Teaching: 100% Lean

     Someone told me once that the average teacher makes 1500 educational decisions a day.  I think this kind of statement is meant to produce self-assuring sentiments and a figurative pat on the back for all the hard work teachers do. But I just thought of failure. Someone at the top of the craft might make a lot of really good decisions.  Maybe 99% of their decisions are “right,” as if this thing were even measurable, and they are generally doing well. That means they are making the wrong decision 15 times per day.  

    I'm probably not at 99% on my decision-making stats. Maybe I’m coming in at a solid B- most days with 80% of my decisions being “good.” If that is the case, I’m making 300 “bad” decisions a day. With that kind of failure, it’s no wonder I can’t sleep some nights.  Think of the ripples a bad teacher makes in society when they are failing that often.

    I’m not suggesting that teaching is any different from most other professions in this way.  I’m sure there are a lot of jobs that are packed with little decisions that impact others. But it just cements the argument that good teachers can drastically change the life and trajectory of young people.  Ok teachers are even pretty important.  And, unfortunately, bad teachers are causing a lot of problems just by showing up.

    I think I’m probably ok.

    But those 300 fails a day start to eat at my conscious.  On my worst of days it is a crippling guilt or a throbbing feeling that I am not doing this right, and on my best of days it is just a constant anxiety that has my blood pressure pumping at the levels of an overweight 60 year old. I’m insecure about everything. And teaching and its shitload of decisions doesn’t help that.

    But there might be hope.

    I found a little help from some friends talking a few weeks back about “lean startups” and “lean manufacturing.” As is often the case when I hang out with brilliant people, I had to awkwardly pause their conversation to ask them to clarify what all of this meant. Apparently, this “lean” model of production has been around for a long time, and occasionally gets a reiteration in different industries.  Its nothing new, but the basic idea promotes efficiency, small production, measurement, refining, and repeating. It’s the antithesis of huge production lines with waste pumping out of almost every crack and smokestack.

    Instead, lean manufacturing challenges the process to get smaller.

    Less Overhead. Less Waste. Less inventory. Less time.  And really less everything.

I started thinking about how much waste there is in teaching. I thought about one of my students and a conversation I had with her just a few days prior.     

    “Uh. Mr. Boll,” she demanded.

    “What are we doing here.”

    “Well…” Trying to hide the annoyance that grows in teachers by 2:00.

    “I actually just said that exact thing 30 seconds ago. I explained it all.”

    I wanted to go further. I wanted to tell her that she should have heard it all.  She was sitting there, looking at me, and she appeared to be understanding everything I said.

    “Oh… Boll, when you talk to the class. I don’t really hear a word you say. You have to come explain it to me.”

    In other words, you have to get smaller.  Or, get lean, Boll.

    When I spoke to the whole class and whatever bullshit I was probably spewing, her learning was wasted. In manufacturing, that attempt would have been considered trash. In education, she was one of my 300 poor decisions.

    Obviously, for this student to grow in our current model of society, she will have to get a little better at “hearing” what is said to groups. I don’t debate that. However, for me to get better I have to get as small as I possibly can in each classroom. I have to find ways to have as many 1 on1, 1 on 3, and 1 on 5 conversations as I can. Its something I’ve noticed more as I’ve become less concerned with the beauty and genius of individual lessons and more concerned with actual learning: the larger we are in education, the more failures we have. Conversely, the smaller I can make my classroom, the more effective my instruction becomes for students. In others words, I start failing a lot less.

    Students are able to verbalize their thought process more freely, I can recognize and acknowledge possible errors or challenges, their peers are more willing to interject, and we can work to refine their learning.

    And just when I start to feel good about the process, I notice that there is another person or group that is lost. So I move and try again. That student may ask a similar question to the last student and my failure in the project or the assignment become clearer. That student could have an entirely new problem, and I am able to offer some help to and understand their thinking better.

    Learning is lean. Teaching should be as well.

    At the end of the day, I have a better idea of where I am failing and where my students are failing. This doesn’t make me any less anxious, but it might start to offer hope for progress.