Wednesday of Teacher Appreciation Week brought a delicious lunch from a local restaurant I’ve known and loved for years … and not just because, quite a few years ago, I taught a member of the owners’ family. As we ate, Mr. N, who’s a thoughtful guy, was expressing his concern about students who have lost the joy of learning, who have hardly any choices as they go through what feels like an endless grind of a day. He was referring specifically to the “college and career ready” approach, but I think we were headed in a promising direction: could choices and joy perhaps be more present in every class, not just in the hands-on vocational courses he’d been referring to?
But then Ms. X, with perfect certainty, took the conversation in a different direction. “It’s the middle schools’ fault,” she said, because They “don’t teach very much” and “don’t teach those kids how to behave.” And “those parents” are (at least partly) to blame, because they “don’t make kids behave” and “don’t hold them accountable” and “treat them like adults, not kids.” As a result, Ms. X is convinced, there are lots and lots of students who can’t do the work, and they “need to go somewhere else” and, presumably, be dealt with there. Why? Because “we’re too small to be able to fix kids like that.”
That Particular Ms. X is planning to retire this year. To be fair, she went on to talk about lots and lots of students over the years who, in fact, have “been fixed” by a small, supportive, but challenging school environment … and about others who struggled, departed for other schools, but came back (or got in touch) to express their gratitude for the time they’d spent with us. And Ms. X herself has been responsible for “fixing” or helping to “fix” quite a few “kids like that” in her time.
But when she said that, all I could think was, Say what??
And I didn’t have any appetite for dessert … which seemed like a shame. Later on, it turned out that the chocolate chip cookies were good, but not excellent. And they weren’t from the Local Restaurant, and there wasn’t any banana pudding from there. Missing that would have been a real shame!
Say what?? Ms. X!! What are the assumptions buried behind the notion of being “too small to fix kids like that?” For one thing, there’s the notion that “kids like that” are “like that” by nature, that there’s something innate that causes them to be “bad and lazy” or, perhaps, just “unable” to do The Work. Then there’s the idea that The Work is prescribed and unchanging, and that students are to adapt themselves to The Work or suffer the consequences. At least, in the myth, Procrustes chopped off his guests’ limbs or stretched them out “for” them; I have a sneaking suspicion that Ms. X’s assumption would require the “bad, lazy” guests to operate the ax or the rack themselves! And there’s a pretty obvious assumption that teachers cover the curriculum and assign the work and grade the work, but see individuals? Help people with struggles? Adapt The Work to the needs of students, or help students make those adaptations for themselves?
No; “we’re too small to be able to fix kids like that.”
And there’s also the assumption that fixing is what schools are for … that the focus should be on students’ deficits and weaknesses rather than strengths and abilities. And there’s a notion that we know how to “fix” people and what purposes to “fix” them for. Having known That Ms. X for years, I know she’s not arrogant at all; in fact, she’s one of the most humble, gracious people I know, and everyone from students to colleagues to Powers That Be is sad at her impending retirement. But there’s a terrible structural arrogance in the notion of fixing kids, and even more so in the notion of being too small for that. I did manage to ask whether Those Middle Schools, the ones Ms. X blames for “not teaching very much,” might claim to be too big to do any fixing.
I doubt Ms. X has “had time” to read about grit, but if she did, she’d probably think that teaching grit and grading kids on their grit would be a wonderful idea. I particularly liked Jeffrey Snyder’s recent article about the problems with that, and I’m glad that a rich discussion developed on my Google+ share of the article. As Laura pointed out there, grit and persistence are hardly monolithic; you can be quite persistent at things where you find success and enjoyment, but not at all persistent at things that are difficult and unpleasant. And Brendan noted
the existence of perseveration errors — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A-not-B_error — or just latching onto failing strategies, as in “throwing good money after bad.” These are examples of taking “grit” and “determination” too far. Sometimes it really is worth stepping back from something and letting go of the shiny object that’s a distraction from something else that matters!
I wonder what Ms. X would think of that!
In a joyful learning community, you can take the time (or make the time) for important conversations like this, because the conversations are key to the learning and the learning, in turn, is key to the joyful community. But in a factory-setting, there’s always “not enough time” and there’s always “too much to cover,” and thoughtful conversations are a real threat to the sense of urgency that drives the whole system. On a busy, deadline-filled day, I hope we’ll all take the time for a few conversations, some unexpected learning, and the serendipitous discoveries that are waiting for us if we’ll just take the time to notice.
I wonder what we’ll all notice and discover today!