David Braden, a technology prep teacher and Bay Area Writing Project consultant teacher at Oakland’s Bella Vista Elementary School, wrote this essay after learning two of his colleagues would be moved, or “consolidated,” to different schools next week — in mid-October. I wrote about the issue too, in this story. – Katy
The Merriam Webster app on my Droid tells me the word “consolidate” has three different meanings: 1) to join together into one whole, 2) to make firm or secure or 3) to form into a compact mass. I looked it up because today our principal informed us that our school would be consolidated.
Leaving the third definition aside for a moment, it sounds like a pretty good thing. Unity, firmness, security are all admirable qualities that would be welcome in any environment, but especially an elementary school. A staff that is united around discipline with consistent rules and consequences gives students a sense of security. If a staff unites around a clear curriculum, then students will have a firm grasp of what they need to know before graduating to the next level of schooling.
These qualities also describe what we want for our students. All teachers want a class in which students are united in support of each other. A child’s ideal development is a process of firming a sense of self. In kindergarten, children enter with runny noses and loose-socket gazes like disembodied leaves that just blow in the door. One thousand and eighty school days later, they graduate as more clarified individuals with opinions, personalities, voice, attitude and preferences.
Security is an essential basic that we all need as educators and human beings. We spend a lot of energy making sure that our students are safe and secure, and that they feel secure. We arrange our day with predictable routines. Creating this daily sense of security takes hard work and commitment. Teachers do this work day in and day out, and carry it home on the weekends in order to make sure that everything is ready for students by 8:30 Monday morning.
The process of school consolidation does none of these things, and in fact does the exact opposite. This year, for example, our consolidation involves letting two kindergarten teachers go, moving one first-grade teacher and one second-grade teacher down to kindergarten. Then those first- and second-graders are dispersed into the remaining first- and second-grade classrooms so that all the K–2 classrooms are at maximum capacity. And this madness is implemented one month after school has begun.
Instead of unity, students are torn from their teachers and teachers are torn from their school. Teachers look at each other and ask, “Which one of us is going to move?” We usually look forward to October as the routines of school become firm. Now with consolidation, all those routines and norms have to be re-instilled, re-practiced. It’s like starting the whole school year over again.
Consolidation destroys security. For various reasons, we don’ t tell students or parents who their teacher will be until September. All summer students wonder if they will get Ms. X or Mr. Y; they deliberate the pros and cons of each, and pray that they get the teacher they want (or don’t get the teacher they DON’T want!). Their teacher on the other hand is given her assignment in May. She dreams away through summer vacation, imagining, visualizing the students she will have next year, the changes they will make to their room, and how she will try this or that activity with them. Consolidation takes these hopes, trepidations and dreams away. It sends a message to students and families that the school is NOT secure, that those class lists in the hallway didn’t really mean anything.
Trust is a pre-requisite for security. Any trust we have built between school and home now has to be completely re-won. And consolidation tells teachers, “Don’t get too attached to your students. Don’t spend too much time planning your lessons or classroom. Don’t bother going to any staff development. Don’t reach out to your parents. Or at least don’t put any effort out until you know which grade you will really teach, which room you will really be in, and who your students will really be.” Trust is hard won and easily lost.
The truth is, that consolidation is more aligned to the third definition of a “compact mass.” I’m thinking here of a trash compactor. It’s a machine that squeezes everything down into an undifferentiated homogenous cube of solid waste. True, compacted trash is more neat and tidy to work with. It’s certainly more convenient and economical. In our anger we look for someone to blame. But there’s no one to blame. It’s just a trash compactor. It’s just doing what it was designed to do.
After our principal announced the consolidation at our faculty meeting, and after a few minutes of gloomy silence, one colleague pointed out that it wasn’t anyone’s fault in particular. She waved her arms wide and called it a “systemic problem.” Now we had somewhere to lay the blame for all this pain and suffering and undoing of all that we’ve worked to achieve in our classrooms: someone named Mr. Systemic. If we could just get his phone number, and call him and explain that this was really a bad idea. But even if he did answer his phone, he would shrug and say, “I didn’t turn the trash compactor on. I only made it.”
Through the years we have united together as a staff, we have felt safe to take risks and learn from each other, and we have firmed and solidified our teaching practice. We have consolidated ourselves into a high-functioning school of people who live, learn and achieve. To use the same word to describe the process we’ve been asked to endure, and which will surely set us back in our race to the top, is nauseating and hurtful.
What term, then, would be more accurate? Disintegration.