Dance Between the BS

Call me a dreamer, but I envision a world where, should one happen to step into any classroom during lunch, they would encounter a group of students deeply engaged in learning. The means by which learning would be occurring would of course be disparate; however, learning would be taking place due to a fervor for life and a depth of curiosity. In the mathematics classroom one could imagine students would be undergoing dialogue about a particularly vexing problem; in the humanities rooms students would be transported to another world wrapped up in the pages of a book; in the gym students would be playing basketball or climbing on the rock wall before sneaking in a quick lunch. And the teachers – well, they would be engaged in all the same activities. Ultimately – and I know I am getting a bit crazy here – I imagine a school in which the ‘mathematics’ room was the same as the humanities room. A school in which there ceased to be barriers that separated discrete ‘subjects.’ But I am getting ahead of myself. My purpose to today is simply to tell you about the field of bullshit sprawled out vigorously and unapologetically in the space between reality and my dream school.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I believe the fundamental function of a teacher is to facilitate learning. If you are an educator, it should also not surprise you that the majority of educators spend the majority of their work days doing things that are not related to facilitating learning. Now, this is a tricky point to make, because sometimes we want to call the things we are doing necessary for the process of facilitating learning… but if we really analyze these tasks, more often than not they are really about the process of running a school, and to quote Sir Ken Robinson, “Many schools are organized as they are because they always have been, not because they must be.” My dream school, described above, cannot happen as things exist right now, because it would require that teachers were walking their walk – that they were as excited about learning anything and everything as is humanly possible, and using that excitement to inspire students. As it stands, as teachers right now we spend more of our time just wanting to get our required BS – emails, grading, meetings, professional responsibilities – done.

Now, it’s also important to note that the process of facilitating learning – often messy – consists of much more than simply standing at the front of a classroom and lecturing to ‘deliver content.’ For example, and be forewarned there’s going to be a brief detour here, one of the most fundamental things we can ‘learn’ is ourselves. After all, “The paradox seems to be, as Socrates demonstrated long ago, the truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery,” as Steven Pressfield wrote in an incredibly educationally-pertinent text called The War of Art, “while those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.” Of course, learning about ourselves goes far beyond learning to be truly free – it also affects how we are able to relate to the ‘curriculum’ of compulsory schooling. Within us exists what Ken Robinson refers to as ‘two worlds,’ first, there is the ‘inner’ world that is unique to us as individuals and consists of our thoughts, emotions, perspectives, and memories. Secondly, there is the ‘external’ world that consists of everything that is not us: this world exists whether or not we were ever born. In learning mathematics, humanities, science, and any other course curriculum taught in modern schools, we are learning about the external world. The irony of this situation is that the ‘inner’ world is the only lens through which we are able to see and relate to the external world.

Therefore, I consider it the foremost task of an educator to not only deliver content to students, but to help them to gain perspective on their inner worlds. This means spending time with students. It means loving students and listening to them to gain their perspectives and uncover their interests; inspiring them to ask questions through well-thought out projects rather than answering unsolicited questions and expecting ‘good’ students to listen and compliantly repeat them on the next exam. To me, when a student comes in during lunch and asks for advice, or help, or to hear a funny joke or an adventure story, it means being present and authentic with them – and let’s get back to the point now – even if that means putting away the emails that need responses and the stacks of paper that need attention.

The point is that there is a lot of bullshit involved in the teaching profession that is totally unrelated to facilitating learning, and that by constraining our view of ‘facilitating learning’ to classroom lecture time, we make it even harder for ourselves to complete the other component of facilitation that we just discussed, because we don’t consider it important. Grades are included in that BS – in my opinion – but I’ll get to that in a minute. Between emails, printing copies, attending meetings, and handling disciplinary cases, it’s easy for us as educators to say ‘sorry, I am too busy right now,’ to a student who needs advice, help, or – especially – to be heard by a person they respect and feel cares for them. And that is asinine.

Now, I am not claiming that some of the more menial tasks of the teaching profession need to be eliminated (although that may fuel the fire for some fantastic administrator to ask: ‘what do I want my teachers to focus on doing really well, and how can I cut the bullshit to allow them to do it?). Instead, what I am saying is that teachers need to form a healthy relationship with bullshit. We need to learn to frolick in the fields of it, dancing like fairies between the muddy pies and retaining our enthusiasm and focus. We need to walk between the raindrops, dry as a bone. Without learning to do this, we risk never inspiring and engaging some (or many) of our students in deeper learning that comes when they connect first with our human nature, which then allows them to connect with the content because of our own passions for it. We also risk burning ourselves out. Don’t get me wrong – I’m as passionate about this profession as anyone, but rare are the days when my friends on my team don’t talk about how nice it would be to just go get an office job or get our Electrician’s License and actually make money while enjoying the straightforwardness of the daily tasks.

Now, I have several suggestions for how dance between the BS:

First and foremost, we need to redefine our relationship with time. In other professions, people can afford to half-work. They can be typing at a computer while also having a conversation with the person in the cubicle next to them. They can be filling up at the water cooler while holding the smartphone to their ear and having a meeting, or typing an email. Teachers should not do this. When it’s time to engage with a human being in front of you, it’s time to engage. When it’s time to teach, do it. In order to do this, the first suggestion that I have is to learn to become efficient with our time. That’s hard… actually, it’s kind of the challenge of our entire modern world and generations (at least partially because we think multi-tasking and not fully engaging on the task in front of you is efficient). However, it can be done.

Perhaps the most important tool in beginning to do this is the Training Plan. If you are an educator who cares, read the article on it. Try it for yourself, seriously. By setting weekly goals for yourself that include things other than just your profession, you deepen the richness of your own life, which in our profession deepens your connections with the human beings you work with on a daily basis. Furthermore, it focuses your mind on what you want to accomplish, and makes you slowly start to eliminate actual BS time, like spending 30 minutes ‘relaxing’ when you first get home by checking Instagram, because you realize you are way to driven to better yourself to have time for that BS.

Secondly, put away the God Damned computer. I’d like to remind teachers that our students – whether we see it happening or not – slowly incorporate our views of the world, letting them color student perspectives, and this happens for our actions as well. If we spend all day showing them what ‘work’ is by working on our computer, they will ‘do work’ the same way – and the computer is far too powerful/dangerous a tool for even my adult mind (admittedly a feeble adult mind). Students learning what their inner world is all about don’t stand a chance. Without digressing into a dissertation on the need for a conscious relationship with our technology, I’d like to give a short anecdote to illustrate my point. A colleague comes into the room and asks if we can meet on Thursday at lunch, I agree and say ‘Great, let me just put it on my Google Calendar!’ To get to my Google Calendar, I click on the tab for my email which is still open in my browser, planning to press the Google Apps button that will swiftly and efficiently navigate me to my calendar, but before I actually hit the button, an unopened email catches my eye. I open that, begin responding, and completely forget that I was just trying to set a calendar reminder for my meeting. This happens to me (about six times a week) because of the power of the internet as a largely reactive tool – the entire design of the thing is meant to keep you diving further and further into it, consuming rather than producing, reacting rather than creating. The same sort of thing happens with links or ads while reading an online article or literally any other type of work that involves the internet with the possibilities to have new tabs open up.

So we need to be engaged in learning like students are. Do tests with them while they are taking the test (when you take the test, it can then serve as your answer key)! Or read a real book while students are taking their tests (you can even further your craft by reading a book about teaching)! Or if students have work time and you are hoping to make headway on new projects, draft it out in a notebook you keep handy in the classroom. But most importantly, DO NOT have a kid come into office hours only to spend small amounts of time working with him, pointing him in the right direction so that you can get back to doing some work on the computer. Obviously there are simply times you have to use the computer – your school requires you to take attendance online every day, or you need to respond to emails within 48 hours (just make sure you are not confusing something that’s urgent with what’s important). This is not an admonition to get rid of technology all together – it’s just an admonition to start thinking about when it’s not necessary and how we want to structure/scaffold/build-up-to productive computer use with students. It’s also an admonition to think about how to cut down on the amount of time you spend on things that are urgent but unimportant like email.

Third, incorporate a Mindful Moment into your daily class routine. This helps kids to gain focus coming into the classroom, but it also gives us a small moment to just take a breath and gain presence for our students.

Fourth, and this one is tricky, is to redefine our relationship with grading. What I mean to say by this is that in a LOT more instances than we would care to believe, grading is BS and we spend too much time on it. When a student hands in a paper, for the most part they already know if it’s of quality or not. My friend Eric likes to get some of our 11th or 12th grade students riled up by asking “Do I really need to read this and tell you it’s good or not? Did you learn something from it? Well isn’t that the purpose of writing it? For you to get something from it?” Without going back into a discussion of teaching Quality and the purpose of Rubrics, we teachers all see through our own BS when grading papers, right? We know that the grade given is ultimately subjective – did we think the paper was good or not, and how much further do we want to push this particular student (or try to strategically boost their grade to give them some extra confidence?). We create rubrics as a tool to help students who need scaffolding shoot for some achievable goals and to help ourselves try to ‘standardize’ our grading and remove variability, but then we go forth and start creating rules about how the rubric has to work: “Well, if I circle one line of text from the rubric’s ‘B’ category but another from the ‘A’ category, given that they are in the same box on the rubric I will just average those and call it a ‘B+’ but then circle this other one for the next box to make it a… [blah blah blah].” And we go through all this trouble knowing that only 10% of kids (if that) will actually read the edits, and 5% will come in to Office Hours to review the paper more specifically to get ideas that go beyond the rubric and edits/circles that we made – most of them will just look at the total grade and say… ‘eh, yeah, that’s about right.’ So why do we spend all that time going through that process!?!?! Figure out if you can redefine your relationship with grading, and make that clear with your high school students, so that you can maximize time on growth and minimize the time used that doesn’t lead to real change.

Obviously my list is still incomplete. What else do you do that you can share with our community to help dance between the BS?

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