Sunday, February 10, 2013

The lessons of Downton Abbey for teachers

Like many people, I am caught up in the drama of Downton Abbey. At first it seemed like a fun period piece, complete with witty banter and amazing costumes. As season three has progressed, though, I’ve realized how much the writer is truly developing the notion of Robert as a man at odds with the changing world around him. He’s constantly struggling between the life he has known and the life his wife, daughters and various and sundry family members seem to be dragging him toward. At its core, it is a story about the struggle to reconcile old ways with modernity in a human way.

This is very much the same story that educators face today. The world is changing. Sticking to our old ways will not do much good. Our children, our students, will bring us to new ways of doing things, whether we want them to or not. And in the end, the new ways are what we need to thrive, to help our students thrive.

This idea was illustrated clearly in the most recent episode of Downton Abbey, season three, episode eight. Brothers-in-law Matthew and Tom are working to modernize Downton. Robert, who has been in charge on his own for many years, has just let go his long-trusted foreman and is now forced to work with Tom and Matthew, his sons-in-law. Many a father-in-law would have difficulty working with his sons-in-law, but staid Robert especially so.

Robert, Matthew and Tom have breakfast together. Matthew leaves to check on some things on the estate while Tom and his father-in-law Robert discuss the business of farming.

Tom: (About Matthew) “He’s putting a good face on it, but you know he wants you with him on this more than anything.”
Robert: “I should not serve him well. I don’t have the instincts for what he wants to do.”
Tom: “You mean you’re not a tradesman.”
Robert: “Your word, not mine.”
Tom: “Shall I tell you how I look at it? Every man or woman who marries into this house, every child born into it, has to put their gifts at the family’s disposal. I am a hard worker and I have some knowledge of the land. Matthew knows the law and the nature of business.”
Robert: “Which I do not.”
Tom: “You understand the responsibilities to the people we have around here, those who work for the estate and those that don’t. It seems to me that if we can pool all of that, if we can each do what we can do, then Downton has a real chance.”

Robert, Matthew and Tom accept their differences
while sharing their strengths.
Robert then compliments Tom’s eloquence and concedes the point, to a small degree. Robert begins to see that we serve different functions in a team and that collaboration is what is necessary to continue in an ever-changing world. At the end of the episode, Robert, Tom and Matthew are working together to play cricket and to bring the estate to its best state.

We look at Downton Abbey and we see a story of life one-hundred years ago. But these are the same conversations we are having today in education. What old ways must we give up? What strengths do different people bring to the table? How can we best work together?

These are not new ideas. Change is something that people always struggle with. It may be that the pace of change has accelerated and we now find ourselves with enormous institutions so that changing them quickly really is like trying to steer a large boat. The larger the boat, the slower it changes course. But like Matthew and Tom who keep at Robert to change his ways, we must keep at our course change, collaborate, and let our students share their strengths so that all can learn.

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