Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Small Things that Make the Big Things Possible

It was close to 5:00, a lovely quiet time of day at school.  I was still there, promising myself that I would get everything done before I left and have a “no-work” night.  I had one thing left to photocopy and made my way down the long hall to the copy room.  Chris was there, doing something with the aging laminator in the corner.  Someone, he said, had jammed it and he was fixing it.  At 5:00. After a long day.  Why? I asked.  If I don’t, he replied, who will?

The answer to his question, of course, is no one.  There is no budget for aging laminators.  In times of fiscal challenges, the “small things” get cut.  We would have to send out laminating to a central location, I suppose, and wait three weeks to get something done.  But Chris managed to fix it (at 5:00 after a long day of teaching) and the next day, I saw one of our teachers busy laminating cards for a game her students had designed to teach each other the course vocabulary.  She didn’t even know about the small thing that made it possible.

Just half an hour before I met Chris in the copy room, I bumped into three of our department heads.  They had just come from a meeting where the “reorganization” of department heads was being discussed.  It’s not surprising: I’ve attended many district meetings that see department heads as “low hanging fruit.”  They just count books, someone always says, as if this is insignificant.  Like Chris fixing the laminator, however, department heads count and order and organize resources because no one else does.  If they don’t, the teachers in their department would not have enough books and materials - and now technology - to teach their courses without calling to borrow resources from other schools or scheduling numerous meetings with a variety of staff to try to find what they need.  Similarly, if department heads don’t organize assessments, develop and share key assignments, check in with and support new teachers, then each teacher must fend for themselves, starting each semester scrambling to reinvent the proverbial wheel.

How, I keep wondering, if teachers are increasingly asked to do all the small things that are necessary for their daily work, will they be able find the time to do the big things: meet the unique needs of the increasingly diverse – and disengaged – students so each one can learn beautifully?

I would argue that it’s only possible if someone takes care of the myriad of small things.  Teaching has always been complex; today, with very little argument from anyone, I can say it is even more complex.  It’s easy to say – especially for those no longer in a classroom, especially those who have not been in the classroom recently – this is a small thing to cut.  A bit of library support.  District Resources.  Courier time.  Career Services.  Resource teachers.  Clerical time.  EA support.  Learning assistance. Counseling time. Administrator time.  Department head time.   We go along with it.  After all, it’s hard to appreciate the power of small things until they are gone.  We don’t even think about how the reduced courier will affect us until we are driving somewhere – again – to pick up something or drop off something.  At some point, as all the small things land on a teacher’s desk, we begin to realize that none of the big things are possible anymore.  We’re not even sure why – it’s hard to pinpoint small things and, anyway, it seems unreasonable, even ridiculous, to complain about them – but we do wonder why we are tired, frustrated and discouraged.

Imagine how different our schools would be if someone thought that the business of teaching was so important that all the small things were taken care of for us.  Imagine if every budget decision was framed in this question – will this support our teachers?  Imagine if the time, energy and resources spent on initiatives to fix teachers, make teachers accountable, change teacher practice were used to support teachers instead.

Imagine the big things that would be possible.

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