“I don’t know what’s wrong with Ms. X,” said Someone on Thursday, “but it’s good that we can check up on her and make sure she’s doing what she’s supposed to do.” And given Ms. X’s history of doing time-sensitive things late, I had to agree with Someone. Midterm progress reports for the current reporting period go out late next week, and there’s a short list of Ms. X, Mr. Y, and a few others whose “stuff” will need to be checked. Not checked the day before in a punitive way, but checked a few days out in a “please remember this is important” way. That Someone is good at remembering the purpose behind the checking. “There’s no need,” she said, “to check up on most of the teachers, because most of them do what they’re supposed to do with This Thing.”
The whole conversation got me thinking about trust and mistrust. B, U, and their working group had asked to sit in the hallway and work on their now-overdue Minor Assessment … and when I checked on them, that’s generally what they were doing. Later in the day, B, U, E, J, and J put their Minor Assessment product together … and it was surprisingly good given the lack of focus I’d seen from them over the past few days. Most of the time, when there’s an atmosphere of trust, most people strive to be trustworthy. Even Z and Z, who had done that really untrustworthy thing a few weeks ago. They’re slowly earning back the trust they lost, and I can see a new seriousness and purposefulness about them that I hadn’t seen before. I’m really glad I didn’t yell and label or scold and threaten at the time. And I’m glad I see all of them as individuals, not examples or types.
But so many schools, and so many other institutions aren’t built on trust or individuals at all. Ms. X, Mr. Y, and a few others were late with an Important Thing? Yelling and labeling, of the broadcast variety, will probably ensue. Z and Z did an irresponsible, foolish thing? Punish them, to be sure, but also write a policy to “prevent” such things from happening. Y’s mom complains about something Ms. X did? Scolding and threatening “everybody,” might fix the problem … and prevent other “bad, lazy ones” from doing the same thing.
There’s something about the factory mindset that encourages both mistrust and a mass approach to people and things. In a world where strangers routinely buy and sell things, with eBay or Amazon or Etsy or so many other sites as a barely-present intermediary, the mistrust and the mass approach both seem faintly ridiculous. Mr. Y drove a few hours each way recently to attend a “great” grant-writing workshop … at a time when traditional non-profit funding is drying up but crowdfunding from sites like DonorsChoose is exploding. Did the workshop mention that? I hated to ask.
What with Spirit Week activities and the pollen count, the week and the day felt really long by Thursday afternoon. Then the phone rang, and it was One Ms. X with an unanswerable question about a bleeding-edge feature of the New Student Information System. My head hurt. But then I realized something: it was Ms. X, and she’d been experimenting with that feature, and I think she’s ahead of everybody else in the Local School District. “Let me come down,” I said, “and see what happened. I don’t know what to do about it, but I can report it at my Relevant Meeting next week.”
Half an hour later I was a lot less tired. There wasn’t anything I could do about the feature, but we had a great conversation about using data wisely and about students’ taking ownership of both the data and the learning needs good data can reveal. Someone had sent me a link to this article about a middle school Not That Far Away with an “academic Intensive Care Unit” where students can go to get help and support with difficult assignments, and I’d passed it on to Ms. X and some others. Ms. X had been struggling with students who “just want to sit there,” who wait until told because that’s what Some Other Ms. X did. But Ms. X had been to a conference recently with a focus on “productive struggle,” on student-to-student interaction, and on the Japanese approach to teaching mathematics through one compelling problem rather than lots of rote repetition and practice. Ms. X was intrigued. “I don’t mind teaching that way at all,” she said. “I just don’t know how to do it when the kids just want to sit there.”
That’s a totally different conversation from the ones we’ve had before. At one time, it was mostly “bad, lazy kids” and “terrible parents” and “won’t do my work” and “what about my scores?!” But over the past few months, I’ve seen and heard That Ms. X and a few others make subtle, but important shifts … and all of a sudden, That Ms. X seems to have arrived at a whole new understanding. We talked about the difficulty of not teaching the way you were taught, and we talked about changing student needs over time, and I even mentioned the issue of abundant information and how that changes our roles as teachers. And I left energized and hopeful, and I hope Ms. X did, too, even though we didn’t directly solve the immediate issue.
That’s the thing about joyful learning communities. They work really well over time, but at the beginning, and even right before the breakthrough, they feel endlessly frustrating, even hopeless. Trust will get you through the frustration, but trust is hard in structures where mistrust and suspicion are the defaults.
How will we go about building trust and building community, honoring the individual, rejecting the call to suspicion and mass processing, where we all find ourselves today?