Teacher Decisions That Matter
With every twist and turn of every day, teachers confront dilemmas that are impossible to solve and yet crucial to the well-being of their students. As in all of life, the small details of teaching matter and have big consequences for students. Take, for example, Ida and her student Sharon.
Ida, a first-year teacher in a challenging urban school, came to me to talk about her struggle to act in Sharon's best interest while respecting parental authority. Sharon is slight in build and often sick, which Ida believed was partly because she did not wear a jacket or sweater to school. In spite of the rainy, cold weather, Sharon was outside at recess in short sleeves.
Upon learning that Sharon did not own a jacket, Ida arranged for the school to provide one. Although Sharon's mother was appreciative, she quickly became frustrated when Sharon continued to forget her new jacket, leaving it at school, on the playground, or wherever she last was. Her view was that if Sharon didn't care enough about her jacket to keep track of it, then not allowing her to wear the jacket at all would teach her to be responsible.
Ida's view was different. Watching Sharon shiver throughout the morning and stay in at recess because she was "too cold" troubled Ida deeply. For Ida, this was a matter of her student's health; for Sharon's mom, it was a matter of teaching responsibility. Ida tried to convince this parent to try a different approach, but Sharon's mom was determined to teach Sharon a lesson. Ida found herself with a dilemma of the type teachers confront all the time, every day. She felt responsible for Sharon's well-being while she was at school. To act responsibly on Sharon's behalf, she felt she needed to provide her with a cover to keep her warm. At the same time, she did not want to cross Sharon's mother or interfere with her plan to discipline her own child.
In the end, I don't know how Ida resolved her dilemma. When we closed our conversation, she was thinking that while Sharon was in school she was responsible for her. So for recess and any other times her class went outside, she would loan Sharon a jacket. For Sharon's life outside of school, however (including her walk to and from school), as much as she disagreed with it, Ida thought she should not interfere with Sharon's mom's approach to disciplining her child. As I think back on this teacher's dilemma, I keep wondering what I would do if I were in her shoes.
As our nation struggles to define good teaching, we often overlook the complex dilemmas that are at the heart of everyday practice for teachers. I have no argument with the absolute importance of solid subject matter and pedagogical knowledge for high-quality teaching. We also must acknowledge that teaching is profoundly uncertain work. And so, within our conception of what it means to teach well, we must include the ability to manage classroom dilemmas such as Ida's. Within the definition of high-quality teaching, managing uncertainty should be high on the list of what teachers must be able to do.
Anna E. Richert is a professor in the School of Education at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., where she is director of the Master of Arts in Education with an Emphasis on Teaching program and faculty director of the Mills Teacher Scholars. She is the author of What Should I Do?: Confronting Dilemmas of Teaching in Urban Schools (Teachers College Press, 2012).
ASCD Express, Vol. 9, No. 5. Copyright 2013 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.