Wednesday, June 8, 2011

On A Break-In

The call came at about 7:45 a.m. My tough-as-nails-never-let-anything-show-that-gets-to-you boss seemed shaken, yet efficient on the phone. I could hear the emotion being held back in her voice, but only because I have known her for three years. She told me that they took all the laptops. They broke a bunch of windows. They busted into the offices – again – the second time that week.

Honestly, I should have gone to the school right there and then. I should have. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t see the broken glass and look at the faces of those preschool teachers. The teachers that should have been preparing lessons and art projects that were instead running around sweeping up broken class and putting way destroyed desks, tossed papers before the children arrived on the buses – to make it safe for them. To make it safe for the children with autism; the children in wheelchairs and walkers; to make it feel safe to the parents who worried about their children a little more than other families – because their children had special needs.

I had to go there later in the day – and steeled myself walking in. District vans were parked outside the school, lots of people inside fixing things. Busy trying to make the break in go away.

Teachers were teaching. Eyes were sad, smiles forced. But children were going to lunch – teachers were helping them celebrate “super hero day” – children looked safe, happy, excited - oblivious to the damage, oblivious to the whispers of the adults. It was their school – and it was a good place to be.

The teachers made it that way – protected the children from what wasn’t right in the world. Kept their routines, listened to their stories about their costumes, worked on their colors and shapes – made the world calm, predictable, and safe. Protected the families too – told them gently, with assurance, with sympathetic smiles, with plans to make it better in the future – plans to keep the world from busting in again, stories of why everything would be OK. 

The jokes started when the children were out of earshot – because that is how we all cope now.  “I can’t believe they took my computer – you couldn’t give that clunker away on Craigslist!”…”I hope they didn’t take my 75 cents out of my desk – that was my mad money this week!” “Thank god they didn’t take my cube chairs – they took forever to get off of Donors Choose!” Sarcasm burying the honest disbelief of being robbed when you have next to nothing.

Quiet now. Whispers start about the other break-ins. Sequoia, Redwood Heights, Greenleaf…other OUSD schools that had been broken into this week too. Classrooms destroyed, technology taken…community spaces violated and destroyed.

I moved through the rest of my day – distracted, irritable.  Hopeless. There was nothing I could think to do for those teachers. And I knew – deeply knew - that nothing would be done. The break-ins would barely be a blip on the Superintendents’ radar. The media might not even pick it up. It is Oakland - after all. Families would talk – for a while. A committee might be formed. The wealthier schools might fund an updated security system or better technology to replace what was lost. The rest of us would need to do without – but we were used to that. It is Oakland – after all.

Sitting in my car at the end of my day it hit me. Teachers at every one of the targeted sites did the same thing the preschool teachers did today. Quickly cleaned up a mess that wasn’t theirs. Became a sea of calm for families. Went on with teaching – no matter what. Made children smile and laugh.

Would the teachers be thanked? Would they be counseled? Recognized? Noticed as individuals – as people with needs – physical, psychological, or emotional? 

No. That’s their job – you see. They don’t even expect it. They would never ask. The children and families are what is important.

I believe that too. But I also believe that we, as a profession, need to start asserting ourselves as people with needs. Ask people every now and again to look at us as human beings - people who might have a reaction to being burglarized and violated. People who might want to feel safe in the place in which they work. People who have gone without, and will continue to go without – and be recognized for making due and continuing to help children to learn in spite of it all.

Teachers are what is important too. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

On Service Learning and Kindergartners

My daughter attends a school that emphasizes "service learning" - embedding into the academic curriculum opportunities for doing for others. I love this about her school.

Tomorrow, her class is having a bake sale to raise money as a part of their rainforest studies - they are giving the proceeds to a sloth protection foundation. As we were baking our cupcakes tonight, I was curious about how much Lily (just having turned six years old this week) understood about this project - so I asked.

Me: "Hey, hon...what do you think they are doing to do with the money you raise for the sloths?"

Lily: "Well....." (thoughtful, sincere expression) " know, the sloths - they can't really use money."

I like it. Money going directly to those who need it. Skipping the middle man. But Lily is right -  not so practical in this instance.

Me: (trying to keep a straight face) "So true...what do you think the people helping the sloths will do with the money?"

Lily: "Well - maybe they will give the money to the people who aren't being helpful to the sloths - you know, to make them be more helpful."


Maybe missing the point of the learning.  Or maybe my daughter is WAY street smart about how to get things done in the rainforest.  Only time will tell.

Monday, January 24, 2011

On Conflict

This is a piece I have been thinking about a lot lately given the nature of my job as a program specialist. I do a lot of mediating IEP meetings and trying to help teams of parents and educators resolve differences of opinion about the needs of a child and services the school should provide to meet those needs.  I hope you like it as well as I do.

By Kenneth Cloke
[From Kenneth Cloke, Into the Heart of Conflict, Janis Publ, 2006]
There are undoubtedly thousands of reasons we become stuck in impasse and unable to end our conflicts.  Here are my top ten, to which you can add your own: 
First, conflict defines us and gives our lives meaning.  Having an enemy is a quick, easy source of identity, because we are whatever they are not.  By defining our opponents as evil, we implicitly define ourselves as good.  Our opponents’ apparently demonic behaviors allow us to appear -- if not angelic by comparison -- at least poor, innocent victims who are entitled to sympathy and support.  Yet identifying ourselves as victims leaves us feeling powerless to resolve our disputes and encourages us to spiral downward into an abyss of fear, pain, anger, and self-righteousness from which it becomes more and more difficult to escape.  It makes our opponents seem worse and ourselves better than we actually are.  It causes us to lose perspective, resist learning, and hold onto unrealistic expectations. 
Second, conflict gives us energy, even if it is only the energy of anger, fear, pain, jealousy, guilt, grief, and shame.  We can become addicted to the adrenaline rush, the flash-point intensity, and intimacy of combat.  Yet this energy is ultimately debilitating, providing a quick stimulus that dies just as quickly, in place of the healthier, longer-lasting energy that comes from compassion, collaboration, and honest, empathetic communication.  This negative energy keeps us stuck and deepens our suffering, causing us to pay a steep physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual price in deteriorated health, peace of mind, anxiety, and unhappiness. 
Third, conflict ennobles our misery and makes it appear that we have suffered for a worthwhile cause.  Without conflict, we may feel we suffered in vain, and be forced to critique our choices and regret the wasted lives we’ve led.  Yet the effort to assign higher meaning to our suffering encourages us to justify its’ continuation, or deceive ourselves into thinking our own abusive behaviors serve some higher purpose.  It causes us to get angry at people who suggest alternatives, and encourages us to hold on to our suffering rather than learn from it, let it go, and move on to more collaborative, less hostile relationships. 
Fourth, conflict safeguards our personal space and encourages others to recognize our needs and respect our privacy.  For many of us, conflict seems the only way of effectively declaring our rights, securing the respect of others, restoring our inner balance, and protecting ourselves from boundary violations.  Yet conflict also creates false boundaries, keeps out those we want to let in, substitutes declarations of rights for satisfaction of interests, secures respect based on fear rather than personal regard, and creates justifications for counter-attack and continued abuse.  It erects walls that separate and isolate us from each other and prevent us from collaboratively negotiating the use of common space, being authentic, or finding out who we, or they, actually are. 
Fifth, conflict creates intimacy, even if it is only the transient, negative intimacy of fear, rage, attachment, and loss.  Every two-year old knows it is better to be noticed for doing something wrong than not to be noticed at all.  Yet negative intimacy is ultimately unsatisfactory because it prevents us from finding positive intimacy in its stead.  Many relationships are sustained by invalidating, insulting, conflict-laden communications that simultaneously bring us together and keep us apart, frustrate our efforts to get closer and undermine the lasting intimacy we really want based on positive regard, mutual affection, trust, and shared vulnerability. 
Sixth, conflict camouflages our weaknesses and diverts attention from sensitive subjects we would rather avoid discussing.  It is a smokescreen, a way of passing the buck, blaming others, and distracting attention from our mistakes.  Yet doing so cheats us out of opportunities to learn from our mistakes, makes us defensive, diminishes our integrity, and reduces our capacity for authentic, responsible relationships.  It impedes our willingness to address real issues, and diverts our awareness from sensitive subjects, falsely magnifying their importance and effect. 
Seventh, conflict powerfully communicates what we honestly feel, allowing us to vent and unload our emotions onto others.  Many of us assuage our pain by externalizing it and passing it to others.  While venting allows us to reduce our own emotional suffering, it increases stress in others, fails to communicate our respect or regard for them, and does not encourage either of us to take responsibility for our choices or address what got us upset in the first place.  Venting communicates disrespect, encourages defensiveness and counterattack, escalates underlying conflicts, and does not accurately express what we are capable of when we are with someone who is genuinely listening and caring. 
Eighth, conflict gets results.  It forces others to heed us, especially faceless bureaucrats, clerks, and “service representatives,” who only seem to respond to our requests or do what we want when we yell at them.  But yelling turns us into angry, insensitive, aggravated people and adds unnecessary stress to the lives of unhappy, alienated, powerless, poorly paid employees who are compelled to pointlessly accept our wrath.  It turns us into “bullies,” and gets us less in the long run than we could by politely requesting their assistance and eliciting their desire to be helpful.  It discourages us from being genuine and open, and produces outcomes that undermine what we really want. 
Ninth, conflict makes us feel righteous by encouraging us to believe we are opposing evil behaviors and rewarding those that are good.  Our opponents’ pernicious actions justify us in giving them what they “rightly deserve.”  Yet righteousness is easily transformed into self-righteousness, and good and evil are far more complex, subtle, and nuanced than we are prepared to admit.  (For a discussion, see Chapter 11.)  Engaging in conflict reduces our capacity for empathy and compassion, and allows us to cross the line from punishing evil to committing it ourselves.  It makes us haughty, judgmental, and superior, and less able to be humble, accepting, and egalitarian in our relationships. 
Tenth, conflict prompts change, which feels better than impasse and stagnation.  Many changes only take place as a result of conflict – not because it is actually necessary to achieve a given result, but because people’s fear and resistance make it so.  Yet conflict also prompts resistance to change, which can be more successfully overcome through inclusion, collaborative dialogue, and interest-based negotiations.  Adversarial conflict stimulates a backlash dedicated to minimizing its gains and polarizing those who might otherwise become its supporters.  Worse, as a means, it undermines the ends to which it is dedicated.  While the deepest and most consequential changes actually require conflict, understanding this requirement allows us to design strategies to transform criticisms into suggestions for improvement and increase our skills and effectiveness as change agents. 
Thus, while there are many excellent reasons for engaging in adversarial conflicts, there are even better ones for resolving them and collaborating with our opponents in informal problem solving, unrestricted dialogue, and interest-based negotiations.  While adversarial conflicts produce beneficial outcomes, they also result in alienation, defensiveness, counter-attack, and resistance.  Worse, they create a quality of energy and attitude that give an appearance of strength, while actually sapping it.  This weakness makes it more difficult to solve common problems, engage each other constructively, and learn what our conflicts are trying to teach us. 
There is really only one great, constructive use of adversity, and that is to open our eyes and ears, minds and hearts, and force us to pay attention to what is happening within, around, and between us.  Our conflicts are our teachers and liberators because they invite us to wake up and become aware of what we have not yet learned or transcended.  They expose our internal myths, assumptions, antagonisms, misunderstandings, emotional triggers, false expectations, and hidden weaknesses.  They direct our attention to wounds we desperately need to heal, and problems we urgently need to solve.  As Carl Jung presciently wrote, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” 
Conflict is therefore simply the sound made by the cracks in a system, whether the system is personal, familial, relational, organizational, social, economic, or political.  It is a warning light pointing at something in our environment or character that is not working for ourselves or others.  It is an opportunity for rethinking and innovation.  It is the birth-pang of a new way of being that is waiting to be born.  It is a reminder of our interdependence, of the skills we need to improve, of what is most important in life, of what we need to do or let go of in order to escape its’ orbit and evolve to higher levels of conflict. 
The principal difficulty with conflict is that it defines us, usually in the wrong ways; that is, for ourselves and against others, rather than for ourselves and with others, against our common problems.  It deprives us of deep, profound, heart-felt relationships that can only develop through dialogue, problem solving, and collaborative negotiation.  It traps us in ancient, profitless, destructive stories that cannot resolve, transform, or transcend what got us into conflict in the first place. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

On Being Ripped Off

I am currently in the middle of completing my Level II credential for my "education specialist credential" in California - I am taking on-line classes through UC Fullerton.

I could go on about this. I could tell you that I already took these classes that I am having to re-take several years ago - in a state with an educational system that could kick California's ass any day. I could tell you that the vast majority of these classes take the brain power generated by a baby ant on a teeny treadmill. I could go on - but I won't. I have accepted my fate that if I want to teach in California, I have to take these classes.

Today I started my last two classes before finishing my credential. Like a good student, I read over my syllabi. For one of my classes this semester, I am assigned to take 30 hours of outside professional development. To summarize - I paid $600+ dollars to take a course that assigns me to take (and pay for) other classes not offered by UC.  Right.

On the Use of Post-its

So, as a part of my multifaceted job in OUSD, when children transfer from one district to ours with an IEP (an Individualized Educational Plan - a series of documents given to a child with a disability who needs special education services...for those readers who just strayed here) I have to read the document and do my best to place the child in a classroom that will best fit their needs. I generally pour over those documents - as you can imagine - because I don't want to miss something and put the child in the wrong place.

Anyways, I was reading one the other day, and someone in our office had placed a post-it note on the front which read "child loves to learn". I thought, how lovely. How important. I was so glad that I worked with people who listened to the family members dropping off this paperwork and gleaned this information from them. People who aren't too jaded to take the time to remind me of why I am reading these reports. Smiling, I started to read.

About half way in, I got to the health report embedded in the IEP. This child - the child that loves to learn - has only one lung. One lung.

Maybe I am the jaded one. If I was going to use a post-it on this IEP - that is the information I would have written.