If, as Socrates said, a wise man knows what he doesn’t know, and if the blueberry of wisdom can only be truly savored when baked in the bagel of ambiguity (aint that the truth?), then I was wised up this week. I went to chat with a colleague today, and I brought with me two things: one, a burning certainty of what we ought to be doing, and two, my general life goal not to be stupidly narrow-minded.
Teachers, like all professionals, have a few favorite rants. There’s “these kids won’t learn.” There’s the old “administrators ruin everything.” I was on a “slipping standards, slipping standards” jag today. Our standards are slipping. Everything is slipping. I can’t get a rope around things here.
So I explained what wasn’t working. How I felt we were short-changing students and losing our vision and priorities. Then I listened to why we did this, why we did that– some of which I felt fine about, and some of which made me very itchy.
And she said, “I think you’re doing a good job. I think you’re accomplishing more than you know. Even the kids who flunk are probably learning a lot.”
I wanted to talk issues and vision and problems with my colleague. I wanted to push and lobby for where I think my school should go. I also wanted to be listened to and open up about my fears: what if we are not fulfilling our mission? What if we are selling the students short, sending them off to college when they’re still too shaky to succeed? I didn’t want to insult anyone or complain, exactly.
Prophets have it even worse than teachers. Or they did. Are there still prophets around? Prophets get a message from the big man upstairs (or the fates hanging out at their loom) and have to go rant the message until they are blue in the face.
A great deal of the time, no one wants to hear it. They feel like they’re not accomplishing anything. And sometimes what they are accomplishing is making the mess worse, or just pointing at the mess and saying, “Look at this!” It’s likely no one, no matter what you say, will actually stay home on the ides of March. I never have.
I don’t like to set up meetings without an achievable goal. After a proper period of complaint, I want to get right to biting off a reasonable chunk of the problem and making a list of things to do. That works a lot of the time. Not always.
Sometimes venting is its own good. Sometimes talking in with a defined problem or an agenda can blind you to the truth. You can’t do that with people you don’t trust, though. It takes a lot of care to avoid defensiveness and to stay open to new definitions.
“Slipping standards, slipping standards” will always be with me. It does sound like a prophesy from a robed, scraggly figure. I’ll probably find it laid out there in my cup, next time I check out my tea leaves. Like most prophesies, it has a pattern of truth: standards are always in danger. We always have to keep an eye on our goals and limits, double, triple-check them. It helps to have another pair of eyes. We look to the prophet because we feel nervous and weak. I hope that the more interpreters we can consult, the more sure we can be of what to hold onto.