School Shocked by Non-Team-Playing Résumé

Lanham, MD—Last Saturday, nearly all of the teachers at Fernwood High school bustled around the building making photocopies, preparing lessons, or interviewing candidates for the many open positions. One applicant’s résumé became the subject of hallway gossip, frenzied tweets, and Facebook posts.

“Not a team player,” read the first item in the “Skills” section of Rebecca Seule’s résumé.

“I don’t see why anyone would list that,” commented Bruce Klop, a social studies teacher. “Obviously we want team players, so she must not want to be hired.”

“Either that, or she’s biting her thumb at us,” added English teacher Ophelia Obida. “It’s bad form, in any case.”

The principal, Ariane Waarom, suspected there was more to the story. “No one would just do that on a lark,” she insisted. “She must have some unusual purpose.” She decided to give Seule a call, just to find out what she had in mind. “At the very least, it’ll prepare us against future onslaughts,” she told herself.

When asked why she had put such unreasonable words on her résumé, Ms. Seule had a lot to say.

“Not everything is a team,” she began.  “I love working with my colleagues. I go to them with an idea, or they come to me. Sometimes this leads to some kind of collaboration or other outcome, but it doesn’t have to. Most of the time, I just enjoy hearing what they’re doing with their classes.”

“Well, I think that counts as teamwork,” Principal Waarom ventured.

“But it’s not. You see, teams pursue concrete goals together. Each member’s role contributes to the whole in a somewhat predictable way. Take a sports team. Let’s start with the simplest kind, or rather, the most complicated kind: the duo. In doubles tennis, the two members of the team know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They know who’s good with the long volleys and who’s good up at the net. They may work out strategies together, but they will also react instinctively to what comes at them. Still, they have one fairly simple goal: to beat the other team. A brilliant drop shot isn’t worth much, if their joint effort doesn’t hold up. Conversely, they may lack brilliant drop shots altogether yet win the game because they work well together. Bottom line: they’ve got to win repeatedly to be considered a good team.”

“That sounds an awful lot like what we’re trying to do here at Fernwood—win repeatedly,” Waarom replied. “In fact, I might bring up your analogy at a team development meeting.”

“You’re welcome to do so, but the analogy breaks down,” said Seule. “Yes, teachers have a common goal, which is to ‘win’ in some sense of the word. The problem—and this applies to many areas of education—lies in taking a part and pretending it’s the whole.”

“How would that not be the whole?” queried Waarom, intrigued.

“Well, for one thing, each subject has its particularities. Yes, we’re all trying to help our students advance intellectually, but this plays out in such different ways that we often don’t know or understand what others are doing. Let’s say a math teacher decides to teach students about the cosecant through this formula: ‘cos(θ) ∙ sin(θ) ∙ tan(θ) ∙ csc(θ) = sin(θ).’ Well, you can get students to figure out that csc(θ) is the reciprocal of sin(θ). But that’s not all. From there, they can figure out that cos(θ) ∙ tan(θ) = sin(θ), which of course makes sense. That in turn leads to the calculation that tan(θ) = sin(θ) / cos(θ). The more of these manipulations they do, the more they grasp out the trigonometric functions and their relations—all of them inherent in a right triangle. You can’t really convey this to teachers who don’t know trigonometry. Nor can they convey to you the complexity of a Donne poem you’ve never read.Of course, you could take time to read and think about the poem, or about the trigonometric functions. That’s a great thing to do, in fact. But that would be for your edification, not for the success of the team.”

“Edification?

“Edification. Similar to education, but based on a different metaphor.”

“I know what it is,” snapped Waarom, slightly piqued; “I’m just not sure it has a place in this picture. Scratch that,” she added. “It has a place. I’m just not sure it changes anything. You could still work as a team within the math department to find the best way of teaching those trigonometric functions. Don ‘t tell me some approaches aren’t better than others.”

“Sure, they are. But often you arrive at a good lesson by toying with the trigonometric functions in your head, not by conferring with a team.”

“Wouldn’t you want to share your findings with the team?” pressed Waarom.

“I wouldn’t mind doing so. But each teacher would still have to walk alone with these trig problems—and that’s not all.”

Waarom was getting urgent emails on the computer and throbs and flashes on her iPhone. “I’m sorry I can’t talk all day,” she said with genuine regret, “but is there some final takeaway here?”

“Only one thing: that education is only partly about the pursuit of goals. It’s also about the contemplation of interesting things. You cannot contemplate as a team. As a class, perhaps, or as a faculty. As an assembly or other gathering, perhaps. But not as a team.”

There was a knock on the door; someone had a complaint about a broken copier machine. “I have to go,” Waarom told Seule, “but I’d like to bring you in for an interview. I’ll transfer you over to the secretary.”

For the rest of the day, the principal thought about how the word “team” was overused. She brought it up at the next faculty meeting; many teachers heartily agreed. The school then decided not to call itself a team any more. Word leaked to the district; the superintendent announced that all schools had to rewrite their mission statements to exclude the word “team.” (He revered Fernwood for its test scores and reasoned that if the Fernwood team had abandoned the word ‘team,’ other schools should do the same.)

Panic set in across the district. They needed to call themselves something, soon. What would it be, if not a team?

No one thought of “school.” Instead, a well-paid consultant drafted spiffy mission statements that described schools as “success hubs.”

Now the challenge lay in finding résumés with “Success Hub Facilitator” in the “Skills” section. The task proved trivial; within fifteen minutes, they were streaming in.

Superintendent Tells Principals What to Think

Aphronesis, CA—In an emergency Sunday-morning meeting, Superintendent Regina Streng announced to 500 principals that they would henceforth be told what to think about subjects ranging from politics to pedagogy to pineapples.

“Many of you are under the mistaken impression,” said Streng, “that, as school leaders, you should be exercising independent judgment. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your job is to exercise the judgments we provide for you.” A murmur swelled up in the hall; she waited until it subsided.

“We need unanimity and teamwork,” she continued, “in order to move forward with reform. Remember that you are setting an example for classroom teachers, who shouldn’t be thinking on their own any more than you.”

“Isn’t teaching an intellectual profession by nature, and doesn’t intellect involve independent judgment?” asked a principal in the crowd.

Streng laughed. “In a few select cases, that might be true,” she said, “but let’s face it. We’ve invested significant resources in stripping the profession of its intellectual substance, and our efforts have largely paid off. Do you think a composer or physicist would want to spend all day teaching kids how to make ‘mind maps’ or how to choose the right multiple-choice strategy? Of course not. That’s the way it should be. Research has shown that effective teachers are not intellectuals, especially when the emphasis is on non-intellectual tasks.”

“But what about the students?” asked another. “Aren’t they supposed to be learning critical thinking? How are we supposed to teach it, if we don’t practice it ourselves?”

Streng nodded sympathetically. “I hear what you are saying,” she replied. “Many have raised that concern, and it’s a real concern, but it’s based on a misconception. You see, the kind of critical thinking we want kids to have is the 21st century kind–the kind that meets employers’ demands. That is, there should be no ‘thinking outside the box’ unless the instructions call for it explicitly. They will often call for it—don’t get me wrong—but they will specify just what kind of critical thinking it should be, how it should be structured, and what it should contain.”

The noise grew to such a level that the moderator, Susan Sandstrom, stepped up to the microphone. “Just a reminder that we called this meeting in order to accomplish essential tasks,” she said. “Superintendent Streng has given up her valuable personal time for this occasion. Now we must move on to the how-to part of the session.”

A website appeared on a large screen behind the superintendent. “We have created a database of correct opinion,” announced Streng, “which is one hundred percent current and searchable. If you are ever in doubt about what to think about a political candidate, for example, you need only enter his or her name in the search box—let’s see, I’m typing in Fred Berenger—and here you have the result. ‘Dangerous obstructionist. Not to be trusted or supported. Not to be mentioned by principals or teachers.’ We have staff continually updating the database, so that it includes the most recent issues, even the weather.”

“Oh, what are we to say about the weather?” cried a jubilant voice.

“Let’s see, let’s see. Weather, May 19, 2013. ‘The current weather does not affect performance on upcoming state tests.’ There you have it. But that reminds me of another feature of this website. It doesn’t just tell you what to think and say. It tells you how to say it.” She clicked on a link to “power words and acknowledgment phrases.” “Now you never have to be at a loss for words or send out mixed messages,” she said. “You can even display the ‘power word of the day’ on monitors throughout your school.”

Sandstrom returned to the microphone. “Thank you so much, Regina, for bringing us together today. Principals, let’s all give Superintendent Streng a triple ‘woot’! You will receive free login instructions on your way out.”

A few faint ‘woots’ were heard in the crowd, but they weren’t triple. Superintendent Streng commented later that a follow-up training would be needed, as many principals were still stuck in independent thought.

“It’s All About the Brute Struggle,” Says Schools Deputy

rhinocerosLutte, NY–After receiving numerous requests, pleas, and demands for adequate resources and space in the public schools, Associate Schools Deputy Bruce Eris divulged the Department of Education’s philosophy at a crowded district assembly. “It’s all about the brute struggle,” he said proudly. “If the kids aren’t tearing each other to pieces, you’re still in la-la land. We can point you to plenty of schools that are dealing with the real thing. You’ll see the difference right away.”

Murmuring and shifting followed. The moderator called for silence.

“You guys are saying you can’t cram yourselves into tiny classrooms,” he continued, panning his glance around the crowded hall. “Well, some people do it day after day. They might not like it, but they do it. If you can’t do it, it’s your failing, not ours.”

The first parent at the microphone suggested that it wasn’t good for students to be toppling onto each other, pushing past each other, and competing with each other for bathroom stalls. “Good?” Eris guffawed. “What is good? You’ve got your idea of good, but I’ve got mine, and I can tell you, lady, mine is based on sending my work teams to hundreds of schools and reading their reports. Your view is of these walls right here. You say they’re too narrow. Well I say let them be narrow! I say let this come to a boiling point! We’ll be happy to close you down.”

A teacher brought up the difficulty of teaching a good lesson when things were at the “boiling point.” “In the classroom, students need some space so that they can focus,” she said. “If a kid pushes another kid, even by mistake, it can throw everything off.”

“That’s what ineffective teachers always say,” Eris snorted. “We know that line. You’ve got to look at effective teachers. Effective teachers never have kids pushing each other, even when there are fifty of them in a tiny room. For a long time we’ve been saying that if we get effective teachers in the classroom, virtually or physically, your kids will get a good deal, even if we have to double the class size.”

A student spoke next. “Mr. Eris, I see a contradiction in your worldview,” he said. “On the one hand, you say that the ‘brute struggle’ is the reality, and anything short of it an illusion. On the other, you say that ‘effective teachers’ restore peace and productivity instantly just by walking into a classroom or appearing on Skype. Are you suggesting, therefore, that the ‘effective teacher’ is an illusion?”

“I’m not an intellectual sort of guy,” retorted Eris, “and it sounds like you’re coming at me with some highfalutin learnings that aren’t on the state tests—something your school could cut, if it really cared about resources. But I’ll give it a shot—the only thing is I have to leave right afterwards.” He took a sip of water and looked at his watch.

”If you want to talk philosophy,” he said, “I’ll tell you our philosophy. It isn’t contradictory as you’re making it out to be, but it takes some effective thinking to put it together. Now like I told you, I am not an intellectual, but I know what effective thinking is, and I practice it every moment of the day. That’s why I’ve got the salary I have. Do you have my salary, kid? Do you?” He took another sip.

“What’s your answer?” someone cried out.

“All right, all right. This is a kind of a trade secret, but here it goes. You see, the brute struggle is going to reveal who’s effective and who isn’t. The effective ones will have these amazing, packed classrooms where the kids are doing something productive every second. The other classrooms will be in chaos. So we will separate them out. We’ll fire the bad teachers, get rid of the bad schools, and then start up some new effective schools, and then let them go back into strife when they get too crowded, so that we can close them down except for the effective few. Eventually everyone’s gonna get the message. Be effective or bust. Finally you know how it will work out? Every single damned school in this district will be effective. You’ll see a hundred kids in a room, all standing up, all straining to learn from a teacher who wastes no time and takes no excuses—and gets them to exert their own creativity and critical thinking. Anyone who doesn’t cut it will be gone.”

“What do you mean, gone?” another voice called out. The room had grown loud; the moderator called for quiet.

“I don’t know and I don’t care,” he said. “As long as the ineffective folks aren’t in our face, they can go wherever they want. It’s a free country. There are other districts. Private schools. Prisons. Canada and Mexico. Jobs at Kinko’s. The sooner they get out of here, the better. Speaking of getting out of here, I have to go now. I have a dinner engagement.” Eris and his three attendants walked briskly out of the hall.

After a hush, a principal spoke up. “All right now, let’s follow Mr. Eris’s advice and get this brute strife thing going,” she said. “If you haven’t hit someone in this room, you haven’t done your duty. Let’s see some punches here.”

Strangely, no one hit anyone. Clearly a sense of humanity was keeping people in check—and holding them back from the final ruthless glory.

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