Mission Control

It's time to stop sweating the small stuff and take on the big issues.

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We must dig into those issues of consequence with all the energy we currently invest in the 'fork' issues of our schools.

My husband and I argue over forks. Specifically, we argue over the direction the forks should point in the dishwasher. Tines up, I assert, results in an assured poke in the hand when someone (usually me) reaches into the dishwasher to unload. Tines down, he responds, leads to dirty forks, food poisoning, and, ultimately, death. After 13 years of this argument, one would assume that we’d have worked it out by now. Come to some kind of compromise. Agreed to disagree and moved on.

Nope. The fork debate rages on, resurfacing in times of stress, de-escalating when things are running smoothly.

In my work as a “school coach,” I spend much of my time mediating similar conflicts among teachers, administrators, parents, and students. We discuss food in the classrooms, hats inside the building, and students without pencils. In the midst of powerful conversations about teaching and learning, we suddenly may find ourselves hijacked by a discussion of one of these issues in its latest incarnation.

Why do we have this rule if we’re just going to ignore it?

It’s just a matter of common courtesy.

I don’t care what the rule is, I’m not going to waste time on a hat.

I’m going to fail him if he shows up without a pencil again.

The administration needs to clamp down on this.
If a kid is hungry, how can she learn?

Sometimes I want to scream. I’d like to say, “From now on, hats can be left on in the building, and food is welcome in all classrooms. Now, can we just move on, for Pete’s sake?” But I don’t. Partly this is because it isn’t my place to make such decisions—I’m not a member of the community—and partly it’s because unilateral decisionmaking is completely contrary to the democratic practice I’m attempting to model. Mostly, though, I’m reticent because I keep reminding myself that we’re not arguing over forks. Or food. Or hats.

We’re arguing about power. About consistency. About priorities. We’re trying to discuss the Big Issues, but we’re afraid to name them. So we bicker about minutiae. We fall into the safe arguments that no one will ever win but that will surely fill the time allotted, ensuring that we can return to our classrooms, departments, and homes. We’ll talk it over in the hallways and bathrooms and parking lots—with our friends, our allies. We’ll say things like “You know, the real problem is ... ” and “I just wish someone would realize that, ... ” but we’ll only say them to people with whom we feel safe, never questioning why we don’t feel safe with our colleagues.

We know, deep down, that we’ll never resolve the hat issue because we’re not talking about hats. We’re really talking about respect—modeling it, expecting it from our students—and we’re caught in a chicken-and-egg battle over whose respect (the student’s or the teacher’s) needs to come first. We won’t resolve the food issue because we’re really talking about rules that exist on the books but don’t serve the higher purpose of the school. We’re really talking about that lack of a higher purpose, or of a mission, rather than a mission statement.

And yet, we’re not. We’re talking about hats. Over and over and over again. We blame hats—or food, or pencils—for the problems we face. We don’t talk about the real issues because if we identified those, if we acknowledged and discussed them, we couldn’t go back to pretending that the problem is kids who wear hats in the hallways. We can’t “unknow” that which we have named.

If we’re actually going to talk about why kids need to eat in class, then we may have to break the silence surrounding the issues of poverty and inequity. We’ll have to open the Pandora’s boxes of “Our kids don’t have enough to eat” and “Our school breakfasts and lunches don’t offer any real nutrition” and “We’ve sold our pedagogical souls to the soda companies in exchange for our cut of the take.” We don’t really want to do that. We prefer to stay safely ensconced in our ignorance, putting mountains of energy into talking about nothing at all. We appear busy—we are busy. But what are we busy doing? Nothing of substance, that’s for certain.

What will it take for us to engage in the real discussions of the big issues? Whose permission do we need? What, exactly, are we afraid of?

Part of the answer may lie in what lecturer and best-selling author Marianne Williamson has said: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” We’re safe if our conversations stay small. We hide in the notion of powerlessness. We assume that our circles of influence, our energies, are most appropriately focused on these small issues—that larger questions are the purview of Someone Else. “What if?” is a scary question to ask ourselves. What if, as longtime school reform advocate Nancy Mohr used to say, “the wisdom is in this room”? What if we have the answers within ourselves and are just too afraid to look for them? What if we really are powerful beyond measure? What if we’re letting our fear keep us from doing that which we absolutely must do—and should have done years ago?

The short answer is that kids stay hungry, continue to lack basic supplies, and, most important, fail to get a sense of what it is to recognize and be able to use their power as citizens. They don’t learn how it feels to exercise power wisely because we refuse to show them. They learn to pour their energies into petty battles rather than real civic engagement.

We know, deep down, that we’ll never resolve the hat issue because we’re not talking about hats. We’re really talking about respect.

We are missing out on that educational equivalent of lightning in a bottle: the teachable moment. We have all of the components for powerful learning communities; now we must build them through real, meaningful work. We must dig into those issues of consequence with all the energy we currently invest in the “fork” issues of our schools. We must ask the difficult questions over and over again. We must begin to build learning communities marked by democracy, respectful disagreement, and assumption of positive intent. We have to shine a light in the corners of the box, pull out all of the messy issues, sort them, discuss them, wrangle with them, and, ultimately, find a way around, over, or through them.

In this era of increasing political partisanship, isn’t it time for us to teach our students that looking deeply into the well of our own shortcomings is the way to solve them? How long will we maintain the charade of infallibility, our blameless collective personae? The greatest gift we can give our students—and ourselves—is the acknowledgment that things aren’t OK—and won’t be OK, even if we build a school in which no one wears a hat indoors, everyone has a pencil, and neither Snickers bars nor apple cores can be found outside the cafeteria.

The fork battle may go on forever in my kitchen, but my husband and I recognize it for what it is: an indicator of our stress levels during tough times. We don’t aim to get anywhere strategic in this battle. On our 50th wedding anniversary, we’ll probably still be debating the merits of tines up versus tines down. But we also know that we have to discuss the real issues that emerge in every family and that we have to name them and make plans to deal with them.

Let’s hope our colleagues throughout the education community can do the same.

Vol. 17, Issue 02, Pages 50, 53-54

Published in Print: October 1, 2005, as Mission Control
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