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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Best Laid Plans of Teachers and Generals

After several weeks in which I had a pitifully small amount of work to do, and made myself little lists of things which which to fill my time during the day (memorizing Home Burial, working on choir music, writing letters), I suddenly have a huge stack of papers on my desk, just waiting to be torn apart by my green pen (Yes, the head editor uses red, so green is my assigned color. I already feel strangely attached to it, and very fond of it. Back off.) I will be kept busy for quite some time, as the shortest of these seven essays is roughly thirty pages, while the longest is over seventy. Hallelujah! And I do mean that sincerely, despite what you might think. Work is good. I like work. Today's work, editing an essay which analyzes the problems in the current methods of mission command in our Army (Wait, how did I get this job? Riiight.... craigslist...), made me think back to my teaching days.

One struggle of teaching that I recall without great fondness is lesson-planning. Of course, one wants to be prepared. Knowing where you're going and what you need to accomplish by the end of each trimester is pretty important. But, how much detail should you write down for each day? Should you have a particular discussion question in mind for every day of class for the next three months? Some people might say yes, and that such attention to detail ahead of time is the mark of a truly proficient planner, and the clear indication of a teacher well schooled in the subject matter at hand. I, however, would have to disagree. Teaching is an unpredictable science, and trying to ink in the fine points of each class, filling in sometimes by the minute how much you will spend on each portion of whatever needs to be communicated, while it might serve as an excellent opportunity for a betting pool among faculty and staff, ends up distracting a teacher from paying attention to what he actually needs to do in the moment. Also, since when does a class room discussion go where it's directed? The best discussions, at least in my experience, often came out of nowhere. Well, that's unfair. They came from my students, who asked wonderful questions and passionately argued out the answers, oftentimes allowing me to sit back and watch them, glad that I could see them confronting life's big problems and really caring about them. Sorry, but I wasn't about to interrupt that natural flow because my plan book said: "10 min on vocab, 5 min on reading quiz, 15 min on poetry recitations ...." Of course, I would have died without my planning book, but ultimately my students, hopefully docile enough to take a little gentle nudge in the right direction here and there (as they usually were) directed the course of the conversation. And that's how it works best.

Unexpected Teaching Experience Fig. A: Deplorably cluttered desk.
Thank you, Drama.

Unexpected Teaching Experience Fig. B: 8th grade Latin students throw Miss Turner
a surprise birthday party. Were they trying to get out of having class? Surely not...

Today, I am proud to say, I have discovered that a leading Prussian military theorist of the 19th century agrees with me on the principles of lesson planning. I realize that sounds pretty silly; but life is full of small victories, and today I am vindicated by a dead Prussian. In Die Lebensgeschichte, Helmuth von Moltke writes:
One does well to order no more than is absolutely necessary and to avoid planning beyond the situations one can foresee. These change very rapidly in war. Seldom will orders that anticipate far in advance and in detail succeed completely to execution. This shakes the confidence of the subordinate commander and it give the units a feeling of uncertainty when things develop differently than what the high command's order had presumed. Moreover, it must be pointed out that if one orders too much, then the important thing that needs to be carried out unconditionally will be carried out only incidentally or not at all because it is obscured by the mass of secondary things and those which are valid only under the circumstances.
I feel so... affirmed.


  1. Love the final and fitting comparison of teaching and war time strategy. We are the midst of five short plays, and today we won the battle of the first d.r. but not the war!

  2. You got it, Miss Mitchell! Show those kids, those PLAYS, who's boss :)