Sunday, October 7, 2012

Accordion Lessons

In the ongoing conversation about education we often hear of the necessity of teamwork in tackling the multifaceted problem facing our public schools today.  Teamwork...nice word.  And it is most often through playing sports that we learn the meaning of the word. I played Little League baseball, Pop Warner football, and baseball and football in high school where I tore up my knee playing the first football game of the season and then later, I had to leave the baseball team because I got caught smoking a cigarette on the field (after reading Last Exit...). In the end however, I did learn about teamwork from playing ball.  Another arena where teamwork is played out is music. From an orchestra to a jazz trio, teamwork is the only means of achieving the desired end. In my own case, I was a member of the much maligned but also feared army of ten-year old accordionists known as the Polka Devils being pumped out of the esteemed Palumbo Academy of Music in the Bronx. We were being primed to audition for Ted Mack's "Amateur Hour" or (my preference), shaping up for a stint in Venice;  I saw myself, propped in a gondola offering renditions of O Sole Mio to all.  In any case, my point is that the inherent value of teamwork is often truly revealed only to those on the team, so to speak. How that team fares on the field or on stage is determined by many factors, but the simple experience of being on the field or on the stage with the others, that shared event whether you win or lose, is a valuable character building experience. And it is always part of the manager's skill to assess the players' abilities - to weigh their strengths and areas of needed improvement in order to piece together a unified entity that is established for a specific purpose and for a specified period of time.
And there are many parts to a team and each is important to the composition of the whole. True for the baseball team, true for the Polka Devils and certainly true for our schools.  Wouldn't you think that it would take a team to make something like a school succeed?  This can't be done alone or by teammates at odds with one another.  It is here that the structural integrity of the idea holds and guides the team through the contest or path to accomplishment.  With schools, the integrity of the idea is that all the participants -- and that means teachers, administrators, parents and students -- are accountable because being a player means participating in the decisions that affect your future. With all this comes responsibility, and in this case, responsibility for a school that is struggling.  But somehow, as of late, the responsibility, the sole responsibility for failing schools, has fallen on the shoulders of the teacher in the classroom.  Not on the administrators who for some reason are not evaluated by either the teachers in the school (if you're thinking SQR, think again) or the parents in the community.  And as far as the parents go, I wouldn't be the first to call for evaluations, but who am I to judge?  We must call for and support any parental involvement we can get.  To do otherwise is to betray the integrity of the idea that the team can withstand flaws and still move forward. As far as instilling a feeling of teamwork in our students; well, it is very difficult to do this without the glue of shared experience. Just being in the same classroom without engaging in "teamwork" experience does not leave the indelible stamp of being on a team; of being an integral part of or a member of something bigger than oneself. Schools are woefully ill-equipped to provide the environment where teamwork can flourish, and our students bear the consequences.  And they endure these consequences year after year that the Arts and Sports program are reduced or cut from the budget and positive changes are not implemented.  You can't just say the teachers are shirking responsibility when in fact, teachers are only part of the larger team effort.  Yet we are the ones who are graded, evaluated, threatened, accused and excessed.  Teamwork...yeah, it's a nice word.
 Answers are organic.  They grow up from the ground and unless it is for the prayed-for rain, the answers don't come from above. Now here I am; standing in the doorway of my classroom wondering where all my teammates have gone.   A month in and still no school assembly, it's bulletin board update or die time, warnings of upcoming observations are circulated along with murmurs of a school closing.  As for the rest of the team, let me provide an anecdote to make a point.  A call goes out to a  parent that their little angel brought a gun to school; the parent's response: "What caliber?"  So, are we waiting for this parent to come into school or is this just a perverse play on the "parent trigger"?  Will it take a team to turn around a school? Yes, it will, but right now we don't have the uniforms. And more importantly, we don't have the vision.

Here is a shout out we can all hear -- and maybe this is what having a vision looks like.

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