What are the “fork-issues” that cause us to avoid real and authentic conversation in schools?

This year I have had the pleasure of serving on the board of directors for Learning Forward Colorado. Each month, I have been able to join in enlightening discourse about professional learning activities in our state and offer my perspective as a classroom teacher as to what is most beneficial for those of us who don’t always get to decide what our professional learning gets to look like.

At this year’s annual conference, author Bruce Wellman spoke about deepening understanding in schools. He used the illustration of a husband and wife’s perpetual argument about which way a fork should be loaded into the dishwasher. Do the tines go up or down? While this seems like a silly thing to argue about, he said, it is an example of the kinds of mini-arguments–arguments with no real solutions–that people engage in when they don’t want to talk about the deeper and more influential problems in a relationship.

His point with this illustration was to have us reflect on the “fork” issues in our schools. What arguments become the go-to place holders for larger issues or areas that need discourse?

It feels like this spring has been particularly fork-filled. In my district, we have had an incredibly difficult year of new curriculum, new courses and animosity between the teachers’ union and the school board.

To maintain our sanity, I suggest that we get the forks out so that we can work on searching for solutions that will make a real difference.

Fork discussion #1: School boards do not always treat teachers fairly.

Alternative solutions-focused discussion: Teachers need to remember that if they ever feel they are not treated fairly by an elected official, they are the ones with the power. Instead of complaining about fairness, teachers need to move their conversation to the community of voters. When election season comes next year, teachers and community members can work together to elect change agents who will do what is right for students and teachers. 

Fork discussion #2: Teachers don’t have enough time to cope with the district and state mandated systemic reforms.

Altervative solutions-focused discussion: Teachers have always lacked the time they need to address the many demands of their jobs. As we are asked to implement new projects and strategies, it doesn’t often make sense why changes are being made. This is an issue of communication breakdowns. Teachers need to work on becoming more aware of policy and process and other stakeholders need to recognize that teachers are essential to successful reform.

Fork discussion #3: Communication and decision making models are broken and cannot be fixed.

Alternative solutions-focused discussion: Sharing leadership tasks and allowing all members of a school to have access to information both lessens the workload and creates buy in and authentic and constructive criticism of reform efforts.

For example, my school is working on reviewing curriculum. This is difficult and requires a great deal of revision and negotiation as we advocate for our students and the methods that we feel will work to meet their needs. Instead of criticizing our peers and school leadership, we need to recognize our common goal of improving our instruction for next year. If we recognize our common goal, we can look at what worked well this year and then learn about strategies that can enhance our practice, which will also help to build a stronger, unified community in our schools. 

Wellman’s metaphor must be remembered for all its parts. I have to remind myself daily not to get bogged down in fork discussions. While it is easy to feel resigned in a large system that doesn’t always seem to value teacher voice, it is essential for all of us to focus on the large issues that we can and should affect.  

I know that I can be a better teacher for my students and that I always have room for growth in my curriculum design and implementation. I also know that I have a voice that counts and that should be heard in my community. When it comes time for the school board elections this fall, I will be sure to share what is working and not working in our school district so that my neighbors can vote for real change.

As the school year comes to a close, I hope that all of our forks will be cleaned and put away so we can focus on the present tense of finishing the semester strong.

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