Friday, October 9, 2009

Mind Control?

Today I took my students to the library to do a web quest. (I always feel bad about taking kids to the library to work on the computers since they should probably be engaging with texts in the library, but it's often a necessity as the computer labs are always booked.) While I was in there I had a very interesting conversation with the librarian that led to another interesting conversation with a colleague at lunch.

We (the librarian and I) were talking about the trillions of expectations that people in education have placed upon them. The general consensus is that nobody, no matter how experienced or talented, really has the time or physical/mental capacity to actually do all the things your supposed to do. You might be able to do a few hundred of them, but that's still not even close to meeting the expectations that administrators often put on you. It really is a joke that you would expect any one person to do so many things.

The librarian said she had been a classroom teacher for a few years prior to becoming a librarian, and she had developed a hypothesis to explain the rationale for this reality. My personal opinion is that society does not accept that providing quality education to so many students would require a monetary investment in skilled personnel/personnel training enormously larger than is currently being made. The librarian's opinion, on the other hand, was that the creation of so many expectations is really a form of what she referred to as "mind control." The idea is that those at the top of educational systems benefit from their underlings believing that they're not meeting expectations. Administrators can ALWAYS find things that you're not doing well. And it's not just a few things either. Practically every teacher in the country is gravely failing to meet hundreds of expectations: differentiate every lesson, modify every assignment, call every parent, assess every paper, make sure you engage every learning style, create classroom profiles and plan accordingly, teach every student for mastery, tutor all those that need help, attend IEP meetings, manage each class to perfection, respond to every e-mail, create well-designed course and unit plans, have a strong degree of mastery over the content, etc.... The list is NEVER-ending.

Now, I'm not sure if the intent is "mind control," but I can see how it functions that way. I always feel so far behind that when administrators tell me that I'm awful at what I do, I generally believe them and try to work harder. The result is that I become somewhat of a sheepish employee. I refrain from offering my ideas and criticisms of the way the school functions because I am personally falling so short of generally agreed upon expectations for good teaching.

I transferred this idea over to a colleague of mine who teaches science across the hall at lunch today. He's an older gentleman who decided to leave a long career in consulting to begin teaching - certainly a brave career move, especially in our particular environment. He said that in his 45-year career in the private sector, nobody would realistically be expected to perform the way teachers are expected to perform. He related the job of teaching to that of a mid-level manager, but he argued that the analogy fails to maintain its accuracy when you consider that teachers are generally responsible for 85-150 students, whereas few managers deal with more than eight or ten employees. On top of this, teachers are asked to design, implement and assess, all of which are jobs he said would be allocated to different individuals in the private sector. In addition, teachers generally have to deal with behavioral issues far worse (and with far fewer meaningful tools to use as consequences) than a private-sector manager might have. We concluded that the expectations put upon us are an enormous joke.

The more I teach, the more I believe this to be true. However, there is still a small part of me that wonders if I only want to believe this because I feel so constantly inadequate at my job (and it makes me feel better, of course, to believe that it's not my fault). I know that I could be an infinitely better teacher if only I was further ahead in my planning, or if I didn't throw a number of assignments in the trash without grading them, or had a greater ability to empathize with kids, or if I would only do all of my own assignments before giving them so I could have a better understanding of what the kids are going through, or if I could only care enough to help each kid individually after school or make home visits. Part of me wonders if my department head is right every time he looks at my work and scowls as if I had no training in education at all. The larger part of me, however, is very seriously beginning to see this whole system (including my department head) as one enormous joke.

If these expectations are just one big joke then I think there are some major implications. One is that I need to seriously stop stressing out so much about my job. The other, much larger, implication may be that I may need to seriously reconsider my priorities as an educator. Instead of stressing over the exact alignment of my objectives to the standards and the perfect management of my classroom in order to please my supervisors, I may need to slow some things down and really begin getting to know my students. I mean I think I'm pretty good at building positive interactions, but I could definitely get to know my students on a deeper level and use that in order to engage them more. I often find myself paying limited or insufficient attention to my students' questions and concerns because I know I have to cover something else in order to cover my checklist for my supervisors or things I'm supposed to do before I give a test. This new DC environment I moved into this year of ultra-accountability has killed a bit of my zest as an educator. I felt like I was able to develop such amazing relationships with students before I moved here, and I think that's what really drives students to learn for you, and what makes the job worth it in the first place. Real learning only occurs when there's some stake of emotion involved.

So maybe I'll cut loose some of the ridiculous expectations I hold of myself for a while and see what happens. I just hope I can fool my administrators into thinking I'm falling for their mind game.

3 comments:

  1. I just had a similar conversation with a friend of mine who went to see the Dalai Lama give a speech about Creativity in Education in Vancouver. I don't think it's mind control but part of "the plan", in a capitalist society we need some people to be at the bottom of society and it's best if either they think they are to blame or led to believe that it's someone elses fault. I am a first year teacher/career changer and having been feeling so overwhelmed but also beginning to feel like I've been set up to fail. What they are asking us to do is impossible. If they really want teachers to succeed then give us the support to succeed. If it's so easy to write lesson/unit plans why doesn't DCPS already have them, why are we all just creating our own based on what we consider to be the essential standards - makes no sense.

    Frustrated First Year Teacher

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  2. I have been teaching for eleven years after 20 years in the private sector.

    Work smart and don't throw yourself at every new thing that rolls down from the top - it is always changing.

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  3. This is a great reflection on some of the problems with the current educational system. I think it can be summed up in this sentence: "I often find myself paying limited or insufficient attention to my students' questions and concerns because I know I have to cover something else in order to cover my checklist for my supervisors or things I'm supposed to do before I give a test."

    In order to be the "perfect" teacher, one would have to be a really bad one.

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