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Teaching as dilemma management

Like designing a classroom seating chart, teaching itself is a continuous exercise in dilemma management, what educators call the constant, impossible tradeoffs you make hundreds of times each day.

Christopher Mah

Like all good teachers, you know the importance of a creating a good seating chart. However, you also know that the task is like some impossible puzzle taken straight off of the LSAT. But you care, a lot, so you try anyway.

First, you begin with the fixed parameters: You have 32 students, 31 chairs, and seven of your students’ IEPs state that they must be seated at the desk closest to the teacher.

A thorny labyrinth

Then, you begin navigating your way through a thorny labyrinth of conditional logic problems: Brianna can sit with Asia, but not with Carla; Damien can sit with Truong, but if and only if Jerome is also there to keep them on task; if Nicholas and Carter sit together, then the two will be on Snapchat for 50 minutes unless you are physically sitting next to them.

Next, you look at your draft and realize you have neglected to take into account your own racist biases and have inadvertently segregated your table groups by skin color. Congratulations, your classroom now looks like the Jim Crow South.

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You revise and revise, to no avail. In order to move Mohammed closer to the whiteboard, you have to move Matthias farther from it. You move Miguel next to Daniel so that he can help him with his English; but in doing so, you separate Miguel from the student who was helping him with his English.

For each problem you solve, three new ones – previously nonexistent – are brought into relief. Separating talkers is an obvious strategy, but not the only one. Racial dynamics are at play. Gender dynamics are at play. Middle-school romances and elementary-school baggage are at play, and rarely are you privy to these hidden storylines that have the potential to cause tectonic shifts in your ability to do your job.

Finally, you just delete the whole thing and spend the rest of Sunday polishing off a family-sized bag of chips and watching the Vikings lose.

A fitting metaphor

In this way, the seating chart is a fitting metaphor for your profession. Like designing your seating chart, teaching itself is a continuous exercise in dilemma management, what educators call the constant, impossible tradeoffs you make hundreds of times each day. Dilemma management is reading that short story you’re sure will finally engage the kid who hasn’t read a page all year, but may trigger another student you didn’t know had PTSD. Dilemma management is scaffolding a lesson on irony for your ELL students, but boring the hell out of the kid sitting next to him who read “Infinite Jest” in ninth grade. Dilemma management is having to decide which is more racist: passing a black student with a 54 percent, or failing him because you did a poor job making the curriculum relevant to his lived experience and creating assessments that gave him multiple ways to demonstrate his knowledge.

These are among the endless, no-win decisions you are asked to make and for which you are held accountable. You know that you won’t last long in the field if you cling to your need for right answers, clear decisions, or any semblance of resolution. You know that you need to be able to make difficult decisions, stare eye-to-eye with the consequences of those decisions, and never know if they were right, wrong, or something else. And you know that you need to be able to do this, day after grueling day.

Neither jaded nor a saint

In this country, we have a problematic tendency to portray teachers in one of two ways. The first is as problems to be solved, jaded adults who live for summer vacation and are hanging on solely to collect their full pension. The second is as saints, bleeding-heart simpletons who want to save children. Your reality is neither of these things. Like most teachers, you are merely an ordinary person who is desperately trying each day to be a little better than mediocre at holding together your small world of contradictions.

So you retrieve your original seating chart from your laptop’s Trash. You convince yourself that what you do matters, even if just a little bit. You start the whole thing over again, doing your best to manage another dilemma while understanding that it will never be enough.

Christopher Mah is a first-year teacher in the Minneapolis Public School District.


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