I don’t envy Ms. G, whose role requires her to check in regularly with students who have particular labels, to develop Special Plans for them, and to make sure the Special Plans are being followed. At another school, though, in what feels like another lifetime, More Than One Ms. X and Mr. Y complained bitterly about “those teachers” and “those kids.” According to That Set of Ms. X and Mr. Y, there was “nothing wrong with Those Kids” except that they were even more “bad and lazy” than the “regular kids.” There was some dispute about “those parents,” but the general opinion among That Set of Ms. X and Mr. Y was that “those parents” had brought “those kids” upon themselves by not punishing them enough when they were little. As for “those teachers?” That Set of Ms. X and Mr. Y were pretty sure that “all they do” is “drink coffee and fill out paperwork all day long.” Ms. X and Mr. Y bitterly envied the coffee and paperwork they imagined, and they bitterly envied the special room where “those teachers” spent some time each day.
Ms. G is a tolerant person, so she’d probably just laugh and invite That Set to spend a day “drinking coffee and filling out paperwork” with her in her “special room.” I don’t think she’s ever had time for the coffee part, and even with the assistance of a Specialized Program that completes some of the paperwork, its demands can be overwhelming. And of course Ms. G does lots of other things, too, like developing plans and meeting with students and families. And following up with Ms. X, Mr. Y, and Powers That Be. And trying to help everybody work the plans that they’ve all developed.
Ms. G had called one day because K is struggling in all his classes, as is B. K’s main issues are organizational; he forgets about things and loses things anyway, so he’s learned that “I forgot” and “I lost it” can serve as excellent excuses in various parts of his life. Ms. G is working on working a plan with him that will move him beyond the excuses. In sharp contrast with K, and with Former Ms. X and Mr. Y’s beliefs about “those kids,” B has a range of real issues with serious consequences for his academic performance. I’ve been working with B and his mom for a while to help B take ownership of a plan and work the plan. Things were OK for a while, but then they weren’t. But B has started talking to me again, at least a time or two each day. And B looks less sad and discouraged when he sits in class. With some time and effort, B will most likely be fine.
“Those kids,” moaned a Former Ms. X years ago, “shouldn’t be at a school like this because They will ruin it. They should be at a regular school where they can get what they need.” That Ms. X was convinced that the label was more important than the person, that the label defined for all time what the person could know, be, or do. It must have been hard for That Ms. X to work with actual people, who tend to be a lot more complex than the labels we try to put on them. It must have been hard for her, too, when students started showing up at her current school with multiple labels. In That Ms. X’s world, it seems, you get to be one thing or the other. What would she have made of T or B, who had serious medical conditions and were stunningly, amazingly brilliant? Which single box would she have chosen for T, years and years ago, who was stunningly brilliant and had a serious visual processing disability? Would she have relegated them to the group of “those kids,” the ones who “ruin it” by creating extra work for Ms. X?
I don’t know. But I don’t envy Ms. G, because she’s in the trenches every day, helping “those kids” work the plan and insisting that Ms. X, Mr. Y, and everybody else work the plan, too. And working the plan is hard in factory-schools because the factory-school vision calls for one plan. One shiny, perfected plan, perfectly executed in unison by all those “bad, lazy students” and “difficult teachers.”
It’s a ridiculous vision, of course, when you stop and think about it. But when you’re caught up in it, and in the systems designed to support it, it can seem compelling, even beautiful. Joyful learning communities are very different; there’s never a single plan, and it will never be perfectly executed, and what you do every day is to plan some work and work the plan and adjust when you need to and deal with the messes. You do the kinds of work Ms. G does, but without the coffee and paperwork from the jealous visions of Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y. There will probably be both coffee and paperwork, to be fair, but there will be a lot of other things, too.
I hope the end of the week treats Ms. G well, and I hope all of us who don’t fit a single neat label will have the courage to live our complex, sometimes difficult lives in joyful learning communities. I hope we all have the courage and strength to work the plan, to examine the plan, and to change the plan when it’s clearly not working. On this busy Friday, I wonder what other new insights and discoveries await.