First, Do No Harm: Beware of Teacher-Centered Decisions

Sometimes, teachers get psyched about something because it makes our lives easier. Let’s ensure that our instructional decisions are in the best interest of students and sustainable for us.

A story of teacher-centered decision making

I can still feel the rush of warmth that began in my lower back, wrapped around my mid-section, and lingered up around my neck. The feeling was met with a scrambled dash to find that piece of paper with the certain student’s name on it. It must be somewhere in this mess.

It feels terrible to lose a student’s paper. But it has happened more than once.  That’s almost physically painful to type, but it’s true.

Any of my own high school teachers might have predicted as much.  That student with the bulging folder, the folder that’s for every subject? Yea, that was me.  

During my first few years of teaching, the articles, exit slips, drafts of writing, and vocabulary quizzes all left me overwhelmed and disorganized. The sheer amount of paper involved in teaching English seemed to eat up a large chunk of my colleagues’ time, too, even if they were the colleagues with organized hanging files.

I know what you might be thinking. This is about the life-saving help of technology for teachers. But it isn’t. It’s a warning for teachers enamored with things that make our lives easier.

Around my second year, I discovered Google Drive, and it immediately caught my attention: online folders, accessible from any computer, allowing students to submit their work digitally. And I can comment on their docs instead of writing in the margins? Had the moment been recorded on video, I’m sure that a golden light beamed from my monitor as a quartet of angels sung a perfect-pitch C chord.

The love affair grew deeper as I discovered Doctopus and Goobric, tools that acted like personal assistants to deliver student assignments, collect them, and help me grade them more efficiently. For a while, this was my educational obsession.

Without a doubt, using less paper improved my life as a teacher. I was better organized, less stressed, and physically lighter–my brief case was at least.

Last year, as our school moved to Google Classroom, I’d reached peak paperless.  There was nary a handout in my English class.  Simultaneously, my freshmen students were experiencing the “no grades classroom,” where we used digital portfolios in place of traditional grades, so the online system for organizing student reading and writing seemed superior.  This was a win all around, no?

A gap in thinking

If you’ve noticed, this reflection is about how I was stressed and disorganized, made a discovery, and then felt better. What I realize now is that my decision on moving towards a completely digital reading and writing classroom was a totally teacher-centered one. It was just more convenient for me.

Teacher convenience is not the best criterion for decision making in the classroom.  We need a balance of teacher sustainability, which is the more positive framing of convenience that I’ll use,  and student learning impact, which I think we all agree is why we’re here.

The chart below illustrates a potential teacher decision making matrix, providing examples of practices or activities that fall within one of four quadrants depending on whether they are sustainable or unsustainable & effective or ineffective. The practices or activities mentioned here are categorized strictly by my subjective judgement.  This is much more of a spectrum than the image below demonstrates. That said, I still think this might be a useful reflection tool for our pedagogical decisions.

This applies to how we use technology

It’s the teacher’s responsibility, as literacy educators in the digital age, to not only determine what the most important content and skills are for our students to learn, but also how the students should interact with the content or practice their skills.

This matrix is one way that I’ll make decisions on the type of reading and writing that my students do, and whether they do that reading and writing on paper, on devices, or some mixture of both.  Broadly, it’s important to stay aware of any decisions that we make as teachers that begin to run on default.  As my teacher and mentor Bill Sowder says, “When does a routine become a rut? When does a structure become a crutch?”  

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