Make Me (Lessons from the Classroom in a Time of Corona)
As I write this, the nation is getting restless with all of this Covid-19 “shelter in place” stuff. The daily body count is a constant feature on any 24/7 news channel, and there are some real concerns about how we survive economically even if most of us eventually get through it medically. I’m not going to argue the science, the economics, or even the politics of the thing at the moment. I can’t help noticing, however, several features of the current crisis which aren’t entirely unfamiliar to educators. Since many of us have a bit more time on our hands than we’d like, I figure there’s nothing lost in pondering a few of them here.
First: The Overwhelmed Medical Profession
Teachers aren’t doctors. We may save lives in some sense, but nothing like what many of them do quite literally every day. Nevertheless, there’s something familiar about the current dynamic in which medical professionals are being asked to handle an ongoing disaster which was largely preventable, using insufficient resources largely selected and distributed based on politics rather than in consultation with those who are actually experts in the field. To those in scrubs: we feel you, friend.
Just to antagonize them further, many of the same voices which are offering token praise of their efforts and personal sacrifices are in the same breath undercutting the entire ideology within which they operate. This isn’t a medical issue to be addressed with science! It’s a plot! A subversion of our way of life based on political skullduggery! “Social distancing”? More like Social-ISM! Again, yep. Been there. Still are, actually.
Second: A Federalism of Convenience
The relationship between local, state, and federal government is usually at its tightest when disaster strikes, but not so this time. I feel for mayors and governors who are attempting to manage a situation which by its very nature spills over borders freely and which they lack the power to fully contain. If they had complete control of those in their districts over an extended period of time, they could no doubt make great strides in turning this baby around, but instead people come and go and they lack the power to prevent it.
Even worse, they’re dealing with a federal government claiming to want to help them but often making things more difficult. Resources which could be going to their neediest citizens are redirected by powers in Washington, D.C., based on their own political priorities and pet projects. Any effort to make their own rules is met with resistance; any effort to coordinate solutions is shrugged off as “not a federal responsibility.” I’m not suggesting the immediate consequences are quite as severe, but this dynamic does sound vaguely familiar to those of us in public education.
Third: The “Make Me” Problem
Let’s assume for the moment that the majority of mayors and governors ordering businesses closed or that people stay inside have good intentions and want to save lives and so on. I’m not challenging anyone’s motivation. There’s a tricky distinction, however, between authority and control. More than anything else happening on the national stage at the moment, THIS is something QUITE familiar to educators of any subject at any grade level.
In theory, I’m in charge of my class. There are guidelines within which I’m expected to work – I can’t hit the kids, cuss at them, take their personal stuff, etc. There are rules limiting what I can and cannot do. Within those rules, however, I have some leeway how I manage my classroom. In theory, if I insist there be no talking during silent reading, then there should be no talking. If I decree a seating chart, students should sit where the chart says they sit. Because those are the rules. While they may be inconvenient for the individual, they’re good for the class as a whole – or at least that’s the ideal.
In practice, however, every line drawn is a calculated risk. If I tell a class that there’s to be no talking the rest of the hour, I’d better know exactly what I’m willing to do about it if they talk anyway. As any parent knows, once you’ve repeated your expectations without getting the desired results a few times, you’d better have something else in your arsenal or you’ve just announced to the 12-year old that from here on out, they’re in charge. Since most of us can’t spank our students or send them to their rooms without supper, we’re left with less direct alternatives.
Generally speaking, teachers use a concoction of authority, relationship, and reason to prompt student cooperation. The mix won’t look the same from teacher to teacher or even from class to class throughout the day, but most effective teachers have all three in there somewhere.
Authority comes from the position. If you don’t cooperate, I’ll call your mom. I’ll write you up. I’ll give you detention. Authority by itself is a blunt instrument, but one you have to be willing to use for it to mean anything. Ideally, however, you rely on it as little as possible after the first month or so. Authority lets you win battles, but it does little to promote excellence or creativity or taking productive risks.
One things governors and mayors have had to do recently that we don’t see very often is use their authority to tell citizens what they can and can’t do. Not everyone was even sure how it worked – when was the last time you had to worry that the Mayor might find out that you REALLY went to Wal-Mart for a picture frame and only bought canned goods so you wouldn’t look guilty?
Relationships are far more subtle. Many non-educators assume teachers get to know our kids because we’re all touchy-feely little snowflake-builders who just want everyone to feel loved. Sure, most of us care what happens to our kids, but that’s not the underlying reason relationships are essential. Without relationships, the only thing I’ve got to motivate them to cooperate are rules and reason. I don’t know if you’ve met an American teenager lately, but they’re not all fond of rules, and as a culture we’re not so great with “reason.”
It’s not about being their “friend” – it’s about wooing, cajoling, inspiring, badgering, or otherwise figuring out what motivates each kid to come to the damned water and DRINK! We’re being measured by little Johnny’s reading scores, however, so one way or the other we’re going to try to figure out what makes him refuse to tick – even if that means we have to get to know him.
Finally, there’s the issue of “buy-in.” Do the rules make sense to those expected to follow them? I can tell my kids to quiet down and most probably will, but it’s not simply because I have authority, although that helps. It matters that I’ve invested in getting to know them – they don’t all love me, but we have mostly positive relationships. What clinches the deal is that most of them accept on a fundamental level that a quiet environment is sometimes reasonable and normal in class. They may not always cooperate, but few would argue with conviction that moving around and more random outbursts would really help them focus on their reading.
With enough relationship and/or authority, I can sometimes get “buy-in” on things they don’t yet understand or see the value of. OK, Mr. Cereal – we’re not sure what you’re up to here, but you’ve mostly been OK up until now, so we’ll go along with it for a bit and see how it plays out.” It’s actually deceptively easy to stumble deep into the pedagogical woods before you turn around and realize no one’s coming with you. You can play the “authority” card all you like at that point, and the best you’ll get is external compliance minus all real learning or enthusiasm. Often, you won’t even get that – especially if they start to notice that others among them feel the same.
It can turn. Quickly. Ask any teacher.
This is the part presenting the biggest challenge to local authorities at the moment as they try to figure out how long to keep some things closed, or – like the poor Governor of Michigan – how to let you go to Wal-Mart for car parts and milk but make sure you don’t grab a few $5 DVDs while you’re there because those aren’t “essential.”
Sure, there are folks at each extreme – some insist the virus is no big deal because people die of other stuff all the time, while others bleach their mail before opening it. Most, however, are somewhere in between. They’re willing to mostly stay at home, and practice a certain amount of “social distancing,” and wait this out for a few more days. Maybe even weeks. They may not like it, and may not always follow the rules, but they subscribe the basic concept – we don’t want people to get sick and die.
Just like my students, however, we’re starting to see the backlash when authority lacks relationship or people no longer buy the reasoning. Why can’t we just…? What about…? And surely you can’t tell me not to…? It’s not a failure of mayors or governors, it’s human nature when it comes to unfamiliar rules and people you may not know or like much telling you what to do. I’m not sure mayors or governors are used to being in the position of having to win folks over once they’ve taken office, particularly not when it comes to matters of public health or emergency measures. They have my sympathy – even the ones I usually disagree with.
I suggest taking a breath and starting fresh tomorrow. Be ready to bust out the authority, if you have it and are willing to use it, and try to listen to representatives from the disaffected. If that’s not enough, however, they’ll need to do a much better job persuading the majority that their reasons and policies make sense for everyone – that they have a plan and it will pay off, if only we’ll play along. If not, you should consider calling everyone’s moms. You’d be surprised how often that works.