Thursday, May 31, 2018


We use the word "always" a great deal, and we're frequently wrong.

We say "we always eat chickpeas at Christmas" or "we always eat cheese for breakfast" or "we always set our keys on the ottoman." None of that is true, because as human beings, we don't "always" do anything. We are finite beings, and everything we do, we do a finite number of times. When you say, "We always did X when we were kids," you're really stretching things, because you weren't a kid for very long, and everything you did, you did a very countable number of times.

That may be why "always" is so easily used in school. Here's the transformation of a program or practice in school:

1st year: That crazy new thing we're trying.
2nd year: That new thing we did last year.
3rd year: That thing we usually do.
4th year: This thing is pretty much a tradition.
5th year: We have always done it this way forever.

As the Designated Old Fart in my building, this was one of my basic functions-- you tell me the traditional way we do some thing, and I'll tell you when we started doing it and why that seemed like a good idea at the time. That's the kind of institutional knowledge you lose when DOFs like me retire.

I suspect there's a certain comfort in talking about things we always do; it's another one of the ways we paper over the limits of mortality. But we don't always do anything. Some things we barely do a few dozen times. But we haven't always done them, and at some point, we shall stop doing them.

So anyone who says that we have always done a certain thing a certain way in public schools is just full of it. There's a whole trash heap somewhere piled high with things we used to do and no longer bother with (I just came across an old lesson I used to teach on how to use the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature). Waiting to go onto that heap is another mountain of practices that we currently think are indispensable. That sits right next to the stack of things that we're doing this year because we did them last year.

It's not that I don't appreciate the value of history and tradition and the tests that only time can administer. Hell, shortly I'm going to leave to play in a concert with a 162-year-old town band. But we have to be careful that we don't allow the shine of past practice to hide a hollowness, and because that shine fools lots of folks, we have to be careful about what we let acquire it.

This is one of my criticism of charter schools-- by trying to claim the mantle of "public" schools, they are trying to appropriate the shine and glamour of a tradition that they are not part of.  Better they should just admit that they are something else and sink or swim on their merits.

And this is one of my criticisms of public schools-- that we too often get caught up in comfortable ruts.

It's important to remember that time is fleeting and fleeing. Our students may talk about what they always do, but whether we're talking final exams or asking a person to prom or celebrating the first day of school, our high school students only do those things four time. Four times! Each one a bit different. Each one unique.

The other problem with "always" is that it lulls us into believing that we have a million chances to do some things, to get some things right. Since this is always happening in an unbroken string that leads over the horizon, we have plenty of chances to get it right the next time, or even just pay attention the next time. We don't. This thing won't always happen. In fact, as far as you know, it may have just happened for the very last time (which is not always a bad thing).

I'm not suggesting that we should load students down with the heavy knowledge of their terrible mortality (though if you don't think some aren't already carrying that weight, you aren't paying attention). But if we carried that weight a bit for mindfully ourselves, perhaps we would be less inclined to waste their time (or ours), and we might better model an appreciation for life that would color their own.

Every day, every moment, one thing is certain-- we won't always be here, in this place, with these people, doing this work, walking through these moments. None of it will always be here. Breathe, Pay attention.


  1. If I were in your shoes, I'd prefer DOF not to be "Designated Old Fart", but "Distinguished Old Fart" instead, but hey, that's just me.

  2. There's a reverse too. We often do "stupid" things for a reason.

    When I first started work, in a large organisation, I thought many of the things we did were stupid. Fortunately, although young, I was friendly with a lot of the old hands. So they would explain to me what caused us to start doing things a particular way. Normally, unsurprisingly, the reason wasn't so stupid after all.

    In an era of manic "reform", people need to ask "why are we doing it this way" in depth before they start their reforms.

    Oftentimes, as you say, it simply isn't true that we've "always" done it a particular way.