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Volume VII Issue IV

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How Are You Dealing with Your Potholes?

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop

It has been a particularly harsh winter across the United States and in many places around the world. As spring makes its appearance, it is a welcoming sight. Temperatures are warmer, flowers and trees are in bloom, and sunny days have replaced the gloom of winter. But the melting snows and flooding also bring another annual visitor that can result in frustration, traffic jams, and even damage and injury. Potholes abound; they are the ubiquitous reminder of winter’s toll on our roads and highways, and, in many ways, they represent those unwelcome and unexpected challenges that life throws at us.

Perhaps it is my imagination, but it seems that there are many more potholes this year than in the past. I find myself on the lookout as I drive so I can avoid those unnerving jolts and potential car repairs. As I dodge, finesse, and bounce in and out of those roadway surprises, I think about our jobs as educators and the “potholes” we occasionally encounter in our schools. Ultimately, I have concluded, neither one is very pleasant but it’s how we prepare for and respond to them that can make a big difference.

After thinking about nature’s potholes, I made some connections to the “potholes” we encounter in our lives as educators. Perhaps my analysis will provide a unique perspective along with ways we can deal with disruptions in our daily lives in schools. If you are fortunate enough to live in a place where potholes are not as prolific, you probably have your measure of natural phenomena to deal with including heat waves, droughts, and flash floods. As you read on, feel free to substitute any disagreeable natural occurrence in place of my pothole analysis below.
Potholes are cyclical in nature and, therefore, they are predictable.
Likewise, there are many predictable occurrences in the life of the school. For instance, we can usually predict that students will be less attentive (and maybe a little more hyper) prior to a holiday or vacation. We can often anticipate that the stress levels of both students and teachers will increase during the standardized testing period. It is also very likely that when students struggle in school (and even encounter failure), they may shut down and stop applying themselves. There are even some educators who consult their calendars to watch for the full moon phase since they believe that it can have some bearing on student behavior. When we are able to foresee the possibility of certain circumstances, we can plan ahead and face these issues calmly, professionally, and good-naturedly. An appropriate mantra during these frustrating times may be “This too shall pass.”

Potholes can lead to traffic slow-downs, back-ups, and complete stops.
When we are forced as drivers to crawl through traffic or come to complete stops because of potholes, it can cause stress and frustration. However, in the classroom, slowing down can be beneficial. In our haste to “cover” all our necessary curricula, we often move at a brisk pace through our standards without taking the time to determine if students have truly mastered the skills and knowledge we taught. We might also back up periodically and conduct a cumulative review during which the teacher goes back over previously-taught material in order to determine if the students still remember standards taught earlier in the year. “Slowing down” and “backing up” can lead to enhanced progress and overall improved achievement.

It is important to remember to report a small pothole to highway officials before it becomes much bigger and more problematic.
Student work habits, their focus on academic achievement, their preparation for class, and their active participation in learning experiences all can result in the payoff we desire as teachers. Nonetheless, any noticeable change in a student’s academic diligence may serve as a red flag, and hence, something that needs to be addressed. It is important for a teacher to be tuned in to any change in a student’s behavior, and to share those observations with fellow teachers, counselors, parents, and administrators before small solvable problems (a pothole) become bigger issues with no immediate solutions and even disastrous results (a sinkhole).

Pothole damage may necessitate a front end alignment if significant damage is done.
Whereas a front end alignment for your car may be costly and time consuming, in education it just may be a good classroom practice. “Front loading” lessons can help students see the big picture as it relates to upcoming units of study. When students know the standard(s) that will be addressed, the learning experiences that will help them master the standard, and the ways student learning will be assessed, they will be much more likely to be engaged and willing to take on new learning. Moreover, when teachers activate student knowledge at the beginning of a lesson, the students will have a better frame of reference and be better prepared to learn. “Aligning” lesson plans to student needs is what all good educators do all the time.

Potholes can seemingly pop up overnight. To circumvent them, we often have to put on our brakes, swerve to miss the pothole, and cautiously maneuver in traffic to avoid an accident.
The relationship we establish with our students can have a huge impact on their cooperation, engagement, and ultimately their academic achievement. Experienced educators realize that relationships with students can be fragile and tenuous and often a student can become distant overnight for reasons the teacher may not understand, thus creating a gap in the ability to successfully communicate. At the first signs of a possible disconnect in a teacher/student relationship, the teacher should take the time to evaluate recent interactions and take the necessary steps to reconnect with the student in order to maintain a constructive and productive relationship.

Repair of potholes may require different approaches including paving, sealing, patching, or the use of jackhammers.
As we deal with crises in schools, we often rely on our problem-solving skills, our past experiences, and advice we solicit from peers. We can never predict when we might have disagreements or complications with students, parents, or even each other. If we use the “jackhammer” approach to resolve our dilemmas, it may just exacerbate the situation and cause it to be prolonged. It may, however, be more prudent to “patch up” our relationships through sound judgment, calmness, and compromise, and thus “pave” the way for more trusting encounters in the future.

Potholes are a major factor in causing axle and suspension failure in our automobiles.
With this particular pothole data in mind, I decided to indulge in a bit of wordplay. Cars cannot operate properly if the axle is in disrepair. Similarly, a student will not make academic progress if they undergo multiple “suspensions” or repeated “failure.” Deciding how to deal with disruptive behavior and rule infractions in school is an unenviable job. Additionally, keeping students on track and avoiding students’ defeatist attitude when they encounter low grades can be taxing. When we are faced with these tough issues, it should always be our goal to keep students in school whenever possible and maintain student learning as our unwavering goal.

With budget shortfalls across the country, there are fewer dollars being allocated at the city, county, and state levels for road repairs.
As public educators, we, too, are wrestling with budget cuts and the possibility of program elimination or significant downsizing. With an ever-increasing number of complications and challenges, we are being asked “to do more with less.” Just as we must figure out how to avoid potholes that remain in disrepair, we must make the best decisions we can with the funds allocated to us as educators. Above all, we have to remain steadfast as professionals and remember that teaching and learning is our mission and children still require the best we have to offer.

I have always tried to remain positive and keep an optimistic outlook despite unpleasant circumstances that may occur. I decided long ago that a “making lemonade out of lemons” attitude can lead to many unexpected and surprising favorable resolutions to difficult problems. Potholes on our streets and roads can be inconvenient and disruptive and just like in the unpredictable world of education and they will be back again next year. How we deal with educational potholes is a conscious choice we make and our decisions just might be an opportunity for productive change.

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:

Oliver, Bruce. “How Are You Dealing with Your Potholes?” Just for the ASKing! April 2010. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2010 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.

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