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Finishing School

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.       Mary is shaking her head.  “What motivates our students to do what we want them to do rather than what they want to do?”

        “I don’t think there is much motivation,” I say, looking around the room.  “Look at this room, for instance.”  The others look around at our colleagues at the other tables, all of whom look deep in discus­sion.  “It’s almost 4:00,” I say.  “We’ve already been at school for nine hours, working with children..  How many of us do you think really want to be here, having conversations of this sort with our team­mates, when we could be organizing our rooms for tomorrow or starting our grading tasks that will consume much of our evening?”

        “Probably not many,” Chris says, “if my attitude is anything to go by.”

        “And yet,” I tell him, “even though you’re not interested in what Gary Morris wants you to do, you’re sitting here quietly listening rather than throwing pencils or erasers across the room.”  Mitzi laughs at that.  “Why is that?”  I ask him.

        “ ‘Cause I’m not eleven years old?”  he suggests with a grin on his face.

        “Well, that’s probably one reason,” I concede.  “But think of something age-appropriate,” I make a face at him, “that you’d rather be doing.  Why aren’t you doing that instead?”  I look pointedly at his tablet sitting in front of him on the table.

        Mary, seeing where I’m going with this, says, “Because Gary Mor­ris is walking around the room making sure that we participate meaningfully.”  She smiles.  “I wonder what he’ll say when he gets here!”

        John argues, “It’s the same thing we do in our own classrooms.  We walk around making sure our students are participating mean­ingfully.”

        “Is it really the same?”  I ask him.  “What is our motivation for participating meaningfully right now?”  I look at all of them.

        “It’s our job,” Mitzi says.  “And he’s our boss.  We don’t want to look bad.”

        “It’s our evaluation, too,” I say.  “And we all know what a bad evaluation leads to.”

        Mary adds, “What’s motivating our students?  There’s nothing riding on what they do in the classroom.”

        “There’s grades,” John points out, and I snort.

        “Right...,” I say.  “How meaningful are those grades?   Proficiency marks that mean—what?”  I can see Morris walking to our table.  Oh, boy.  “The reality is that our students do not feel a sense of urgency to participate meaningfully in class or to perform on tests.  We as a society give them none.  Nothing is riding on what they do.  They will be bumped along from one grade to the next, regardless of how they do in school.” 

        The others are all quiet now, watching as Morris approaches, lis­tening to my speech.  “The first time most of these kids will be held accountable for their choices in school, in any meaningful way, is when they don’t earn their credits in high school.  Until that time, we’re the only ones beating our heads against the wall in frustration.”

        My colleagues all stare at the table, cowards that they are, while Morris looks at me speculatively.  “Do I take it you don’t agree with the strategies mentioned in Chapter Five?” he asks.

        “They all sound quite useful,” I say slowly.  “for people who are motivated to better themselves.”  Like college students, I think.  Or people who wasted their school years and are now trying to make up for it by attending night school.  “I just think we need to take into consideration where our students are coming from and what’s important to them.”

        “So motivation is the key element in what makes these strategies successful?”  Morris is asking, and I think, 'Motivation is the key ele­ment to what makes anything in life successful, you dirt bag.'

        Aloud, I say, “I think that if we don’t look at motivation in equally important terms with the strategies we’re using, we’re just spinning our wheels at best.”

        “Interesting,” Morris says.  “Why is it that when I walk into John’s room, everyone looks motivated to learn?  Is he just lucky that way?”

        Everyone looks motivated.  Like in this room right now.  We all look motivated.  But how many of us actually are?  As opposed to being motivated by the fear of your displeasure?  What do you think about that, Mr. Nut Job?

        “It probably has to do with his no-nonsense demeanor,”  I say mildly, “and the way he runs his class.”  I smile in John’s direction.  “It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a man and very, very tall.”  And I think, how can anyone equate fear with true motivation?

        Morris looks askance at that, and I am grateful when Mary jumps in with, “I think Wendy has a very good point.  Many of my students don’t behave as if they value their education.  What they seem to value is their social time.”  She smiles at me.  “If I don’t keep a tight rein on some of them, they will not do anything productive.”

        “I see,”  Morris says.  “Since motivation is so important for you to be able to do your jobs, I’m wondering how you intend to instill that in your students?”  He looks specifically at me prior to smiling benignly at the rest of the team before walking away.

        “Wow,” Mitzi says.  “He really doesn’t like you, does he?”

On Wednesday, I introduce my students to the vibrating

mole­cules.

        “According to Lesson One, how many states of matter

are there?”  I ask them.

        “Three,” Jackie says.  I smile at him and say yes.

        “Who can name them?”  I ask the class.

        “Who cares?” asks Tony.

        “Well, I suppose you should,” I tell him.  He gives me a look that I interpret as, ‘Why ever would I do that?’  I smile.  “Let’s say,” I tell him, “that you are piloting your plane across northwestern Canada, on your way to your oil fields in Alaska.”

        “All right!” he grins at Darin and then looks back at Nick, who has a speculative look on his face as he watches me.

        “When suddenly, your engine starts to sputter,”  I pause, “and then die.  Oops!”  Several students giggle and most of them have their eye on me, waiting to see where this is going.

        “He’s dead,” Nikki says flatly, whereupon Monica tells her to ‘shut up and let Ms. Taylor finish’.   Nikki looks momentarily put out, but recovers quickly and starts drawing what look like rudimentary parachutes in the margins of her spiral.

        “But wait,” I say, “you look below and see a large alpine lake in the middle of the vast forest.  You need to make a snap decision:  do you try to crash land into the lake, knowing that the water might cushion the fall enough for you to survive the landing and swim to safety?  Or…” I look around at my students.  “....do you crash into the trees, hoping that they, too, might afford you some cushion so you can, er, survive the landing?” 

        Several more giggles erupt along with a few theories about what Tony should do.

        “Now, wait,”  I tell my students.  “Before you get all decision-makey on me, you need all the facts.”  I look up and see Gary Morris standing in my doorway.  For a moment, I lose my train of thought and wonder only how this will be spun against me.

        Shaking my head, I re-gather my thoughts.  Stay focused, I tell myself.  This is a golden moment.  Your students are involved in the lesson!  And they’re about to find out why it matters whether the water in the lake is frozen solid or still a liquid. 

        “What’s that, Ms. Taylor?”  Monica asks.  “What do we need to know?”

        “I think I know,” says Aaron, looking up from his tablet.            

        Smiling at him, I say, “What does Tony need to know?”

        “Tony needs to know whether the water is frozen yet,”  he says with a sly smile, and I nod.

        “Yes, he might like to know what state the water is in before he decides to crash his plane either into it, or,” I look at Tony, “land on it as if it’s another runway.”  I grin at him.  “Now do you care about the states of matter?”

        “No,” Tony says, “since that will probably never happen.”

        “But you never know, do you?”  I say.  I can see Morris still stand­ing at the doorway out of my peripheral vision, and briskly say to my students, “So….back to the three states of matter:  what happens to the molecules in each state?”

 
 

Morris has a folder in front of him with my name on it.  Opening it, he looks at the paper inside full of writing.  It is his notes from the morning’s observation.
    “So,” he says, tapping the paper with his pen and looking up at  me, “let’s start by talking about what your goals were this morning.”  He stops and waits and I think, Well, my goals were to have my students learn the day’s lesson and then practice doing the problems successfully.
    But what I say is, “We were working on division patterns, so I wanted my students to understand how to recognize and set up a word problem and then be able to solve it on the follow-through.”  I smile to myself, thinking that I really am very good at saying just the right thing at the right moment.
    “And why is that?”  he asks, the pencil still tapping on his paper.
     I am not sure what he means by this, whether it is a trick question or just the next thing in his scripted conversation, but I quickly judge that I should just go with the easy route.
    “It is the next concept we teach,” I say, smiling benignly.
    “According to what?”  he asks.  “The Curriculum Guide?”
     It is at this point that I detect a stirring of unease in my belly.  
    “The concept of division patterns is in the Curriculum Guide,” I tell him slowly.  “But this is the next lesson in the textbook:  seeing equal groupings as a way toward dividing numbers.”
    “The textbook is not the curriculum,” he says, enunciating the words distinctly.  “We teach according to the Curriculum Guide in order to make our program at Bennie J. Goodman identical to every other sixth grade program in the district.”   He pauses to let that sink in, and I look down at my hands, trying quickly to form a strategy in my mind.  Of course the textbook is not the curriculum, I think, but it  does proceed in an orderly manner, building each concept upon a previously taught one, which does coincide with the Curriculum Guide.  My thoughts are interrupted by his continued query.
    “So I am wondering, still,” he says, “what were your goals today?”
     Really?  I think.  Really?  My goal was to get through a lesson without Monica or Tony or Kiernan hijacking it and turning the classroom into their own little nightclub act.  My goal was to keep Aaron from running out of the room again.   My goal was to actually teach a math lesson instead of run interference for a bunch of delinquents.
     I struggle to calm my pounding heart, and manage to say, “My goal was to deliver a lesson on division as it is scripted in our Curriculum Guide with as much integrity as I could muster, given the personalities in my room this year.”   
    “So you think the children you have been assigned to teach this year have a measurable effect on your ability to do your job?”  he asks, deceptively calmly.
     I am now seriously annoyed.  Of course they do.

T.L. Zempel, author and retired teacher
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copyright 2020 by TL Zempel