Ownership and Anxiety

Someone Or Other had what seemed like a really good idea a few months ago.  “Wouldn’t it be nice,” they suggested, “if Everybody put something about Their College in the hallway near Their Doorway?  That way, Those Kids will be motivated to go to college!”  Ms. X and Mr. Y smiled, nodded, and ignored the way they usually do, so the idea turned into a Directive about college logos and college colors … and I was the bearer of bad news, since my alma mater, like many, is possessive of its logo.  “I had no idea!” said One Power.  “I mean, those logos are usually out there on the Internet and everything!”

“We’ve been having a real problem,” That Same Power said recently, “with kids and Honor Code violations.  And most of it is online plagiarism.”   I had to laugh at the dramatic irony there.  I also wondered how putting up something about Ms. X’s alma mater would “motivate those kids” to go to college … and how putting it up in late April would help.  Yet Another Power has instituted a monthly gift-card giveaway; seniors get one entry per college acceptance letter they’ve turned in to That Power, who has to compile an Official Report of such things for Greater Powers Yet.  Apparently there’s a lot of anxiety about sending kids to college (or maybe making them go), and the Posted Things and the gift cards are designed to ease the worry.

And then there’s B, who’s apparently failing almost every class because, as One Ms. X says, he won’t do the work.  And that’s true: B won’t do the work, but nobody much stops to ask him why he won’t do it.  I’ve talked to B and his family enough to know that anxiety is a huge factor; if it can’t be perfect (which of course it never is), B would rather not do it at all.  So Ms. X and Mr. Y storm and threaten, and sometimes B’s mom used to do it for him, and B’s mom is battling some understandable anxiety of her own about her son’s fate and future.  Meanwhile, Ms. X and Mr. Y are anxious about “my failure rate” and “my test scores,” and poor B is caught up in a toxic whirlpool of fear.

Somehow anxiety and ownership are closely bound up in all these stories, and in the way that N and her friends first avoid tasks, then wait to be fussed at, then end up doing well (or well enough) under time pressure.  Linda Albert, in an important book that Ms. X and Mr. Y “don’t have time” to read because “the kids are bad and there’s too much to cover anyway,” makes the point that people choose behaviors, for conscious or unconscious reasons that seem valid from their own internal perspectives.  If you’re not that person, you can influence those behaviors, but nobody can actually make anybody else do anything.  Build relationships, Albert suggests, and figure out why That Annoying Behavior seemed like a good choice to That Person.

But Ms. X and Mr. Y “don’t have time” for things like that.  They “didn’t have time” to implement the similar approach in the book we all read last fall … and if I remember right, One Ms. X “didn’t have time” to read the book, either, because “it was boring and I had a lot of grading to do anyway.”  So Relevant Powers send “friendly reminders” about “keeping kids focused” at difficult times, and Ms. X and Mr. Y fret and worry about “my test scores,” and everyone is just sure that there’s something to do that will make it all instantly better.  “Write the bad ones up and send in the paperwork,” Power After Power pleads in School After School.  “Let’s put up A Thing about the colleges we attended!  And how about a drawing for a gift card?”

Let me be fair: there’s nothing wrong with putting up A Thing, and I like a gift card as much as anybody.  But gift cards, Posted Things, book studies, revised policies, and Official Directives won’t solve core problems that flow from anxiety and ownership issues.  B occasionally, reluctantly, does his work “for me” because despite all his anxiety and suspicion, we’ve begun to build a relationship of mutual respect and understanding.  Students of mine don’t usually want to go far enough away to attend my alma mater, but they do ask me for advice about colleges because they trust me to listen first, advise later.  And C and O, whose “Latin Family” time is officially over, came to me yesterday afternoon for advice about a conflict with a friend … because their “Latin Family” time had apparently shown them that I might be able to help.  “Remember,” I told them, “I give terrible advice … but what, specifically, is the problem?”  And after a few moments, even though I don’t think I actually gave any advice, they were feeling less anxious, more as though they had ownership of their own roles in the situation.

Anxiety and ownership.  If you don’t have a sense of ownership, there’s a particular kind of anxiety that you’ll feel.  It’s the kind that sends Ms. X, Mr. Y, and the rest of us running for that quick-fix solution.  “What if those bad, lazy kids won’t go to college?  What if they won’t do their work?” Fear of the unknown and uncontrollable sends us scurrying for the Same Old Same Old, in hope against all odds and experience that it will yield different results this time.

If you do have a sense of ownership, do you still feel anxiety?  Fear, worry, and concern are part of the human condition, but they take different forms when you do have control over the circumstances.  As we work to build and sustain joyful learning communities, that’s important to remember.  I wonder what other insights and discoveries await on this busy, eventful day!

Published in: on April 17, 2014 at 10:46 am  Leave a Comment  

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