Complexity is what makes it a good job

The other day I wrote:

“… we’ve sent a rover to Mars but haven’t been able to bring most of our nation’s students to proficiency. That says something.”

No one would argue that sending a rover to Mars isn’t difficult. Keeping the spacecraft on trajectory, performing health checks, and communication all involve a daunting level of complexity. Once the rover lands on Mars’s surface, then the real work begins, such as determining whether life ever arose on Mars, combating dust storms, characterizing the climate and geology, and preparing for human exploration. The number of variables for NASA to keep in mind is staggering, and only a high level of monitoring and problem solving can lead to a successful mission.

It might sound surprising, but this is a wonderful example with which we can compare education. Every day, teachers are faced with innumerable variables: curriculum, changing lesson plans on the fly to better suit students, classroom management, checking for understanding, reteaching, motivating, carving out time to create lesson plans, grade student work, collaborate, and engage in professional development. None of these examples include a student’s experience before and after school, which as we all know can contain events that potentially make learning difficult for a child. I don’t need to list the unfortunate home life variables–teachers know what they are.

With all this in mind, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. The best course of action then is to read from NASA’s playbook. In order to complete a mission, NASA scientists use all the resources they have at hand and then problem solve. Do you remember this scene from the film Apollo 13?

NASA had to solve a problem with a limited number of resources in order to bring the astronauts home. Failing this objective was not an option because the stakes were too high. They did everything they could to fix a seemingly insurmountable problem. It wasn’t easy, but through hard work they figured it out.

Here’s the above paragraph written just a little differently:

As educators, we’re dealing with limited resources in order to teach students. Failing is not possible because the stakes are too high. We’ll do everything we can to fix a seemingly insurmountable problem. It’s not easy, but through hard work we’ll figure it out. 

Of course teaching is hard, but that’s to be expected. No one joins NASA and thinks, “Great! The rest of my career will be a walk in the park!” On the contrary, once a person is finally accepted by NASA, that’s when the difficulty is really cranked up. The same goes with being an educator. Teaching students is not easy; as I stated before, it’s downright complex–but that’s good.

Dylan Wiliam, in his book Embedded Formative Assessments, writes:

That fact that teaching is so complex is what makes it such a great job. At one time, Andre Previn was the highest-paid film-score composer in Hollywood, and yet one day, he walked into his office and quit. People asked him why he had given up this amazing job, and he replied, ‘I wasn’t scared anymore.’ Every day, he was going in to his office knowing that his job held no challenges for him. This is not something that any teacher is ever going to have to worry about.

People need challenges, and there’s no greater challenge than teaching students. We’re facing a lot of complexity (or, simplexity, if you’d like) and it’ll take a lot of hard work to accomplish our goals–but we can do it.

So let’s get started.

4 thoughts on “Complexity is what makes it a good job

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