Decision Fatigue: Got Some?

As if educators in the twenty-first century are not already charged with a growing responsibility for our learners that includes supporting the acquisition and utilization of self-regulation skills, current neurological research has concluded that  in the early years of learning it appears that the ‘how’ of learning and teaching immensely influence on brain development.

Martha S. Burns, an adjunct associate professor at Northwestern University, succinctly and clearly summarizes the how, when, and what approaches educators should assume, knowingly and often unknowingly, to guarantee the most optimal affects of learning.

This is all very necessary and important research that supports and informs teacher-education, and routine practice in our classrooms. And for this I have much gratitude. I, however, struggle to keep up with the seemingly unending deluge of information produced at a exponential rate that even the most dedicated, well-read, and up-to-date educator is unable to maintain.

Summiting Mountains of Research

Where does this massive mountain of data leave the average educator who is working to support young teens struggling with smartphone addiction, massive and real social anxieties, growing disengagement from their learning at earlier ages, young children struggling with self-regulation, and significant increase in single-parent families or unhealthy home-life situations?

Like a growing number of my colleagues, I am becoming tired. Like all of the time tired. And there is a term for that constant malaise more: decision fatigue. Research has revealed that teachers make on average 1500 decisions a day. Most are subconscious. Most are low impact. But all decisions drain energy reserves, and perhaps more importantly, reduce our overall willpower. In their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, authors Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney argue that many of the decisions (most of which the authors deem ‘irrelevant’) we make each day sap our energy reserves, and categorically reduce our willpower over time. An interesting (and scary) thought especially for the classroom middle school teacher.

And some of my colleagues have argued that teachers are master multi-taskers. I used to believe this to be true. In fact, many of us wore it like a badge of honour. And now? Now that mindset might just serve as an anchor of futility. I am not sure that I still subscribe to the premise that teachers can move through the day balance multiple responsibilities effectively and purposefully. Multitasking is not a skill that I have mastered (or really care to). And in those brief moments in a day where it appears that I actually have my shit together, I truly don’t. The simple act of believing this to be true might even be sucking an inordinate amount of energy from my conscious actions.

Decision fatigue anyone?

Truth be told that I am not prepared to waste days and energy on doing a bunch of tasks halfheartedly. Time is fleeting. As educators, time is not really on our side.

What…Me Worry-Wort?

Then there’s just plain old simple worry. A new survey of 12 000 Scottish educators reveals that I am not alone. Oh, thank goodness. Quite often I have felt that I’m the only educator that feels this way.

I know. Suck it up. It’s a 10-month a year gig. Good benefits. Fair salary.

I know. Worry is a fact of the job that I signed up for nearly twenty-three ago. But riding the old sympathetic nervous system all day creates long-lasting impacts on physical and mental health, and sleep behaviour. Emotions of anger, frustration, joy, excitement and elation come in waves throughout the day for every educator. A few of the worries that an educator experiences within their day (in no particular order of importance) includes:

  • My students aren’t learning.
  • Those tricky student behaviour problems.
  • A lesson that I planned for several hours is bombing.
  • There is a teacher-on-call (substitute) in tomorrow and I do not even have a lesson plan ready!
  • A parent email is waiting in my inbox (typically these are not ‘thank you’ notes).
  • The principal is coming for an observation.
  • The photocopier is down and what am I going to do now?
  • A highly respected colleague is angry with me.
  • I showed a film and a character said “hell” and now the kids might go home and tell mom and dad and they’ll call the principal, and I never even filled out the stupid form I’m supposed to fill out for the movie in the first place.

Foreigner was right…sort of

Truth be told, I have been focusing on staying calm during my day. Seriously. I utter the word regularly under my breath. And it seems to be effective. Or at least has an ounce of merit. Educator Paul Murphy shares the importance of staying almost calm in a recent blog post. [Note to administrators: And while it might appear that we are dispassionate or uninterested in the subject matter at that particular moment you wonder through out classroom or that the lesson that we are currently teaching is kicking ass, calm is the way.] As educators, if we continue to ride the waves of high emotion throughout the day, we have no where to go but down. (Not to mentioned stressed-out adrenal glands.)

The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to chose one thought over another.

William James

Last September, I commenced a new teaching assignment that required me to return to the classroom as a middle school generalist; the first time in nearly a decade. My very own rodeo. A new kick at the can, so to speak. And yes, it feels like the first time; it feels like the very first time. Many teacher-training programs, however, are imparting wisdom of balance to their acolytes. The advice to act more and react less may help to reduce our worry and anxiety about our students, our performance, and our livelihoods.

My formula? I have come to believe that possessing a conscious awareness of boundaries, simply enjoying being in the classroom, and developing (and refining) a healthy introspection (thank you daily meditation practice) about our work all go a long way towards helping educators thrive (and not just survive) in the powerfully transformative profession of teaching.


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