People skills for quick decision-making

18th October 1996 at 01:00
Have you ever worked out how many decisions you make in a single day? The answer, if you are a teacher, is probably well over 1,000. In fact, if anyone ever offers you a job at piece-work rates, Pounds 1 per decision, knock them over and sign the contract before they change their mind. You will retire shortly on the proceeds.

Many teachers engage in 100-200 transactions an hour. During rapid-fire oral questioning, they may ask 50 questions within 10 minutes. For each decision, numerous factors have to be taken into account - the age and background of the pupils, the subject matter, the previous history of the class, the purposes of the activity.

Yet many decisions are made in a second or less. It is astonishing how much information the human brain can process. When Jack Kerr, who used to be professor of science education at Leicester University, had retired, he once told me that the biggest change was the disappearance of rapid decision-making. All he had to decide each day was whether to go to Tesco in the morning and the library in the afternoon, or the other way round.

I love American books on teachers' decision-making. They sometimes depict a bizarre world. One such book, by Dale Brubaker and Lawrence Simon, is subtitled, "Real-life cases to hone your people skills". I've been carefully honing my people skills ever since I read the case studies in it.

"A student bursts into your class first thing in the morning and says that a small group of boys is excitedly milling around a wastebasket in the restroom. The wastebasket has a gun in it. What will you do?" Well, it does make a change from throwing a fit about chewing-gum in the wastebasket. The authors' favoured response is: "Contact the principal immediately and have the principal deal with the matter." So, "dump it on someone who earns more" is the message. One frightening American statistic is that 100,000 American pupils may carry a gun, and 160,000 play truant every day through fear of sustaining physical injury.

Another decision problem reads: "You are a teacher, and it comes to your attention that the teacher in the next room to you is making negative comments to students, the principal, other teachers and parents regarding your teaching. What will you do?" The authors' favoured response this time is: "Ignore the colleague's comments and go about your business, continuing to use your present approach to teaching." I would have preferred: "Race round to your colleague and deliver a right upper cut, saying, 'Try honing your people skills on this, sunshine'," but it did not figure among the options.

It is all too easy to disagree with someone else's solutions, but I did feel uneasy at some of the proposed decisions. In one scene, the city orchestra is performing during assembly, when four or five boys in the balcony decide to chatter noisily and drop their books.

"Take this matter to the faculty advisory council," is the recommended response. The faculty advisory council may not meet until a week on Tuesday. The answer, "go over and deal with it", is rejected as it would be intrusive and call attention to yourself. But, then, so would a negligence suit if the books land on somebody's head.

One of the worst experiences any teacher can have is to become indecisive. It is like writers who run into a block, pilots who become afraid to fly or mountaineers with vertigo. Indecision, or "decision overload" as some call it, can be a sign of stress. The brain simply refuses to engage.

With thousands of decisions to be made every week, even deciding which stick of chalk to use can be like a summit conference. I once asked a teacher whether she wanted tea or coffee and she burst into tears. It was one decision too far.

Perhaps the multiple-choice approach to decision-making is the answer here. Your world is caving in, your marking piles ever higher, the demands escalate, your blood pressure soars. Do you a) run, b) laugh, c) hone your people skills, or d) stick a daffodil in your ear and whistle the national anthem?

It could even be an exciting part of the new national curriculum for the in-service training of experienced teachers (old lags' badge), with the Government-favoured responses gaining full marks and a merit award, and the "wish fulfilment" answers getting five added pension years and early retirement. Try honing your people skills on these three: 1. At a parents' evening, a father accuses you of not giving his son high enough marks. Which response would you give?

a) "I apologise most profusely. Under the conditions of the parent's charter, I am more than happy to revise the assessment."

b) "Now I've met you, I can see the poor little blighter is battling against the genetic odds, so I'll give him five extra marks for heroism."

2. The chair of an interviewing committee for a senior post asks you what you would bring to the school if you were appointed. How do you reply?

a) "A wealth of experience, a strong professional commitment, and boundless energy and enthusiasm."

b) "A big chip on each shoulder, an even bigger mortgage, arthritis and several shelves of rarely opened national curriculum folders."

3. The head arrives at school rolling drunk. Which do you say?

a) "You should be ashamed of yourself, I'm reporting you to the governors. "

b) "You should be ashamed of yourshelf, sho get your handsh off my vodka bottle."

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