Who, What, Why?

“Do you teach persons or individuals?” Brad Ovenell-Carter asks in this excellent post that “just happened to show up in my Google+ stream this morning.  Persons, as he defines them, are unique; individuals are (more or less) interchangeable components that make up a society.  Ms. X and Mr. Y  “don’t have time for that” because they teach The Curriculum … but what’s behind The Curriculum with its standardized timeline or The Textbook with its standardized approach, “helpful teaching tips,”  “lesson planning suggestions,” and pre-made PowerPoints?

Brad argues that most teachers see persons while Powers That Be, at various levels, see individuals, and that this difference in perspective accounts for many of the conflicts in and around schools.  I think he’s right about many a Great Power Indeed and individuals; if you work at the level of policy and curriculum, of standards and accountability, of facts and figures all day, it’s hard to remember that those facts and figures derive from the idiosyncratic work of unique persons, each with a different pattern of strengths and weaknesses, hopes and dreams, fears and joys.  You can’t work efficiently at those levels if you’re thinking too much about persons … and efficiency is the overriding goal of factory-model structures.  “Do it well,” the message goes, “and try to do it better, faster, and cheaper over time.  We’ll let you know what it is and what the metrics will be.”

But at the level of schools and classrooms, there are lots of questions of who, what, and why … a lot more questions than answers, even for Ms. X and Mr. Y who “don’t have time” because there’s “too much to cover.”  At a Short Meeting yesterday, One Ms. X was proudly demonstrating a Shiny New Tool that can give an overview of how students at This School, in the aggregate, are performing on tests of This Particular Standard, and can compare their performance with yet larger aggregate performance indicators.  “That way,” she said happily, “if you look and see that Our Kids are struggling with something, maybe you can put something into Your Class that will help them.”  And that would be helpful, I suppose, if you knew which students were struggling with That Standard … and if you knew why, and whether any of them were in a Particular Class.  I haven’t looked at the Shiny New Tool closely, but I didn’t get the impression that such granular information was available … and the lack of granularity didn’t seem to bother Ms. X.  “Oh, that’s right,” she said to Mr. Y, “you probably don’t have any of my students, do you?”

Who is the focus of Ms. X and Mr. Y’s long hours of planning, preparing, and “grading all those papers?”  Do they see persons or individuals?  I don’t know, but I remember one time when One Ms. X needed help with something during one of her Scheduled Tutoring Sessions.  Everybody there was supposed to do the same thing, and I think they were all supposed to do it at the same rate … because apparently That Ms. X sees interchangeable individuals who are just being “bad and lazy,” or obstinate, or stubborn, or slow, or something.  Being … because I’m pretty sure Ms. X sees those qualities as intrinsic and fixed.  And yet she keeps Assigning Work, convinced that if the “bad, lazy ones” would just, magically, Do The Work, the “badness and laziness” would magically vanish and Those Test Scores would be excellent.

“Would it be possible,” someone asked during the meeting, “for a particular student to go to part of a Saturday Remediation Session for One Subject, and another part for another?”  Ms. X was highly skeptical of that; it “wouldn’t work with my timing.” Apparently even in those Special Sessions, there’s an implicit, unexpressed notion of standardizing the process.  Why look at each person (and the extensive data that, if you believe the developers of the Cool New Online Assessment System, will reveal their unique patterns of strength and weaknesses)?  “That might be nice,” Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y seems to think, “but who has time for that?”

What do Ms. X and Mr. Y focus on?  Theoretically they focus on The Standards, deriving assignments and activities from them.  But I have a suspicion that Ms. X and Mr. Y, like so many of us, teach as we were taught … and that doesn’t mean they focus on persons and unique patterns of strength.  It means they focus on a standard process, and when that doesn’t work, they try a similar but different standard process, and on and on till time runs out and somehow, magically, “most of them did OK” on the Great Big State Tests.  “And I don’t know why,” One Ms. X said, looking skeptically at her Official Printout of scores.  “I think They gave Those Kids a really big grade curve or something!”

Why do Ms. X and Mr. Y do what they do?  I’ve asked a few of them, and the answers are different.  “It’s not that bad of a job,” One Ms. X said, “and I get my summers off.”  Another liked “getting off early,” though she lamented “all the grading I have to do at home.”  But unlike Meg, Ms. X and Mr. Y never talk about love … not for students, not for the subjects they teach, not for the process of teaching.

Who, what, and why.  Those are important questions in a community because a community is made up of persons … and different communities will probably develop different answers to these core questions.  Building community in the midst of an institution designed to prepare individuals: is it really possible, and is it sustainable in the long run?  I don’t know, but on this busy Tuesday it’s good to have some new clarity and understanding of some of the roadblocks and challenges.

I wonder what other new insights and discoveries await!

Published in: on April 29, 2014 at 10:42 am  Leave a Comment  

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