On Saturday morning, Ms. C was busy redesigning a hallway bulletin board. It was bright and pretty and springlike, and I paused to complement her on the design. “It’s for the Community Service requirement,” she said, and sure enough, each little flower had a student’s name and the number of documented service hours they’d completed so far this year. “I just want to encourage and motivate them,” she said, as she returned to work.
Having known Ms. C for well over a decade, I know she meant what she said. Unfortunately, when I talk with students about Ms. C, I often hear her described as cold and mean … perhaps because students often encounter Ms. C when they haven’t completed a Particular Requirement. “Who’s Ms. C?” asked a senior Latin Family member just yesterday, when Ms. C called and asked if B could come down and talk with her for a moment.
To be fair, B doesn’t always pay the closest of attention to things. And to be fair, Ms. C has an isolated office and does a lot of things that don’t involve regular contact with students. But the two incidents, so close together, reminded me of the huge gap that can develop between knowing and showing in any organization, and especially in the factory-model schools that I know best.
“Show your work,” Many a Ms. X warns her math students, “or you’ll get a zero.” Ms. X wants to make sure that her students can follow the process, that they can think through a problem and not just randomly guess at an answer … or find it in the back of the textbook or on a site like Wolfram Alpha. And following processes and thinking through problems are important skills. But if Ms. X doesn’t show the importance of those skills, if she uses downloaded worksheets with downloadable answer keys while exhorting her students to “show their work,” it’s hard for her students to receive the message she wants to be sure to communicate to them. “Think about it!” says Many A Mr. Y. “Don’t just copy stuff randomly, think about it!” But if Mr. Y doesn’t show the importance of thinking, if he uses the “textbook PowerPoints” and “chapter tests” and assigns copying textbook vocabulary definitions as homework, it’s hard for his students to receive his desired message, too.
And all too often, for all our good intentions, educators in factory-model environments forget to show what we know. And then we wonder why students, parents, and communities don’t know what we know, or don’t see how we care, or don’t trust us to do the right thing.
Ms. X, Ms. X, and Ms. X were fretting about potential budget cuts at lunch. “Don’t They understand how important This Program and That Program are to a school?” they asked. “No,” I said, They (whoever They are) probably don’t understand, because over the years They were students in schools, and parents of students, and They saw the ways that schools use (or don’t use) available resources. “Don’t forget,” I said, “that when you point a finger, four are pointing right back at you.” Remarkably, Ms. X., Ms. X, and Ms. X agreed with that part. “But what should we do about it?” they asked, and I don’t have an easy answer for them.
When you work in a large, hierarchical organization where always been this way is a core belief, it’s hard to imagine other possibilities. Of course, if you stop and think about it, you know that always isn’t a very long time at all; Ms. X and her friends all studied history in school at some point, and they all took courses on the history of American education when they were training to be teachers. So they know, or knew, that mass factory-style education is a tiny blip in the long human history of teaching and learning. But it’s hard to translate that head knowledge into action or daily practice when you’re surrounded by structures that show a very different message. Every time I walk into a big school, I feel small and insignificant in comparison; every time I think about everything intertwined with the factory-school system, it seems impossible that such a vast, elaborate structure could ever change.
I’m sure that’s what workers at the Packard plant in Detroit thought, too. And then suddenly it was abandoned, rented out to others, used for storage. Will that happen to the vast structures of factory-model schools and districts?
I see several possible futures, and I have a feeling the path for each school and district depends on showing what they know … or not. If folks in a given community receive a message of real, personal care for every child from their Local School District, things should go well for That District. Change is hard, and change is wrenching, and change is painful, but if there’s authentic community and shared agreement and a common sense of purpose, change is possible; just ask the folks at IBM after all the wrenching changes of their past three decades. But if there’s not a message of real, personal care, or if a school or district doesn’t walk the talk of the messages it tries to broadcast, I have a feeling their future will be bleak.
So where does that leave the Latin Family on an early spring day? Each day, all we can do is try to show what we know and walk the talk together. It’s not easy, but it’s rewarding, and I look forward to the challenges of this new day. I wonder what other discoveries and insights it will reveal!