A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Apr 16 2010

Economics and Education Part 3: Teaching Decisions, Opportunity Cost, and “Why is Teaching so Hard?”

This is the third in an ongoing series that applies economic theory to aspects of education (introduction in Part 1).

Teaching is a time-sensitive profession.  There is not a single moment where a teacher is not aware of time.  Furthermore, in an urban school setting, where students are often many years behind, time becomes even more valuable.  With a mere 8 hours in an average school day, and with about an hour of face time with each student per day, it’s easy to understand why time matters so much to a teacher who wants his students to “catch up.”  The teacher’s job, in a word, is utterly urgent.

I’ve been grappling with two huge questions as a first-year teacher: (1) what is the best way to allocate time both inside and outside of the classroom? and (2) why is teaching so hard?  I always thought the answers to the questions were mutually exclusive—that my reflection would reveal answers that developed in separate paths of my brain; I now know that the questions and answers are intertwined. Teaching is so hard exactly because the job presents the most challenging of time management and decision-making problems.

In thinking about this problem, I’m reminded of one of the most basic ideas in economics: opportunity cost.  One of the first things I learned as a college student in my introductory microeconomics class was that, when we make resource-use decisions, we shouldn’t think simply in terms of what we are spending.  Rather, we should ponder what we are using as well as what other things we forgo by allocating resources a certain way.  For example, when I spend $40 on a toner cartridge for my classroom printer, I am certainly losing an absolute sum of $40; but the opportunity cost of using the $40 also includes the next-best thing that I could have purchased with that money (and all the benefits that next-best thing might provide.  We must look at what we use; but we must never forget what we could have had.

Every decision-maker in life must analyze opportunity cost.  In this regard, teachers are not unique.  The restaurateur must figure out whether to redesign the lobby to attract whimsical customers or to hire a new chef to redo the menu and attract more hardcore foodies.  The investment manager must choose between tying up funds in “safe” bonds, at the expense of “missing out” on gains that could have been realized in hot growth stocks.  The general must carefully consider a decision to send a brigade in a frontal assault, not only because of any expected casualties, but because that deployed brigade would not be able to defend the headquarters.  Every job that requires thinking will require some level of decision-making.  And with decisions—forks in roads—come opportunity costs.

But what does all of this have to do with questions (1) and (2)?  One critic might reply, “It surely can’t be the case that teaching is hard because they make tough decisions.  There are too many jobs out there that require you to make tough decisions. Teaching is just like any other job, except you only have to work from 8 to 3:30. You shouldn’t complain!”

The more nuanced comprehensive answer to questions (1) and (2) and my imaginary critic formed in my head after something an English colleague at my school said to me after we spent an hour troubleshooting some of our disciplinary problem-kids: “People don’t realize this, but teachers make 250 major decisions on any given day.” What makes teaching so difficult is that teachers must make a significant number of “impactful” decisions every single period.  “Impactful” doesn’t necessarily mean “world-changing,” but it means that each decision will quickly elicit feedback from students.  And, as any teacher knows, the feedback can make or break your day.

What do I mean by this? As an example of the salience of opportunity cost in the teaching profession, do I let the covert cell-phone user or the evasive eater get by without a reprimand in class?  Since the battle that I fight to dispossess a student of his or her contraband is so time-consuming, I’ve often found that I would rather not use class time to tackle the issue head-on.  I will pretend not to notice their sneaky behavior.  Sometimes this works: if the behavior is a one-time thing, I will have saved time as well as taught my lesson without disruption.  But if that backfires, and, the following day, more students eat and use cell phones—well, I have to intervene at a higher level.  Furthermore, I will be losing more precious time calling up parents and/or writing referrals.  This takes significant time.  In other words, decisions are “impactful” because they immediately set off a chain of events that end with greatly positive or negative outcomes.  Each decision, then, must be made with care.  And with so many to make, teaching becomes overwhelming.

The next characteristic related to time management and decision-making is that the entire process is expedited tremendously. Teachers must be quick on their feet and make on-the-spot decisions with little to no time to analyze different options. To see how these factors play out in my classroom, I’ll describe some of the decision-making and time allocation that occurs in my classroom.  To provide context, in one extremely diverse period, I have ELL learners fresh from Cameroon, Ethiopia and Honduras; mentally retarded and bipolar special education students; post-high school level readers; and then your “average” struggling students.  Did I mention that I have a student who was recently jailed for car theft?  Anyways, when I ask my students to split off for independent practice, I often find that I am simultaneously running a thousand micro-calculations in my brain.  Here’s my thinkaloud:

  • Should I spend these next 10 minutes helping JG, who, as an MR student, is so low-functioning that he can barely function in my classroom without my guidance?
  • Wait! if I don’t re-read the instructions with my ELL students, they will have spent 10 minutes of their time staring blankly at a sheet of paper.
  • But, if, at some point in this period, I don’t go over to KC, my post-high school reader, and give her some “extension” activity, she will become more disinvested with the lesson that is clearly at a grade level that does not provide her a sufficient challenge. That would be terrible!
  • Don’t let VB out of sight!  He might try tampering with my laptop again or he might rifle through my desk.
  • I see WW over there texting away like she is typing up her final message before dying in a plane crash.  Should I stop her—should I give up all this time I’m spending actually teaching some of my students, no matter how haphazardly?
  • Uh-oh! EW actually has the audacity to answer one of her three cell phones in the middle of class.  Now that’s crossing the line. Forget teaching if I can’t have a classroom without unnecessary distractions.
  • Now SW is telling me for the 10th time this semester that she has a crush on me.  How do I respond?

But I also realized that it is neither the number of decisions a teacher makes nor the impromptu responses necessary that render teaching the most extreme of professions. At some point in this discussion, my imaginary critic would argue that “there are many jobs out there that also require you to make a large number of important decisions each day. Think of the day trader, who buys and sells on the market at a moment’s notice.  He has to make many important decisions, often with little time to ponder beforehand.”

To this, I would say, “I see where you’re coming from.”  But what truly separates teachers on another level is that day traders deal with money and teachers deal with students’ livelihoods.  The implications of every decision are that much more real, and therefore require that much more thought and brain processing power.


At this point, I would say that my argument is done.  Teaching is hard because it is one of the very few jobs in the world that require you to make decisions that…

  1. have a high opportunity cost (that precious time could be spent in so many different ways, both inside and outside of the classroom)
  2. are immediately impactful (as soon as I tell NG to “zip it!” I’m either going to be getting complete silence or an outraged verbal response)
  3. must be made with minimal processing time (when EW answers her cell phone in class, I have to respond immediately—but what should I say?)
  4. directly involve and impact the lives and futures of children.

All of these factors strain your brain in such a way that it doesn’t matter how well you’ve slept or how prepared you feel–you’ll always feel exhausted. Indeed, even when I was interning for a Japanese investment bank and pulling all-nighters (sometimes, I’d sneak away into the specially-designated “nap room”, where employees could steal a few minutes of shut eye in special nap chairs in the dark), I never experienced the kind of mental and emotional stress that I experience now.  Sure, I made decisions–a few–as an intern.  But they were neither “impactful” nor done on-the-fly; I could easily spend 20 consecutive hours in the office, but a good chunk of that time did not require my brain to be going in overdrive.  Sitting in a cubicle, there is always the urge to take a break here or there to read an interesting news article or brush up that Minesweeper score.

To be fair, yes, you sometimes feel an urgency to complete your manager’s task ASAP. But there is nothing like the urgency that one feels when you are trying to teach context clues to a 10th grader who somewhat confidently recalls what nouns and verbs are but, when I ask her what adjectives are, responds with “that’s from like elementary school Mr. K–how do you expect me to remember that?”

To a certain degree, the very fact that I only teach students for three 80-minute periods in a day makes the job that much more difficult.  Every second counts in the classroom.  There is simply no time to waste.  The usual process of making decisions is compressed into a small timeframe.

Oh, and add on to this (a) lesson planning (“how am I going to plan a lesson teaching denotation and connotation in an engaging way?”), (b) the “administrative disobedience factor” (“do I really spend the next three weeks doing this administration-mandated task with the knowledge that when I turn it in, nothing will happen with it?”), (c) disciplinary distractions (“why can’t I get in touch with WW’s parents?”) and (d) logistical labor (“when will the damn copy machine be working and when will it have preloaded staples and an empty hole punch waste box?!”)—all of this together gives you a mean lifestyle equation.


This reflection on teaching helps explain why I’m so perpetually drained.  But I have some lingering questions. Experienced teachers, am I missing any other elements of teaching?  Am I just suffering from first-year teacher hardships, or does teaching stay this taxing on the body and soul throughout one’s entire career?
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2 Responses

  1. chicagocan

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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