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Triage

My wife and I love to read. This applies to not only the delightful experience of well-loved books (seriously, the smell of a secondhand bookstore is so relaxing), but to the vast abyss of variable quality that is the Internet. There are particular things that catch each of our attention that we don’t bother the other with: she doesn’t spend a lot of time regaling me with… um… whatever it is she reads I’m not into (I’m not psychic, okay?), and I don’t devote energy to explaining to her why Starcraft 2 is super cool and Protoss is overpowered as heck. This is the pause where I wait for the people I’ve caused to zone out already to find a new page to browse.

However, since we both work in education, enjoy similar mass media interests, and delight in amusing pictures of animals, a lot of stuff gets shared. Quite often, this also leads to the sort of delightful discussion and/or bickering that is the spice of married life.

One of the topics that hit a button with us a few days ago was a post written by a teacher that my wife came across in her browsing. This teacher was trying to explain what the deepest struggle was of many teachers’ careers. This struggle was not dealing with defiant children, incompetent administrators, or parents who actively sabotage your efforts. No, this struggle was a more crippling and internal one. The struggle of triage.

The kind of triage that we do as teachers is of course not nearly as terrifying and immediately horrible as the kind of triage for which the word was invented. I have never been asked, and hopefully will never be asked, to decide who lives and who dies, or who is treated first while others are forced to wait. That decision is best left to the many incalculably dedicated and giving people who devote themselves to helping people in those situations.

However, the concept of triage is definitely something that teachers in general, and certainly myself in specific, have our battles with. The idea of triage began as a way to help those who were wounded in battle, more specifically, to make sure that those treating them applied their efforts in such a way so as to save the most lives possible. Ergo, the man who is inevitably dying of radiation poisoning receives only palliative care, whereas the surgical care is directed towards those with amputated limbs.

Most often, we as teachers perform triage on the classroom experience. Regardless of what public opinion, media, or the government might say, here in Alberta, at least, teachers are very well-trained in terms of how to deliver the right content and skills to a given group of students. Accordingly, we know, almost to a rule, the exact methods and procedures to generate an engaging, informative, and disciplined classroom experience. However, these are all constructed theoretically in an ideal, hypothetical environment. As the students change and we are forced to deal with circumstance and real life, invariably, the amount of time and effort to maintain the perfect classroom experience hits untenable levels. This is a reality: there is simply not enough time, energy, or resources for the teacher to do everything that they desire to or should do.

The question then becomes not “What cool extra things can I do?”, but “What do I have to let slide for this time?”

Is it the cool activity that takes too much time to set up/take down? How about the extra help I was planning on doing – we got started on a really neat side-topic, but I need to make sure everyone gets a clarification on this skill. Students want to discuss this at length, and I’m going to let them because that’s learning – however, now I have to come up with a new and fair scheme to assess the learning being done here, and I also may not have time later to do the demonstration we were planning. Questions like this are not just occasional – this happens every single time a really good question gets asked, or students take longer to internalize a topic than was planned for.

Now, this is of course, part of the job. Anyone who goes into teaching assuming that things will be perfect and planning will always turn out did not have a good teacher prep program and will not last long in the industry. But, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t cause stress and the occasional bit of pain.

What this doesn’t even begin to cover is the painful educational triage we have to perform when it comes to the students directly. One of my favourite books has a discussion on triage given by a surgeon to a man who is insisting that his son be treated instead of him. The guidelines he gives run something like:

– if harm is equal, treat the youngest first

– if harm is not equal, treat the most threatening

– know when someone is beyond one’s capacity to save

It’s that last one that really cuts at me. Not because I believe that anyone is beyond aid. I firmly believe that all people are capable of learning, and it’s a matter of choice, will, and effort in determining how much learning will get done. However, the ‘capacity’ hitch is the kicker.

We see a multitude of situations and people in our classrooms. We try to give our best aid to everyone. Some people are more damaged than others, and they require extraordinary care, which we do our best to provide. Ultimately, however, a teacher, like a surgeon, must recognize that point where someone has moved beyond their individual capacity to help. There are certain situations where you have to recognize that without some other form of help, you can do nothing more for this person. Fortunately, those situations are few, but they do exist. And when they do crop up, absolutely the worst thing you can do is throw yourself into it too far, into a situation beyond your abilities, and end up doing harm to both yourself and the student.

It doesn’t stop it from being painful, of course, but it does keep you sane. And the sooner you can recognize those few scenarios, the better you get at both being able to move that student to someone who can help, and you are saved some energy which you can redirect into the ongoing triage that you’re doing as part of your day-to-day class routine. That, to me, is a win.

Even if I’m still going to be marking that essay I collected late because the discussion was too good. Thank goodness I have my good friends Valpolicello, Pinot Grigio, and chocolate to help with that.

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