June 24, 2010

Change, We Fear Change

Marc Comtois

People hear what they want to. Or maybe what they expect to, based on their preconceptions. This was proven again to me recently. I had quickly skimmed the ProJo story about Education Commissioner Deborah Gist's visit to the John J. Moran Medium Security Facility to meet the inmates receiving their GEDs. Later, I heard through the grapevine that teachers were upset because Gist had told the inmates that they were there because "a teacher failed you", to which the response was, "What about their parents or themselves." I found it weird that Gist had said such a thing, so I went back and read the story. Here's what was reported:

"For many of you, part of the circumstances that you find yourself in is because the K-12 education system failed you," she said. "And I take that responsibility very seriously."

"The fact that you are here means you have made mistakes along the way and you have had difficulties," Gist said. "But the fact that you are here means you are lifting yourself above those circumstances. We've all made mistakes. You've decided to better your education. You've made a very important decision."

She said she plans to return to the ACI, to spend time with the inmates and their teachers.

"I want to learn from you...so we can prevent younger students from experiencing some of the same challenges you faced," she said. "We want to get it right the first time."

Part of the circumstances that you find yourself in is because the K-12 education system failed you.While it's understandable that teachers would (obviously!) identify themselves as being part of the "K-12 education system", it's pretty clear to me that Gist is talking about a systemic failure, not that of teachers, per se. She certainly didn't say what I heard: that "inmates were there because a teacher failed them." She even took responsibility for the "system" and hoped to learn from the inmates.

I've heard several teachers are trying to give her the benefit of the doubt. Yet, for a variety of reasons, they seem to have their "ready-to-be-offended" radar up where Gist is concerned. The Central Falls issue rubbed them the wrong way; they think Rhode Island is just a career way-stop for her; some aren't impressed with her resume. And this anecdote reveals a sincere belief among teachers--call it paranoia?--that they know what Gist "is really trying to say" and it isn't something they want to hear.

Its no great mystery why this happens. It's a very human tendency to distrust anyone who comes in with the clear intent of shaking up the way things are done. Then you add in an inherent wariness towards the "executive class"--a sort of iconoclastic populism--that permeates our society. We see it regularly when the virtually powerless RI Governor is blamed for everything wrong or when folks claim we could save a lot of money by cutting items in the School Administration while they ignore that real savings really can only be made be cutting payroll/personnel. It's easier to blame one person (or a few) and seek to "change" (get rid of) that entity than to go through the pain of real change. Shooting the messenger and all that.