Friday, March 5, 2010

Caught being good

Around our schoolhouse the students, ages 11, 9 and 5 (and the auditing 2-year-old) get along. Every once in a while the two youngest are involved in a property dispute ("It's the only red crayon and you're hogging it all day!") or the other two have a brief tiff over math methods or, more often, bossiness. Power struggles.

Last night Madeleine (11), my husband and I attended a community meeting the goal of which was to strategize on keeping the schoolhouse open. The "big" school, not our dining table school. It's experiencing enrollment and budget problems and lives under constant threat of death by lack of funds.

And it just occurred to me that some of those well-meaning grown-ups in attendance might never have experienced positive reinforcement. The fear, anger and mistrust in the room were counterproductive. A near-complete lack of teamwork existed depite the wonderful, creative and energetic superintendent's announcement that even in the face of a tens-of-thousands operating loss the school will remain open for at least one more year. A few brave parents volunteered ideas. A couple of hard-working staff members explained their perspective. Glimmers of sunny collaboration broke through the stormy atmosphere.

What was billed as a brainstorming meeting for increasing enrollment seemed doomed: staff-vs.-parents, them-vs.-us.

I guess I might live in a bubble because I was taken aback by the tension and, frankly, by the bad behavior at that meeting.

My child was the only one in attendance. She took earnest notes (very Lois Lane). "Fix up playground." "Teachers do PE." "Only speak positive about school."

Fear is rarely a good motivator, I've learned. In the case of our rural village, the residents have lived in fear of school closure and its attendant losses of community pride, property value and livability. This fear is compounded by the fact that we are at the mercy of a slightly larger and slightly less remote district that's geographically 25 miles away but philosophically in a different world.

So the parents and community members are scared and furious by turns, a smaller sibling left out of the game. The staff, for some part, is angry, feeling unappreciated. It is difficult to accomplish a common goal with this much negativity bursting through the thin veneer of cooperation.

At home we use a system I must have ripped off from a teacher whom I can't remember. Oftentimes I will notice someone of the under-five-foot variety studying particularly quietly in the middle of utter chaos created by a 2-year-old, or helping her neighbor with long division without doing it for her. If I am with it at all that day I hand out a little slip of paper that has currency only in our household.

My favorite thing is when one of my children nominates the other for a "ticket." Warm fuzzies all around. And if it's cliche, I just don't care, because it works. After accumulating a certain number of tickets in her mailbox, the recipient can cash them in at the little hatbox for a sheet of stickers or a pair of socks or a book.

Some of my children are saving their tickets for larger rewards. If it would keep her friends in their cute country schoolhouse in this economy, Madeleine would turn hers in for that.

Caught being good, anyone?

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