Monday, March 4, 2013

# 48 Tower of Babble

    It's Monday morning, and yes, I had a great weekend, thanks for asking! Anyway, I am opening up my classroom for the day when I scan my big desk calendar. I have a supervision to do, an assembly, and on Wednesday morning, I have S.I.P., which stands for School Improvement Program.

    My heart sinks a little, I let out a little gasp, and then use the F-bomb. I hate this particular workshop, and frankly, I haven't heard one good thing about from any of my colleagues either. They are long, tedious affairs, and in addition, they screw up any plans a teacher might have to do their jobs in the classroom. I realize that now I have to prepare a set of activities to hand in so the supply teacher will have something to occupy the students I am away from my job.
   The reason for the workshop is, apparently, the overall grades at our school have lowered enough that we are now classified as a Tier One School. So, the Quality Assurance Department of the board, which sounds similar to the Quality Control Department of a factory assembly line, has hired a group of teachers to deliver the workshops to schools who ask for it. There is no discussion about the needs. Whole departments are simply assigned nine workshops to attend over three months.

   The fact is that teaching and learning is not an exact science, but managers and politicians don't like to confront this awkward truth. So, they avoid all the other uncomfortable variables involved in the learning process, and look for an easy target. They point the finger at the teachers, and implicitly tell us they aren't quite sure why there is a problem, and they don't know how to fix it. So, they download it on to us with the expectation that we will somehow we solve it.

    There is no evidence of inadequate teaching going on in our department, or the school for that matter. It would easy to find out though. All they need to do is hire some experienced teachers, and have them sit through each teacher's class to assess the performance. Of course, then they will need to examine all the data collected by the each teacher, and compare etc.. I guess in the long run, it really is cheaper just pick one target, and avoid the rest.

   There are some contributions to the low results which need to be examined as well, for example:  demographics, cultural backgrounds, diet, health, sleep, school atmosphere, puberty, economics and probably a few other variables involved in the learning process. It is any wonder that teachers resent being hauled out of their classrooms to participate in a perfunctory exercise such as S.I.P. .

   So,Wednesday arrives,  I am sitting with five other colleagues in a room with not one, but two  instructional coaches sent over from the board office. The coach who does all the talking has been teaching five years, and her subject area is Math not English. The other coach, doesn't say a word, she just sits at her lap top, recording the events of the workshop. Then, the first coach opens up by telling us that today's workshop will be on critical thinking and questioning.

   I think Critical Thinking is a pretty broad term, and needs clarification. So, I ask her for the board's definition of Critical Thinking?  She freezes for a few seconds like a deer in the headlights, and says, "Well, it's standard critical thinking." I say, "Yes, but there could be ten or more definitions of this term. It would be helpful if we knew what the board's definition includes." Then she starts to talk around the question. So, I say "Well, if they want us to teach critical thinking, then we should know where do start?"  She reluctantly fumbles around in her folders for something. Finally after a couple of minutes, she pulls out an overhead with something remotely related Critical Thinking.

   After only a half hour, people start to shut down. Arms get folded across the chest, eyes glaze over, mouths remain shut, people doodle, and my favourite, the blank stare. I swear to God one of my colleagues could be a walking billboard for the feeling we get from this kind of atmosphere. Her body is frozen, arms crossed, face motionless, eyes glazed over. She is has left the building. I wonder where she is?

   And so it goes for three hours. Five fully paid teachers talking, arguing and learning about something that no one seems to know how to define. In addition, there are five fully paid supply teachers, as well as the two instructional coaches. Most of us are frustrated at the lack of direction from the coaches, and in turn they are frustrated that we don't seem to understand the problem. They describe all these activities that we should be doing like: asking students questions, and thinking of ways to get students to ask us questions, and on, and on, and on. We teachers look at each other in frustration like we are trapped in some bizarre therapy session where no one wants to confront the real problem.  It's three hours of hell for everyone. No teacher is ever asked what they think of the program, or how well they it works. The coaches just show, have their way with us and leave, until next time.

   In the teaching profession, we call it Educ-babble. It is a jargon created by bureaucrats in an office somewhere removed from the classroom. They create new words to describe old ideas and then present them to us like we don't know anything and consequently need to reshape our perception of the job. Generally speaking teachers never speak in edu-babble except the ones who are moving out of the classroom and into management positions. I remember sitting in the staffroom with a couple of these people once.  The whole lunch period was spend as kind of a competition between these two aspiring middle managers. They talked about  Paradigm shifts, thinking outside the box, scaffolding, levels, positions of responsibility, like it's a secret language. Lunch ended, they straightened their polyester ties, and went back to working their way out of the classroom.

    So, it's the end of the day, I'm putting on my jacket, and I have a glance at my big calendar before I go. Friday I have a lunch time meeting with the union. More talk, they have their jargon, more hand outs, and more blank stares out the window. Sometimes I feel like I spend a lot of time looking up at a big tower, the sun in my eyes, and I am trying to anticipate a cardboard box loaded with policy papers coming my way. A box of Educ-babble being dropped from the turret of the Tower of Babble.