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The 500-Word Guide to Satisficing for Teachers

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Every teacher comes to a juncture, usually in the first or second year of their career, where they become painfully aware of the gaping chasm between All The Things they planned to do as a teacher and their very present, very real, very frustratingly imperfect daily practice. This is a critical moment because, from here, the teacher can either get bitter and complainy, or get serious and settle in for the long haul. And a key piece in that puzzle is whether the teacher is aware of the important need to satisfice in a job as complex as ours.

What is satisficing?

From Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload:

Satisficing [is] a term coined by the Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon, one of the founders of the fields of organization theory and information processing. Simon wanted a word to describe not getting the very best option but one that was good enough. For things that don’t matter critically, we make a choice that satisfies us and is deemed sufficient. You don’t really know if your dry cleaner is the best — you only know that they’re good enough. And that’s what helps you get by. You don’t have time to sample all the dry cleaners within a twenty-four-block radius of your home. … Satisficing is one of the foundations of productive human behavior; it prevails when we don’t waste time on decisions that don’t matter, or more accurately, when we don’t waste time trying to find improvements that are not going to make a significant difference in our happiness or satisfaction.

How does satisficing apply to teaching?

The tricky thing about teaching is that, of the thousands of decisions we make every day, some may literally be matters of life and death, quite a few are matters of long-term flourishing, but an incredible amount just aren’t mind-shatteringly important. (See Figure 1.)

Steps to Follow to Increase the Odds that You’ll Satisfice the Right Stuff

Step 1. Make sure you’re clear on your top level goals.

Step 2. Run decisions through the filter of your top level goals. How close is that decision to the top-level goal? The stuff that’s closest to the top level goal gets your best effort and your first chunk of non-instructional time.

Step 3. The stuff that’s furthest away from the top-level goal gets satisficed. Don’t ignore that stuff! After all, it’s very difficult to keep your teaching job if you decide to forever ignore grading or emails completely or the neatness of your classroom. Instead of ignoring it, we satisfice the heck out of these things, doing them as quickly as we can (e.g., grading articles of the weekreducing or managing our inboxes).

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