“Let’s get to work!”

Chris McNutt
August 12, 2018
Students love school the first day and begrudge it the rest. Teachers plan their beginnings to be engaging, then “get to work.” Isn’t it odd how easily this aligns?

“On day one, I’m going to learn everyone’s name and play a game. After all, the binders and syllabus can wait!”

Students love school the first day and begrudge it the rest. Teachers plan their beginnings to be engaging, then “get to work.” Isn’t it odd how easily this aligns? When a child is not forced into endless, substantiated curricula and learns about their peers, moves around, and is excited to be there — they’re engaged.

Perhaps the most egregious claim made by traditional educators is the equation of work and learning. “If you want to succeed, you need to put the time in!” Of course, the implication is that any success in life is due to a 4.0 GPA, perfect attendance, and a “do what you’re told” mentality. Most define learning this way — even subconsciously. Often I’ll find myself telling students to “stay on task” without recognizing the hidden message that I’m managing workers, not leading a community.

The connection between labor and learning is as obvious as it is damaging to everyone. A child begins to see imaginative, creative thought as “extra work” and adults are slow to pursue taxing new endeavors. What used to be a place of wonder, a classroom is a production center. When adults come across a row of books, they think of the time commitment and workload rather than the mysteries that are kept inside.

In reality, we’ve conceded that learning is not energizing — it is the antithesis, something categorically lumped in with doing the dishes. Sure, many teachers believe their commitment to fostering engagement, but how many of us reinforce workplace policies and terminology? Get to work, be on task, sign in on time, don’t fall out of line, ask questions (but don’t waste our time), do everything you’re told to. To imagine a place beyond this is actually quite difficult — would a compulsory public school be able to “control” without these policies? Is “control” — the center of workplace protocol — inevitable?

Why do almost all students show up day one engaged and ready to learn? Many are happy to see their friends — but there’s also a willingness to try something new, a desire to go beyond a 24/7 life with one’s family. It’s a new opportunity, a new community and space to explore. No matter how many times they’re let down, I find students excited on their initial return. Therefore, public school educators are assigned a difficult endeavor — we must create a learning community without corporate foreboding…when our children did not agree to be there. How can we redefine our classroom?

Let’s reimagine how we view learning. Even the most apt teachers still see their “course load” as such. Not a lot of interesting things, but myriad work. First, that mindset must change. An educator goes into their room to inspire through passionate claims and a desire for their students to change the world. Instead of day two being a return to reality, why not develop a place where we fight to keep day one spirit alive all year? But being passionate is just the start. A spirited teacher without any changes to traditional protocol is essentially a master of manipulation — they find ways to make children learn. Engaged teaching is more “fun”, but results are a mixed bag if they actually make children learn more (Motz et al., 2017). However, when we begin to change systems, we truly enact change.

Here’s what we’re going to do today.” >What does everyone want to learn more about?”

“You need to get this done by the end of the period.” > “Here’s something you may all like to look at.”

You definitely need to know this, it will be on the test.” > “What questions do you all have? We have tons of time to explore.”

A substantial change relies on shifts. A movement from tests to creative assessment, grades to feedback, standards to learning, compulsion to inclusion, production to community. Each is in opposition to the desires of the mainstream traditional framework. Realistically, it is impossible without masking the components of what’s really going on in your classroom. After all, if you didn’t hit 80% of “your content” and had zero grades in the books, what would a principal think?

Imagine a start to the school year where, with a circle of new acquaintances, you develop the baseline expectations for the room. Together, you discuss and form the basis of your class, explaining your expertise but provide decision-making to the room. This serves as your community, and as a collective you organically move from interest to interest — providing ample time, discussion, and freedom to move and explore, taking steps forward and backward. You still factor in interesting activities, readings, and projects — but it’s a result of what your students are interested in that day, not something predefined. Everyone doesn’t always agree, but there is time for self-expression as well as communal compromise.

When grades are due, you assign everyone an A (or if that’s too noticeable, let students self-report.) When it’s standardized test season, give a “crash course” on test skills. (Students will perform shockingly well with no content knowledge, which should provide a solid basis on why these tests are ludicrous.) When an administrator is present, throw in a lesson plan — students are always observant in the atmosphere of an observation.

Students simply learn more this way. Retention is maintained when students see value in what they’re doing as they’re using it — either mentally or experientially. Although teachers may recall tidbits of what they learned in school, they don’t generally find a purpose to explore these ideas further. Most would find our content completely relevant and worthwhile, while other subjects are circumstantially important at best. After all, we took the time to specialize and major in it. However, we must step back and let students utilize our knowledge and the many resources at their disposal to explore what they want to. It’s a ridiculous assumption that every student will find all our content eventful when most adults in the building don’t remember much of it. We must see learning as a process happening all around us — weaving from topic to topic with no hierarchy of deemed importance due to a particular mindset of “schooling.”

The change that’s central to all this is trust. It’s relatively easy to dismiss all protocols of traditional education and “cheat” the system. There’s rarely someone actually keeping track of what’s going on day-to-day — as long as test scores remain relatively normal and no one is screaming in your room, it’s all fine. A real barrier is recognizing that you’ll trust children enough to do this. You must innately believe that students desire learning, will work without commands, and care about their education. The negativity that surrounds most teacher workrooms would wholly communicate that we can’t. They’re rowdy, they don’t listen, they’re “low”, they won’t do anything. As prefaced, they are not willing to “work.” But in this radical shift, would students revolt without control or morph into a learning collective?

Recognizably, not all are going to comply without forced compliance. Removing the reigns will allow a complete rejection of authority and a chance for these students’ voices to be heard (often for the first time without being instantly silenced.) We mustn’t be afraid of critical voices, thought, and actions when we create a space that desires exactly that. It would be futile to imagine a community of learners who are open to expressing their ideas while simultaneously expecting that they all never reject the compulsory nature of their experience. This isn’t a sign to give up, it’s a sign to formulate more ways of building community. We must listen and compromise, not reject and control.

A community is something lost in schools — a faux sense of learning has gone the way of completing as many tasks as possible to please an ominous government-mandated presence. We must recreate the adage of “work” and push toward authentic thought.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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