Doing the Impossible
Impossible as it may seem, many teachers exhaust themselves trying to do the impossible. You’d think, wouldn’t you? that no normal person would attempt the impossible because, well, it’s impossible.
But, alas, you’d be wrong.
As I see it, the impossible comes in at least a couple of different packages. One package is absolute; one is relative. Examples of things that are absolutely impossible are those that deny laws of reality. It is impossible, for instance, for me to fly like a bird.
In the “relative” category fall tasks that are possible under certain conditions but are impossible when those conditions are not present.
An example is me cleaning a toilet. Under certain conditions – energy, desire, enthusiasm, time, just the right amount of disgust – this task is not just possible but actually enjoyable.
When I am tired, unmotivated, depleted, uncaring, or just need to do something for me, cleaning a toilet feels impossible. Indeed, if I make myself clean the toilet when these particular conditions exist, I usually end up feeling resentful and angry. If I wait on cleaning the toilet until my energy, enthusiasm, and disgust come back, I am a happy and efficient cleaning machine.
What does cleaning toilets have to do with teaching? I have a sneaking suspicion that lots of teachers routinely take on the impossible, whether absolute or relative.
Here’s an example of something I consider absolutely impossible: Making students learn. Despite all the pressures of NCLB and standardization, can any human being make another human being learn? No. Can a teacher influence a student’s learning? Yes. But as soon as a teacher holds herself or is held responsible for a student’s actions or inactions, his passing or failing, the teacher has quite likely entered the realm of the impossible. This can easily result in an imbalanced relationship – where the teacher forces and the student resists, for example, or the student resists and the teacher enables – that does not foster student learning AND generates charged negative emotions all around. Not good for anybody.
Here’s an example of something I consider relatively impossible: Grading an entire stack of student papers when you’d rather be playing Yahtzee with your family. In my experience, the conditions that make grading papers possible are perhaps peculiar but identifiable: setting a small, manageable goal (say, five papers at a sitting and a circumscribed scope for my comments); being in a public place (say, a coffee shop); feeling hopeful, curious, and energetic; and planning a palpable, delightful reward for my efforts. If these conditions are absent, the task of grading student papers becomes impossible for me. I would waste a whole lot of time, probably write some regrettable comments, and end up in a terrible mood.
I know, I know: Teachers don’t have the luxury of waiting until they feel like grading papers or planning lessons or creating a rubric or writing an exam or attending a faculty meeting or talking to an irate parent. But that just proves my point. I think teachers are generally expected to do the impossible much of the time. That is, their days are so packed and their job expectations are so varied and time-consuming and the stakes are so high that there’s no time for the laws of reality.
Which makes me wonder: What are the laws of the reality of learning? How do those laws map onto a typical classroom? What laws are teachers contorting themselves to? What would it be like to adjust those laws to make teaching actually possible?
Some beginning answers appear in a blog post in edutopia by Elena Aguilar.
More far-reaching answers are suggested by the Slow School Movement, mentioned in Ms. Aguilar’s post.
Maybe turning the impossible into the possible isn’t so impossible.