Teaching, Decision-Fatigue, and Getting Out of the Way

“May I go to the bathroom?”

“Do we have to ask to go to the bathroom or can we just go and sign out?”

“Can I go get more tissues from the office?”

“Can I have a pencil?”

“Can I write in pencil instead?”

“Can I make up my quiz tomorrow during H block?”

“Are you going to do the scrapbook thing Ms. Otten used to do this year?”

When I first started teaching, I had no idea how many little decisions I would need to make throughout the day, every day. I had anticipated the instructional decisions, and I had spent many hours worrying about classroom management decisions–but I never could have predicted the tiny, moment-by-moment micro-choices that are unexpectedly overwhelming.

And as a brand new teacher, I was plagued by self-doubt. I often did not know the “right” answer. I would go home and agonize about a call I made in a brief moment–a decision to intervene with a kid, a consequence I had given, a “no”,  a “yes”, a decision not to say something. Did the other kids notice? (Yes.) Did I think the repercussions through well enough? (Nope, didn’t have time.) Had I agreed to something I was going to regret later? (Possibly. Okay, probably.)

decisions
via https://www.marksdailyapple.com/decision-fatigue/

Lots of people have talked about the phenomenon of “decision-fatigue” in connection to teaching — the idea that making decisions takes a lot of energy, and that throughout the day our will power, like a muscle, can get overworked and exhausted and progressively worse at discerning the right choice. According to a fascinating New York Times article, one response to decision-fatigue might be to start making hasty decisions; another might be to avoid making decisions altogether–although this avoidance, too, is a kind of decision:

The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. (Tierny, “Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?” New York Times)

This first week at my new school has reminded me not only of how many decisions teachers have to make (a widely-circulated estimate is 1,500  per day!) but that the thinking we do about these decisions at the beginning of the year is far more intense and, therefore, far more exhausting than at any other time. We know that the first few days of school are crucial in relationship-building and expectation-setting. Like it or not, first impressions with kids do matter, and it is much easier to establish healthy and welcoming environments with them at the beginning of the year than to try to recover lost ground with them later on. And in order to do that, you have to make a LOT of decisions: where to put your desks. Who sits where. How will they enter the classroom? What will you do when they don’t do you what you want? How much of the syllabus to cover the first day. How much to tell them about yourself. What activities to welcome them into your classroom and to establish it as a place for learning.

(For some great ideas on these first few days of school and these kinds of decisions, see the great work Tyler Hester does on his website here: agapemanagement.org )

I’ve found that being at a brand new school this year increases this kind of decision-making anxiety for me– simply because I am still learning the culture of the school. What are the kids used to? Do they usually get seating charts from teachers? Have they ever had to follow an attention procedure? How do other teachers in the building handle going to the bathroom?

There are the written policies in the handbook and, much more importantly, the unwritten, day-to-day lived policies of the school that you really only learn by experience.

Here’s an instance of a tiny incident that involved a lot of mental decision-making for me this week:

During a senior class right before lunch, I noticed that one girl in the back of the room took out a sandwich and began eating it during the Do Now. Everyone else was silently working on the assignment on the board. A thousand things rushed through my mind as I calmly circulated the room, making positive comments on student work, standing in strategic places so all students could see and feel my active presence: Did I make my expectations clear about no food in the classroom when I was going over the syllabus the other day? Does this girl have an accommodation or medical condition I don’t know about that means she can take out food whenever she wants to? Do other teachers just let kids eat in the classroom, and so this is just what she’s used to? Do I have time to address this now, or should I wait until I get everybody talking during the Pair Share activity to create a greater sense of privacy? Is it really that big of a deal? What will happen if I just let this one go?

Then, the girl behind her took out a tupper-ware with some kind of green vegetable in it, and she began eating, too.

The thing is, later in the year this kind of thing really isn’t a big deal. And I often allow kids to eat in my room if they won’t have time during lunch, or didn’t have time during lunch, or are especially hungry, or whatever. But at the beginning of the year every move you make is setting a precedent and communicating something to the kids about what kind of person you are and what kind of expectations you have for them.

So I went over to the first girl’s desk and whispered, “Hey, are you doing okay? Will you not have a chance to eat during lunch today?”

“Oh– uh, no, I’ll be able to eat then.”

“Okay. The expectation is not to eat food in class unless you ask me about it first. Just make sure you let me know if you need to.”

“Oh! Oh, okay. Sorry!”

She put her sandwich away, and the girl behind her tucked her Tupperware into her bag.

It wasn’t a big deal. And they’re seniors, and they’re probably just used to being able to eat in other classes. And I tried to convey with my tone that they weren’t in trouble–but also that I do notice everything in my room. Dun dun dunnn.

I tell you this example of my over-analyzing of a micro-decision in order to give you an idea of the decision-fatigue many teachers, and people of countless professions, can fall into. And I think it’s important that as teachers we be very aware of the decisions we make, and plan them carefully every year so that we make the best environment possible for our kids, where they can truly flourish.

But I also give this example to illustrate the sort of false, self-absorbed analysis that I have found myself prone to this week–and the kind that I think perhaps other teachers struggle with as well.

I mean the sort of anxiety we feel that we say is about beginning of the year procedures and classroom management, when really it’s rooted in a powerful desire to be liked and admired and respected–to be the positive center of attention.

The Gospel from yesterday was one of the most famous and beautiful in the Bible, but it struck me in a new way this time:

Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 19:13-14)

Given the horrible revelations about the ways in which our Church has failed to protect children and has actually kept them from experiencing the closeness of Christ, these words were especially painful to read. But I don’t feel ready to write about that part right now.

What I do feel ready to write about is much smaller: the fact that the disciples were just getting in the way.

The children were coming to Jesus–the whole point of discipleship, you know–and the disciples themselves were “hindering” them! Parents, relatives, other adults were bringing the kids to hear Jesus, to be prayed over by Him, to be healed by Him– just like the parents at my school are. And the disciples “rebuked” them!

I can imagine Peter, thinking he is being helpful, managing the crowd, trying to protect Jesus. “Oh, no, He’s in the middle of a sermon right now. This really isn’t the best time.” Or the ever practical Thomas, “You know, He’s talking about marriage and divorce and sexual morality right now–maybe another time would be better for the children to listen. Could you just have them stand over there until He’s finished?” Or even John, “The Master is tired. We were just about to get into the boat again. Can you bring the kids tomorrow when He’s had time to rest?”

They were getting in the way, trying to manage everything–making all of these little decisions, coming up with all of these solutions, thinking they knew best.

I thought, too, a little of John the Baptist, and his humility in saying, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” I must become smaller, I must be willing to recede from view, so that people can see Jesus and not get distracted by me and my management skills and the way I want things to be run.

I realized how much of my own teaching, especially in the first few days of school, can get so caught up in me. What will they think of me? Will they like me? Will they take my expectations seriously? Will they think I’m strict enough? Will they want to engage in my lesson?

And of course, this is kind of ridiculous. The class isn’t about me at all. At some level, it’s about the invitation to a kind of beauty and adventure that only literature can afford. At a deeper level, it’s about them–about the kids themselves, and what they need, and where they are, and how they can grow. And at the deepest level of all, it’s about Christ.

I just need to get out of the way.

“Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them.”

I began to think about my own decision-fatigue in a new way. Yes, the little choices are still there, popping up at every moment throughout the day. Some of them are voiced by student questions, some of them are my own silent internal questions, some of them are below the level of conscious deliberation. But I might feel a lot less exhausted if I stopped thinking about these decisions in terms of how they were going to impact me and my year and how I want my class to be run, and started thinking more about how each decision is going to impact these kids ability to feel loved by God. (Do I really need absolute silence right now because that is what is best for them? Or do I need it just to calm my own nerves? Or to make myself look strict?)

And the kids do want to come to Jesus, whether they realize it or not. They want to learn, to be joyful, to make strong friendships, to be challenged, to be cared for. They are approaching Him all the time. And like the disciples, maybe all I need to do is get out of the way.

Pray that I am able to do that this year.


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