Sunday, February 20, 2011

I Like To Be In Charge

I like to be in charge. More specifically, I like to be in control. I want to be the person driving the car, and I certainly want to be the one holding the television remote. I’m pretty sure my wife loves this about me. Or maybe I should say I wish my wife loves this about me.

Everyday, I work with teachers who also want to be in control. I can’t speak for suburban communities, but in the inner city, the term control is synonymous with power. In city schools, we seem to really care about showing who has the power in the school. Principals show their power by writing teachers up for anything and everything. Teachers show their power by throwing students out of class, giving out lots of F’s, and choosing to teach what they decide students should value. Students show us their power by not coming to school, not doing their homework, and choosing not to engage in class. We’re all so consumed with showing everyone else how much power we have, we lose sight of why became administrators and teachers to begin with.

Power and control is also evident in daily instructional practices. When I first learned to teach, I was an incredibly entertaining lecturer. I made sure every question, idea and discussion point came through me. It was my way of holding the television remote at my job also. Today, when I’m working with new teachers I use the image of a ball of yarn. If the yarn is unraveling every time everyone speaks, where is the yarn? In my early classrooms, an observer could have followed the yarn easily; from me to a student, back to me and to another student and back to me…

It took me several years to learn that learning was much better when the yarn symbolically moved from student to student to student and only seldomly came through me. I see this struggle in action every day when I’m in classrooms. Because we don’t really trust that students want to engage in our classrooms, we make sure any questions, answers or ideas are vetted through us; the instructors. The beautiful struggle that occurs when students are challenged with a new idea, or hear something from a peer they hadn’t ever considered, rarely occurs because of the implicit need to be in charge. Ultimately, almost every lesson is actually about power and control, rather than student learning, and the result is the teacher is in charge and the students are disengaged.

Yesterday, I thought about this classroom struggle for control when I began preparations to paint a bedroom. My wife is eight months pregnant with our second son, and we’re setting up the new baby’s bedroom. Now if you want instructional change to occur in your inner city high school, then I’m your guy to call. But I’m not who anyone would call if work needs to get done around the house. I try hard, but I’ll never be confused for a handyman or contractor. But painting is the one job around the house I really do well. I’ve painted every room, and I take pride in the task. So when my four year old and my wife said they wanted to paint with me, internally I balked. Out loud I said, “Sure, sounds great”, and then I began plotting ways to make sure they couldn’t help. I wanted to be in control and do it myself. My son was sure to paint the floor, and while my wife is perfectly capable, I just wanted to do it. But then I thought about the yarn, and I tried to imagine the benefits of us painting as a family… and I couldn’t come up with any. I wanted control. Every couple of months this happens to me. I have to look in the mirror and face the reality that I seem unwilling to make a choice that I ask teachers to make each and every day.

So I changed my painting preparations. I put more painters’ tape around the room than I ever would have before. I covered the entire floor with plastic, and taped it down so drips wouldn’t get on the rug, and I led us in a family painting cheer before we began. And you know what? It was great. Not only did we prime in half the time it would have taken me to do it myself, but we had so much fun. My son painted like a champion and followed every direction, and my wife, despite feeling huge, awkward, and uncomfortable, got to participate in the preparations for the baby’s arrival. I could tell that actively participating as something more than the incubator, meant so much to her. And the price was twenty extra minutes of preparation on my part.

There are so many necessary ingredients for good instruction to occur. But we often spend all our time focusing on materials, certifications, access to technology and class sizes. In inner city schools, our students enter our classrooms with so much baggage. For me the first day of school was and still is filled with the promise of incredible learning to come. For many of our students, the first day of school is filled with the promise of more frustration, disconnection and failures.

As leaders, we must model with our teachers the contract of trust, shared learning, and collaboration we want to see in classrooms across our schools. If we want teachers to give up control to their students, school leaders must create and live a culture where failure is not only accepted, but desired for learning to occur.

It’s easy to lose sight of our intended outcomes. I still want to hold the television remote, because I like to be in charge. And my wife, because she loves me, is willing to look past this character flaw. But when I considered painting the room, I lost sight of the goal. Because I’m busy, I thought of room painting as a task to check off the long To Do List. We do this in classrooms all the time. I need to get through the content, to get to the next piece of discrete content. But painting a bedroom, and teaching kids is so much more than checking off content or tasks from a checklist. We’re changing our family, and it is and will be a mess. My son is shifting from only child to older brother, and that’s going to take time. Our family routines and rituals will all dramatically change. In a classroom, learning done right is never clean, and it never happens quite the way you expect it to occur. There are drips all over the floor, it takes so long, and frankly it’s a mess.

Some teachers love the mess, and know inherently how to create this culture and climate in their classrooms. But not everyone does. As leaders, we set the tone. Speaking for myself, I can’t set a meaningful tone, if I’m not living my beliefs myself. This afternoon, we’ll have Family Painting Part II. It’s sure to be messy, and not exactly what I want, or how I want it. But the room will be beautiful in the end, and years from now, we’ll remember the process more than we remember the outcome.

Isn’t that what really matters?

CC Images:

Remote by kevinthoule 

ball of yarn by chatirygirl 

Paint by maury.mccown 

Ingredients for dinner by Pingu1963 

This piece is cross posted on Connected Principals

1 comment:

  1. I think we all "like to be in control" - it is a part of the ethos / expectation that goes with being a teacher / principal. I thought the "yarn" metaphor was particularly effective - one that I am sure many can relate to.