September 26, 2012

On Time. Again

Deirdre Bailey

"I know exactly what time is until somebody asks me."

With the school year now in full swing, the figurative "engine in the corner" is back at it, constantly racing forward, implying that the only way to get ahead is to speed up, that I'll fall behind if I hesitate. It is a struggle to regularly remind myself that I know ideas by their very nature to be interdependent and confusing and uncertain and that it is for this reason that they cannot be rushed. As I reflect again this week on "getting things done," obvious connections keep re-surfacing between time, conversation and learning space.

I recall an associated panic with just about any situation in which I have personally had the impression that time was limited. That panic is akin to a feeling I remember from a childhood spent racing upstairs at the end of an evening so as not to be left alone in the basement once the lights were off. The faster I ran, the more panicked I became until I would completely lose all ability to rationalize. Admittedly, I struggle with deadlines and tend to postpone things that are "due" in the hopes of avoiding the sickening feeling in my stomach of looming requirements. My "last-minute" scrambles are characterized by over-simplification of tasks, checklists and brevity. Under threat of impending deadlines, I become impatient and frustrated; I don't negotiate, I don't re-think, I don't compromise. I don't listen, I don't converse; I feel forced, unwilling, and defensive. I typically determine that bare minimum is "enough" and often cannot wait to quit whatever it is that I am working on because I associate it with the negative feelings of urgency.

When time is in abundance, the space I live in is drastically different. Things speak that wouldn't normally; trees, sunsets, facial expressions, soft-spoken children. I listen and I notice, and worlds open up. When nothing is demanding, life is interesting and I explore much more in-depth. I remember more from the times in which I explored things out of interest, awe, and genuine curiosity. In many cases, I have nothing "concrete" to show for it, but it is in these moments that relationships were built and fundamental brain shifts took place. It is in these moments that I was drawn into places that seemed inviting, often discovering something new about the world and myself.

John Dewey wrote: “the inclination to learn from life itself and to make the conditions of life such that all will learn in the process of living is the finest product of schooling.” Given what we know of the "learning" that takes place under pressure, there can be no doubt that these conditions must preclude fixed deadlines and pressing checklists. Human beings are not machines, soulless workers to be adapted for subservience to an arbitrary authority in the "real world." If our interaction with the world was defined instead by an acute awareness of our interdependence and an openness to being shaped by experience, imagine what we might be able to collectively understand and to create.

Time is more than the absence of deadlines or a 40-hour work week. Realistically, deadlines and checklists do not help us to "manage time" at all. The concept of time can be broadened if we consider that it is characterized by respectful exploration, active listening, and careful consideration. Although we might often feel frustrated by our inability to physically create additional time in the day, we can change the feel of our classrooms through the intentional cultivation of these attitudes towards learning that allow space for inquiry. We can "leave ideas with our students in an interesting way," inspire them to "lean in," and teach them to listen. In other words, we can and should, through respectful practice, create the "essence of time," if not actual minutes and seconds.