No need to raise your seat back: What happens when teachers lose sight of the destination

The man sits asleep, mouth agape in his window seat as the flight attendant stops by and gingerly taps him on the shoulder.
“Sir,” says the flight attendant, “We’ll be landing soon, and I need you to put your seat up.”
“I can’t,” says the passenger, “Whenever I try, it just falls back down. I think it’s broken.”
“You need to press the button,” says the flight attendant.
“I did. It just keeps falling.” He demonstrates.
“Well, can you put up the seat beside you,” says the flight attendant as he walks away.
The passenger is suggesting someone might want to report the broken seat, but the flight attendant has already moved on.
The entire scene is reminiscent of many teachers’ approach to students and what they have decided are the correct behaviors.
Anyone who has ever traveled by air knows the vehemence with which flight attendants insist passengers put their seat backs and tray tables in the full upright position.
So too might anyone who observes an American classroom note the force with which many teachers insist students follow exacting classroom procedures and practices. Students must submit their homework at a given time, tests must be completed within a certain interval, essays must be formatted according to set parameters. In many cases, if any of these standards is not met, the work will not be accepted. The students will not be cleared for landing.
Teachers are tripping over procedures with little regard to their intended destinations.
Certainly, it is important for a student to learn the lesson of submitting work in a timely manner. At the same time the tardiness of work should not mean a student’s effort up to that point be disregarded.
Why, then, do many teachers impose such draconian measures in their classrooms? They do it for the same reasons many flight attendants insist on upright seats, not because it is imperative for the landing of the plane, but because it is one of the few things still within their control.
If teaching is entirely dependent on others listening and observing instruction and then internalizing it, there is little wonder teachers might savor any element of control they can find when faced with limp success rate of much traditional teaching.
One option, the option of which we are loud proponents, is to keep the intended destination in mind when responding to the idiosyncracies of student behaviors and accepting successes while working to improve upon failures. This is not easy.
Our flight attendant, too, struggled with keeping the destination in mind. If seat back position is important to the operation of the plane, he would have done well to listen to the passenger and report the defunct chair. Ignoring it now means he and subsequent flight attendants will wage constant battle with that seat when a few moments of focused attention could save mountains of frustration.
Teachers too could learn from this piece of the story. Punishing the student who has formatted his essay incorrectly without taking the time to help the student develop a plan for avoiding the error in the future only insures headaches down the road.
Failing to appreciate the work that’s been done while simultaneously punishing the annoyance without working toward a solution leads to something educators are particularly adept at – admiring the problem.


What do you mean when you ask if it scales?

No idea has much chance of surviving in the intellectual marketplace these days if it cannot prove its muster in the face of one question:

But can it scale?

It frustrates me to no end. While I appreciate the market and capitalistic underpinnings that lead to the question, I appreciate a good idea much more.

Problems require nuance and sophistication in their solutions. Elements of those solutions may be replicable or scalable, but the solutions themselves must connect to the people and contexts of a particular instance of problem. Student mobility in one city may look like mobility in another city, but it may be the result of a wholly separate set of causes. The solutions will have some elements in common, but they will not be the same.

I’m interested in whether or not I can see and borrow pieces of the solutions I need in the answers you’ve found. If 95% of what you’re doing would solve my problem, implimenting your solution wholesale prevents me from serving my community as fully as I could. What’s more, it let’s me solve a problem without thinking and without questioning deeply what should and can be done.

Scaling a solution runs the danger of reducing thought.

Earlier this semester I found better language for answering the question of whether an idea scales. From professors Mark Moore and Archon Fung, I came to define scale as follows:

Scale is…

…the number of people affected.
…the geographic spread across jurisdictions.
…the critical mass reached in population segment.
…the size of impact on individuals affected.
…the scope and durability of individual impact.
…the sustainability of effort over time.
…the total individuals and assets engaged.

If all we’re trying to accomplish is scaling in the form of the first definition, we’re paying attention to the number of people, but not being mindful of the actual people.

Things I Know 208 of 365: Let the teachers teach

The only way to predict the future is to have the power to shape it.

– Eric Hoffer

Ironically, though I won’t be teaching this year, I’ve attended or been party to more district commencement events than any single year I’ve been teaching. Most interesting about each of these events are the similarities I’ve seen across districts.

With only Sarasota and Philadelphia to use as my in-person barometers of district cultures, I’ve relied the last few years on what I’ve read on the edublogs I follow.

When those posts have echoed experiences similar to my own, I’ve written it off as an expected consequence.

Of course these people would have similar thoughts to mine. I’d chosen to follow them, hadn’t I?

This year’s commencement sampling has included reports from Nebraska, New York City, rural Texas, suburban Ohio and Chicago.

I’ve gone back to school virtually or physically all over the country.

Outside the realm of my usually reading, the sentiments of teachers are remarkably unified – let us do our job.

At least three of the districts a bracing for new state-wide standardized tests.

As one teacher put it, “We’d just about figured out the old test and now we’ve got to figure out a new one.”

I suppose one way to make sure teachers aren’t teaching to the test is to completely revamp the exam when students start to experience success.

Very tricky.

Five points to Slytherin.

In almost all of the schools and districts I’ve connected with, I’ve heard some variation of the phrase, “We’re in a transition period right now,”

This has meant anything from the traditional superintendent shuffle (no less off-putting than the Super Bowl Shuffle of the 1985 Chicago Bears), massive layoffs, the adoption of new store-bought curriculum (rhymes with “Fearson”), or re-structuring to bring a district into compliance with a newly-chiseled state commandment.

What strikes me with particular force as I encounter these stories is the fact that none of these changes are coming from the school or teacher level. All of them, without exception, are being handed down with compliance as the expectation and termination as the unspoken stick.

I have this notion that teachers can have some pretty innovative ideas and be tremendous forces for positive change if well-meaning, but misguided leadership got out of the way.

It’s just a theory. I’ve only ever seen it work two times.

My favorite line across state lines when it comes to commencement has been uttered by every superintendent I’ve encountered – “We are not teaching to the test.”


Are you sure?

Because you’re certainly not teaching away from it,

After a speech I gave recently, a teacher came up to me to explain why no one had engaged when I opened the floor up to Q&A, “Plenty of people wanted to,” she told me, “but we’re on lockdown with scripted curriculum. We like the ideas you talked about, but we can’t talk about them with the administration in the room.”

They were so frightened of getting in trouble for doing their job that they couldn’t talk about doing their job.

As she walked away, the teacher turned and said, “I wish they’d just let us do our jobs.”

Five points Gryffindor.