Muddling through…

stock-photo-vector-high-angle-3d-renderi-951002In Stephen Brookfield’s The Skillful Teacher, he discusses the idea of muddling through in the classroom as an honorable response to uncertainty (Brookfield, 2015).

He essentially says that given the large numbers of variables that teachers face on a daily basis in the classroom, it is impossible for any teacher to have a strategy or solution for ALL problems that present themselves – regardless of that teacher’s experience or education. He stresses that “muddling through” shouldn’t be thought of as amateurish or dishonorable, because it’s often the only option available.

This resonates with me because I’ve faced a number of situations in a classroom where I’ve been caught off guard by a question or a behavior from a student that I was completely unprepared for and my only possible response – aside from standing silent and slack-jawed – was to think of my feet and come up with a solution or decision in that instance.

It’s only after the fact that I can process the situation and think it through more clearly and logically, often with the help of colleagues, as to how I could have handled things better, more effectively, etc. But I don’t feel guilty if I didn’t handle things perfectly, for exactly the reasons that Brookfield outlines – if there is no precedent, you need to create one on the fly. It’s simply the way it works.

It’s interesting how Brookfield also talks about how administrators and politicians don’t like to hear that teaching is situational – that a one-size-fits-all approach is tenable – when any teacher will tell you it’s entirely the opposite. Ideally, a teacher could create individual lesson plans for every student, to focus on what each of them need.

In my role, as a manager of online instructors, even though I’m one level removed from students, I feel like I often spend my days muddling through because, as one of my instructors says, “every single case is a one-off.” I am constantly making decisions for unique cases that no policy applies to.

The other thing that can’t be ignored is external pressure from other departments around student retention. If we are trying to “save” a student from dismissal so we can maintain enrolment numbers, we are “encouraged” to think creatively to come up with a solution that’s reasonable and fair, and doesn’t damage the trust that instructors have in the institution, and doesn’t make it seem like we are pandering to the student. It’s a tricky balance sometimes.

I am a big fan of documentation (a holdover from working as a technical writer for a decade) but I cannot write a process document for my role, for my instructors, of the student services staff about how to make decisions around student issues because a decision for one case wouldn’t make sense for another case. We cannot document *every single case*.

However, even though it’s difficult to create generic policies that apply to unique cases, I still think there is value in recording these situations and creating almost a series of “case studies” that people can access for training purposes. Sometimes there are similarities and threads that connect from one situation to another and we are able to reference past cases to make decisions based on precedent.

Brookfield, S. (2015). The skillful teacher, 3rd ed. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.


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