Education Opinion

The Thin Line That Separates a Routine From a Rut

By LeaderTalk Contributor — December 20, 2009 2 min read
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In the daily rhythms of the classroom, there is a thin line between a routine and a rut.

The very best teachers have mastered the art of daily routines: those practices and systems that frame all good instruction. Like dancers, the routines provide a foundation-- a consistent flow-- so that improvisation, expertly timed, can flourish; so that creative energy can be reserved for the more nuanced moves. There can be more artistry and risk taking.

When the daily routine is mastered-- it becomes invisible. Like good magic.

The organizational structure, the daily tasks, the consistent action, the behaviors that kids can count on-- the culture of “this is how we do things around here"-- these are the powerful routines that precede learning.

During the diligent planning that goes into an instructional day you can be sure of this: something will have to flex. Some “best-laid” plan will be modified to account for the unexpected nature of classroom life and the disruptions and surprises and hiccups that accompany the sometimes-messy business of teaching and learning. The lesson plan, dashed in light pencil on an etch-a-sketch, is a moving and movable target.

But not the routines. Those... you can take to the bank.

Every day that kids come into class they can count on some routines:

• We complete quick-writes immediately after watching CNN for Kids.
• We take the roll and report our absences.
• We review the learning goal before each lesson...
• We post that learning goal on the board-- in the same place we always post it.
• We “Take out our dashboards and update our reading minutes.”
• We switch to the next learning center (only) when the music cues us... like gymnasts moving to the next event--and...
• We leave each center as organized and clean as we found it.
• We walk as a class to lunch.
• We pick up the trash around our desks before we are excused.
• We squirt some Purell on our hands before we touch the computer keyboards.
• We stretch before we run the track.
• We post the schedule for computer time... and everybody gets a turn.

And there are dozens more. At least.

To be sure there are occasions that interrupt routines: the rainy days daze and delays or the extended assembly that eliminates our guided groups altogether. Or the fire drill for which there is no convenient time. But for the most part, the daily routines run like well-kept clocks. Like the tides and phases of the gibbous moon. Predictable. Reliable. Essential.

But not even strong routines can survive complacency. Routines become a rut when enthusiasm wanes and attention wanders. The optimism, the creative energy, the expectations, the will to excel, the unshakeable resolve, the passion that was so easily summoned in the days before the year began, too often dissipates and dies in the doldrums. Even for the very best of teachers.

A rut is what happens when the work becomes humdrum; dull, monotonous, unproductive and hard to change. Best practices devolved into bad habits. Bad teaching.

There is a thin line between a routine and a rut and often the two extremes are only kept separate by a wall of fire.

I wonder if school leadership is the ability to keep that fire burning. I wonder if I can create the same spark by lighting a match or rubbing two sticks together. I wonder if I should stoke the coals or roll back over and go to sleep.

Posted by Kevin W. Riley
El Milagro Weblog

The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.