Taking Stuff Away

At last week’s Parent-Teacher Conferences, I finally got to meet C’s mom face to face.  We’ve been in touch by email since last fall, when C started *getting low grades* in a number of classes … not for the first time, it seemed, based on the limited information in those emails.  But C was doing pretty well in Latin; he likes the class, has a number of quiet friends he enjoys sitting with, and usually ends up with a grade in the *acceptable* to *pretty good* range.  C is stunningly, brilliantly intelligent, but factory-schools have clearly made a mark on him over the years.

So I was really glad to have a face-to-face conversation with C’s mom last week.  “I have a suspicion,” I told her, after she’d given me a bit of back-story about his academic struggles and her attempts to get him focused and keep him motivated.  And my suspicion was almost entirely accurate … except that the Particular Ms. X who had told him he was bad and lazy, who had almost killed his love of his Favorite Subject Always by making him do compliance-based tasks Ms. X’s Way even though he already understood the material, was in middle school, not late elementary school.  “I don’t know what to do,” C’s mom said, “because even when we take away the things he loves, it doesn’t make any difference.”  So we talked about intrinsic motivation for a while, but in the factory-school context, I’m not sure how much immediate help I was able to give her.

It got me thinking, though, about taking things away.  That seems to be such a common response, both by parents and by Powers That Be, when something goes wrong.  Take away the things they love, and those “bad, lazy kids” should shape up, shouldn’t they?  After all, they ought to be motivated to earn back what they lost … right?  And sometimes that works, if it’s near the beginning of a process, and if it happens in the context of a loving, caring relationship, and if the connection between the thing lost and the problem behavior is clear.  “X,” I once said, “do you realize that every time you interrupt us, you’re wasting twenty-five minutes, not just one?”  X had to think about it for a while, but eventually X realized that when you waste one minute of twenty-five people’s time, you did, in a sense, waste twenty-five minutes.  So X came in after school one afternoon, cleaned and sorted some things, and tried to pay back the time.  That made sense to X, and X got better about interrupting.

N and her friends are getting better about self-management, too, and B, U, and their friends are getting better about sustaining attention and getting stuff done.  It’s not easy, and it’s certainly not a linear progression.  But they’re all starting to take things away that don’t belong: things like excuses, and arguments, and “why are you yelling?” when nobody is yelling.  N asked “why are you scolding?” yesterday, though it was clear to everyone that I wasn’t.  “Did you ever wonder,” I asked her later, “why it is that you seem to need an external authority figure to check up on you, to make sure you’re doing what you know you need to do?  What kind of a message would someone receive from that?”  N and her friends are slowly, steadily understanding the context and the connections we’re building together, and as they feel the power of joyful community, they’re more and more willing to participate, more and more fully, more and more of the time.  If we need to take things away, we can work that out together.

But all too often, the context and the connection seem to be missing, and there’s no sense of community, no shared vision or purpose or goal.  As parents and Powers That Be, we get busy and frustrated, so we announce the taking without explaining the reasons or having the dialogue or sustaining the relationship.  It’s easy … deceptively, even seductively easy.  Just announce a new policy, and surely those “bad, lazy ones” (students, teachers, parents, children) will see the connection, shape up their errant ways, and start doing better, we think.  But even when you have the dialogue, sometimes the connections don’t get made.  I’m sure Ms. X announced a Particular New Policy on Monday or Tuesday, when she was told to do so with more than one email, but on Wednesday morning two or three Latin Family members “didn’t know,” and several others didn’t know why.

I’m starting to see connections with the issues of sent, received, and perceived messages we talked about on Wednesday, and with the questions of loyalty and all-consuming work that inspired other recent posts.  Starting, but far from finished!  Factory-model schools demand all-consuming work and unquestioned loyalty from all their constituents, just as factory-style parents demand immediate, unquestioning obedience and perfect compliance from their children.  But those demands were never fully realized, and they seem increasingly ridiculous in a post-factory world.  You don’t do all-consuming work for somebody else; you do it, if you choose to do it at all, with a community that shares your vision, and even then you don’t let it be all-consuming.  Unquestioned loyalty and perfect compliance are paving stones on the road to tyranny, and people resist them in their schools and homes as surely as they resist them in city squares and online venues all around the world.

As builders and sustainers of joyful learning communities, we’re called to a set of complex, important roles in these rapidly changing times, especially if we do our work within factory-model structures.    Some of those roles even involve taking things away, but not in the top-down, directive style of Powers That Be or authoritarian parents.  Instead, by asking the hard questions, and by sitting with folks as we grapple with those questions together, we end up taking away the obsolete paradigms and practices.  And in what feels like emptiness, even hopelessness sometimes, the space is cleared for something new to grow.

I wonder what new insights and discoveries will grow for each of us in the days to come!

Published in: on March 13, 2014 at 10:46 am  Leave a Comment  

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