How Teachers Can Make Better Decisions: 7 Tips From Experts

By Alyson Klein — December 06, 2021 5 min read
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Teachers make an untold number of decisions in the course of just a few minutes of class-time, everything from figuring out whether a particular student can go to the restroom to how to tweak a lesson on the fly because a video didn’t load properly.

There are the longer-term decisions: What should my unit plan be? How much late work should I accept? How should I changed my approach to disciplining students if it appears to be not as fair and equitable as it should be?

And then there are the ones about work-life balance: What time do I need to leave to pick up my own kids? Do I need to thoroughly grade this assignment, or can I just track who turned it in and go for a run?


Conceptual image of a path with many markers.
Anhelina Lisna/iStock/Getty

Here are some tips from educators and experts about how to handle that dizzying array of decisions.

Begin with the end in mind and work back from there

Figure out where you want to take your students and then decide how best to get there. “I plan backwards. I think about what my ultimate goal is for an activity or a lesson,” said Susan Wetrich, a prekindergarten teacher at Hoover Elementary School in New Berlin, Wis. “So I really have things in my mind, I have a path that I want to take.”

For instance, Wetrich started planning a unit with the end in mind: Students would bake a loaf of bread to take home to their families. But before they learned how to do that, the class talked about what they already knew about bread and what they wanted to learn, how yeast works, and they taste-tested a couple of different varieties of bread.

Get feedback from colleagues and put it to work

Candace Fikis, a social studies teacher at West Chicago Community High School, sometimes likes to get a second opinion on a particularly difficult decision. “It can always be helpful to talk it through,” Fikis said. She finds herself asking “‘Hey, I’m thinking this is what I’m going to do, so let’s weigh the pros and cons.’ Decisionmaking gets to be sometimes overwhelming because you’re so afraid you may make the wrong choice.” For example, she often asks other colleagues who have taught her current students in the past what works best for certain students who tend to struggle with academic or behavior issues.

Think about what your needs are before you consider the options available

Consider first what features you actually want in a particular lesson or program, before looking at each of your options. “Often when we’re making decisions, we look at the choices first,” said Sandra Wozniak, the director of technology and communications at TregoED, a nonprofit that helps district and school leaders make decisions. Instead, teachers should “first set criteria. That’s the piece that makes your decision strong and valuable and defensible. Because you can now point to that criteria as the reason for your choice.”

For instance, in choosing a book for a read-aloud, a teacher may first decide on a text that will include both a social-emotional component and tie into the day’s science lesson. They can go from there in selecting the right book, rather than just looking at books on a shelf.

Work from a place of empathy for your students

Teachers are less likely to let their own biases interfere with discipline decisions if they try to put themselves in their students’ shoes, said Jason Okonofua, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. “Try to understand in an empathetic way, why a student might misbehave and importantly find out more,” he said. “Ask children why they’re doing the things they’re doing” and get to know them so you can help understand difficult behavior. Even though some students will still need discipline, this approach can help teachers move past their own biases.

One hypothetical example included in Okonofua’s research: A middle-school student repeatedly walks around the classroom to throw away trash, causing a disruption. The teacher could choose to give them detention (a punitive approach) or ask them about their behavior, and move the classroom trash can closer to their desk (an empathetic approach).

Let students be a part of the decisionmaking process

Neema Avashia, who teaches ethnic studies in Boston Public Schools, often solicits her students’ opinions on how to make her teaching better. “I really do think in a lot of ways young people are the best people to give us feedback on our planning and to say this lesson really worked, or this didn’t work, or this structure is really working, or it’s not working,” she said.

For instance, when Avashia is creating a final project for a unit, she will have a small group of students preview it. She’ll ask if they understand what they’re being asked to do, and if they have ideas for making the project more engaging or more clear.

As you are making a big decision, evaluate what the risks may be

Michael Curran-Hays, the executive director of TregoED, recommends “just a little bit of risk analysis” as part of your decisionmaking.” Teachers should ask themselves: What are the risks associated with whatever you plan to choose? And then decide whether there is something you can easily deal with, or whether you might need to figure out a way to mitigate the risks.

For example, one teacher that Curran-Hays worked with examined the risks of choosing new digital learning devices for students. She thought of possible pitfalls, including students or teachers breaking the devices, teachers not understanding how to use them, and wireless dead spots in the building. Then she listed ways that she could prevent those risks from becoming problems, and came up with what she would do if they did.

Consider observation as a way to root out bias

Most people make decisions based on their own experiences and biases, some of which they may not even be aware of. That’s why having someone observe a class, even just to see which types of students the teacher is most likely to call on, can help, said Paula White, the executive director of the New York City chapter of Educators for Excellence, a nonprofit that works to elevate teachers’ voices in policymaking. “The best schools and the best educators want more teacher observations and not less because they can be so revelatory,” she said. Observations could also help teachers determine if they are doling out harsher punishments to people who are not the same race as them, or praising certain students while ignoring others.

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