Teachers: How Slowing Down Can Lead to Great ChangeDecember 11, 2013 | Elena Aguilar
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?