Improvisation, Teaching, and Learning, Part 2: The Dangers of “No…but”

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast week, I started a series on Improvisation, Teaching, and Learning. You can read my first post here. Today, I want to dig a bit deeper into the idea of “Yes…and” by focusing specifically on the dangers of it’s opposite: the “No…but.”

In our current educational climate, it can be pretty difficult to practice the ethic of “Yes…and.” Regulations, hyper standardization, furloughs, ahistorical attacks on teacher quality, and the transitory nature of school leadership create a frigid atmosphere for accepting and building on other people’s offers. Instead, it becomes easier and easier to say “No…but.” This blocking move of “No…but” as a teacher often involves moves like keeping our heads down, closing our classroom doors, not volunteering for committees, adhering strictly to union protocols, not having our eyes and ears open for times to make connections, and giving way to stale curricula that we know doesn’t serve us or our students. These moves are understandable when considering the current circumstances mentioned above that many teachers face, but I would argue that it is precisely within these kinds of constraining circumstances that we need to employ an improvisational ethic.

Madsen says that blocking “is a way of trying to control the situation instead of accepting it…the critic in us wakes up and runs the show.” On the surface, this makes complete sense! The situation within a school is not good, not supportive, difficult, and our answer, as teachers, is to wake up the inner critic and defend against the sometimes dire situation in some way. Madsen writes, “We block when we say no, when we have a better idea, when we change the subject, when we correct the speaker, when we fail to listen, or when we simply ignore the situation.” Ironically, these moves, the ones that may even feel right in the moment, don’t move the situation forward. They don’t serve to fix the problem. They don’t make us feel better. Instead, they entrench the difficulty.

And it is so frustratingly easy to say “No…but!” Isn’t it? I am shocked by how often I find myself saying “no…but” in my personal life, let alone my professional one. I can’t tell you how many times I say “no…but” to my kids when I really could say yes. My kids ask if we can go for a bike ride in the park. My answer, “No, not now,” when we really could go. My kids make a suggestion for dinner. My response, “No…but how about this?” when we really could have gone with their suggestion. There are other more subtle blocks that I catch myself doing as well. I may not return a phone call or an email because of the challenging nature of it, for example. Or I may not take my students up on an idea they have for what we should do in class. In these situations, my eyes and ears aren’t open for the opportunity that is presenting itself. I am focused inward on myself, not outward to the collective. So what would happen if I said “Yes…and” to these things?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I think about how I block my kids, the first thing I realize is how much less angst and frustration and just plain whining there would be if I said “Yes…and.” I also think about how me saying no is basically communicating to the kids that I am in control of the situation, that I know better than them, and that I will make the decisions for them. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are times when I do know better and no is the right response, but I have found that I can say no a lot less and in doing so, I honor self-determinacy. The “No…but” response sets up the potential for my kids to keep coming back to me for permission for things because they are afraid that if they don’t ask and do it on their own, I might get upset or punish them. Or, the exact opposite will happen where they will never consult me for anything, and just go off and do it on their own, because of the fear that I will say no and block the idea in the first place. I don’t want either of these scenarios. I want kids who feel in control of their lives and who see me as someone that they want to come to and consult.

I want to support my students in this way too. When they come to me and suggest an alternative to an assignment, more often than not, I need to accept that offer and build on it. When they don’t seem to be following through on homework, I can’t block that with my inner-critic. I need to accept it and build on it. When I don’t seem to have the best work relationship with a student, I need to open up, say “Yes…and” to the challenge and see what is possible. When I have a particularly challenging relationship with a colleague, I need to look and listen for those opportunities when I can share control with him or her. Ultimately, that move will bring me far closer to a positive end result.

Tomorrow, when you go into work, challenge yourself to say “Yes…and” to as many situations as possible. Work to accept the offers that are being made to you by your students, colleagues, and administrators and build on them in a positive, open way. This will feel funny at first, and it will be hard work. That’s ok. Keep doing it. Saying “Yes…and” will become more natural over time, and you will reap the benefits of it.

Next week, I’ll explore the often over-looked importance of the “and” in “Yes…and.”

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