Saturday, September 8, 2012

#11 After All is Said And Done

In its most condensed form, education is a publicly funded business where the ideas of
taxpayers are communicated through the government to school boards and delivered by the
teacher. Our tool boxes are filled with many tools to accomplish this task, but none is more
indispensable than our own voice. Unfortunately, the side effect of this skill is that we talk a lot,
and that is no exaggeration.

    Regularly, we are instructed to leave our classrooms to attend meetings, which are usually
about the implementation of policies from the various levels of the system. (Shit runs down hill!)
In a typical school there are meetings about just about everything you can imagine, from policy
changes at the ministry to school policies about dress, field trips, dances etc.  It is conceivable
that a teacher can attend a meeting everyday of the school year, and some do.  I’m not one of
those people.
 
    Good meetings are similar to great teaching. There is information presented which should
become knowledge by the end of the interaction. That transfer of information travels more
smoothly when it is presented with some classroom theater. For some reason, teachers who
leave the classroom cast aside this technique in favour of bad theater. The information does not
reach its destination and for the audience it becomes an example of a waste.  I’ll give
you some idea of what I have come to view as the best and the worst of teacher meetings:

    Practice meetings: For a variety of different reasons, some teachers decide that the classroom
is not the place they want stay, so they buy a ticket out by applying for management positions.
They do a lot of hoop jumping in the form of courses, portfolio building and interviews, so it is a
tremendous financial and personal sacrifice.
                                           
    As part of their hoop jumping exercise, they need to demonstrate the ability to organize and
execute a meeting.  So, staff will be called to a regular meeting, where the management candidate
will practice their skills. These meetings are usually dry, procedural affairs, with a power point
presentation, paper handouts and maybe some inconsequential group work. Most staff sense the
truth of the situation and some do play along. However, many drift off into other activities like
texting, surfing, marking, sleeping, and whispering. A favourite is the blank stare: tight lips,
tense face, and a vacant gaze trying to camouflage a numb brain. Personally, my favourite activity
is to pretend I am a student in the class of the presenter. I watch to see how they would perform in
front of their students.

    I’m not adverse to helping out a colleague who wants to abandon the classroom, but I would
prefer the luxury of some honesty. I think most colleagues would be happy to participate if they
were told the real reason for the meeting and then offered an opportunity for some input
on the performance.

   The procedural: The end result has been determined before you even walk into the meeting.
For example, a job interview, the principal has already made the choice, but needs to
assemble a panel to demonstrate faithfulness to board policy. Another example is when a teacher
is asked to a meeting to discuss opinions on an issue.  The assumption is that you are entering
into a brainstorming meeting with the goal of solving a issue, but you realize later, the problem
was solved long before the meeting is called.  You were only invited because protocol dictated
that you must be involved.

    It could be worse.  In some departmental heads meetings the competition for air time can be so
intense it would make an outsider think he is watching a group of domesticated dolphins
swimming around a pool doing verbal tricks to get some extra attention from the trainer.  I can
only imagine what it must be like when school and board managers meet. Many of them wear
saccharine demeanor while they indulge in an affinity for self promotion. I am sure carbon credits
could be bought with  the excessive use of oxygen.

Here are two I find to be a worthwhile use of my time:

    The Drive By: Usually, a small, off the record meeting, one or two teachers talking
about a student’s performance in class.  I can learn more about serving the student’s needs in a
ten minute meeting like this than I can in an hour long one.

    The Town Hall: These are meetings where an issue that is important to our daily lives is
addressed.  For example, a rash of incessant false fire alarms or messy food fights
in the café. Everyone understands the problem and most suggestions are considered. An
awareness and consensus is reached by the staff and a collective agreement to act is accepted. 

    Proper preparation and delivery of lessons by teachers takes a lot of time. I have come to the
conclusion that this reality is not respected because vast majority of meetings are not very relevant to the job we have been hired to complete.  Too many meetings seem to be procedural mandates handed down from an invisible bureaucracy in a distant world.  Unfortunately, in the world of teacher meetings this is a fact - after all is said and done, a lot gets said and little gets done.