In her book “On Violence” the philosopher Hannah Arendt postulates that bureaucracies become the ideal birthplaces of violence towards others since they are defined as a “rule by no one” against whom to argue.
I was thinking of this while sitting in a committee meeting talking about “Action Plans”.
Every three years our school writes Action Plans in several disciplines, which are measurable goals designed to improve student performance. Fine. But instead of the efficiency of handing down a dictate from above, or using those in the trenches and allowing their work to bubble up, we are asked to serve on various committees and give hours of input only to find that the decision is one “guided” by those above us.
And when we argue against various points, we are told that we were “represented” and that it is all the product of “many voices and inputs”. How (they seem shocked) could we not be pleased with the result?
In short, the “rule by no one” leaves no one responsible.
The two phrases most often used by our school’s coordinator are:
1. The coordinators thought it would be good if….
2. The other schools are doing it, so….
In the first case, the message is that every school, and every teacher in each school, was represented in the decision because their school’s coordinator was part of the discussion. Of course, our coordinator rarely represents all of us because in a K-8 school our needs and visions are necessarily different. And our coordinators all tend to be pretty monolith in their outlook–all knitters who bring home baked goods (I love both, but it takes a village, right?).
The second case, the ideas that stem from our school are often shut down because other schools have already begun individual initiatives and it would be inconvenient for them to change course. So, we are expected to join on, regardless of the value of the idea. If ever there was a bad reason to do anything….
Last year I waged a year long campaign against using an oral fluency assessment. It wasn’t age appropriate. They required that every student do it three times a year, even those that we knew were excellent readers. It was a one-on-one test (although we were told it only took “three minutes a students”, which, of course, did not include transition times or explaining the directions) that would have taken me out of my class for a total of fifteen classes. Yes, 15 out of 180 instructional days, for an inappropriate assessment, instead of spending fifteen days to teach actual skills. Of course, they had no idea what the other twenty-five kids in the class NOT testing would be doing while I was in the hall giving my full attention to the assessment.
Finally, I found out that one of the other schools was NOT doing it 100%. That was the crack I drove the wedge into: Not all other schools are doing it! Shortly before the assessments were to begin, they dropped them.
The most frustrating part of the entire ordeal was that no one took responsibility. When I laid out my arguments to our literacy coordinator, she used the two phrases above. This pattern had played out for years, so I went over her head and sent emails to the supervisory union curriculum coordinator, a very level headed woman. I included a carbon copy to our own school’s coordinator. Eventually, the group decided not to require the assessment. It was never clear who made the call, or what argument won the day, only that the assessment was rescinded.
This, in its way, was violence. Trying to do my job, I boiled for a year knowing that my job was going to get really, really difficult with no benefit to my students. And I was yelling into a void that did not provide a response, but only a faint echo.
Ask your students when they’ve run into such a situation. Have they laid out good arguments to their parents, only to get a rebuff that did not satisfy? Instructions from a teacher? School policies? Rationale about a grade? Who gets chosen for what team? Have them write their own story. Talk about satire, and make it comical.
Here’s a bit of Monty Python about arguments (sorry if it starts with an advert):
Preliminary Report from the Committee on Appropriate Postures for the Suffering
We who wear clean socks and shoes are tired
of your barefoot complaining, your dusty footprints
on our just-cleaned rugs. Tired, too of your endless ploys—
the feigned amputations, the imaginary children
you huddle with outside the malls, your rags and bottles,
the inconvenient positions you assume. Though we remain
impressed by your emaciation and your hunger and,
frankly, find you photogenic and think your images
both alarming and aesthetically pleasing, to do anything
more than sigh will require a complex process
of application and review, a process that is currently
in the development stage. Meanwhile, may we suggest
you moderate your public suffering at least
until the Committee on Appropriate Postures for the Suffering
is able to produce guidelines. Do not be alarmed.
The committee has asked me to assure you
that they are sensitive both to the aesthetic qualities
of your suffering—the blank stares, the neotonous beauty
as the flesh recedes and the eyes seem to grow larger,
the haloes of flies—and to the physical limitations
of human endurance and the positioning of limbs.
They will, I am certain, ask that you not lift
your naked children like offerings to the gods.
On this topic, discussion has centered around the unfair
advantage such ploys give the parents of such children.
The childless, whether by choice or fate, are left
to wither silently in the doorways while those with children
proffer and gesticulate in the avenues unabated.
This offends our cherished sense of fairness,
the democratic impulse that informs and energizes
our discussions. Therefore, we ask for restraint,
and where restraint is lacking, we will legislate.
Please be forewarned. In addition, the committee
will recommend that the shouting of slogans,
whether directed at governments or deities, be kept
to a minimum. Not only is such shouting displeasing
aesthetically, but it suggests there is something
to be done. Believe me,no one is more acutely aware
of your condition than we who must ignore it everyday
on our way to the capitol. In this matter, we ask only
that you become more aware of your fellow citizens,
who must juggle iPods, blackberries, briefcases
and cell phones, lattes. Who must march steadily
or be trampled by the similarly burdened citizens
immediately behind them. Your shouting and pointing
does not serve you well. Those of us employed
by the agency are sworn to oversee you. If we seem,
as you suggest, to have overlooked you instead,
that is an oversight and will be addressed, I am certain,
in our annual review. Please be aware: To eliminate
your poverty, your hunger, your aesthetically
pleasing, yet disturbing, presence in our doorways,
above our heating grates, in our subway tunnels
and under our freeways would mean the elimination
of the agency itself and quite possibly a decline
in tourism. Those of us employed by the agency
have neither the stamina, persistence, nor the luminous
skin tones that you present to the viewing public.
Finally, to those who would recommend programs,
who would call for funding and action,
I must remind you that we have been charged not
with eliminating your suffering but with managing it.