The "But" List - Make Informed and Thoughtful Decisions About Your Career

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After our interview on The Burned-In Teacher Podcast, I asked Jacquelyn to write a blog post about her thinking behind what we’ve now dubbed, “The But List”. If you have decisions to make about your teaching career, I suggest that you use her method for weighing out the pros and cons in a different way. Here’s her post:

Decisions, decisions.

Being empowered is about making autonomous decisions, right? And, yet, at times these decisions becoming confounding at best and paralyzing at worst. When I was a classroom teacher, I loved decision making strategies because I could use them when working with students on revising a piece of writing, choosing a project option, defining a problem-solving exercise, and so many more academic exercises. As a high school teacher I work with students all faced with a big decision: what to do after graduation! For some students, this decision is perceived as defining the course, the very happiness, of the rest of their life. Whoa.

Needless to say, I was really excited when I was introduced to this decision-making matrix:

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Actually, I wasn’t that excited -- at first. It seemed silly. As in “duh, that’s what decision-making is.” Then I tried it and realized the key is in the weighting. As in, from 1-3, how important is that criteria; and, from 1-3, how well does that option meet that criteria? When you complete the matrix and do the math, the weighting can help a clear option to emerge from among the others.

In fact, here is what it looked like when my daughter was choosing a college:

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Then she assigned the weighting to her criteria and decided how well each school met each criteria. Before multiplying out she asked me: what if the school that comes out with the highest total isn’t where I want to go? My answer: then you haven’t been honest about what your criteria are or how much they each matter. Or, your evaluation is accurate on the chart, but there are things about the school you don’t like and they outweigh the criteria in their impact on how you feel about the school.

Ah, the word “but”. The conjunction that gives one idea the power to negate another. As in, I love that the school has the right number of students and small class sizes, BUT it also has Greek life and I don’t want that social pressure.

I am well acquainted with the word but. Not too long ago the juxtapositions that word permitted me to create were beginning to paralyze me professionally. I had been teaching for just over two decades and I was describing my role as a classroom teacher like this: I love teaching students to write, but my classes are so big I can’t manage the feedback and grading. I love team-teaching, but budget cuts are getting rid of all of those courses. And this one, I would be happy to facilitate professional learning, but you can’t be a prophet in your own land. These paths of thinking are clear evidence that I no longer enjoyed my job, and I didn’t know what to do about it.

Until I realized that although I did not know what to do about it yet, I did have strategies for making decisions. I wasn’t able to go directly to the matrix; first I had to remove the but. So I made a list of all the things about my job and my roles in my school that I enjoyed, no buts allowed. That list included things like:

  • Writing

  • Teaching writing

  • Reading

  • Cool technology that improves teaching, learning or assessing

  • Being around students as they overcame challenges

  • Being relevant, progressive even

  • Solving problems

  • Projects - just building stuff

  • Curriculum writing

  • Learning professionally

  • Connections with other progressive educators

  • Supporting others professional learning

  • Team-teaching

I decided that was a rather long list for someone who didn’t like her job.

Now I gave myself permission to write the but list:

  • Hours reading and giving feedback on papers every night and weekend

  • No money for any more degrees

  • Budget cuts eroding programs, staff, resources

  • No money for PD

  • Standardized test pressure  

I’ll be honest, that but list has some tough items on it. For some people things on my but list had already eliminated their job or ended their education career. And, my list of buts was smaller than my list of likes. And that was good news.

I was almost ready for the matrix. I had my criteria, now I needed options. And the cool thing was that while I dignified the “buts”, I could use my list of likes to highlight options I couldn’t see when the buts were in the way. I could see new roles I could fill in education that would maximize the gratifying parts of my day while minimizing the frustrations. I could see ways that my changing path could actually benefit my school, not just me. And I had the resources at my disposal to research my options. I had a PLN, my network of educators around the globe who shared in my reflection and provided suggestions and helped me identify options. Feelings of isolation can cause or be a symptom of burn-out. My PLN prevented me from becoming isolated while I engaged in the reflective process that is necessary for personal growth. One of the best discoveries I made when I was going through this several years ago: edCamp. And my first edCamp invitation came from a member of my PLN. How fitting, since the edCamp paradigm was developed as an in-person Twitter chat! My first edCamp experience touched 75% of the items on my “things I like” list and none of my but list items.

Sadly, I think some/many schools say they want or foster collegiality among the faculty and staff, yet the actual routines and practices of the school or the evaluation protocols set up more competitive relationships. There is no competition among members of a PLN and so sharing is more earnest, authentic, and organic.

Close your eyes for a moment and picture that teacher who always seems to know about cool conferences, resources, TED Talks, you name it. Do you wonder how that teacher is dialed in to so many opportunities, to so much useful information? That teacher is not better than you. That teacher is connected! You find stuff out by being connected! People I know virtually send me info and invitations, other opportunities and insights appear in my feeds by algorithmic chance or re-share. Exponentially more comes my virtual way for me to adapt and repurpose, reshare and use than ever comes way through snail mail or even faculty room chats.

I challenge you to make a list of likes. Take a deep breath, put the buts on hold (they will get time for their own list), and go for broke. List every little part of a day that makes you smile, or laugh, or be reflective. Anything that makes you sigh and release a little a tension. Capture the pleasant surprises. And, before the buts creep in, enjoy that list! Your path back to be being burned in starts with maximizing the potential of that list, one item at a time!


Jacqueline Whiting is a Google Innovator (SWE17), former Social Studies teacher, current Library Media Specialist, and periodic blogger for herself and others. Check out her blog at http://jwbeyondthestacks.blogspot.com/.

Amber HarperComment