Syncing the Out-of-Sync

Teaching isn’t simple. You can walk, for example, into a classroom and find that students range from grade three to grade ten in reading ability. How to challenge all without frustrating some—this is the daily dilemma.

But what also complicates teaching is described by a daunting phrase—asynchronous development. Understanding this concept has helped me understand students. And it’s helped students understand themselves.

Take the word apart, I tell students. Chronos means time. It’s the Greek root for chronology. Syn means same, like in synonym. And the prefix a means not.

So if you put it together, asynchronous development means that not all the parts of you develop at the same rate.

Annie, a student in the gifted program, is an example of asynchronous development. One morning when she was in second grade, she showed up for class, her face wan and strained. Her eyes pooled when I pulled my stool next to her.

“I didn’t sleep all night,” she whispered.

And her mom confirmed this when we talked. Annie had watched the news, understanding far more about the recent terrorist attack than most second graders would, more than she could handle.

Annie’s intellectual development and her emotional development were out of sync. And this required greater vigilance by her adults.

Tom, a seventh grade student of mine, showed a different profile, running the household, as he did, for his emotionally and intellectually challenged mother. Tom read below grade level, but he managed his younger siblings with skill, keeping them in clean shirts, helping them with homework, and even showing up at their parent-teacher conferences to help his mother understand. Tom’s emotional maturity far surpassed his intellectual powers. Tom learned best when I acknowledged his asynchronous development, when I matched my tones to his level of responsibility.

Teachers, then, manage not only differing levels among students. They also watch for varying levels within students. Teachers face the daily dilemma of bringing into some kind of synchrony all that is out of sync.

 

The Burden of Best

“Do your best,” teachers tell students. And most times that’s good advice. But these words place a heavy burden on some students.

The most exhausted students I taught were perfectionists. I found them in all my classrooms—in the prison school, at the middle school, and in the college classes I taught. But perfectionists showed up most often in my gifted classes. These students with high intelligence were familiar with success—but not with failure.

Most of them had grown up succeeding without effort. But at some point, all gifted students—in middle school accelerated classes or high school Advanced Placement courses or college honors or a Ph.D. program—come to a place where effort is required and failure actually seems possible.

Their standards are so high that the new challenges they face can be met only with great difficulty, or not at all. And anything short of perfection, they feel, would lead to disaster.

Some of my students could find only one way out—procrastination. The only way to avoid failure, they figured, was to not start at all or to start but not finish. As long as they didn’t commit, the possibility of perfection remained.

These students linked what they did with who they were. They felt pressured to demonstrate their worth through performance, avoiding mistakes at great cost. Many of them struggled with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and even self-harm.

The irony is that students learn best as they make mistakes. And they don’t learn much when they do nothing because they’re afraid they will make one.

So what tools can move students out of this trap of disabling perfectionism? Here are some mantras for self-talk I passed on to students:

  • It’s not all or nothing. Let go of the on and off switch, I’d say, and use a dimmer switch. It’s not all success or all failure. Look for the bad in the good and good in the bad. According to legend, someone once asked Thomas Edison, “How did it feel to fail 999 times while you invented the lightbulb?”

“I didn’t fail 999 times,” Edison reportedly said. “I found 999 ways not to make a lightbulb.”

  • I probably won’t die. Perfectionists tend to catastrophic thinking. If I make a mistake (or get a B or don’t become the valedictorian), I won’t survive the humiliation. Actually, not reaching a standard can often relieve pressure and increase energy in other parts of life.

“I just wish she’d get a B and find out she’ll live,” one parent told me.

  • Live 3-D. Perfectionists often fixate on the possibility of failure. Their focus narrows, letting negatives push positives out of their thinking. And so they lose the balance other parts of life can bring—the catharsis of exercise, the support of relationships, the inspiration of the arts. When students find extra-academic richness, they keep healthier perspectives.

Teachers dream of classrooms of students who want to do their best. But perhaps a better scenario is classrooms of students who value learning so much they’re willing to risk failure to learn.

You Mess with Matt; You Mess with Me

“Mrs. Swartz,” Matt said to me after school one day, “I’d like to talk to the class about Tourette Syndrome.”

Matt’s eyes blinked fast, and his head jerked.

“Tell me about this,” I said.

Matt told me he was in a group with other kids who had Tourette Syndrome. At the last meeting the group had been talking about kids at school who avoided them and mimicked their tics and asked rude questions like, ”That’s not catching, is it?” or “Did you take the wrong vaccine?”

“What can we do?” a kid asked the leader.

And that’s when she told them about peer presentations—a kid with Tourette Syndrome educating classmates about it.

“I’ve been thinking about this,” Matt said. “And I want to do it. This could help the next kid with Tourette Syndrome who comes along.”

The day before his presentation, Matt stopped after class.

“I made a slide show,” he said, handing me a flash drive, “and could I choose a friend to stand up there with me?”

Matt’s friend, I discovered the next day, was the captain of the football team. He stood three feet from Matt, feet planted shoulder-width, hands on hips, elbows akimbo. During Matt’s presentation, the football captain scanned the room like a Secret Service agent, daring the slightest disrespect.

Matt showed the class diagrams to explain how the brain controls movement.

“Most of you,” Matt told the class, “have brains that tell your body to stop moving. Your brains can tell your eyes to stop blinking fast and your head to stop jerking.”

At this moment, Matt’s head jerked twice, and the football captain stood an inch taller.

“But my brain,” Matt went on, “doesn’t have stop signs for head jerking.”

Students were listening, I could tell.

“Sometimes,” Matt said, “I can delay a head jerk, kind of like you can put off a sneeze.”

Matt smiled ruefully.

“But eventually,” he said, “the jerk wins.”

Then Matt asked students to stopping blinking, to hold off a blink as long as they could.

“Raise your hand,” he said, “when you have to blink.”

When all the students’ hands were in the air, Matt concluded.

“That’s how I feel a lot,” he said.

As the students clapped, Matt went to his seat. But the football captain stayed.

“Just to tell you,” he said. “You mess with Matt, you mess with me.”

And no one did, not then, and not the rest of the school year.

That’s Not Fair

My mother-in-law told me once that when her children were young, she discovered how to divide the last piece of cake fairly between two children—one cut the piece in half and the other chose the first piece.

“I’d never seen such preciseness,” she told me. “And neither child could complain that the division wasn’t fair.”

Toward the beginning of my teaching career, I taught two populations: inmates and middle school kids. And in both places I heard the word fair many times a day.

The mantra for staff members at the prison was firm, fair, and consistent. We heard these words at in-service trainings and in our performance reviews. And students in the prison school often used the word fair, many times with the word not in front of it.

Middle school kids also have an obsession with fairness. And when they protest unfairness, teachers have a quick response.

“Life’s not fair,” teachers say, as reflexively as they take their next breaths.

But what is fair?

For too long, I treated the words fair and equal as synonyms. To avoid favoritism, I parsed out equal amounts of attention, resources, and rewards. But the classroom soon taught me that treating everyone exactly the same is actually not fair—that equality works only if students begin at the same place and need the same help.

If equality is treating all students the same, equity is giving each student what she or he needs to be successful. And some students need more.

Students who are furthest behind, students with challenges at home, and students who are on the edges of the bell-curve—cognitively, emotionally, or physically—all need greater resources, more involved help.

And what happens when students notice that others get more?

I’ve found it doesn’t take much to help students see that fairness is more than equal treatment, that not everyone starts at the same place and not everyone has the same needs, that although equity may at first appear unfair, it really levels the playing field.

When I was a kid, I’d tell students, my parents didn’t have much money. A pair of shoes or a broken window was a big deal. And we watched how our parents spread their pennies around—who got what and who got the most.

One month my parents spent more money on me than on anyone else, way more. They bought a pair of glasses for me.

Then I asked my students, “Was this fair?”

And then we talked about the differences between equality and equity. They almost always got it.

They started seeing why one student used an audio book and another extended time on a test. And they accepted that, even though they would like to sit on an exercise ball instead of a chair, another student needed it more.

Being fair, they began to realize, was more complicated than they thought.

Self-Bossing

“Part of growing up,” I used to tell my middle school students, “is bossing yourself so well that no one else has to do it.”

And then I’d tell them about my struggle to keep it together when I was their age—how I’d daydream in study hall,  put off doing papers until it was too late to do a good job, and read a book I loved instead of a book I’d been assigned.

“I got tired of adults nagging me,” I’d tell them. “so I gradually figured out some ways to make myself do what I didn’t want to do.”

Middle school kids, I found, want to see themselves as independent and responsible, in other words, grown up. But some of them need a few tips for taking charge of their own lives.

Here are some strategies they seem to understand and that I still use for myself:

  • Starting—I’ll do it for ten minutes, I often tell myself. In fact, I often set a timer. It’s amazing what can happen with a sink full of dishes, an empty word document, or an e-mail inbox in just ten minutes.
  • Chunking—I always eat more of my apple when I slice it, and when students break a task into parts, the task seems more manageable. Do a little, I’d tell students, then get up—stand and stretch, sharpen a pencil, or throw paper into the trash. Then do another chunk.
  • Rewarding—In education jargon, this is called the Premack Principle, but I described it to students as the When/Then Strategy. And they recognize it because adults have often used it on them: when you eat your peas, then you get a cookie. The key is to teach students to use this principle on themselves. When you do your homework, I’d tell them, do a page of math, then ride your bike around the block. Use what you like to make yourself do what you don’t like.

The goal at middle school is to help students shift into self-government, to increasingly hand them strategies instead of orders. Every day, for the rest of their lives, they’ll have to do things they don’t want to do. But they’ll find this more palatable if they learn to govern themselves. It’s no fun to have someone else always bossing you around.

How to Teach When Students Hate to Learn

The first time I walked into a classroom full of mandatory students at the prison, I was appalled. They sat there chins jutted, arms crossed, and eyes averted. These grown men had failed the reading test given to them during prison orientation, and so the state of Ohio had ordered them back to school. Once again, having not measured up, they were trapped in a classroom. And I could hardly miss the signals they were sending me.

I didn’t understand at the time how the brain works. Later I would learn about dopamine, the chemical the brain releases when something feels good. Dopamine gets learning going. Pay attention, dopamine tells the brain. This is good. Remember this. We want to make this happen again. Dopamine increases motivation and interest. The more engaged a student becomes, the more dopamine is released, and learning spirals upward. Without dopamine, learning is lost.

But I didn’t know any of this then. I only knew I couldn’t teach when students wouldn’t look at me. I had to find a way to bring some happiness to their brains—to change their attitudes from aversive (hating to learn) to appetitive (wanting to learn). I stumbled for a few quarters, but gradually I found ways to increase the flow of dopamine, to decrease the aversion, to invite students to uncross their arms and lean forward in their seats:

  • I became a student, learning from them. I know some of you don’t want to be here, I’d say the first day of class. But here’s how I see it. We’re all adults here, all with different experiences. I hope you’ll want to learn from me. I know I want to learn from you. And they taught me, for example, things about the Vietnam War that I never read in history books.
  • I acknowledged the sins of my profession. Why didn’t you like school? I’d ask my inmate students. “If you’re the wrong color from the wrong side of the tracks,” they said, “you get the blame even if you’ve done nothing wrong. After a while, it just ain’t worth trying.” I heard about teaching methods that didn’t work and about teachers who had given up on them. I heard about boring classes. I listened and did not defend.
  • I protected dignity. Every question was welcome. I explained with as much earnestness the third time as I did the first. My first term at the prison, an inmate stared in perplexity at the globe. “Now, where is our country?” he asked, and, just in time, I managed not to show surprise. As I honored each small step of learning, fear in the room decreased.

I came to enjoy these classes of mandatory students—at least after the first day of each term. As students discovered learning can bring pleasure, their brains processed better. They remembered more of what they had learned and smiled more. And this increased the dopamine in my brain, as well. It’s fun to watch a transformation.

The Key to the Song

At three minutes before homeroom, I was already tense with the noise. I stood in the middle school hallway listening to the cacophony of slamming lockers, dropping books, thundering feet, and raucous voices.

Last night I had been reading Robert Frost, and I thought wistfully of that hour by the fire. And then I realized that this moment of clamor in the hall connected with that quiet one. Robert Frost had been writing for me.

                         A Minor Bird

I have wished a bird would fly away,
And not sing by my house all day;

Have clapped my hands at him from the door
When it seemed as if I could bear no more.

The fault must partly have been in me.
The bird was not to blame for his key.

And of course there must be something wrong
In wanting to silence any song.

What I was hearing there in the hallway was the key of the middle school song. I quit trying to silence the song. And as I listened, I began to see again what I loved about middle school kids.

Caught between childhood and maturity, some of them were twice as tall as some of the rest of them. They missed recess and wanted to drive. They were the center of the universe one minute and awash with sympathy the next. I never knew what they would do—cry in the restroom or strut in the hall. They were fist bumping, high-five slapping, secret-telling, curious, energetic people who told it like it was.

They kept me young and gave me grey hair. They honed my humor and sharpened my wit. They made sure I was never bored. And they kept me laughing—that, is as long as I appreciated the key of their song.