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What is the Most Pointless Thing You Do as an Educator?

By Dave Stuart Jr.

If a task didn't flash into your mind the moment you read this post's title, then take a minute to consider the question until something comes to you: What is the most pointless thing you do as an educator?

I don't mean to be crass with the question, either. What I'm aiming at, really, is a visceral answer to a critical question: Which of your many tasks seems least likely to ever do a thing to promote the long-term flourishing of students?

What tasks come to mind when I ask you that?

Now, assuming you have some answers of your own, let me share some of my answers over the years. But first, a huge disclaimer: if you are doing or are making people do any of these things, you are not a bad person. We work in a system that pays lip service to the importance of ideas like simplicity, “working smarter not harder,” and reflection, yet all the while this system exalts complexity, “doing more is doing better,” and ceaseless, mindless striving. So when we engage in (or require that others engage in) pointless tasks, we are only part of the problem — the other part is systemic.

Here are some of mine:

  • micro-grading essays using an overwhelming rubric
  • dealing with 95% of the emails in my inbox
  • micro-analyzing the latest teacher evaluation rubric meant to somehow hold me more accountable than my sense of the sacredness of teaching children and my woeful inadequacy to that task does
  • keeping track of the byzantine requirements for keeping my teaching cert up to date

Do we share any tasks in common? (Feel free to share yours in the comments section below.)

Beyond Griping

Too often, this is where the conversation stops — we sit and fixate on the mindless minutiae, lament the present state of the teaching profession, and slog on into our day. The result is demotivation, frustration, and steps down the path of the non-flourishing life.

However, this isn't the way it has to go. With the task(s) you visualized at the start of this post, I would propose that we have three basic options:

  1. Don't do that thing.
  2. Do that thing when you have time. (Never.)
  3. Satisfice that thing.

Since I want you to keep your job, I'm going to officially recommend Option #3 — satisficing the thing. I've already written a brief overview on satisficing for teachers, but the gist is that we do the thing with the minimal amount of time and effort possible. Here are two examples from my list above — one pertaining to the beloved teacher evaluation rubric, and one pertaining to teacher cert requirements:

Satisficing teacher evaluation rubric activities

Whenever I have to deal with our district's teacher evaluation rubric, I will either A) fully apply myself and get insanely stressed out, all the while losing focus on what it is that I ultimately do, or B) give only as much energy and care as is required for the situation. If we're in a PD on the rubric and I have to engage in a small group discussion, I will do it, but not with all my heart and soul. The pursuit of the biggest questions — e.g., How do I make kids grow as much as possible in the areas of thinking, reading, writing, speaking/listening, and becoming better people — get every ounce of professional effort and care that I have. But contemplation of the difference between Highly Effective and Effective on Formative Assessment Element 1b…. no. Just no. I understand that we have to have these kinds of PDs, I understand that my administrators need me to understand this stuff because they are required by law to evaluate me with it, but I also understand that these are not the make or break things of teaching. These are minutiae. And so I treat the people I work with charitably (as I would want to be treated), I respect that we are all in this situation together, and I put forth only as much effort on these things as is minimally required.

In other words, I actively engage with the ultimate mission of the school, I continuously strive to respect and love my colleagues, and yet I merely satisfice areas where the overly complicated teacher evaluation rubric is concerned. I'm not giving you a blank check to disregard people or to belittle the tough situations administrators are put in these days, but I am insisting that you prize the most worthy intellectual work and satisfice the rest.

Satisficing the upkeep of my teaching credential

I was one of those people who put the master's degree off until the absolute last minute, and when I finally did, I quickly decided to abandon the traditional brick-and-mortar model for whatever degree was going to be

A) most affordable for my single-income family of (at the time) four, and

B) most family-friendly in terms of scheduling (I like eating with my girls every night and tucking my kids into bed).

That ultimately led me to the American College of Education, an all-online degree that was probably not comparable to the education someone gets at Harvard but certainly did allow me to continue pursuing the Big Questions that animate my work and also didn't empty my financial and relational bank accounts.

(Disclosure: Even though as an alum I would recommend ACE to any educator without compensation, I do get a small commission for everyone who requests more information from ACE through this link. If you are seriously considering getting a master's degree and want to see what ACE is all about, I would love for you to do so here.)

The point

To bring this post home, I think we are wise to:

  • First, identify the most pointless tasks we have to do, and then
  • Second, experiment with satisficing these things so as to save our precious time and energy resources for the things that matter most.

Take care.

2 Responses to What is the Most Pointless Thing You Do as an Educator?

  1. Andrew Giddings November 29, 2016 at 10:03 am #

    Dave, we share virtually all of our top pointless tasks. Since I became National Board Certified, the teacher cert issue has gotten easier in my state. It’s still a maze trying to figure out what I need to do when the time rolls around though. Micro grading essays and the mess of an evaluation system top my list.

  2. Annette Reynolds November 29, 2016 at 4:10 pm #

    I absolutely agree with everything you said in this post. I actually learned this on my own several years ago, but regret I wasn’t a faster learner. For many years I put the many, and sometimes ridiculous tasks, before more important personal items. The wonderful thing is this, I’ve found that my students are still learning the things they need to know, and I’m much less stressed. It saved me from burnout and has helped me to be more positive in my interactions with students and fellow staff.

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