Friday, January 3, 2014

The Pencil Metaphor

+Ben Wilkoff and +Catherine Beck recently spurred some good conversations on G+ by posting The Pencil Metaphor, and as I started to reply to the thread I realized my thoughts warranted a post of their own.


Many times I find myself to be an enthusiastic consumer of these kinds of things, often feeling drawn to a certain metaphor or relating in some way to the content presented. I've looked at, and thought about, The Pencil Metaphor several times in the past few days and have been trying to put my finger on what about it makes me uneasy.

While I can completely see how this metaphor speaks to a lot of people I struggle with the idea that we can so easily lump everyone into these categories without addressing the situations they live and work in. This metaphor, and others like it, are focused on the behavior without addressing the reason an educator might be acting this way. To me these categories read as though the behaviors are intentional choices educators are making and that anyone could fairly easily move to being "The Leaders" or "The Sharp Ones" if they really wanted to.

Let me explain what I mean, but from the perspective of students in a classroom. When a student engages in a negative behavior the first thing I wonder is, "Why?" Is the student hungry, is something going on in their personal life, have they been treated a certain way at home or school for several years that has contributed to them reacting this way? If I want to truly help the student transform and set them up to succeed I have to understand their entire picture and not make assumptions about the behavior or the reasoning behind it. I also have to make sure to set reasonable expectations, knowing that their best in that moment will look different than another student. My students learn very quickly that fair is not always equal, and that the successes we celebrate look different for each individual learner in our community.

I think we sometimes forget that, like the students in our classrooms, teachers come from a wide range of situations and ability levels as well. After just a couple years in the classroom so many teachers become exhausted and even demoralized by the constant influx of initiatives, new curricula and programming, testing, and other school, district, and state mandates. When you add in the myriad of other challenges facing teachers it makes sense that many of them have to build coping mechanisms so they can endure year after year. Is it any wonder, then, that a veteran teacher is skeptical or reluctant at the "next big thing" when they have seen who-knows-how-many come and go in their career? I also wonder how many times "The Wood" or "The Ferrules" have jumped on board with an initiative and given their extra time and energy to it, only to see it fall by the wayside and be replaced by the next new, latest and greatest magic bullet. At some point these teachers get tired of giving so many extra unpaid hours and expending energy, often at the detriment of their personal well-being.

This isn't to say there aren't any number of educators of all experience levels and situations who typify these categories, and I am certainly not trying to make excuses for teachers who are unwilling to do what is in the best interest of students, but I can't help but wonder, "Why?" What are the things causing them to act, or react, a certain way and what can we do to help them? It is important to look at the "innovators" and "early adopters" to see how they have been successful, but in my opinion it is equally important to look at the more reluctant or resistant teachers and to closely examine the factors contributing to their behaviors. How many of them are products of their situations? Teaching in the best of circumstances is a challenging career, and teaching in difficult circumstances can make each day feel like an impossible battle you are just trying to survive. Do some people take a lack of funding and find technology for their students anyway? Do others find ways to try new things and push the boundaries of what seems possible in the face of immense challenges? Absolutely. But I would also venture that many of these teachers are not in sustainable working situations where they will be able to thrive and feel fulfilled for 5, 10, 15 years in their classrooms.

So I suppose my thought is that instead of categorizing educators and labeling them as one thing or another we should instead be taking time to get to know them, to listen to their stories and to find out, "Why?" What are the things causing them to feel and react a certain way, and what can we do to set them up for success? How can we help change their situations, and the system as a whole, so teachers are equipped with the things they need to be successful and to feel willing to take on new challenges and innovations? How can we transform education into a sustainable career that honors the whole person so they can give their best to students day after day? I would say we start by keeping an optimistic mindset and asking them.