It seems that Eric Hoffer is the author of a favorite quote of mine, the one about how “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” And apparently he also said that “People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them.” Words of wisdom, but hard words to live by for those of us who think the factory-system is the only way, or the best way, or the only thing we know. Poor Ms. X and Mr. Y are beautifully prepared for a vanishing world, and despite their best efforts at hand-biting and boot-licking, things aren’t getting any better for them.
There was a Special Short Called Faculty Meeting on Monday; it had actually been announced on the previous week’s agenda, but evidently Ms. X and Mr. Y were so unaware of it that it had to be announced again Monday afternoon. They’ve been beautifully prepared for that, of course, because in their world view the Powers That Be “always” make random announcements, and random events “always” appear without much notice. “I wonder why They are buttering Us up with pizza!” Ms. X asked smugly … and I had no idea what she was talking about. “Look over there!” she said triumphantly, “there’s pizza being delivered!” Boot-licking and hand-biting in less than twenty words!
A Former Power, in very different budgetary times, often did provide pizza or other refreshments for such meetings, but That Power and Those Times are long gone. And That Power’s motivations were simple and transparent, despite Ms. X’s fears and suspicions: “It’s been a long day, I’m hungry, and you probably are, too.” In These Times, my immediate assumption was “supplemental insurance sales presentation,” and that’s what it was … but I can’t stop thinking about Ms. X’s comment. In one short sentence, and quite likely without realizing it, she summed up the collapse of factory-model structures, the vanishing world for which she’s been so beautifully prepared.
They and Us. That’s how the world is according to Ms. X. In her world, They, the Powers That Be, “have to” motivate Us, the folks who do the real work, with bribes and threats, pain-punishment cycles, boxes of pizza lined up before an unpleasant meeting. And of course Ms. X runs her classroom the same way, except that she gets to be the Powers That Be on a smaller scale, and then she “has to motivate those kids” with threats and bribes, pain-punishment cycles, certificates and ribbons, grades and homework passes, and all the other shiny trinkets of extrinsic motivation. But even Ms. X knows it doesn’t really work. Even for her, it’s all about buttering up, about tricking or persuading Us into going along with Something Bad.
I’m glad I don’t live in Ms. X’s world anymore. Sometimes I spend a few hours surrounded by it, but I don’t live in it anymore. And for Ms. X’s students and mine, that world is as obsolete and ridiculous as the breakthrough technology of my younger days seems to the young people in this video that so many people have shared with me recently. “That’s just too complicated!” one of them says at one point … and if Ms. X stopped and listened to her own students, and if they trusted her enough to be honest with her, that’s probably what they’d say about the vast, complex structures of motivation and deceit and evaluation that Ms. X, Mr. Y, and the rest of us work so hard to maintain and expand.
“How could anybody actually use that? How could that possibly work? What do you mean, you have to have headphones?”
Ms. X and Mr. Y are good teachers, at least in their own minds … good teachers as that was defined for them by their own teachers, by comments from Powers That Be over the years, by lots of things checked off on the Official Form that’s used to determine such things. And Every Ms. X and Every Mr. Y Everywhere is convinced that Their School is a good school … good as that, in turn, was defined for them by their own school experience, by comments from the “good parents who really care,” by the successes of “the good kids who do what they’re supposed to do.”
“I hate it,” said a colleague of mine, unexpectedly, during a brief lunchtime conversation. “I hate what we do to kids, and I’ve hated it for all the years I’ve been a teacher.” We’d been talking about the factory-approach, which I rarely do at school, and all of a sudden that happened. “I’m glad this is my last year,” said another colleague recently, “because it’s time for me to move on and do other things. And I’m looking forward to it.” Poor Ms. X and Mr. Y see no alternative to Business As Usual. A few of them will decide to leave “this horrible school” and go find “a better one,” but they’ll be replaced, most likely, by folks fleeing “that horrible school” for “a better one” themselves. One Ms. X is quite sure that “switching schools all the time” will “make me look bad” to Powers That Be, just like it did in 1952 or 1972. And Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y just knows that “things will get better before too long” when the budgetary picture improves, when They can buy new textbooks and “teacher materials” for Us again.
If you’re working in (and on) a joyful learning community, you won’t be as beautifully prepared as Ms. X and Mr. Y are … but you will be able to recognize and deal with structural change before it’s too late. That’s a hopeful thought on a rainy, stormy, busy morning … and I wonder what other discoveries we’ll make in the hours and days to come!