22 November 2008

Five Lessons for Educators from a Bad Week on Capitol Hill

As I watched the United States Congress and the "Big 3" Automakers this past week I began to realize how much this looked like "school at its worst."

So, with that in mind - five lessons from this past week in Washington, D.C.

(1) When you treat people differently for no apparent reason, people will see it as unfair.

If American automakers came to "see the teacher" about a problem, they had at least some reason to suspect that they'd be treated the same way the last group of "student supplicants" were. After all, they'd just watched others - others who had arguably "screwed up" far worse than they had - been handed everything they had asked for, and more (in this case US $25 billion per company with no strings attached). But instead they found that the rules had changed without anyone being told. These "students" were told that it was all their fault, and they were told that they would be held accountable for what that last group of students had failed to do after the "teacher" had helped those guys. And they were sent home to complete some "extra homework" before the "teacher" would talk to them again.

The result? People in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, etc are furious. They see themselves as having been treated unfairly. Whatever the merits of the "teacher's" case here, the only thing that comes across is arbitrariness and discrimination. Johnny Citibank and Tommy AIG are still flying their corporate jets, still shelling out millions and millions in sports sponsorships, still getting their big salaries while doing virtually nothing to alter business practices. Frankie Ford and Gerry GM? They've been punished.

I see this happening almost every day in school "discipline" or academic "discipline." Student A gets extra time but doesn't use it well, so Student B is punished. The student with the influential parent gets more chances than the student without. Student A was "the last straw" - so Student B, who did the same or maybe less, gets treated much more severely.

And kids get very angry, for very good reasons.

(2) Appearances matter. So does hypocrisy.

When Johnny Citibank came to "school" to ask for help his mom drove him (he flew on his corporate jet), and his mom gave the teacher a ride on the way (the congress members flew along, that is how they travel). Nothing was said of this. But when Frankie Ford rode to school with his mom (flew on his corporate jet), the teacher used this fact to "prove" that Frankie is lazy and spoiled. Frankie is angry at being treated this way, so is his family, so are his friends.

Though those in power usually think those below them are idiots (read what many US university faculty have to say about their students any day on sites like Inside Higher Ed), those students are typically very keen observers. They know that "appearances matter" more for some than for others. And when they know that, they have either stopped listening to you, or have lost all respect for you, or both.

(3) Humiliation is not pleasant.

If you say people are stupid, you will not make them your friends. So, when Frankie Ford went to "school" this week he was told he was an idiot and a terrible person. He was told that over and over. But that wasn't enough for "the teacher." All of Frankie's friends (customers) and family (workers) were told that they were idiots and terrible people as well. (Over 8 million Americans bought "Big 3" vehicles in 2007, over 6 million will buy those in 2008, and Congress told every one that they were "stupid" - who else would buy a car "nobody wants.")

Ever see this in a school? Ever hear a teacher or some other adult belittle a whole class? a whole school? Yes, of course you have. And I always want to tell students that when that occurs, they should just leave - but I can't - because that's not an option for them.

(4) Do a little damn "homework" before holding a conference.

When Frankie Ford and Gerry GM went to "school" to talk, they were pretty unprepared. This is surprising, and it is not surprising. Consider, for example, how many times the US financial "bail out" plan has changed since August. People know they are in trouble and that they need "more time" (money), but they don't quite yet know how to use that time (money).

In this situation it is really up to the "teacher" to help define these things because they hold the power. So the "teacher" might have said, "We can give you $15 billion now in loans, but we're the first secured party, and we'll talk about this in January when we all know more." This is the same as saying, "OK, I know you can't figure out how to catch up on all this late work right now, why don't you just worry about assignment X, get it done, and then we'll talk again." But instead, this "teacher" just started yelling, and added another vague homework assignment, the equivalent of, "You just have to get it all done, so right now go home and write a plan to tell me how you'll get it done." (An assignment I saw just last month.)

The key here is that the "teacher" needs to be the one entering these kinds of meeting with the plan(s), not the student. Unless the student has already been given actual power and control ("I'll do these three out of five assignments and my grade will just be based on those.").

(5) Don't depend on old and mythic information.

Gerry GM and Frankie Ford faced a blizzard of misinformation and myth at "school" this week. They were berated for every decision they had made since 1973 and given no credit for anything they have done "right" recently. In fact, the "teacher" seemed to know little more about Gerry and Frankie than the "over coffee" rumors they had heard in the "Teachers' Lounge." And they were constantly compared to other "students" who, of course, have advantages which Gerry and Frankie can't possibly match.

So yes, Frankie can apologize for the 1974 Maverick and Gerry can apologize for the Pontiac Aztek and your student can apologize for setting fire to his desk in eighth grade, but what's the point? If no one acknowledges efforts to do things well, if only the past and the mistakes are remembered, why would any "student" bother?

"Teachers" need to know the whole story, or they need to ask and allow "students" to tell it, without pre-judgment. They need to rely on current facts, not old tales.

The US Congress is, essentially, a worthless group. They have been spineless for eight years, and now they are just clueless and abusive. But at least they offered us a critical lesson this past week: We educators should never let ourselves be like those guys.

- Ira Socol

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