Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Care We Put Into It

Leadership in education is fragmented. Policy makers and advocates each take a turn at the white board. On the periphery, adults launch into heated exchanges about teaching in comment scrolls beneath news articles. Politicians speak in generalities; their words are little more than eyewash.

None of those people or entities get to make the one decision in education that matters. Actually, none of them can ever make this decision. They are powerless to do it because their power is not built on empathy.

Empathy matters.

You are the only person who can make the one decision that matters and that is a pretty powerful and liberating thing to realize. As teachers, we make innumerable decisions everyday, yet each of those decisions is primarily driven by one, critical, initial decision.


Oddly, the one decision that counts is not policy. The one decision that counts is not curriculum or content. The one decision that counts is not what is wrangled over at Pearson. We have one powerful decision to make.

What type of a model are you going to be?

This one decision trumps all of the decisions made by our government and administrators. We do not have a choice concerning whether we are models or not. We only get to decide whether we will be a good model or a bad model. 

In the ELA classroom, being a good model means modeling reading and modeling writing. To take it a step further, being a good model in a middle school means showing up to events, participating, and engaging with our kids outside of the classroom.

In the ELA classroom, being a bad model means making excuses for not being a reader and/or a writer. It also means making excuses for not showing up to much at all outside of the classroom.

And it makes me wonder about where we came from--about the care that was put into being the teachers we are today. And it makes me wonder about the care that we put into ourselves today that will determine the teachers who we will become tomorrow.

Steve Jobs said, "I always understood the beauty of things made by hand. I came to realize that what was really important was the care that was put into it. What I really despise is when I sense some carelessness in a product." While Jobs was concerned with the craftsmanship of his technology, we can take the lesson and apply it to teaching.

Carelessness in teaching is relying solely on pre-packaged content--something generated by others for the masses. Carelessness is recycling PowerPoints, packets, overheads, and support material year upon year--so much so that we get caught into what Jobs described as grooves. He believed that once a person reached their thirties they fell into habits that they could not easily extricate themselves from. We become the cliche of the teacher who uses the same overheads year after year. 

We spend the first half of our life creating our habits and the last half of our life our habits make us.

For ELA teachers to reach the standard Jobs suggested for his industry and applying it to teaching--care put into a product--means being readers and being writers. Being a reader and a writer opens the possibility of empathy in our classrooms.

An article on Edutopia, Teaching Empathy: Are We Teaching Content or Students? nails this very point, "You must understand them [students] for who they are and where they are, not for what you hope to prepare them for."

It means investing time outside of the classroom. We can't just rely on the Pearsons and Holt-McDougals to crank out textbooks and support materials and wash our hands of it and say that's that. There is no care in that attitude.

Likewise, we can't just lean on the curriculum from our home districts and brandish the documents as if they are all-inclusive, prescriptive, panaceas to all of the problems in education. That document is brought to life by the teacher and the one critical decision we make. We have to remember that the one decision (What kind of a model are you? Are you a good one? or a bad one?) impacts almost everything that we do and who we become in our classroom. It impacts how we use the curriculum document and what we bring to the table in support of that document.

And we don't get to opt out of making the one decision that matters. Whether we realize it or not, our actions define us. Our actions show our colleagues, administrators, students, and community who we are--a good model or a bad model.

In order to be a good model, we must be readers and writers who collaborate and interact with other good models. Having one without the other does not work well either. Being a good model is as influential as is surrounding ourselves with bad models. We can find both models all around us. We just have to learn how to spot the good ones. Also, beyond our buildings, we can find good models through books and by attending conventions and workshops. The good models are out there. We must be willing to engage by preparing ourselves to engage--read and write.

via Hanna-Barbera Productions
When we learn to see each other as models, we invoke one of the other core beliefs of Steve Jobs: A players like to work with A players. A players cannot stand to work with C players. 

An educational leader and colleague of mine attended a conference where he heard the analogy of schools compared to buses without floors. Imagine your school as a Flintstones type of vehicle where passengers used their feet to run and move the bus. He said the some people on the bus are runners, some lift their feet and cruise along for the ride (happy to be led), and some dig  in their heels and retard any prayer of progress.  They are usually quick to point to excuses, problems, and what is not there rather than focusing on what is there. He said the leader advocated focusing our attention on the runners--the A players--rather than investing energy in the C players, the complainers. The dead weight. He noted that some B players will move into ranks of A players and turn into runners. Some won't. But the likelihood that C players move up to B and then to A is almost unheard why waste your building's resources on bad models?
  • Be more than the person who thinks little about their craft outside of their classroom. 
  • Be more than the person relying on the worksheets and packets and PowerPoints. 
  • Be more than the person satisfied (and relieved) that the thinking and heavy lifting has already been done. 

If we do not, we see ourselves as little more than deliverers of content and our students little more than empty pails to be filled (everyone is a C player in that model). And that is, sadly, the Jobsian incarnation of "carelessness in a product" that can infect our schools.

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