Mr. Smith's Neighborhood

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Consistency on the Ice and in the Classroom April 22, 2007

The Classroom, Corporate Culture and The NHL

One might wonder what the connection is between ice hockey, Corporate America and the classroom, other than the fact that this teacher and his wife (also a teacher) are die-hard season ticket holders for the New York Rangers. And no, this article has nothing to do with my wife’s utter fascination with the “caboose” of Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers’ phenomenal goalie. However, today’s lesson is about a word that has been lost in this modern day of makeovers and media spin.

What is consistency? How does it apply in the NHL?

Today’s word is consistency. According to the folks at dictionary.com, consistency is “steadfast adherence to the same principles, course, form, etc.: There is consistency in his pattern of behavior. Unfortunately, the lessons from the National Hockey League have to do with the performance of the referees. For those of you not familiar with the NHL, new rules were instituted at the beginning of the 2005 – 2006 season. The new rules required refs to call a two-minute penalty for ALL “obstruction” fouls with zero tolerance – holding, hooking, interference, illegal picks and goalie interference – whereas such fouls in the past were only called when the infraction was highly obvious or prevented a scoring chance.


Since that edict, the NHL has had a problem with consistency. Some refs have chosen to call everything they see – and that certainly is a consistent approach. One problem is that some infractions are not called because the two on-ice referees don’t see it. That’s okay since refs are human and they make mistakes but hockey crowds and instant replay are unforgiving, creating the illusion of inconsistency.

A bigger problem occurs when one ref, the one closest to the “alleged” infraction, does not call a penalty but the other ref, who can be as far away as fifty feet, calls a penalty. This creates an inconsistency in logic for rational human beings. How can a ref far away from the play overrule the judgment of the ref right on top of the play?

There are some refs who have established a consistent pattern of what they will call as a penalty and what they won’t call. They don’t call every silly little infraction, and they call it the same way every game and the same way for both teams. Granted, their interpretation of the rules is inconsistent with the policy of the NHL, but the coaches and players reasonably know what to expect and can play their game without wondering what kind of mood the refs are in nthat day.

Then there are the refs that are the ultimate in defining inconsistency. There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to when and why they call penalties, and we interpret that as a high level of subjectivity on their part. Many refs are guilty of this from time to time, but some manage to rise above this inconsistent level of performance.

Some NHL examples of Inconsistency …

I am going to be a “homer” for a moment and use the refs’ treatment of Jaromir Jagr of the New York Rangers as an example. Jagr is an exciting and dominant player, yet opposing teams hook, slash and interfere with him on a regular basis. When you see Jagr play in a game with highly consistent refs, he draws many penalties against his opponent and, as you’d expect, the Rangers are called for similar penalties. Fair enough.

Let’s also look at Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils, arguably one of the greatest goalies ever to play the game. The problem is that Brodeur, as the league’s premier active goalie, has the ear of NHL officials and referees. He was instrumental in getting tougher rules for goaltender interference. In principal, this is respectable because the increased speed of the game and the influx of bigger players make collisions with goalies dangerous.

However, Brodeur himself has created an air of inconsistency with the imposition of goaltender penalties. Although the NHL does not keep the statistic, there would be little argument that Brodeur draws more goalie interference penalties than any other goalie (and likely more penalties than the next three or four goalies combined). Many teams like the Rangers and the Dallas North Stars have complained about the lack of calls for their goalies (who are consistently run over) and for being penalized when they are deliberately shoved into their opponent’s goalie. The rules are not applied consistently.

Unfortunately for Brodeur, the end result is that his achievements are overshadowed by his comments and actions that are perceived as whining and complaining (a fact not easily lost on NHL fans and sports writers). Once again, nobody likes a goalie who demands special treatment when all goaltenders deserve fair treatment.

How is inconsistency killing education?

It takes little imagination and the suppression of great frustration for an average teacher like me to talk calmly about inconsistency in educational practice. It is not far-fetched to state that most problems faced by educators could be solved by consistency in practice among the staff, school administrators and bureaucrats at the district level (or higher).

This is a condemnation of No Child Left Behind, not an endorsement. Even the NHL recognizes that its referees have different styles, and all the NHL is hoping for is consistency and professionalism. NCLB erroneously concludes that a classroom in the South Bronx of New York City is the same as a classroom in Scarsdale, NY, or Beverly Hills, CA. It also erroneously concludes that the needs of the students are the same and that the needs of classroom management are the same.

Equally frightening are the instruction of teaching skills in graduate institutions, combining with absurd curriculum development to further perpetuate the maelstrom created by NCLB. There is no practical level of preparation except through extended student teaching (or ON THE JOB TRAINING) that can prepare a teacher to take over any urban classroom around the country. Such inconsistency burns out teachers, causing them to look for “safer” teaching opportunities or to leave the profession. This is an avoidable consequence by instituting consistent practices for the development of new teachers.

Sadly, New York has eliminated its mentor program for new teachers in the 2007-2008 school year under the leadership of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. How can such a backward step take place, even considering the elimination of district-level supervisory teams? It is unconscionable in this day and age. Meanwhile, many competent, dedicated and caring mentors have been sent back into the classroom and new teachers will habe one less resource available to them. Consistency?

Looking closer at curriculum, let’s the model developed by Teacher’s College of Columbia University as an example. Teachers are asked to describe a horse’s mane to second graders … but a child living on East 141st Street in the South Bronx has never seen a horse and has no idea what a horse’s mane is. Similar practices create unbalanced lessons talking about sipping lemonade on the back porch, walking barefoot in the tall grass or feeling a cool breeze on a beach.

That is when a professional educator says, “Let me differentiate! Let me adapt the lesson to something that the children understand!” But then an Assistant Principal or some other bureaucrat comes along as says, “No! We are going to be consistent! The district says this is the lesson, so use it!” So we teach a poetry lesson about sleighs traveling over the river and through the woods to Grandma’s house to kids who take the same trip via bus, subway, taxi or on foot through a dark, cold, and dangerous city. And then we ask ourselves, “Why don’t these children want to learn anything?”

Consistency and Favoritism in the Corporate Culture

Let’s assume a teacher can manage to bend the rules by finding ways to adapt the lesson and engage the students. What type of risk are they running? That leads us to the next biggest issue of consistency in the classroom, and that is the issue of favoritism. Over the course of an 18-year career at one company, I became acutely familiar with the presence of favoritism in the workplace. Although I was sometimes a beneficiary of favoritism, I was also aware of how rules and policies were applied inequitably.

One executive, for example, a childhood friend of the owner, was accused of racism as membership director because his country club excluded all minorities. His racist activities within the company were covered up and ignored despite his openly virulent remarks. When I departed the company, only a small handful of its 300 employees were Black Americans and none held a significant management or supervisory position.

Other managers, particularly in the sales department, participated in activities that were at best unethical and possibly illegal, bordering on complete fraud. Depending upon the manager and the status of the manager’s “favoritism” quotient, sales personnel were treated with a great deal of inconsistency. This same inconsistency was applied to the review of expense reports, sales call summaries and disputed sales.

And, of course, certain audit clerks and administrators willfully accepted “gifts and donations” to change their view of improper activities. So the only consistency in this company was the inconsistency of ownership, executives and management.

When this same approach is taken in the classroom, where actions are public and not as clandestine as in Corporate America, the role of inconsistency is much more obvious. For example, when a student is consistently allowed to cut a class without disciplinary action, there is no deterrent to continued cutting. Such inaction perpetuates the illusion that cutting is acceptable.

Discipline must be applied equally and fairly to be effective. The A.P.’s at a school cannot be allowed to act like NHL refs calling some penalties and ignoring others. You cannot tolerate cutting by one student because he/she is likeable or because they may have some personal issues. It makes the punishment of other cutters seem random and premeditated. Without a consistent approach to all, some students will feel the pangs of discrimination, much like the corporate employee who feels like the system is working against him/her.

Likewise, all teachers need to share a common role in establishing the expectations for consistent behavior by students. You cannot have some teachers taking on the role of enforcement while others turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the insanity surrounding them. Besides sending a message of inconsistency to the students, the absence of teamwork creates an atmosphere of inconsistency among the staff.

Teachers themselves must bring a message of consistency to their classrooms, carrying fair but challenging expectations for behavior, performance, achievement and mutual respect. Unlike our comrades in the Corporate Culture, teachers cannot afford the luxury of being self-serving when it comes to consistency. We cannot bend the rules just because it puts a few more bucks in the coffers (or steals a few more bucks from the coffers for our pockets).

Teachers must be models for our students, exhibiting professionalism through consistency in our instruction, attitude, lesson planning and grading. Fairness for all is implicit and no special benefits are allowed for anyone, a situation that makes a career in teaching impossible for most people working in Corporate America. In fact, you find more failed or disgruntled teachers opting for Corporate America than individuals who want to make the transition from Corporate America into teaching. Many of my fellow graduates from Drexel University making the transition to teaching expressed outrage with corruption and lack of ethics in the business world.

The Final Message: Teaching Consistency to Youth

Ultimately, the best lesson teachers can pass along to youth is that consistency matters. In a world that seems to take ethics and morality as a matter of convenience for the moment, consistency is the one element that can set a winner apart from the rest of the flock. Consistency does not demand polar attitudes or harsh stances, but it does require each of us to decide what matters to us. Like an NHL ref, we may decide not to call every single hooking penalty, but we are going to call it the same way every time.

When people know where we stand, it can make our responses a bit predictable but it also adds to a consistency of character. That same consistency lets us keep everything in perspective, helping us to understand what is really important in life. When teachers can take that message and put it into practical learning for our students, we can be confident that children will carry a lifelong lesson with them; maybe it will last long after they remember why Pythagorean Theorem had any value as a Math fundamental.

Maybe my own belief in the value of consistency comes from the failure of my teachers to give me any practical life knowledge. Maybe it was born from years at a company where the owner’s actions were often psychotic and inconsistent, and my peers did not seem to place great value in ethics. I can’t complain much since God has blessed me by helping me be where I am supposed to be, and maybe I needed to take the long way home through the Valley of Darkness (and yes, the Lord is my Shepherd). As a teacher, I hope I can save our students some of the lessons on the curriculum in “The School of Hard Knocks.” I think I have succeeded with my own children, and that is a darn good start! Maybe I can do the same for my students on a consistent basis.

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