Teachers: How Slowing Down Can Lead to Great Change | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Sometimes, in order to gain perspective on a situation, I imagine myself zooming into outer space and looking down on whatever is going on. From a distance of thousands of feet above whatever craziness is happening I can see more clearly and determine the actions that are available for me to take.

Over the last few years, I find myself frequently zooming out of education world I'm in attempting to gain perspective. From my vantage point somewhere in the stratosphere, here's the image that often comes to mind: I see whirling, spinning educators crashing into each other, spinning off the map, and creating all kinds of unintended destruction. I see these beings spinning into states of physical and emotional breakdown. I see the stress and pressure fracturing communities of folks who should really be allies. I see anxiety, frustration, fear, and impatience. And I see extensive trails leading back towards the origins of this madness, each entity responding to something immediate with distant roots. It's a frightening sight, I know.

The craziness has got to stop. It's not serving anyone.

What's at Stake?

I'll cite data, because the clamoring for data never ceases: We, in public schools, are unable to retain effective teachers or those who show signs of becoming effective teachers. In my district, 50 percent of teachers quit within three years. Principal-turnover is equally high. The great majority of these educators are promising, effective people committed to kids. Teachers quit because of the stress, low pay, long hours, and endless demands for more of everything -- more hours, more this, more that.

It's time to slow down. In our crazy whirling, we are only creating more chaos and mess to clean up.

If we slowed down, we could reflect on what we've been doing and what's been working; we could ask questions, explore root causes, and we could listen to each other. And if we engaged in some of these practices, there's a greater likelihood that we'd uncover authentic solutions, make some significant changes, feel better about our work, and deliver some sustainable results.

A Paradigm Shift Needed

About a year ago, over coffee with Jenn Lutzenberger-Phillips, a dear friend and colleague, I was ranting about the frenetic pace and constant piles of more to do in our school system. "Now our strategic plan has an additional 27 initiatives, 14 of which we have to complete this year," I'd bemoaned (or something to this effect). Jenn, always witty and brilliant, responded with this suggestion: "We need a Slow Schools Movement." Here, in the California Bay Area, there's much talk about "Slow Food" -- an approach to cooking and eating that's seen as more holistic, sustainable for the planet, and healthier for our bodies. There's an appealing community-building element, too; some "Slow Foodies" literally eat slower or eat meals accompanied by hours of reflective conversation, storytelling, laughter, and connection. The Slow Food Movement reflects a shift in how we experience food and eating, farming and nutrition, how we come together with other human beings.

A Slow Schools Movement would offer a parallel paradigm shift -- an approach where we'd intentionally, mindfully work on one project at a time, one goal, or one initiative. We could work hard and focused, with urgency and intentionality, for eight hours a day, and then we could go home to our families, to our out-side-of-work lives, and home to ourselves. And we'd nurture and sustain many communities.

I'd love to lead a team or school or initiative where we could try this approach for a year or two where we'd slow way down, work no more than eight hours a day (a revolutionary concept!) and then we'd explore the impact of having tried this approach. The current systems at school have teachers doing this: burning out by burning both ends of the candle (what telling metaphors). It's not working; just look at the turnover data.

I absolutely believe that we could still accomplish great things, we could transform education, and we could even close the achievement gap if we slowed way down. We'd enjoy our work more and enjoy each other's company. We can start by transforming the way we think about "slowness." Slow is wonderful. Slow is thoughtful. Slow is sustainable and human and transformational. Won't you join Jenn and I in the Slow Schools Movement?


Comments (22)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Carl Honoré's picture

The race to the top is really just a race to nowhere. For kids of all abilities. That is why everywhere more and more people are saying enough is enough. Including those at or near the so-called "top": Eton College, Harvard, the prime minister of Singapore, etc.

It's time to call off the race. But you're right that until we do there will be lots of scrambling....

Jay Clark's picture
Jay Clark
Principal - Van Buren Middle School (Van Buren, OH)

It's ironic that I had a similar conversation with some teachers in our building just yesterday! I'm lucky to be in a small district that deferred "Race to the Top" and other needless "initiatives". However, our state legislators and department of education keep us plenty busy - and what's insane is that nothing ever lives its full life because a new governor, new legislators, or new state superintendent kill what "was" so that they can champion their own "reforms".

Mark Cline Lucey's picture
Mark Cline Lucey
High school Social Studies teacher at Vermont Commons School in Burlington

Do more . . . slow down . . . do more . . . slow down. As in life, so it goes in education. The double edge of technology is that it compels us to do more and more, and it becomes ever harder to just plain slow down. Thank you for touching on this in your blog post! http://markclinelucey.blogspot.com

Chris A's picture
Chris A
K-6 Academic Coach

It is great to hear this message from you. I, too, feel we need to slow down to really understand and look at what we are doing and how effective it is in making our students more successful. Let's all slow down, enjoy life, and do what we can together to educate our children. Thanks.

Cathy Belair's picture

I came home after only 8 1/2 hours and I felt so energized! I'm convinced that "[w]e could work hard and focused, with urgency and intentionality, for eight hours a day, and then we could go home to our families, to our out-side-of-work lives, and home to ourselves."

Margarita Acosta's picture
Margarita Acosta
3rd grade bilingual teacher from San Francisco, California

The race won't stop if some people don't decide to start quitting.

Josh Luke's picture
Josh Luke
High School Science Teacher

The Crockpot Initiative!
Seriously, if we as educators select the correct ingredients and slowly implement a systemic change that provides an environment for all teachers to reach mastery, then we have nothing to loose. We must be patient and not let one or two years of unanticipated data cause us to scrap an entire initiative. We commonly say this in our Leadership Team meetings, "Go slow to go fast."
Great Post!

john Wright's picture
john Wright
IB secondary Math and TOK teacher. Asia

I couldn't agree more. I teach math in Asia and see how there is a vicious cycle now. I recently had a colleague pleadingly tell me how we had to speed up to finish the curriculum so we could spend our time reviewing for high scores on the culminating exam. Because:"this is what kids want". I said :" No, this is what you - and perhaps certain administrators want". Students year for stories, context and connection.

William Leslie's picture
William Leslie
Philosophy professor, Palomar College, San Marcos, CA

We live in a civilization addicted to greed, speed, and distraction. Is there a different way to be in the world? Philosophical and religious traditions say "yes!" I bring stories and examples from the Stoics, Zen, and other wisdom traditions into the classroom. Cultivating mindfulness (research the Hahn Foundation on the web) and non-reactivity (I show the 60 Minutes video interview of Capt. Sully Sullenburger) are places to start. I think there is also a video on youtube with Alan Watts talking about The Eternal Now". A while ago PBS did two documentaries "Running Out of Time" and another "Affluenza" that are useful for discussions of our culture's dysfunctional relationship with haste and consumerism. Anyone else out there with suggestions of resources pointing towards a different way to be?

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