Wednesday, January 27, 2016

I Don't Need a Buddy--I Need You to Do Your Job Better!

A friend once asked me whether New Yorkers were as rude as everyone said.  I explained that in my experience New Yorkers were not necessarily rude.  They just didn't go to any great lengths to make you feel good about yourself.  To illustrate the point, I described wandering around Greenwich Village with a UNC classmate one spring break, looking for a place to have dinner.  I ducked my head into a shop and asked the woman running the place, “Could you point me to Little Italy?”

Without breaking eye contact or uttering a word, she extended her left arm and pointed. 

“No, seriously,” I prodded.

“Seriously,” she insisted.  “Keep walking in that direction and you’ll run right into it.”

She was right.  She was tremendously helpful, just not very friendly.  But here’s the thing.  At that moment, I didn’t need a friend.  I was already with a friend.  And my friend and I were really hungry. 

As a woman who works in education and lives in the south, more and more, I find myself wishing for a little more of that businesslike efficiency and a little less flaccid friendliness.

Efficient: Calling one teacher into your office and saying, “The last time we met, I asked you to get your lesson plans to me by 3:00 pm on Fridays, and you haven’t been doing that.  If you miss another deadline, I will have to reprimand you formally. ”

Flaccid:  Calling the entire faculty into a meeting and explaining, “Some of you haven’t been getting your lesson plans in on time.  We really need you to do that.  Okay?”

Efficient: Encouraging—nay, demanding—that employees interact with each other as adults, that they stop gossiping and take their complaints to the source of the complaint, not to you.  When Employee X comes to your office and says, “Employee Y hurt my feelings yesterday,” your response is, “I think you should talk to Employee Y about that.”

Flaccid: Enabling behavior from adults that you would not tolerate in children.  When Employee X comes to your office and says, “Employee Y hurt my feelings yesterday,” your default is, “I’ll talk to her. Okay?”

That word—okay?—like you’re asking permission to lead!

I wonder sometimes if part of the reason little ever changes in education is that we’re all so damn busy trying not to hurt anyone’s feelings.  So we allow incompetent people to serve on essential committees because we don’t want them to feel left out.  And we neglect to document behaviors because it would make everyone uncomfortable.  And we pretend we don’t see bad teaching or abusive administrators. 


Because someone might get mad?  Or get their feelings hurt?  Or not feel affirmed and fuzzy?

Perhaps my upbringing was too no-nonsense but it seems to me that people’s self-esteem should result from their having done something worthwhile, not because everyone else is in a conspiracy to protect them.

In the pilot episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Matt Lauer asks one of the rescued girls how she ended up a victim of kidnapping and, presumably, rape.  She explains, “I didn’t want to be rude so… here we are.”

I’m not suggesting we stop being kind to each other or that we take no notice of our colleagues’ feelings.  On the other hand, the behaviors I’m describing are not kindnesses. They are duplicitous, cowardly, and, frankly, an abdication of our responsibility to the children we’re supposed to be teaching.  It’s certainly not kind to them.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Making a Murderer: How Did So Many People Miss the Point?

Typically, I blog on education-related topics, but today I’ll be shifting gears a bit.  Like almost everyone in the county, the Netflix series Making a Murderer consumed a significant chunk of my time recently.  Of all the things that appalled me about the documentary, what I found particularly infuriating was the amount of activity it engendered in the snarkosphere. 

I read several blog posts that I suppose were intended as observational humor about such banalities as how unattractive Dolores Avery is, how unfashionable her clothing was, how moronic her phone conversations with Steven were.  And the more I read, the more I seethed.

Let’s be clear.  The Avery family is white trash.  They are poor.  They are uneducated.  They are physically unattractive.  They’re the kind of folks who think nothing of tossing a tire on a bonfire. You would not want them as neighbors. 

They’re not clever and cuddly white trash, like the gang on Duck Dynasty.  And they’re not sexy, dangerous white trash, like The Sons of Anarchy.  They are reality trash, not reality TV trash.
And that’s kind of the point.

Civil rights are not the sole province attractive, educated people.  You don’t even have to be a particularly nice person to have civil rights.  They are not something you earn; they are simply something you have.  That’s why they’re called “rights” and not “privileges.”  The Constitution exists to protect everyone’s civil rights, even those of the trashy and ignorant. In fact, I would hazard that the trashy and ignorant need the Constitution more; the wealthy and the educated know how to advocate for themselves.

If you watched all ten episodes of Making a Murderer and failed to absorb that, you are part of what is wrong with our justice system.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Ask This, Not That

As 2016 begins, many of you may have resolved to eat healthier or exercise more.  My Facebook feed is plastered with recipes for things like Swiss chard wraps and fat-free, dairy-free oatmeal cookies.[1]  A particularly popular phenomenon at this time of year is Eat This, Not That, a web presence that shows people how to swap calorie dense foods for lower calorie “equivalents.” 

In this same vein, I decided to create a post for teachers who have resolved to get their classrooms in shape this second semester.  Very often, the problem you’re trying to correct is actually a symptom of a more important problem that you may not have even considered.  So, ask this, not that.

Don’t ask, “How I can raise homework completion rates?” 

Ask instead:

Why do I assign homework?  If I took out their homework grades, would some of my failing students be passing? Do I give my students timely and meaningful feedback on their homework, or do I just collect it and pass it back periodically? Would I want to do this homework if I were one of my students?  Could I get better results if I had them do the homework in class and the classwork at home (flipped instruction)? 

Don’t ask, “How can I get my students to follow directions?”

Ask instead:

Do I wait until all my students are looking at and listening to me before I deliver instructions?  Do I give instructions while simultaneously passing out papers or checking attendance?  If I’m not paying attention to myself, why would the kids pay attention to me?  Do I give lengthy instructions with multiple steps?  Do I craft my instructions with concision and precision? Do I explicitly check for understanding when I’ve finished my instructions, or do I just ask, “Got it?” and move on.

Don’t ask, “What behavior modification system can I implement so my students stay on-task?”

Ask instead:

Do my students understand what they’re supposed to learn from this work?  Will they know when they have learned it?  Is this work sufficiently challenging?  Is it too challenging?  Is there a real upside to finishing the work on time or a downside to not finishing? Would I want to do this work if I were one of my students?

You may not like the answers to a lot of these questions.  The good news, though, is that if the problem lies with you, so does the solution.

Happy New Year, everyone!

And remember—breathe in, then out.  Repeat as necessary.

Dr. Deb

[1] I made this recipe, and the cookies were absolutely dreadful!  Just sayin’.