Teaching and Predictability

This is the continuation of our exploration of the baseline downside of teaching; Tedium, the Bell and Chain, and No Career Path. These are things that I personally didn’t like about teaching that would have been present even if Michelle Rhee had never been born. Every teacher, in even the best of circumstances, must deal with these things. We started with Tedium and a discussion of Grading: Part I and Part II.

A close cousin of tedium is our good friend predictability. Predictability means roughly that I know what is going to happen before it happens. If this is the case, then teaching is nearly 100 percent predictable, yet simultaneously buffeted around in a sea of pure chaos and randomness.

How can this be?

When I say that teaching is predictable and it drives me crazy, I mean predictable in the macro sense; the big picture. When I begin a new school year in August, I can tell you with 97 percent accuracy where I will be and what I will be doing at any given moment on any workday, and most Sunday afternoons, from then until the middle of June. The book is already written. In fact, I already know this year what will be happening at any given moment next year. I will be in my classroom teaching social studies. Or I will be doing one of about four different things during my planning period. Or I will be eating or working through lunch. That’s about it.

There will not be a big new project that I will be asked to work on where I might learn new skills, push and stretch myself professionally; maybe earn myself a promotion. There won’t be any opportunities to show that I can work efficiently, under pressure, think creatively or lead in any sort of true crisis or crunch-time situation. I will never have a power lunch. Who has power lunches with school teachers? And who, aside from teachers, has 35 minute lunches that start at 11:20 in the morning?

But this can be thought of in a different way. The other side of the predictability coin was articulated to me by a friend I used to teach with. She disagreed strongly with me and argued that she thrives on the intense unpredictability of teaching. She gets there in the morning and has no idea what will happen in her classroom that day. And she is correct. The classroom is full of surprises, especially for a new teacher.

In her classroom.

This is strictly micro-level unpredictability. I know that exactly seven months from that opening day in August I will be in this school, in this room, teaching U.S. Government to between 25 and 35 twelfth graders. She knows she’ll be doing the same thing in her room, teaching English. But, within these parameters, it is true that I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. Maybe I’ll be giving a test. Maybe six students will be absent on a field trip with another class. Maybe a kid who usually says stupid things will say something smart, or vice versa. Maybe there will be a fire drill or a fight or a pep rally. Maybe I will be observed. Maybe I’ll find out one of my students is pregnant. Maybe I will give a really great lesson or one that flops. Nonetheless, these are all common things. If they don’t happen today or tomorrow, they’ll happen next week.

I would say that after about three years, unless there is something wrong with you, it is pretty hard to really surprise a teacher with anything that happens in the classroom or the school building. You can make them mad; but it’s hard to surprise them. Schools are painstakingly designed to maximize predictability and minimize surprises. And, to the extent there are any truly medium- or large-sized surprises, they are likely to be the bad kind. For instance, here are some examples of my least favorite, real life teaching surprises:

  • Everybody must now use the same online grade book, cobbled together with shitty district software;
  • The copy machine is broken;
  • A student has committed suicide;
  • Remember that thing that was going to get you out of 3rd and 4th period? That’s not happening anymore;
  • A club will now be meeting in your classroom immediately after school;
  • You will not be teaching the class you spent the summer developing curriculum for.

But in general, the same basic class of low-stakes, routine events, problems and annoyances will present themselves over and over again. Depending on the individual teacher, each one of these reoccurring events and problems will continue to be challenging, enraging, manageable, stressful, inspiring, boring or entertaining. And totally predictable.

Mr. Teachbad


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