Sports broadcasters love to say, “The team is following its game plan to perfection,” or “The team is letting the opponent take it out of its game plan.” Coaches study film, draw up plays, and set strategies in motion. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t; but coaches don’t go into games without preparation, and each semester, teachers do their preparation too before opening day of class.
Each class of students is remarkably the same and remarkable different. Human nature doesn’t change through the millennia: no one is born diligent, persevering, and ever-attentive. These take cultivating. At the same time, everyone, has a mystique—that stamp of individuality that eludes first impressions, stereotypes, or patterns of behavior to date. This is why the teacher’s game plan can be relatively constant but always in need of short timeouts, and even a good break now and then like holidays.
When a strategy has worked over time but then appears to falter, it can seem like time to make a drastic change. However, it’s good to ask a couple of questions. First, how many students actually are not responding to the approach? It’s tempting to overgeneralize from occasional students who don’t take to a proven strategy. That can color a teacher’s perception of a whole class. What if in the main, students do respond well to an approach, and you think that it is realistic to expect a few not to at times. I tend to opt for what works most of the time for most of the students and require of myself that I step back and get a clear head before making sweeping changes for a whole class based on occasional exceptions. Creative alternatives are possible for the occasional students, and it may be that a strategy needs tweaking but nothing drastic.
The second question I ask myself is, “Is it worth it to make a change my syllabus next time or make a new class rule simply to try and alter the behavior of a student who is not responding to the way things are?” Most of the time, I find it not efficient to expand a syllabus or a prompt just to try to cope with difficult situations generated by an occasional student. That would make the whole class have to hear, digest, and respond to what is already working for almost everybody. Introducing a major strategy change or introducing a rule change would take up unnecessary time and energy. I prefer to communicate with the occasional student one-on-one and try to work things out.
This is what coaches do in basketball or football. If a player on the other team needs guarding, the whole team doesn’t go guard that person. The coach assigns one, or perhaps two, to guard the player; and everybody else keeps on task as before. For a teacher, trying to do otherwise can make already lengthy syllabi and prompts even longer and more tedious; and it can reach a point of being an unnecessary drain on the time and energy of most of the students.
Perhaps it’s time for pruning shears to move to the forefront and amendments to move to the rear in many of the documents we live with. Part of loving words is knowing when not to use more, and when to cut out words and come up with a shorter, more vibrant document.