Thursday, December 7, 2017

Climate Change: Fact or Fiction?

"a state of dynamic equilibrium within a community of organisms in which genetic, species and ecosystem diversity remain relatively stable, subject to gradual changes through natural succession"

That is the definition of "ecological balance".  Words like stability, gradual change and natural seem to carry the most weight in that sentence for me.  Metaphorically maybe that is what I loved about teaching when I first started.  Survival, just like in the nature, was no easy task.  But if nothing else my environment was stable and predictable(Though I must admit that the opposite was sometimes true of my students).  I gradually got better based on what worked and what didn't. So in reflecting on the past few years, my toughest years teaching, something seems different.  There was no radical shift or change.  But what I am now acutely aware of is the change in culture and climate in schools.  To me, climate change is very real. 

I am of course talking about the climate of reform in our schools.  The National School Climate Center explains the following:

A sustainable, positive school climate fosters youth development and learning necessary for a productive, contributing and satisfying life in a democratic society. This climate includes:
  • Norms, values and expectations that support people feeling socially, emotionally and physically safe.
  • People are engaged and respected.
  • Students, families and educators work together to develop, live and contribute to a shared school vision.
  • Educators model and nurture attitudes that emphasize the benefits and satisfaction gained from learning.
  • Each person contributes to the operations of the school and the care of the physical environment.
Go back and read those again.  Now a third time.  It seems balanced to me.  Change is a natural part of any environment.   But as an inhabitant of a school, it seems evident to me that some efforts to improve schools for those who learn in them might be coming at the expense of those who work in them and thus to the school itself.   I would assert that any change in order to succeed, must be mutually beneficial.  

In our case as teachers, there must be buy-in and the belief that this can and will work.  As an experienced teacher the "what's best for students"  is a truism that ignores the interplay between the two primary inhabitants of schools, students and teachers.  When I am in a meeting and I hear that phrase to justify a change, I roll my eyes and sometimes it even makes my skin crawl and implies somehow that beneficial actions for students and teachers are mutually exclusive.  It seems to discount the views and insights of all the trained, highly experienced, caring professionals who work directly with students. 

I try my best to do every single day what is best for students. To imply that my actions are otherwise, perhaps motivated by self interest or apathy, is a slap in the face.  Am I perfect ?  No.  But I teach because I am a teacher, not because I need a job.(let that sink in)  Unlike the natural world where everything exists in concert, schools exist for the sole purpose of benefiting students.  But the metaphor is one which I hope remains a powerful one.  You can't have an action that benefits one group without affecting the other. 

Whether it is a conversation about technology, homework load, teacher professional development, multi-age learning spaces, grades, standardized testing or any of the thousands of things we consider as teachers, the quality educators I work with try to do what is best for the student.  Sure there are some that don't live up to that standard.  This would be true of any workplace.  But increasingly there seems to be a movement of a small group of professionals directing things that seem to be disregarding the evidence and not paying much attention to the less overt impacts of change.  The system seems set up to exclude the ground level experts in the field who see every day what is actually going on.  While that could describe the current state of affairs regarding the EPA or our federal approach to climate change, it is a reference to decision makers who don't work directly with students.  The results in both scenarios could negatively affect everyone for a very long time to come.  Climates across the globe vary dramatically and the same is true of the climates within schools across our nation.  Some are farther ahead in the change and others remain unaffected and look much as they did 20 years ago.

Peter DeWitt and Sean Slade suggest leaders reflect on the following when trying to affect positive change in a school climate.
  • -How to engage students and school stakeholders.
  • -How to empower staff and students and foster autonomy so people take ownership of their ideas and the learning process.
  • -How to promote inclusivity and equity throughout the school.
  • -How to create a welcoming, cooperative, and safe school environment that nurtures students’ social-emotional needs.

Change is necessary and inevitable.  Any teacher that doesn't change should retire.  But the fact is that it is impossible to be a teacher and not change.  Some change is be expected but ill-informed abrupt and harmful shifts in the way we go about things can be disruptive just as they would be in the natural world.  They throw a delicate system out of balance.  Some suggest that such disruption is a good thing, needed to bring about meaningful improvement and fix a broken system. Perhaps this is the case in some places and aggressive action is needed.  But be wary of those that ignore the very nature of a school and are instead simply applying catchy idioms to fit their well meaning ideas.  I've heard it said that change is a process and not an event.  Those affecting change would be wise to remember that mantra since even things they see as small shifts could have enormous and unforeseen consequences. Any school that doesn't change will become obsolete.  But those schools that focus on positive change and not sustainability might achieve neither.  

Certain species are often bellwethers of the health of an ecosystem.
USGS- the actual "experts" say the Pika is disappearing
 Birds and amphibians reveal the danger in an environment first.  In schools I believe that has always been the experienced teacher.  In the turbulent era of change today it would seem to me that signs and feedback from those individuals is not only too often being ignored but seems unwelcome.  Instead of valuing those insights as an asset and working together, their understanding is seen as an obstacle for change.     Changes that are increasingly driven by factors and elements outside of schools or by what seems fashionable or innovative...not necessarily effective, threaten the very existence of the effective school.  Teachers know this to be true.  Some might say that is not a big deal.  They are wrong.

Experienced teachers are one thing but expert teachers are another.  They are what I would liken to keystone species. They are best represented by the stone at the top of an arch that supports the other stones and keeps the whole arch from falling, a species(expert teachers) on which the presence of a large number
of other species(schools and students) in an ecosystem depend.  If they are removed then those dependent on it will disappear(bye bye good school).

While it demands a whole series of posts to itself, the rapid shifts in technology is I think doing real damage to our students.  No, strike that, doing damage to our society.To be in any way complicit in this is painful.  But before you dismiss my or any other teacher's concerns ask yourself this: "Why is everyone bemoaning the damaging aspects of technology addiction and yet not changing their own behaviors?"  About the only place where we can control this, is in the schools and doing what is best for students, if you ask a teacher, would often involve less technology, not more.    

Many other shifts I've witnessed I think are actually disruptive and harmful to students.  Real long term damage is done to them and the school where they learn. Potentially permanent damage.  As an example I think one thing young people have lost is the ability to sit quietly.   I asked my students in class the other day, "Where would you go if you wanted somewhere quiet where you could focus?"    They one answered.  That should be alarming.    In an effort to make things more "engaging" or accommodate those who really do have trouble being still and quiet and need different supports have we neglected things that are needed by all, like quiet?  Things pushed to favor one particular group will result in an unhealthy balance. So these shifts are often driven by groups, individuals or philosophies to help students might actually hurt them.   Developed too far from the actual places being affected to see the gradual effect, not unlike decisions in Washington that affect our nation's environmental future, these climate changes should give us pause as we wonder what their long term impact will be.  

Teachers, just like wild species,  must adapt to survive.   But they also are asked to mitigate the changes when things aren't thought out very well or don't go exactly as planned.  Just think of the impact of many invasive plant and animal species that were introduced with good intent.  That is diifficult to undo.  Teachers can only help so much on ground level and instead we have to address the source before these things are in the environment

The greenhouse gases of education.  
Nature, like a school, if left alone has a unique ability to self regulate.  Change is a constant and a norm.  The problem is that most schools are seeing a gradual but undeniable loss of control.  Whether that is something as simple as what furniture will be purchased, how much work will be assigned or what classes will and will not be taught. Loss of autonomy is a bad thing and a sign of a climate out of balance.  For certain students today enter our climate affected by factors and forces that neither we nor they fully control.  We can try to help with this, but that help has limits and we must confront that sad reality.  We should focus on what we can in fact control.

The conditions that favor one species and may be harmful for another are inextricably linked.  Students, teachers, administrators, parents, even politicians and the public inhabit schools in one form or another.  They all play a role and have an impact on the school climate.  In our efforts to help and sustain one group we must avoid tipping the balance in favor of any of them. 

Schools, like climate change can indeed be understood by scientific processes using data, surveys and other methods.  But if that information is ignored it does no good.  In both education and our environment, we should trust more in  the observations of those "in the field".  Having an honest conversation with someone who has lived on a piece of land their entire lives might reveal more about what is happening in nature than a mountain of research.  An honest two-way conversation with a teacher might indeed be more valuable than all the hand picked research in the world.  Great teaching is an art and great schools are a rarity.  And I feel these are more and more threatened both by unwise action and inaction, with each passing day.