N, T, and C “always” arrive in every class at the last possible minute … but on Thursday they were early, and they were (relatively) quiet and focused, and they struck a much better balance of work first, chat later than usual. D, Y, and F, who often get distracted and want to make G do everything, were (somewhat) less distracted than usual, and they, too, found a much more effective balance between work and chat. As Ms. X and Mr. Y are either winding things down or desperately “covering” everything, change is hard … but there are early, encouraging signs that change is happening.
And maybe it’s happening all around me, but I just haven’t noticed. One Ms. X couldn’t attend our Vitally Important Small Group Meeting Thursday afternoon … a meeting for which a promised massively important agenda item had never actually arrived. But the rest of us met briefly, and it turns out that Another Ms. X has been experiencing a lot of success from two surprising changes she’s made in her class. “I don’t think this will be relevant to you,” she said half-apologetically, “but I’ve been meeting with my students one on one” when they sign up to take a Practical, Hands-On Alternative to the Standard Multiple-Choice Exam … and it seems the one-on-one meetings have really helped her students excel on that Alternative. “And in That Other Class, you’ll probably think I wasn’t actually teaching,” she said, “but I just went over the very basics and had them work with the material, figure things out, and ask me if they had questions. And it’s working!”
Ms. T and I were quick to assure That Ms. X that she was “actually teaching” … and that her discoveries were, in fact, relevant to the work we and our students are doing. I left the meeting tired, but encouraged. Tired because it had been a long day, and because the sheer weight of inertia of the factory-mindset makes change so hard for so many people. Encouraged, though, because even Ms. X is starting to make a few important changes.
I don’t think I ever embraced the factory-paradigm as fully as Ms. X clearly did. It’s funny, too, because Ms. X teaches a set of skill-based courses … but apparently she’s “always” taught them with “going over” and memorization, because that’s what she thinks “teaching” is. Earlier in the day Another Ms. X had been complaining about all the homework her daughter, in first or second grade, was receiving, and Mr. P actually mentioned The Research about the ineffectiveness of homework for young children. “I’m concerned,” he said, “because I don’t think the Common Core is being implemented properly in a lot of elementary schools.” And it turns out that what he meant was that business as usual (like the piles of homework overwhelming Ms. X’s daughter) was prevailing over needed change. We talked briefly about that, and about how common it is to try to cram in the Shiny New Thing without really changing anything.
And that reminded me of another recent conversation, the one with my colleague who’s convinced that “we change things all the time” in factory-model schools, abandoning old, but workable things before their replacements have had time to be tested. I do understand his perspective, but that constant churn of superficial change strikes me as a paradoxical form of business as usual. Like the well-worn objections N and T had tried to use on Wednesday, constant superficial changes are a great way to distract people from underlying issues. Yelling and labeling are a natural result, especially when the Shiny New Superficial Change gets mandated and oversold but some Important Outside Expert or some harried, overworked Powers That Be … and then the focus shifts from the superficial change to the yelling and labeling, or to the folks doing the yelling and labeling. “We change things all the time,” my colleague said, but the underlying structure hardly changes at all.
“Don’t forget,” said the flyer about Teacher Appreciation Week, “that lunch will start at 11:12 on Wednesday.” But it’s hard, maybe impossible, to get The Bell to conform to the actual time that shows up on everyone’s computer, tablet, or cell phone … so 11:12 will probably be 11:10 or 11:14. The Special Schedule will happen because it’s Wednesday, and that’s when the Special Schedule happens. “I wonder if we’ll get the regular special things next week as well as the special teacher appreciation things,” Ms. X fretted when she read the flyer. “I like the regular special things” of Water Wednesday and Fresh Fruit Friday.
An email of “reminders” and “back to basics” will probably come out because some Very Important Visitors are scheduled for Tuesday, and Ms. X and Mr. Y will likely respond as Ms. X and Mr. Y do. And N, T, U, and the others? If Ms. X and Mr. Y storm and threaten or yell and label, will they complain that “we were less loud” for the Very Important Visitors and wonder why Ms. X and Mr. Y got upset?
Change is hard, but real change can happen … and sustained relationships are the key to change that lasts. But everything about factory-model schools seems designed to make sustained relationships difficult … and yet they emerge, and learning communities form, even in the most hostile circumstances. On a busy Friday, the day before The Prom, with two different field trips and an ill-defined Special Something on the calendar this afternoon, it’s encouraging to know that sustained relationships and joyful learning communities are possible and real even when conditions seem most unfavorable. I wonder what new insights and discoveries those communities will offer us today!