The fourth Monday of the month is designated for meetings of Special Committees, each with a particular set of functions and responsibilities. The one that oversees The Prom had a lot to do, of course, since that’s coming up quickly. The one responsible for the graduation ceremony was busy, too. But there wasn’t a particular agenda for my group, other than unresolved business from our last meeting. And yet, after an hour of heartfelt discussion, it felt like we’d had a tremendously productive meeting. Clearing things up is important, and that’s what happened … at least from my perspective.
Of the four pieces of unfinished business, one had been settled, one remains undefined because the Relevant Power wasn’t available to clarify what its cryptic three words referred to, and one needs to wait until a Greater Power Yet releases the Relevant Data. But the fourth item, which Ms. X had brought up, sparked a really important conversation. “What about these kids,” she had asked, “who are failing a course or courses? Can we find some time during the school day for them to get extra help?”
Of course you can; Rick DuFour and his colleagues made that abundantly clear in a book published twelve years ago, a book I’ve referred to more than once over the years. The school even has groups that are called Professional Learning Communities, though those groups weren’t meeting on Monday and, when they do meet, they don’t tend to address struggling students’ needs. But even though Ms. X has somehow missed nearly two decades of educational research and progress, her question was still important. And since Mr. Y, Ms. X, and the other folks on That Committee have evidently missed the research and the progress, too, it was important to have the conversation.
“I just don’t want them to miss This Particular Thing,” said One Mr. Y, “because This Particular Thing is important and has value.” Yes, that’s true, I said, but we haven’t had This Particular Thing very much this year; Greater Powers Yet sent Important Things To Do that needed to be done during the scheduled time for That Thing, so That Thing has gone by the wayside. “What about This Other Thing?” someone asked, and a discussion of logistics followed. “My concern,” I said, “is that if we do pull students out for extra help, we need to make sure they’re getting the help they actually need,” not some general-purpose review where they already know most of the information or skills, are still lost about other items, and don’t address That One Thing that’s probably causing the problem.
Ms. X and Mr. Y were pretty sure they knew what That One Thing was. It’s “bad, lazy kids” who “don’t do my homework” and “don’t understand how important it is,” or possibly it’s “those parents” who don’t “check their kids’ homework” and “make them do it.” They were hoping for an easy solution in the form of a parent meeting where parents could be told “how important that is.” And then, of course, “those parents” would somehow, automatically, go and do what they were told, the “bad, lazy kids” would automatically do what they were told, and all would be well. The imagined world of 1992, 1972, or 1952 would return, and perhaps teachers would even “be revered, like the good old days.”
Ms. X is also very sure that her students need to “do my work.” There’s one, uniform set of work, from her perspective, and everybody needs to do the same amount: all of it. “If there are ten problems,” she said, “and they just do one or two, how are they going to get it?” Ms. X surely encountered the concept of differentiated instruction along the way somewhere, but evidently the concept hasn’t ever left the page or screen on which it was presented. Mr. Y, Mr. Y, and Mr. Y felt the same way, of course. They started designing an academic probation system that they just know will work … and it might, if it involved some one-on-one meetings and counseling with the students identified, and if it started early and got monitored regularly. But it was pretty clear Ms. X and Mr. Y wanted a pain-punishment system, or the threat of one, to make that difficult job painless and easy.
It’s good to clear things up, but what do you do when you discover, in the clarity, that long-time colleagues and friends are … I hate to say completely, utterly wrong, so let me say operating from a totally different paradigm. Just as Ms. X and Mr. Y missed two decades of educational research, apparently they’ve missed four or five decades of vast social changes, too. They also seemed to miss some basic understanding of human nature. “Those kids need to get intrinsically motivated to do my work!” said Ms. X, “and they need to do the right thing because it’s the right thing, not because they’re getting some reward.” And yes, over time, if a society is to function, its members do need to do right things for their own sake. But apparently Ms. X’s educational psychology and child development classes didn’t cover developmental stage theories like those of Piaget or Kohlberg, or maybe she took the test and got the grade and forgot all that nonsense just like her “bad, lazy students.” I used the word mindset at one point, and it clearly had no associations for her, Mr. Y, Mr. Y, or Mr. Y.
So now what? When you clear things up and you discover that Ms. X’s world is totally different from yours, what’s the next step? No wonder N, T, B, and others are confused! In the course of a day, they spend 90 minutes or so trying to form a joyful learning community, and almost five hours in a structure that must seem even crazier to them than it does to me. How can we clear things up together and come to a consensus?