My return to the classroom continues to be difficult. I knew it would be, of course, but it’s easy to romanticize the past, to remember the marvelous lessons, the spectacular successes, the laughter, the joy. What you forget is the day-to-day grind of teaching, the daily effort to support, challenge, engage thirty adolescents, to not only keep the peace between them, but to help them find ways to think and work together productively. You forget the isolation from other adults. You pass them in the hall. You snatch a few minutes of conversation at the photocopier.
Every once in a while I remember my former life as a
district coordinator. Mostly I remember
the meetings organized to “fix” education – or more specifically, to fix
teachers. I have been, myself, guilty of
such hubris. A few
days ago, I was reading an article about the Victorians – about the upper class
women who worked with the poor, setting aside their embroidery and drawing
lessons to visit the less fortunate once a week to lecture them about
virtue. Virtue, of course, is much
easier when you have a full belly, when you aren't working night and day, when
you haven’t been beaten, degraded, demeaned daily. It struck me that there are similarities to
the endless “professional development” for teachers. It is true that we ought to improve our
practice, implement more varied approaches, connect with student passions,
differentiate, individualize, personalize, integrate, innovate, inspire. But it so much easier to consider when you
are not teaching, when your fine ideas are not shredded by the apathy of
teenagers, when your attention is not constantly syphoned off to attend to the
student throwing a paper airplane, the girl close to tears in the corner, the
child who interrupts incessantly with questions, when you have a nice office,
long hours to meet and think, and resources to purchase what you need when you
'Punch' cartoon, 1894
It isn't that I think we should not make every effort to improve practice, so that each child every day has a full, rich learning experience. But I have learned that preaching about it won’t help. Recently I listened to Ernesto Sirolli speak about the causes for the failure of western aid in Africa, and it seemed to me to apply both to the Victorian ladies and our approach to professional development. He talks about his own failure as an NGO, of the two trillion dollars of aid to Africa over the last many years from developed countries that was not only not helpful, but did damage. He tells of how often NGOs sweep in to “fix” things, but fail to ask the locals if it will work or to engage them in the projects they are passionate about – and so failure is inevitable. If asked, I'm sure the Victorian poor would have preferred to speak about working conditions than virtue. Teachers, every time I ask, say they need time: time to think, to plan, to organize, to collaborate. Instead, millions of dollars are spent on endless projects and the next new thing. I begin to worry: have our "good works" as zealous educators (and I have been one) caused more damage than good?
If we really want to help, Sirolli says, we need to set aside our imperialist, colonialist, missionary and patronizing or paternalistic approaches. We must become, instead, servants to local passion. And to do that, we must first shut up. We should never come to a community we want to help, he says, with any ideas. If we give someone an idea, and they don’t want to do it – how does it help, he asks. Instead, we listen, not in public meetings, but person to person to find out what is needed. When they tell us their idea, we help to make it happen. It isn't surprising, when you think about it, that Sirolli's "shut up and listen" approach has been wildly successful.
I wonder what would happen if education leaders shut up and listened, really listened, to teachers. I wonder what would happen if they found out what teachers need, what they are passionate about – and then moved heaven and earth to make it happen. I'm not entirely sure, but I'm pretty sure, that the transformation that all our missionary zeal has been unable to effect would occur at last. After all, it is through the daily hard, hard work of teachers that our children have the best chance to learn. Who better to listen to, then, than teachers? Surely it's time we stop giving them ideas they don't want.