Monday, June 5, 2017

Whatever Is Worse

It's time again to investigate saying and aphorisms we hear all the time and take for granted as true. The above is a Truth in education, and in business as a whole. You'll hear, "The worst thing you can say about something is it's the way we've always done it" anywhere you go. The point of the saying is to encourage people to constantly be evolving, changing, keeping up with the times, thinking outside the box. Of course, if everyone is thinking outside the box then we've just underestimated the size of the box, and it might be a little bigger than we first though. That box gets bigger all the time. Still, the Theory of the Growing Box, which I just now coined, accommodates the idea that the worst thing, the most dangerous thing, is satisfaction with status quo. One of the great philosophers of our time, George Carlin, said it best when he proclaimed, "The status quo sucks!" He's right, naturally. The status quo does indeed suck. Coincidentally, that's one of the few Carlin quotes than can make it unedited into an education post. Which is good because can you imagine how pissed George would be about one of his quotes being edited for content?

We love hyperbole. In point of fact, we think hyperbole is the greatest thing in the universe and beyond. Hyperbole is not only better than sliced bread, you can slice bread with hyperbole. Hyperbole is so great Bono dressed up as hyperbole for Halloween (he didn't pull it off*). This love affair with hyperbole explains why we're so drawn to this statement. The Most Dangerous Phrase. Dangerous. This phrase robbed Bruce Wayne's parents. This phrase makes Maverick look like a Cessna pilot. Kenny Loggins wrote a song about this phrase.

It's not though. Oh, it's bad. I can't stand it. It drives me bonkers when it's used as a reason to not try something new, but I don't think it's as common as we're told it is. Maybe I'm working in the wrong schools, or I guess it would be the right schools. Teachers can be reluctant to try brand new things, but it's rarely because they're clinging to the Old Ways and more because a lot of teachers are cautious creatures and they want to understand the New Thing before trying it with kids. A completely reasonable feeling. Growth Mindset is a new hotness phrase, but it's not a new hotness idea. This is where you wave your hand around and say schools look the same as they did in the 1950s and I say you're looking at surface things and we have a long discussion about whether or not the majority of teachers actually want what's best for kids and are busting their tails to achieve that or if they're holding tight to Old Ways for comfort. It's where I talk about the three states, four districts, and four schools I've worked in over my eleven years and how at every site we've evolved and changed and yes some teachers dragged their feet but it was almost all out of discomfort and not unwillingness. And you say, "But rows and worksheets and homework, oh my," and we move on from there.

"We've always done it this way," isn't the most dangerous phrase in education.

The most dangerous phrase in education, in anything, is, "Whatever." I can work with someone who says, "This is the way we've always done it." There's a root there that's easy to see. But a shrug? Shrugs are harder to work with. There's a lot of root causes of "whatever", and they get gnarled and deep. Apathy is a killer. Does it come from being beat down by bad teammate, bad admin, bad state leadership, frustration with an incompetent Education Secretary, one of those classes? Apathy takes a long time to get to. An apathetic response means not only does the person not burn with desire, their pilot light has gone out.

"Whatever," is the worst. It's a useless response. Even in regular life, asking your significant other what they want for dinner. "Eh, whatever." Ok, that's not helpful at all and you get a wish sandwich** now.

When I was just a Weird Child I was a swimmer. My first swim coach was a woman named Lisa who was, let's say, intimidating. Coach Lisa was intense. A great coach, but a formidable woman. My mom got me a thirty minute private lesson with Coach Lisa before practice one day. I got there and Coach Lisa asked me, "What do you want to work on?" You're smart and you know where this is going. I was young, my mom booked the lesson, I kind of shrugged and said, "Whatever." Coach Lisa was not amused. I got a private lesson on, "You're paying for this time. This is for you to improve, and you don't know what you want to improve on? You didn't think about it before you got here?" It taught me a lot about focus and goal setting and being prepared to learn. But also on the insult of a shrug.

Apathy speeds entropy. Apathy hurts more students than "we've always done this" ever has. At least the teachers who are dedicated to the way they've always done it are dedicated to something. Apathetic teachers aren't dedicated to anything. They're moving on whatever momentum got them started.

I want to be clear that, like the "we've always done this" crowd, I don't think there's as many dangerously apathetic teachers as Betsy DeVos and others selling things want us to believe. Those archetypes just fit their narratives, yet another reason for teachers who have the fire in their bellies to let it burn bright and pass it on to others.

Some of you are done for the school year. I still have three weeks. I'm not fighting apathy, but there's a little part of me that can feel summer right there, just out of reach. Part of me that knows we're basically at the finish line and come of, one episode of Bill Nye isn't going to hurt you. Maybe two. You know. It's not apathy, but it's related. I beat that little voice down with cardboard and yet another project I'm not sure will work. You beat it down some other way.

 How we've always done it isn't ideal, but it opens the door to the real danger. We must be aware of the tendency towards apathy within all of us. That part that looks at the world and wants to toss up hands and let it all go. It's such a mess out there, it's so big, and I'm in my classroom toiling away. And that's when we turn to the kids, the true cure for apathy. Each kid is a peddle in the pond. Each student is a strike back against apathy and helplessness.

*dude's name means "Good" He wanted to call himself Bono Vox, like "Good voice" in Latin. Why does anyone take U2 seriously?

**to quote the Blues Brothers, "A wish sandwich is the kind of a sandwich where you have two slices of bread and you wish you had some meat."

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.


  1. Whatever is the worst. It's where i was at before I left my last school. And there are few teachers who are unwilling to try the new things. They just want to see evidence they work better than what did before. And sometimes there isn't a whole lot of evidence that they do.

    So you need the innovators, but most people aren't innovators. Even teachers.

  2. What is more dangerous is those who trot out this phrase but are guilty of doing things they way they did them, too, and not recognizing it. Change for change sake causes apathy, as well. This phrase becomes a bludgeon on judging others to comply with new regimes. And yes, regimes is not too drastic of a word choice.