A few months ago I spent a day with Deborah Ball and her ace team at the University of Michigan TeachingWorks. It was a great day and I told myself I’d write a swath of blog posts worthy of the day. And then I didn’t, which doesn’t reflect on the importance of the visit just on the chaos of my life.
While my list of takeaways was several pages long, one phrase has emerged over time as the most powerful and I find myself using it and thinking about it over and over.
The phrase is ‘Endemic Problem.’ Deborah coined the phrase to refer to a problem that we know is going to exist in teaching. It’s the opposite of an exotic problem-an unpredictable thing that crops up and that you have to solve or deal without benefit of planning or anticipating it. Endemic problems are challenges you know are going to happen. And so you should be prepared for them. For example, you should not be surprised when a student does not follow your directions. You knew that would happen and so you should also have some idea of what to do. Ideally teacher training would consistently address endemic problems and the ideal responses to them. People who train teachers ought to also know endemic problems are going to occur and therefore have thought about what specific approaches will help address predictable challenges. Whether they do or not (Deborah’s program and a few others excepted) is another question.
I think it’s interesting that we often treat as exotic problems that are really endemic. When you became a teacher you knew someone would try to back talk you, right? So that’s not an exotic problem, it’s an endemic one and you should already know in advance pretty much what you’ll do in response. You might feign surprise but you shouldn’t really be surprised. Similarly, kids forgetting something you’ve taught them is an endemic problem. It’s inevitable. So why be mad at them for it? Better just be prepared for it. “I thought some of you might forget so I…”
It’s also interesting to think about how much solving endemic problems helps address “exotic problems.” I often face this issue when I show video of outstanding teachers’ classrooms. Viewers will often mistake result for cause. “Well of course she can teach that way, all her kids behave. She has good kids,” they’ll say when really what they are seeing is a result: systematically addressing—before they happen or right after—endemic problems, which makes exotic problems less likely to happen and isolates the people who do them within the community so they are not leaders but outliers. This to me is the one of the keys to handling “most difficult kids”: removing their receptive audience by addressing endemic behaviors. Much of counter-productive behavior is social. In their minds kids think, “I want people to see me do this.” And thinking that implicitly assumes that people will like it and approve it. It assumes a receptive audience. Removing that encouraging receptive audience and solving the endemic challenges of their classroom behavior isolates an exotic challenge and frees up your time and energy to do the hard slogging of addressing the exotic kid with a bit of tenacity and creativity and maybe problem solving.
Anyway, that’s just one way applying the idea of the “endemic problem” is useful. I’ve found about 100 others recently, including a discussion with my wife last night about the “endemic problem” of kids not putting laundry in laundry baskets. J
In short I’m always ecstatic when I have a useful phrase to help explain and discuss the work we do as educators and Deborah’s is one I keep going back to. Hopefully now you can too.