What Teachers Need: Passion in the Era of Efficiency, Part I | Brent Kaneft | 15 Min Read

November 21, 2022

“Everything that is soulful in life is inefficient.”

– Kanul Shah

For a professional development workshop this fall, we designed a “Teacher Movie Day”[1]I am happy to send anyone the PowerPoint if they want to do this activity with their faculty. Just send me an email: [email protected] for our faculty. We featured a series of movies where one of the stars is a teacher—Kindergarten Cop, School of Rock, Wonder, Harry Potter, etc.—and highlighted specific scenes that related to the daily activities of teaching. When Dolores Umbridge took over “The Defense Against the Dark Arts” course, clip number two, we asked teachers, “How do we balance theory and application in our classrooms?” After Ms. Honey visits Matilda at home and confronts an irate Danny DeVito, our third clip, we asked teachers to discuss, “What boundaries are needed between parents and teachers/school? What are some (un)healthy expectations parents have for their child’s experience?” For an exit ticket, teachers reflected on their favorite scene from the reel of clips. Ms. Honey’s home visit in Matilda received the second-most votes for the favorite clip, and teachers cited the desire to go above and beyond for our students as their reason for relating so much to it. 

But of course, one clip stood above the rest, and it’s probably from the movie you’ve been conjuring in your mind since you started reading, wondering why I hadn’t mentioned it yet. The classic Dead Poets Society took the cake. Here is the scene we showed: 

Dr. J. Evans Pritchard’s essay is an affront to poetry. One remembers the line from William Wordsworth: “We murder to dissect,” and the blood-cold murder of poetry is on display in this scene. One wonders, to echo Ralph Waldo Emerson, if Dr. Pritchard “had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it.” Dr. Pritchard demonstrates an inhuman, mechanical approach to poetry we might assume extends to his entire life.

Teacher after teacher reflected on the passion Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) displays, cheered on by his audacity to push back against a system that has extracted the human quality for the sake of a false efficiency (i.e., formulas for feeling) and surface-level understanding. It’s hard to imagine Mr. Keating being burnt out because his teaching is about transformation, not transaction, but we rightly intuit, perhaps drawing from our own teaching experiences, that he will not survive for long at Welton Academy. He, like Christ, will be crucified because Mr. Keating is soulful, and therefore, by default, he is a threat to the perceived efficiency, and thus efficacy, of the status quo.

Iain McGilchrist, author of the best-selling The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, has convincingly argued that the “brain has to attend to the world in two completely different ways, and in so doing to bring two different worlds into being,” that of the brain’s left hemisphere and that of its right hemisphere.[2]McGilchrist does not suggest that people, in general, are more “right” brained or “left” brained; he is simply revealing how each hemisphere attends to and therefore constructs different … Continue reading The left hemisphere divides our world into bits and pieces, “fragmented entities”; it sees the parts and, in an ideal relationship, should report back to the right hemisphere, which puts together the whole. The left hemisphere attends to independence (trees, atomized), and the right to interdependence (forest, integrated). One of the greatest challenges we face today is hemispheric imbalance—the narrow attention of the left hemisphere fractures our world in order to control it. Dr. Pritchard would rather control poetry than enjoy it, for example, which is why he designs a formula to dissect it. By controlling the poem, he can enjoy the illusion of comfort, the idea that he’s figured it out because he can contain it, much like many schools are doing today: students have anxiety = mindfulness program; students treat each other poorly = SEL program; inequitable schools = DEI; a lack of engagement = PBL.[3]Consider how turning challenging concepts into acronyms, while an efficient use of language, gives the illusion of understanding. How many of us educators flippantly use this eduspeak to tame the … Continue reading 

Schools add or subtract[4]See recent examples of the “subtraction” position: J. Reich’s “The Power of Doing Less in Schools” or Alex Winnicker’s “Strategic Admission: Considering Subtractive Changes on the Path … Continue reading  initiatives, technologies, administrators, programs, or professional development in an endless game of Whac-A-Mole. We are in a constant state of reaction against the parts we are focused on (left hemisphere) because an integrated, right-hemisphere approach is inefficient and uncomfortable. And in our educational world, and similarly, in our politics and economics, efficiency is god. Instead of being soulful, we, possibly unconsciously, prefer soullessness, or as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek might say, we prefer a “decaffeinated” life. This was all predicted by Aldous Huxley, of course, in Brave New World. If you remember from high school English, John the Savage had to violently disrupt the soma distribution to wake his test-tube peers up. Once the system is bent on efficiency, there is little stopping it besides something cataclysmic.

Reading Brave New World, one understands that humans cannot thrive in this Huxleyan dystopia that has been designed for them to thrive supposedly, quite the opposite in fact. Mr. Keating knows this, too; he understands that effective learning is in opposition to the factory model our schools are beginning to emerge from. So, when I use the term “efficiency,” really what I mean is the “perceived efficiency” of the process. The endless cycle of addition and subtraction exposes the design flaw in the system. As Rupert Spira, a renowned spiritual teacher, suggests in his newest book, “It is the room that appears in space, not space in the room.” In other words, we are viewing the space in our schools as possible places for innovation (addition), and when the innovation is too large, we make the attempt to clear more space (subtraction). We never, however, challenge the fundamental design of the room in the first place, remembering, of course, that space existed before the room. This simple equation deludes us into thinking we are challenging the status quo by adding, for example, a philosophically different program (e.g., mindfulness) onto the existing structure. We need a new calculus for change.

In the meantime, this simple efficiency equation is a serious problem for teachers. Let’s take two straightforward and transactional examples: number one, emails. The barrier between student, parent, and teacher communication lowered when email became ubiquitous; far from humane technology, however, email has created more work for teachers, not less. For all of its good, it has required more energy output,[5] One email from a parent can ruin a teacher’s day, can be the beginning of ten more emails, etc. You might argue parents have a higher demand today when it comes to communication, so email is … Continue reading not to mention its effect on the decorum parents used to show teachers.[6]As an aside, we might question the efficacy of email in the first place. How many of us lament that our parents don’t read our all-school emails, for example? If our community doesn’t read our … Continue reading Number two, open learning management systems. It is great to have an efficient way for students (and their parents) to track their progress, but at what cost? This more efficient system has led to more energy output,[7]Increased demands on teachers to communicate excessively with parents, plus the additional student-teacher meetings, some necessary, some not, because a bad grade is inputted and “must” be … Continue reading not to mention less student responsibility. These two examples[8]An easy third is the common app for college admission. We made applying easier, which didn’t save students’ time; they simply apply to more colleges now, adding to their stress and anxiety and … Continue reading reveal the truth of the Jevons Paradox: efficiency leads to more energy output, not less, and remember, energy is finite, not infinite.[9]Another example: When a gallon of gas improved (i.e., became more efficient) from taking cars from 10 miles to 20 miles, we thought we would save on gas; not so, we just drove faster and farther. We … Continue reading What energy technology may save will be used in a different way, which exponentializes energy output. Thus, teacher burnout.[10]It’s been said by many others, but the term “burnout” ought to give us a glimpse of how “industrial” our educational system has become. To rephrase Daniel Schmachtenberger,[11]If you have not heard of Daniel Schmachtenberger, I encourage you to listen to any podcast interview he has done. He is an incredible thinker. Here’s one of my favorite interviews. one of the founding members of The Consilience Project: As we are “running an exponential financial system on a linear materials economy,” so too is our technology creating an exponentially more efficient educational system that continues to add energy demands on a finite energy supply that is imbalanced toward the transactional, not the transformational. We are now beginning to hit the boundaries of human capacities, which is why many teachers are leaving the profession. 

So as everything becomes more efficient because of better technology, compartmentalization, fragmentation, and burnout increase. Referring back to the mindfulness, SEL, DEI, and PBL initiatives, none of which are bad in themselves, what these programs are selling is the infusion of humanity back into the system. Peddlers of these programs, though again, well-intentioned, are selling our own humanity back to us. Quick Fight Club reference: Tyler Durden makes soap from the fat bagged after liposuction. The soap sells in fancy department stores, giving credence to his quip: “We were selling women their own fat asses back to them.” The soap smells good, I’m sure, but its creation requires unhealthiness. The humanity that has been extracted from the system is being pulled together and repackaged for consumption. This is a perfect example of ouroboric (recursive) economics: we are simply gagging on our own tails in a perpetual and unhealthy cycle.[12]Think anxiety and depression medicine; again, not all bad, but they don’t get at the core of the problem. Thus, we continue to slouch towards Bethlehem.Our left-hemispheric attention is so narrow, we have lost sight of the big picture, and while these additional programs slow our decline, they do not change the structures that produce the very need for them.[13]I am certain there are exceptions to the point. As J. Krishnamurti famously said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” As much as I personally love meditation, I cannot help but think these additional programs are band-aids on a gushing wound. They are not long-term solutions. What works in the short term, though, is what we gravitate toward to maintain market position, which means many of our independent schools are racing to the bottom, teacher burnout be damned.[14]I am directly drawing from Schmachtenberger here and will explore this line of thinking in Part II.

Here’s the irony.

Left-hemispheric fracturing has led to the need for more efficiency. Efficient education is not effective education[15]For example, how many of us have covered content so quickly that there wasn’t time to build an emotional connection with the material, which means the chances of students remembering it long-term … Continue reading and produces stress, anxiety, and burnout for students, teachers, and parents. Atomized programs sell temporary solutions, our humanity. But these programs add to the workload of teachers, which exacerbates and recycles the problem they claim to solve.

In Invisible Mind: Flexible Social Cognition and Dehumanization, Lasana T. Harris reminds us of the “cognitive miser hypothesis [… that] argues that social heuristics such as categorization and stereotyping occur to save cognitive resources.” The extra energy teachers are outputting because of email, learning management systems, new programs and initiatives are cognitively overloading, which leads to dehumanization (i.e. categorizing or stereotyping your students, parents, colleagues, and administrators) in an effort to save cognitive resources. This is also referred to as “cognitive disregard.” It’s possible, in other words, that the best way to build more equity, inclusion, and emotional responsiveness in classrooms is to safeguard teachers’ time and energy output. That’s the irony. Consider, too, how COVID-19 compounded the situation when all of our norms flew out of the window. Todd Rose’s new book, Collective Illusions, reminds us that our brains are “energy hogs” and…norms play a critical role” [because] “they help carry much of our cognitive load so that we can use the executive and decision-making parts of our brains to take care of more immediate business. By providing a basic level of predictability, norms are like trusty autopilots, sparing us additional work that would otherwise cause our neurological hard drives to overheat. (110)

Norms, of course, didn’t disappear; there were just new ones created, for better or worse, because our brains demand the extra capacity for other cognitive challenges. So as we emerge from the pandemic, and leaders begin to challenge the norms that were created then, they need to consider the challenge they face—our brains will fight to save energy! That’s what administrators call pushback, which means we must have a compelling reason to change anything or a clear plan for how to change it before suggesting anything to teachers.

One last point about efficiency: administrations continue to balloon because administrative demands continue to increase (because efficiency saves on energy and that energy must be used somewhere, Jevons Paradox). Thus, duties become fractured and compartmentalized,[16]Another footnote about academic bloat: In a factory model, adding a person to the line who is now in charge of a specific part of the item being built means others on the line are not responsible for … Continue reading and because the right-hand doesn’t know what the left is doing, communication breaks down and teachers become confused. And as fundraising becomes the prominent role of a Head of School, teaching and learning is abdicated to an Assistant/Associate Head of School who now has every incentive to “move fast and break stuff”[17]Again, from Schmachtenberger: our economy incentivizes “externaliz[ing] the losses but privatiz[ing] the gains.” to build the resume and get to the Head of School position faster. Not to mention that the more senior leadership on staff, the more posturing for position, which ends with schools taking a Frankenstein approach (left hemisphere, atomized, parts) instead of an integrated approach (right hemisphere, interdependent, whole). Administrators, teachers, students, and parents wonder, “What’s important at this school? Is the DEI initiative? Is it the fundraising efforts for the new STEM lab? Is it the professional development around Mind, Brain, and Education research? This administrative infighting will leave faculty frustrated and confused, maybe even jaded. 

Back to the “Teacher Movie Day” professional development. As I wrote earlier, the majority of teachers, upon reflection, aligned second-most with Ms. Honey for her decision to go the extra mile because she saw Matilda’s gifts, but the winner of the day was Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society for his passion and love for the students and for teaching. These traits of both teachers require an immense amount of time and energy. If we want teachers to see the gifts their students have, to champion them, and to push them further, we must protect their time. If we want teachers to bring their passion daily, then we must protect every minute. None of this is to say we shouldn’t have meetings or engage in effective professional development. It is a cry, however, to leaders to be courageous in the face of the most immediate threat to education: there is zero margin in the system. As a leader, it is your responsibility to build it back in. That’s what teachers need from you right now, more inefficiency, more time for a teacher to take a walk during their free period or to read a novel for pleasure during the school year or, heaven forbid, to just hang out with their students. I will end with the same quote that began this article: “Everything that is soulful in life is inefficient.” I, for one, prefer soulful teachers, and independent schools have historically been institutions that valued the margin in the system that allowed for soulfulness, but some schools have lost their way. And in Part Two, I will explore how we find the path again. 

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Brent Kaneft for Intrepid Ed News.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 I am happy to send anyone the PowerPoint if they want to do this activity with their faculty. Just send me an email: [email protected]
2 McGilchrist does not suggest that people, in general, are more “right” brained or “left” brained; he is simply revealing how each hemisphere attends to and therefore constructs different worlds. His work often hinges on split-brain or stroke patients.
3 Consider how turning challenging concepts into acronyms, while an efficient use of language, gives the illusion of understanding. How many of us educators flippantly use this eduspeak to tame the complexity of these concepts?
4 See recent examples of the “subtraction” position: J. Reich’s “The Power of Doing Less in Schools” or Alex Winnicker’s “Strategic Admission: Considering Subtractive Changes on the Path to Innovation.” And though I appreciate Winnicker’s perspective, almost in the same breath he’s subtracting old, unaligned programs in the admissions department, which is good, he says, “By eliminating the unnecessary to improve our systems, we’ve been able to take on focused endeavors, such as forming new community relationships, creating new digitally focused marketing campaigns, consistently following up with prospective families, and fully embracing a customer-service mindset, to name a few.” The energy output has actually not been subtracted; rather, it’s been redirected.
5  One email from a parent can ruin a teacher’s day, can be the beginning of ten more emails, etc. You might argue parents have a higher demand today when it comes to communication, so email is the best tool for the job, but in this case, and others, email, the tool, created the parents’ higher demand. Our tools create our social norms. You may ask yourself, how has a school’s social media account affected instruction? Can we capture rich, deep teaching and learning through our social media channels? Or does our social media drive teachers toward a new mode of teaching, one that fits the limitations of the medium?
6 As an aside, we might question the efficacy of email in the first place. How many of us lament that our parents don’t read our all-school emails, for example? If our community doesn’t read our emails, is it time to consider an alternative form of communication?
7 Increased demands on teachers to communicate excessively with parents, plus the additional student-teacher meetings, some necessary, some not, because a bad grade is inputted and “must” be remedied immediately.
8 An easy third is the common app for college admission. We made applying easier, which didn’t save students’ time; they simply apply to more colleges now, adding to their stress and anxiety and energy output.
9 Another example: When a gallon of gas improved (i.e., became more efficient) from taking cars from 10 miles to 20 miles, we thought we would save on gas; not so, we just drove faster and farther. We expended more energy.
10 It’s been said by many others, but the term “burnout” ought to give us a glimpse of how “industrial” our educational system has become.
11 If you have not heard of Daniel Schmachtenberger, I encourage you to listen to any podcast interview he has done. He is an incredible thinker. Here’s one of my favorite interviews.
12 Think anxiety and depression medicine; again, not all bad, but they don’t get at the core of the problem. Thus, we continue to slouch towards Bethlehem.
13 I am certain there are exceptions to the point.
14 I am directly drawing from Schmachtenberger here and will explore this line of thinking in Part II.
15 For example, how many of us have covered content so quickly that there wasn’t time to build an emotional connection with the material, which means the chances of students remembering it long-term greatly diminishes (see Mary Helen Immordino-Yang’s “The Role of Emotion and Skilled Intuition in Learning” )?
16 Another footnote about academic bloat: In a factory model, adding a person to the line who is now in charge of a specific part of the item being built means others on the line are not responsible for that part. In terms of schools, how many teachers believe, consciously or unconsciously, that SEL, MBE, DEI, academic support, etc. is no longer their responsibility because now someone has been appointed as the “director” of that specific area? Again, our brains are energy hogs and will allow for the compartmentalization of roles if it relieves cognitive load.
17 Again, from Schmachtenberger: our economy incentivizes “externaliz[ing] the losses but privatiz[ing] the gains.”

Brent Kaneft

Brent Kaneft is the Associate Head of School/Head-of-School Elect at a PK-12 independent school in South Carolina. He holds a master’s in literature from James Madison University and earned his master’s degree in educational leadership from Indiana University (Bloomington) in May 2022. Since 2016, Brent has led teacher workshops on how to translate Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) research strategies into the classroom, and since 2020, he has focused on research-informed practices in the areas of social-emotional learning, mindfulness, and equity and inclusion. Brent’s recent publications include "The Belonging Apocalypse: Woke Bypassing, Contemplative Practices, and a Way Forward for DEI" (IntrepidEd News) and "The Problem with Nice: Moving from Congenial to Collegial Cultures" (Independent School Magazine).

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