Should, Must, or Will?

A Wise Friend is attempting to change the culture of the school where she serves as principal, to help her teachers and staff take better care of themselves because, after all, it’s hard to give what you don’t have.  She put up a poster about the ill effects of staying too late at work.

This is the same Wise Friend who told me that “opportunities are rare.”  Wise indeed.

I wonder how Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y will respond to that!

If you’ve ever known or been a teacher, you probably know that complaining, but half-bragging, about the long hours and the lack of appreciation is an important part of many schools’ cultures.  That’s understandable, even healthy, to a degree.  But sometimes it slides from healthy to harmful … and when it does, the long hours become an expectation, a sign of membership in the secret club of Us who Really Care and Really Work Hard.  In other words, as Satia put it in the post she wrote in response to my post yesterday, they become a should.

She put it this way:

“Why are we should-ing all over ourselves?”  I have a theory about why I should all over myself.  I too often weigh myself down with what I should be doing (and, by association, should not be doing) when I don’t make the time to know my why, which is something else Justin’s been exploring in his blog.  When I know why I should be doing something, I remove the guilt and blame from my action and find myself doing something because it is a choice.  More than that, it is a choice rooted in a personal integrity that has nothing to do with an external should but is driven by an internal want, a desire that is connected with who I am.

I’ve been trying to figure out the term I want to use for actions that are driven from the inside, from your why and your who.  I tend to say “I must do this,” or “I will do this,” or sometimes “I need to do this” … but must and need to are tricky words.  Sometimes people use them to express an inner drive, but sometimes they refer to an external should.  And of course will can express your deep intention, but it can also just refer to something that’s going to happen, but hasn’t yet.

Language is tricky!  And I love it … but if I didn’t love language, why would I be a language teacher?

It’s kind of like the word purpose, I suppose.  For me, purpose is connected with your why: in the framework of vision, mission, values, and goals, it’s a vision or mission thing.  But if you aren’t clear about vision, mission, or values, it’s easy to use purpose to represent something instrumental. “The purpose of this game is speed and accuracy,” said a student leader at an activity I attended.  But I think the purpose was to build a sense of community in the group; the way to win was speed and accuracy.  Only one team could win the game, but they all could experience the bonding that came from playing together.

The purpose behind Ms. X and Mr. Y’s late hours?  Originally, I suppose, it was because they wanted to do a good job, to get things ready for their students, to make a difference.  It was a why thing … or at least it was for me back when I thought that staying late would make me better or more effective at what I do.  But when you lose sight of that, you start saying that the purpose is “to grade those papers” or “to key in those grades” or “to make my copies for the next few days.”  You confuse why with what and howmine with not mine, should with must or will.  And the results are predictable.

“I want to make sure I do what I’m supposed to do,” said Ms. X about the Newest New Thing.  “I want to use those terms the way They want us to.”  It’s pretty clear that Ms. X is operating from a perspective of should.  She’s the same Ms. X who was once in tears because she “got a bad report” on her lesson plans with the New Rubric.  “I spent hours and hours on them,” she sobbed, “and they weren’t good enough!”  The issue, according to the rubric? Objectives (which have to do with purpose) weren’t very clear, and it was hard to tell how the activities related to the goals that were stated.  Ms. X had worked hard, and she’d spent long hours, but her work wasn’t effective.

That’s hard and painful to hear, especially when you operate from the should perspective.

The stated purpose of the Newest New Thing was to develop a common language among teachers and administrators, to help them see the connections (or the disconnects) between what they’re doing in their classrooms and schools and the kinds of tasks their students should, must, or will be prepared for.  On the lowest level, that means that instruction should be aligned with the goals and processes of standardized external assessments; at a higher level, it’s about “preparing for college” or “getting ready for the real needs of the workplace.”  But Ms. X and Mr. Y?  They’re so tangled up the shoulds that all they can see is the what, and possibly the how of the Newest New Thing.  Use this language, they think, or make a poster.  Or maybe ignore it, because this too shall pass.

In a joyful learning community, there’s space and time to deal with why, to think about should, must, and will from different perspectives.  But in a hierarchy, there’s only time for What The Boss Wants.  I hope my Wise Friend will succeed with that cultural change, but the road is certainly challenging.

I wonder what other opportunities and challenges await us today!

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Published in: on August 27, 2014 at 10:43 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] seen the news about B’s death when I sat down to write my post yesterday, but I couldn’t refer to it yet.  I spent part of the day in an emotional fog, feeling […]


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