Kamala Harris, Jesuits, and Making Better Decisions

I’ve been thinking about decision-making lately. Usually, at least in the summer, my best thinking happens when I am running around the park near my house and listening to podcasts. By force of the teaching gods, I’ve happened upon some decent listening recently about decision making. The first one was an interview from “The Daily” by the New York Times with Sen. Kamala Harris, and the second was the latest series from Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” on how to think like a Jesuit. According to Gladwell, Jesuits think better than the rest of us, and that particular interview had me thinking that Kamala Harris might as well. 

The whole process of making decisions seems like it might merit some more energy in education, since it is kind of the primary job task of educators. Of course, some like to say that computers, scripted curriculums, and standardized test prep are stealing teacher autonomy, but I still spend most of my day making decisions, big and small, that impact student learning in my room. 

I’ve read before, and actually wrote, that average teachers make something like 15,000 educational decisions a day. That doesn’t even count other really important decisions we make in a day like which reasonably priced dress shoe we should wear, or how to cover up the ketchup stain on our shirt from the breakfast sandwich, or which route we should take to our room to avoid that one coworker who talks way too much at 6:30 in the morning. 

With all those decisions, it seems like we should have some kind of framework for making difficult decisions. This was Kamala Harris’s answer when the interviewer asked her why she doesn’t associate with certain ideological categories like socialist, progressive, or moderate. The interviewer told her labels like that might help her in the campaign but Harris wasn’t buying it. She said those ideological platitudes aren’t all that helpful in actual decision making. For example, instead of screaming “medicare for all” or “you can keep you private insurance,” she would be most likely to launch into a more lengthy explanation of why both of those routes suggest oversimplifications that need more support. The interviewer told her that this approach might not win her many votes with either the “progressive” or “moderate” democrats, but I couldn’t help but admit she was right. 

Instead, she approaches policy with three questions. She looks at which policy impacts the most people, she focuses especially on a policy’s impact on children, and then she looks at the expediency and plausibility of a policy. In other words, if it is going to change a lot of lives, but it will take 40 years, is that better than something that will change some lives tomorrow? There is no easy answer, but in her opinion, the question needs to be scrutinized.

I think Gladwell would say there is a bit of Jesuitical thinking in the way Harris makes decisions. Jesuits would say that labels like “progressive” or “moderate” or “left” or “right” or “center” create a problem called disordered attachment. It’s a problem all of us have, but it basically suggests that we all have a tendency to attach to certain biases in our decision-making that cloud our judgement. A classic disordered attachment would be ideological beliefs or doctrines. In religion or politics they are usually clearer than the classroom. But teachers have them as well. It may be the way we view children and our colleagues with growth or deficit mindsets, it may be our views on instruction or testing, or the feelings we have toward the content we are teaching. There are a million things that could disorder our thinking in the classroom and disable objectivity.   

However, if the decisions we make can make or break the experience of students in our classroom, it seems logical that we should develop some kind of framework for decision making that helps us both make the thousands of decisions we make each day and justify our reasoning with something more than just our gut feeling in the moment. 

Gut feelings are too often the result of our disordered attachments and they are prone to all kinds of subjectivy and biases. Conversely, if we could train ourselves to make decisions within certain practiced frameworks, it might help us to make more student-centric decisions each day. 

I’ll use Kamala Harris’s framework to get started, but I’m still working on ironing all this out so let me know if you have any suggestions on changes or tweaks. However, for each decision, this might be a helpful framework. 

1) What would have the largest impact on the learning of the student(s) in your care? 

Many of the decisions we make are individualized to certain students and this answer is more micro. These decisions involve the way with interact with a student, the style of teaching or learning we invoke, or the interventions we enact. However, Some of these decisions are more systemic and deal with the learning of our entire school or classroom. These are slightly less common than the individual decisions, but they still happen every day in our planning and our thinking. 

2) What are our disordered attachments? 

We all have these, so there is no sense in acting like they don’t exist. However, as I get older, I am becoming less impressed with grandiose ideological platforms, and more impressed with specificity, reason, and clear objectivity. The small attachments we may have could have to do with individual students. We may like certain students or favor certain learning styles or communication styles. Unfortunately, there are other students who may just annoy us. They may have challenged our pride, hurt our feelings, or they may struggle to communicate. Having these feelings doesn’t make you bad, it just makes you human. So put them aside in your decision making. Or, at least, try to adjust for them.

3) Know the data/research. 

If I wasn’t clear earlier- I’m kind of done with gut feelings and hunches. I could, and may, write a whole blog entry on how problematic these are in the future. However, for now, it is worth to make sure that we are acting like professionals. In order to do our job well, we have to Gladwell puts it, “descend into the particulars.” We should know everything we can about the students in our room. Then, we should constantly try to update our professional knowledge base with research, improvement science, and new ways to make us better. This kind of knowledge or our students and best practices is not easy and it takes a lot of time. But I would submit that if you think this is not your job, then  you should be looking for other professions. Most teachers do this well, but I have met some teachers over the years who seem to view data and research as a threat to their own experiences. They get caught up in a “I do what I do” mindset that can be detrimental to children. 

4) Think about time. 

When making a decision in the classroom, we have to think about time. The classic example is one that I use often when a student is being disruptive. One commonly used option is to simply remove that student from the classroom with a referral or a pass to the principal or whatever. That method may solve the problem of disruptive behavior today, but is it good for that student tomorrow? Every decision we make for each student has to be viewed in the lens of 180 day school year. We have to think about our decisions in October, and what the mean for learning in March and May. We are often tempted to make too many decisions to ease our immediate situation, but they may complicate our long-term goals. 

I almost made a 5th point about humanity. In other words, we are making decisions about students so humanity, collaboration, and understanding need to be at the center of every decision. But it seemed to work to just say that humanity should probably be umbrella under which all education rests, and it doesn’t always need to be a bullet point or a number on our lists. It might be important to say that this is just a start for me, or a replication of how I have been trying to make decisions. It seems worth noting that I make a lot of bad decisions, so I’m open to any help from all 7 of our readers out there.