The first Monday of the month brings a scheduled faculty meeting, and Ms. X was looking suspiciously at the agenda. It was short, with some announcements and reminders about graduation and exam schedules, and then there was a one-word item that said “Painting.” My assumption (which turned out to be correct) was that The Painters from The District would be on the scene this summer to do some painting; in fact, they’ll be doing some exterior work, and they’ll be starting this week. “Please don’t park in This Area, since that’s where they need to park their trucks,” was the action item.
But that’s not what Ms. X had suspected … not at all. “I am not doing any painting!” she muttered angrily. “That is Not My Job.” Ms. X had been seeking the answer, of course, but her fear and suspicion led her to assume something completely untrue.
But Ms. X’s fearful, suspicious, angry response speaks to a larger issue, one Mr. N and I had talked briefly about earlier in the day. “The mistrust!” he said. “That’s the biggest problem. Nobody trusts teachers to do the right thing, so there are All Those Tests. Teachers don’t trust students, parents, or anybody else.” Mr. N is a thoughtful guy, and we’ve had several conversations around this general theme. Ms. X’s fundamental paradigm of mistrust isn’t news, of course, but the timing of her outburst seemed significant somehow.
I’d also just received a gift card and a thank-you email from M’s parents, who had to move right before the end of the school year. When I first met her several months ago, I got the impression that M was sweet, intelligent, reserved, and sad about something she didn’t want to talk about. She never did want to talk about it, but perhaps the move itself was part of the sadness. M wasn’t openly fearful and angry the way Ms. X is, but she was quietly mistrustful. She tended to assume the worst, and it took a lot of effort to bring her even to the fringes of our joyful learning community. Something about factory-model schooling contributed to M’s mistrust, I’m sure. I had thought, several times, about seeking the answer, but in the end I wasn’t sure that “the” answer would help.
After the meeting, I decided to use a bit of M’s family’s gift card, and as I was enjoying my snack I “just happened” to see a Google+ share of this excellent blog post from a thoughtful middle-school math teacher. She was definitely seeking the answer to her students’ preoccupation with The Answer, and it sounds like she (and they) had a real breakthrough.
As I read Ms. Powers’ post, I thought of K, the girl who used to be me to “give me a worksheet and tell me what to put on it” because she just knew she’d get a good grade if I would only do that for her. At the time, K was convinced that she had to go to a Really Prestigious College for a Highly Lucrative Career. She’ll be graduating this week, and her current plan is to go to the Local Community College for a Somewhat Related Career. “I like it,” she told me the last time I saw her, “and the pay is really good, and it’s only a two-year program. And I am so tired of school!” I can only imagine how exhausting it must be to spend seven or eight hours a day seeking the answer, just knowing that there’s One Right Answer out there, like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
That quest for one right answer must be related to the fear and suspicion and mistrust, I realized. I’ve probably realized that before, but it really struck me as I sat in the quiet cafe at the Local Bookstore, reading and eventually responding to Christian’s Google+ thread about Ms. Powers’ blog post. As a learner, if you live in a world of one right answer, it’s easy to be fearful and suspicious of That Teacher, who (presumably) knows the one right answer but won’t just give it to you. How rude and inconsiderate! As a teacher, if you embrace the one right answer mindset, Those Students are equally frustrating, equally worthy of fear and suspicion. Look at All The Work you did “for them!” Look at the beautiful lesson plans and the neatly organized notebook full of charts and graphs from the Shiny New Assessment System! Look at the “cute little activities” you found, the pretty animations and transitions in your PowerPoint! And yet Those Kids, especially the “bad, lazy ones,” keep asking questions or not understanding or not Just Doing The Work. And sometimes they even Do The Work, but they still don’t get the right answer.
No wonder everybody is so fearful and suspicious! No wonder there’s a pervasive atmosphere of mistrust!
And no wonder it’s so hard for some Latin Family members to embrace the notion of a joyful learning community! Even if we didn’t try to walk the talk about building meaningful things together, learning another language and culture involves so much more than the right answer that leads to sticker and stars and certificates and “incentives” from Ms. X and Mr. Y. You have to be able to use the language, to interpret and eventually present ideas, to negotiate meaning and communicate with others … even in a circumstance like ours where many of those others have been dead for a millennium or two and the communication is mostly one-way. And negotiation, by its very nature, is about something other than one right answer.
On this first day of exams, when I’ll be looking for some right answers, I’ll also be looking for evidence of growth, of proficiency, of deeper understanding. That’s a very different quest from seeking the answer out of four neatly-labeled choices A, B, C, and D. I wonder what new insights and discoveries await on this stage of the journey!