Thursday, May 3, 2018

Changing Our Thoughts on Change

“Change is necessary for growth and evolution.” This is the byline of the consultants who come to schools to push through certain changes in some New Agey Marketing kind of way. It’s designed to make those who resist change feel like they’re un-evolved curmudgeons, clinging to the familiar from a stubborn refusal to consider something new. “Come on, old guy, get with it. Change is good.”

Is that so? Is that how the British got the West Africans to come aboard their slave ships? “Hey, change is good. Don’t resist.” Is that how we should be responding to Trump trying to dismantle democracy? “Hey, we had a pretty good run of some 242 years. Lighten up. Just let me be the dictator and relax. Change is good.”

Change is, of course, inevitable. Our bodies are changing every day, either growing, enlarging, diminishing or deteriorating, our minds change with each new piece of information or each moment we can’t seem to recall information. Our hearts are changing as we fall in and out of love and have new feelings about old things or old feelings about new things. The natural world is in a constant state of flux and human culture, fueled by technological inventions, is changing at speeds light-years faster that it has ever changed before. So to move along with the changes is indeed part of our survival strategy as a species, a healthy adaptation that keeps us lively and engaged and open-minded.

But we need to distinguish between what’s inevitable following Nature’s law and what’s created by us mortals, often with dubious motives. We need to distinguish between organically needed change from within and outwardly-imposed change. We need to state honestly that some change is good, some is neutral and some is downright awful. Some change is worthy of acceptance and some change is worthy of resistance. Some change helps to fix what’s broken and some tries to fix what ain’t broken. Some change aims us towards justice, healing and happiness and some change dismantles a just system or disturbs a healthy routine or makes someone else rich or powerful by diminishing our rights, our health, our happiness. It’s important to distinguish.

What is a good change? I’d say that the healthiest changes are those that grow organically from an inner need, responding intelligently and compassionately to a particular situation. Most of the time, it’s a needed change that notices what’s broke and gets to the root of the matter to set change in motion. A change that finally breaks a destructive pattern with courageous determination—like divorcing an abusive alcoholic—is a good change. A change that notes that something isn’t working and seeks to correct it—like the music teacher noticing that the kids in her class are not engaged or feeling musical finally taking Orff training—is a good change. A change that has the health of people in mind and takes action—like restricting screen time and enlarging physical and artistic activity— is a good change.

The best changes are small and incremental, the kind that keep the baby while changing the bathwater. Jazz, as always, provides the perfect metaphor. The song has a set melody and set chord changes, but the alive jazz musician can change them slightly or greatly with artistic intent. But it is the set chords and melody notes that allows such creative interaction to work.

In the case of throwing the entire school schedule up in the air (a proposal at my school that prompted this reflection), it’s a bit like “free jazz,” a time in jazz that was interesting for a few moments, but couldn’t hold true given our human penchant for concrete and tangible rhythms, chords and melodies. To look at how to re-voice a chord or add a harmonic extension or alter the rhythms or pitch of a melody note and make up new lyrics—that is a great way to approach a change as far-reaching as messing with the schedule. But to try to recreate that wheel when the carriage of education at my school seems to be mostly running just fine—well, in my humble opinion, it’s simply too much. Not to mention the cost of hiring the consultant and the hours and hours the committee is spending in meetings.

Finally, in a world that is changing as fast as a house on fire, we humans need the comfort and security of some things we can count on, things that cycle back again each year and bring pleasure and stability. From the changes in the seasons to the celebration calendar of holidays to the weekly school schedule which stamps each day with a character and has kids leaping out of bed—“Oh, boy! Today I have music and math and art!”, these are the rituals and routines that ground us and allow us to give our full attention to what’s happening inside of those routines.

Now there’s a small chance the committee may come up with something that is just fine and actually improves the quality of education. I think their best chance of doing that is to stick pretty close to the schedule and tweak just a few things, those re-voiced chords or altered melody notes. I am open to that. But experience tells me that if there are radical changes, it will be as much loss as it is gain and while the Pauls may be happy, the Peters will feel robbed.

But here’s a new feeling, a changed feeling I have. If the proposed schedule for the Fall of 2019 seems to me to be a downgrade of what has allowed me to teach to the edge of my craft, why, that could be a good time to retire! Now there’s a change.

And it just might be good.

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