Wednesday, October 9, 2013

On Balance

I had a terrific and respectfully contentious conversation with a veteran teacher a while back. What can anyone (consultants like me, ground troops like her) do in the face of scales that are tipped heavily in favor of the entrenched systems and structures? How do you create Belonging in a district that has a bunch of K-5 schools, two 6-7 schools, an 8th grade academy in a separate building, and two or three high schools? How can teachers build relationships with middle schoolers when they only have them for a year or maybe two? Without a foundation in those relationships, how then could they engage students? And how does one create a sense of purpose in education, when the unapologetic reason for the whole system these days is state tests?

This teacher was far from ready to tip over into an early retirement, but she was forthright in her assessment that programs promoting the personal, emotional, and social context for learning have come and gone while structures like grade leveled configuration, the industrial model of teaching in disciplined silos, high stakes testing, and the agricultural calendar have endured.

I had no ready answer for her. It's a question we face as a field team ourselves. Despite our best efforts, despite the fact that no teacher we have ever talked to got into education to help students figure out which one of four answers they should bubble, despite everyone saying that school is more than just about academics, the weight of academic achievement data required by state departments of education keeps the entire system leaning to one side.

However, there are signs that the scales are straining under this weight: Teachers in Seattle refusing to give the state standardized test or, more recently, California resisting changes to national school and teacher evaluation systems. Even the dozens of cheating scandals uncovered across the country are signs that the current system is not just wobbling, it's starting to bottom out.

But what then? Or better: What now?

There is hope in balance. The solution is not to undo the efforts of the last two decades to improve student academic achievement. Though some would argue for that, I would not. What we need is to balance the scales. Neither does this mean additional requirements of schools and teachers who are already overburdened. Rather, it means counting onto the scale what is already there in the form of effective teaching.

When states start to ask schools to report whether they are developing students' self-worth, creating engagement in learning, and fostering a sense of purpose, the system will achieve a better balance. When states encourage teachers to be accountable for creating positive healthy relationships with students and creating confidence in students through high expectations, teachers will feel less burdened for being more evenly answerable for all that they do.

On vacations with my extended family, one uncle always carried two heavy suitcases, one in each hand because he said that it was easier than carrying one heavy suitcase. Now I understand.

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