Be Unprepared

We train our teachers to be prepared. In Evelyn Finn’s words, “To fail to plan is to plan to fail.” Yes. This is true.

But perhaps in the process, we have underemphasized the counter theme — “It’s not going to happen the way you planned it.”

The teacher’s delusion — we used to hear it repeated all the time — “I have covered all the material. The kids should have passed the test.”

I think students who are highly motivated to learn and succeed will do whatever it takes to get the “A.” I was such a student, more or less, — not necessarily an “A” but at least a “B” student.  There was no question. I was going to college and I performed “for” the teachers I hated although perhaps not as much as I did for those I liked.

We, the motivated students make all teachers look good. Our successes as students allowed our teachers to congratulate themselves on their pedagogy.

But in our schools, actually in a great many schools throughout the country where teachers face more challenged and challenging students — students facing real barriers to success, students whose pathways to college and success are far less clear — students do not as readily satisfy teacher delusions of successful pedagogy.

Across the country, the teachers who face these more challenging students, facing students who too often fail to learn and thrive, — and they are most often the newest, least experienced teachers. The more experienced teachers if they are lucky, are able to “move” to “better” schools with students who feed their delusions. Or they drop out of teaching, which young teachers do at staggering rates: almost 50% of new teachers will leave the profession within five years. Or, perhaps they stay and get angrier and more miserable, torturing generation after generation of students while counting the days to retirement and the dreamed of pension.

Or they learn to plan. And then sometimes, they go further. Beyond planning is the joy of being present in the actual classroom with the children.

They learn that the purpose of planning is not to chart the future. Instead, sophisticated planning is planning for diversity and lays the groundwork for openness to what is happening right there in the room with the kids.

Teachers are not the only ones who fall victim to the planning delusion. It is a great sickness of managers everywhere. I was such a manager. In the mental health system, a successful manager.

“Good managers,” successful managers plan, set goals, and then deliver on the goals. I was a successful manager. I was smart. My goals were intelligent, made sense, fit a strategic vision. And I delivered. Success. Meaning: All my goals were attained. But not because my plans reflected some brilliant insight into the future. I simply would not tolerate failure.

I was pretty ruthless in pushing to achieve the results that I had predicted.  A lot of people on my team hated me. Some thrived, learned to manage the way I managed and went on to get major promotions. I was miserable. I didn’t often look in the mirror, but the truth of the matter was that I hated being a son-of-a-bitch.

We plan all the time and on every level. Good teachers plan like crazy. Not much has changed.

When I was very little, I remember my mother preparing her plan book for inspection by the principal. But I don’t think she followed the plans. They always gave her the toughest class, usually 5th grade.

I remember her favorite class. She looped with them, stayed with them through 4th and 5th grades.

They were dancers. She knew when the plan wasn’t working, so she got them all up to dance. She encouraged them to bring their comic books to schools. When the stress of class threated to overwhelm, she encouraged them, “Read your comics.” She always brought me to school on the last day when I was very little. I always went home with a big pile of comics. They were done with them, they had read them so many times.

Our teachers plan like crazy. We utilize the Danielson Framework for Teaching in all our schools as the principle tool for professional growth and development and, among the four Danielson domains, we place the greatest emphasis on planning.

And yet at the same time, if not in the same breath, we preach that great teaching manifests as readiness to respond immediately and directly to what is arising in the classroom.

Bad teaching “sticks to the plan” whether or not the students are getting it.

Mediocre teachings sticks to the plan when the content sparks directions of inquiry unanticipated in the plan.

Destructive teaching crushes student inquiry because the teacher was planning to go somewhere else.

Great teaching recognizes that there are not bad questions only questions which were not anticipated in the teacher’s plan.

Better teaching, which often means more experienced teaching, anticipates student misunderstandings as well possible alternative avenues.

Better teaching plans for these. But great teaching realizes that the joy of teaching arises from the unanticipated.

At the end of the day, this is why we need teachers. If all possible lines of inquiry arising in class could be anticipated, then teachers probably would no longer be necessary or efficient. Technological advancements have completely blown past that. We are far from the day when the only way to hear a lecture was sitting in a room. Lecture classes are largely becoming obsolete, easily replaced by cost-efficient interactive technologies which allow each student to proceed at her own pace.

But for the unanticipated questions, the original ideas, to be appreciated — there is no better format than the live classroom and a teacher who is prepared through engagement in extensive planning to respond creatively to the unanticipated question.

The beauty and the excitement of atypical students lies in their ability, inclination, to see things a bit differently and to ask unusual and unanticipated questions.

This is the joy of what Zen people call “Not Knowing.” This is the joy of being unprepared.