Teaching

1,500 Decisions a Day (At Least!): How Teachers Cope With a Dizzying Array of Questions

By Alyson Klein — December 06, 2021 7 min read
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How many decisions do teachers make a day? When you Google that question, the first answer that pops up is “1,500.”

That number, which equates to about three decisions per minute in an 8-hour work day, is based on research that was conducted in the 1980s and 1990s, but is still widely cited in education circles today.

But tack on all the new technologies now used by teachers, the decisions they are increasingly asked to make about the social-emotional learning of their students, and all the COVID-related decisions they have had to make during the pandemic, and to some educational experts, that 1,500 seems like it should be much higher in today’s world.

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“I mean, yeah, that 1,500 [decisions a day] sounds low to me, really,” said Alicia Tate, the director of leadership services for TregoED, a nonprofit that consults with district leaders, principals, and teachers about how to make better decisions.

For Susan Wetrich, a prekindergarten teacher at Hoover Elementary School in New Berlin, Wis., the oft-reported fact that those decisionmaking numbers rival those of air traffic controllers rings true.

“Decisionmaking is absolutely nonstop throughout the day,” she said. She finds herself gaming out the day’s potential trouble spots in the shower or on the drive to school. “My brain is always thinking: Who will work best together for certain tasks? Who do I need to keep apart? What’s my Plan A, what’s my Plan B, what’s my plan C?”

Wetrich, who started in the classroom, then worked as a Head Start administrator and college instructor before returning to teaching, said she’s got more decisions on her plate now than in any other role or any other time in her career.

That doesn’t surprise Tate.

“You’ve got every individual student in your classroom that you are having to make on-the-spot, just-in-time decisions for as you’re navigating your day logistically and instructionally,” said Tate, a former district special-education administrator. “You’re making decisions about what they do in their unstructured time, how they’re lining up, how they’re going to transfer from one thing to another.”

What’s more, when dealing with students from a variety of different racial, cultural, and economic backgrounds, teachers have to think carefully about whether their own unconscious biases are impacting some of the split-second decisions they make on things like discipline, grades, or even who to call on to answer a question during a classroom discussion.

“We make decisions as educators in the same way we make decisions as people at large,” said Paula White, the executive director of the New York City chapter of Educators for Excellence, a nonprofit that seeks to lift up educators’ voices in policymaking. That’s based on “our own schema and our own biases we all have as humans.”

But those biases can lead to big decisionmaking problems, everything from a teacher who is more likely to call on girls than boys to participate in class discussions (or vice versa) to one who is prone to disciplining Black students more harshly than their white peers.

Some teachers also worry that their own decisionmaking gets a little foggier or less disciplined later in the school day, which could lead to differences in the quality of instruction students receive in the afternoon versus the morning. Neema Avashia, who teaches ethnic studies in the Boston Public Schools, noted that studies have shown that parole boards and jurors are likely to make poorer decisions later in the day, when they are battling fatigue.

“One hundred percent, we struggle with decision fatigue,” she said. “I’m sure there’s an erosion in [teachers’] ability to make sound decisions and grounded decisions the further you get into the day, because you’re just so bombarded. And a lot of that also has to do with the scale of the work that we ask teachers to do.”

So how do teachers deal with the difficulties of decisionmaking, especially during fast-changing times that include greater use of technology in education, rising concerns about social justice, and the day-to-day challenges of teaching during a pandemic? Education Week asked three veteran educators to talk about their decisionmaking approaches. Here is their advice:

Give the students a decisionmaking role and consider their feedback carefully

Knowing how overwhelming decisionmaking can be—and her own preference for a student-centered classroom—Susan Wetrich tries to shift as much decisionmaking as possible to her prekindergarten and kindergarten students. For instance, two years ago, she and some students noticed that the way the class kicked off the day—a “soft start” of quiet activities, like reading books or putting together puzzles—wasn’t working because some students needed more teacher guidance.

So Wetrich assigned two students to suggest an alternative. They decided they wanted to be able to dive right into playtime first thing in the morning. Wetrich was skeptical, but she had them present the idea to their classmates. The kids agreed to give it a try.

Wetrich let the new schedule stand for a couple weeks. Then, she got the class together to discuss how things were going.

“The students themselves decided that it wasn’t working very well, because they were just getting too excited,” she said. “It was hard for them to slow down again and come back to the rug and do our morning meeting.”

With the kids’ approval, the class switched back to puzzles and books. This time, it worked much better in part because the students had “ownership” of the arrangement, Wetrich said, and they had learned that it was better than the other alternative.

Making learning relevant based on student concerns and feedback

Nearly all of Andrew Zimmerman’s decisions—big and small—are guided by his overall philosophy of trying to do whatever he thinks is best for his students. Zimmerman, who works at Claymont High School in Uhrichsville, Ohio, spent years teaching a subject he loved—history—but was constantly fielding questions from students about how they would use the course content beyond high school.

After reading an article that emphasized the need for teaching entrepreneurial skills to K-12 students, “a lightbulb went off,” Zimmerman said. He decided to start the school’s first business education program, modeled on an exemplary program in a nearby district. He enlisted help from a colleague and got support from the administration.

In the program, students can now learn about marketing, accounting, stocks, even car loans and mortgage applications. There are plans to expand the program to lower grades. Best of all: The real-world implications are obvious to the kids.

“If I’m not constantly asking them, ‘What do you need, and how can I get you there and where do you want to be, and what is the most beneficial thing that I can leave you with before you leave this school?’, then I’m not doing anybody any justice here. I’m not doing my job,” Zimmerman said. “That’s where a lot of my decisionmaking comes from. Am I doing the right thing for these kids?”

Deciding what approaches to keep, and what to discard, from pandemic-era learning

Coming back to the physical classroom after nearly a year of virtual learning has made Candace Fikis, a 25-year-veteran educator, feel almost like a brand-new teacher again.

She’s not used to that feeling because, typically, teaching a class over and over can help educators predict what issues may arise and how best to handle them. “The more times you teach something, the more you can anticipate where things could go or questions that kids could ask or [game out] option A, B, or C,” said Fikis, who teaches social studies at West Chicago Community High School.

But all that changed in the past two years. Even for a veteran educator like Fikis, decisionmaking became very difficult when her school was doing full-time remote or hybrid instruction.

“I think that’s why last year, a lot of teachers burned out,” Fikis said. “It was especially [hard] for older teachers who’ve been doing this for a while. We know we have a standard of what good teaching is. And we couldn’t anticipate where things were going to go. We [had to] make so many more new decisions that we weren’t trained for.”

Even now that she’s back to face-to-face teaching, Fikis feels like she’s charting new decisionmaking territory. She wants to keep the best of what worked during the pandemic, but that can entail revamping lessons she’s used for years. Is that worth the time? What impact will it have on student learning?

For instance, Fikis typically has her civics students stage their own Congress, complete with committee hearings, legislation, and lobbying. In the past, she had kids create posters or handouts to explain their bills. But when school went virtual, she had students post those materials online. That actually worked better.

“We don’t want to go back, we want to go forward with this new knowledge, but that requires a whole lot of decisionmaking,” Fikis said.

Teachers are asking themselves questions like: “What do we want to grade now that we used to not grade before? Is this part even important, like we thought it was in 2019?”

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