.  But factory-schools aren’t built around sharing expertise and building up capacity; they’re built around just closing my door, as Many A Ms. X has said over the years.  The Local School District has a structure in place for retiring teachers to donate “their” unused and unwanted supplies and resources (bulletin-board decorations, worksheets, and the like) to new teachers just starting out – and it’s an excellent idea, and it’s helped a lot of people – but there’s nothing in place to share expertise or wisdom.  Each new teacher is expected to figure that stuff out, just as Old Ms. X did, just as Older Ms. X did a generation earlier.

And in a season when we celebrate and remember abundance, when we pause to express gratitude for all that we’ve received, it’s sad to contemplate the waste of expertise and wisdom … and the waste of energy, too, as Young Ms. X and Young Mr. Y spend countless hours rediscovering and relearning things that Old Ms. X, Old Mr. Y, and I know and are glad to share.  In a joyful learning community, sharing is easy and natural; it’s the default response when others are in need.  And it’s not impossible to bring that sharing mindset into a slowly-changing factory structure, either.  It’s hard, and it’s different, and sometimes it’s scary because it changes the paradigms … but it’s not impossible.

I wonder what new ways to build up capacity and share wisdom with each other we’ll find in the days and months to come!

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Published in: on November 27, 2013 at 2:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

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