When you’re starting something new, especially something really new, it’s good to have a network of friends who can help you figure things out along the way. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, and especially if you comment here or on the Google+ threads, I’m grateful and honored to include you in such a network. Figuring things out, oddly enough, is not a skill you tend to learn or practice very much in factory-model schools. There, you’re supposed to watch the experts and do what they do … and then you’ve either got it or, well, you don’t. And if you don’t, there’s a special place to send you for some special services … but everybody knows what that really means.
But what about new, inexperienced teachers? Don’t they have to figure things out, like novices in any field? They do, of course, but factory-model schools have an odd, ambiguous relationship with inexperienced teachers … or inexperienced administrators or inexperienced support staff, for that matter. Built into the system is a longing for The Good Old Days, when there were plenty of candidates and “you could be selective.” In other words, back in those (mostly imaginary) Good Old Days, you could just replace somebody who wasn’t working out. And not working out means not proficient … and that can mean not proficient from the very beginning.
It’s scary and traumatic to have to be proficient from the very beginning! Is that part of the reason why so many young teachers flee in the first few years, why so many others “get burned out” and depart for endeavors that seem less taxing?
The more I think about Richard Elmore’s framework and the hierarchical individual model of learning and leadership, the more I can see how such an approach encourages a belief in immediate effortless proficiency. “Why don’t you understand?” Ms. X asks in frustration. “I taught it, so you should have learned it. We even did a cute little activity!” Down the hall, a Relevant Power is frustrated because Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y is “having trouble with classroom management.” But they shouldn’t! After all, they took at least one course about that, and some of them are not new teachers. Why aren’t they perfect, or at least proficient, by now?
I’ve said and thought all of those things myself … about myself, about students, about “those bad, lazy teachers” down the hall. I bought into the perfect or proficient mindset, too.
One problem with perfect as a goal is that you can’t achieve it. Even if today, by some miracle, was almost perfect, there’s still that nagging almost … and things might fall apart completely tomorrow. If you aim for perfect, you’re bound to be disappointed … and disappointment has a way of turning to frustration and anger, especially if you live and work in an environment where expressing disappointment is frowned on.
Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y says toxic things about students in the Teachers’ Lounge because that’s what you do and say there. It’s really hard to say something like “I wonder what I could do differently?” or even “I wonder why they were acting so bad and lazy?”
I’ve been oddly tired in the mornings this week. The Dog and I go out for our morning walk at something like our normal time, but then I’ve been needing to rest, even go back to sleep, for quite a while. This morning, in the midst of that rest, I had an insight: “It’s like I’m recovering from years of misalignment.” And that’s how I started thinking about these issues of perfect and proficient … and how exhausting it is, even for Ms. X and Mr. Y with their hierarchical individual viewpoints, to live and work in a world where perfect and proficient are required.
And of course the definition of perfect and proficient can change with the next mandate or directive from Various Powers That Be. One Ms. X was frustrated that, all of a sudden, failure rates required attention. That Ms. X prides herself on “being a rigorous teacher,” and in her world view, that means some students (the “bad, lazy ones,” of course) are just going to fail. All of a sudden, Some Power decided that failure is a problem, and what was Ms. X to do? Change her ways? She doesn’t know how, and admitting that would require her to see herself as less than perfect or proficient. “I never got a bad note before,” said Another Ms. X, actually in tears over feedback about lesson plans she “spent hours and hours on.”
I don’t relish negative feedback; I don’t suppose anybody does. It feels great when people say you’re perfect or proficient at things. But when negative feedback arrives, as it eventually will, you can respond in different ways. You can get angry or upset, like Ms. X and Ms. X. You can run away or deny, though that’s not a strategy for long-term success. You can sink into depression, convinced that you’re “just bad at this” and it won’t ever get any better. Or you can try to figure things out and find a way forward.
But just because you responded one way yesterday, or for many years, that doesn’t mean you’ll automatically respond that way today or tomorrow. For all my commitment to growth and figuring things out, I spent a lot of time over the past few years being angry and upset and sinking into depression, and before that, as it was becoming clear that things were changing and my formerly “perfect” approach wasn’t working so well, I did my share of denying, too.
I’m grateful for the chance to figure these things out, and I appreciate all of you for reading and for helping along the way. I wonder what else we’ll all figure out today and in the days to come!