Who Controls What?

Many years ago, when I was a new teacher, teachers in That Particular District “just knew” that students in ninth grade were “angels” who somehow turned “bad, lazy, and horrible” over the summer … and in some cases, when they exited the very same school bus but went in an opposite direction.  In those days, schools there were structured as junior high schools for grades 7-9 and high schools for grades 10-12.  The “angelic” ninth-graders were at the top of the social ladder, and the “horrible” tenth-graders were at the bottom.

I don’t think Ms. X and Mr. Y saw the connection … but I know they were surprised when That District reconfigured itself, moving to middle schools for grades 6-8 and high schools for grades 9-12.  All of a sudden the “angelic” ninth-graders were “bad, lazy, and horrible” and the tenth-graders were “starting to get better.”

Structure matters, and culture matters, and who controls what?  That matters a lot.  In those Olden Days, the “angelic” ninth-graders tended to feel a sense of ownership and control; they’d been at Their School for several years, they knew the ins and outs, and as the “older, more responsible ones” they were expected to take a leadership role in building and maintaining the culture.  Then, the following year, they found themselves in a brand new situation, the youngest and least experienced members of an established community.  All of a sudden, they weren’t exerting the pressure; they were receiving the pressure.

And yet Ms. X, Mr. Y, and Various Powers That Be couldn’t see the structural and cultural issues involved.  For years and years now, so long that “everybody just knows” it must be true, the concern in That District has been about “solving the ninth-grade problem.”  They tried solution after standardized solution, but the problem persisted.

I thought about that set of problems and solutions as I was reflecting on the beginning branch of the Latin Family at District Y.  They’re almost all ninth-graders, of course, and while they can be silly and a bit unfocused at times, I don’t think anyone would label them the way their counterparts in That District are labeled.  And when they are silly or unfocused, the causes are usually clear, and so are the potential solutions.  In general, they need to figure out who controls what, and a few need practice and support as they build up their self-management and self-control.

I’ve been astounded by the amount of self-management and self-control their counterparts in the intermediate and advanced groups already display.  No doubt there are structural and cultural factors in the school and the district that promote self-management and self-control; you can tell a lot about school structure and school culture from student and faculty handbooks, and the ones from District Y are well-organized, free of internal contradictions, up to date, and written in a way that suggests self-management and self-control as key cultural values.  But there’s something about our virtual environment, too, that promotes self-management and self-control for them … and probably some stark differences between that environment and the mental picture of a face-to-face, textbook-based Latin class that they brought with them from past experience.

The beginners, of course, haven’t had that experience … and they haven’t been immersed in the structure and culture of their school for very long.  So it’s not surprising that they still have lessons to learn about self-management and self-control.

I obviously don’t know their other teachers, since I’m not physically present with them.  There may well be a Ms. X or a Mr. Y or two among them.  But in the virtual interactions I do have with faculty members and administrators there, I get a sense that self-control and self-management are cultural expectations for adults as well as young people there, and I have a feeling that Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y I’ve known would be uncomfortable with that.  It’s a lot easier, after all, to complain about how “They” mistreat and disrespect “Us” than it is to take ownership of a problem or situation, control and manage yourself, and work with, not for others in solving the problem or changing the situation.

It makes a big difference when you’re clear about who controls what.  And it makes a big difference when priorities are clear.

I’m thinking, as I write, about some conversations at Former School that probably couldn’t happen in District Q or District Y.  “They changed the format of this Official Document,” somebody said a few years ago, “so They are making Us re-do it differently.”  The format change, if I remember correctly, was an attempt to make the document more useful; instead of listing priorities and goals in twenty-five or thirty different areas, schools were to pick two or three goals to focus on.  You can accomplish two or three goals, especially if you take ownership of the process and allot some time and resources … but that was scary and uncomfortable for Ms. X and Mr. Y.  They liked the Old Form, whose very length (and consistency from year to year) made it clear that nothing much would really change.  They also liked complaining about the Same Old Same Old all the time.

“I’m not good at technology,” More Than One Ms. X and Mr. Y told me.  “And I don’t like change.”   For them, the labels of “bad, lazy, horrible ninth-grader” and the like were actually comforting, I think.  They could look at the labels, take a fixed-mindset approach, and not have to ask any hard questions … questions like who controls what? or what, if anything, do I need to do differently?

Questions that I naturally address, and questions that the District Y and District Q Latin Families seem to be embracing as well.

As summer gives way to fall, and as the novelty of our virtual community wears off, the work of building and sustaining joyful learning community continues.  And it’s a lot easier when you think about who controls what.  I wonder what other insights and discoveries await!

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Published in: on September 23, 2014 at 11:02 am  Leave a Comment  

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