Professional Learning

10 Ways Teaching is Like Flying

July 30, 2015 Updated July 11, 2015

I usually find air travel a nuisance -- crowded cabins, interminable lines, and unavoidable TSA pat-downs. But flying back east for a recent family visit, I actually found the experience educational. About halfway through the three-hour journey, the teacher in me started to notice similarities between flying and learning: two experiences that seem worlds apart but actually share quite a bit in common. My top ten discoveries:

1. You must gather speed before you can launch. 

When commercial jets taxi down the runway before take-off, they hit about 130 knots (150 mph) before initiating their ascent. That’s blazingly fast, but most travelers shrug off the sheer velocity. The speed creeps up on them -- slowly at first, then all at once. Suddenly, passengers are lifted past the limits of the present into a new and distant future. The process of education should take students on a similar journey -- gradual and grinding, then swift and soaring. Before students can launch, they need to accelerate by learning new facts, mastering stubborn skills, and generating fresh thinking. Their ascent into new worlds is powered by the forward-thrust of educational progress.

2. Teach students to act like problem solvers, not information processors.

Long story, but the airline assigned my family of six to non-adjacent seats spread across six rows. Four kids, all under the age of ten, dispatched to various regions of the aircraft. (And no, this was not my shrewd attempt at relinquishing parenting duties for a few hours. My wife still does not believe me.) When we tried to enlist the help of the airline gate crew, they told us that they could not troubleshoot the problem; the system would not allow them to reshuffle the passenger manifest. On board, we coaxed (okay, begged) nearby passengers to take different seats to allow our family to sit together. Problem solved. This got me thinking: Schools need to spend more time turning students into problem solvers, not information processors. The airline’s slick data management software did not help us escape a near crisis. Real people, using real-time reasoning skills, saved the day. We need to educate in that direction.

3. Every classroom needs a captain.

On a related front, we cannot underestimate the power of an actual human being. Yes, automation has made air travel more seamless, from self-directed safety instructions to on-demand snack and beverage service. But there’s nothing as commanding or comforting as the voice of the captain alerting us to our cruising altitude, navigational path, or takeoff position on the runway. Technology has disrupted the field of education, mostly for good. As hubs of 21st century learning, schools have evolved more in the last five years than they have in the last seventy-five years. And while the role of teachers is changing -- perhaps irrevocably -- their place in children’s lives has never been more important. Teachers are captains of the classroom, clearing away the clutter and helping students sort through a dizzying array of data sources. Actual teachers -- not some digital alternative -- make meaning out of the information overload by pushing students to challenge, debate and apply new knowledge using their own human capacities for empathy, grit and teamwork. There’s no app for that.

4. Waiting is not an activity.

Flying often means waiting -- to clear security, board the plane, or claim checked baggage. Despite their gripes and grousing, travelers are expecting to wait and just accept that. Learners shouldn’t have to. If students are idle in the classroom, the assignment is either too hard (and they succumb to frustration) or too easy (and they submit to boredom). The state of inactivity, unless planned intentionally by the teacher, is a sign that learning has not been fit to size. A well-designed lesson accounts for various types of learners, activities, and contingencies to support students as they progress along an instructional path blazed with their current and future needs in mind.

5. Life can be like an overhead compartment.

At some point or another, we all feel crammed and squeezed in our professional work. In particular, teachers experience this sensation every time they are pressed into tight corners over their teaching and assessment practices. Like a soft duffel caught between two formidable wheelies, teachers are pummeled from all sides -- by students, parents, administrators, legislatures -- and sometimes fare no better than the overcrowded compartments latched from above. There’s a place for standards, performance review and value-added evaluation, but teachers need room to breathe so they can give their students room to grow. It’s really that simple.

6. Sometimes you need to utilize the “off” button.

I consider myself a tech evangelist and see great opportunities for engaging today’s students using 21st century tools. But there comes a time in the classroom when it’s appropriate to “turn off all personal electronic devices,” just like those who fly the friendly skies. The real power of technology isn’t immersion (which is seductive), but rather intuition -- choosing the right tool for the right time. Knowing when to power down allows teachers to dial up all kinds of meta-cognitive tasks like reflection, analysis and critical thinking, the deep end of the learning pool. For as much as our screens open up a window into the wider world, they also shut down certain aspects of the educational experience -- like engaging in serious study of text or discussion its implications for our world.

7. Before you take care of others, take care of yourself.

In the event of an emergency, passengers are instructed to place an oxygen mask over their mouths before securing the mask of a child companion. For parents, this defies their protective instincts, which viscerally prompt them to put their children’s needs before their own. There’s a lesson here, especially for educators: You’re no good to others if you aren’t good to yourself. Teachers are well-versed in the art of self-sacrifice, but they need to occasionally step back, refresh, indulge (maybe just a little), and make sure they are whole -- not for their sake, but for the sake of those in their charge. Leaky barrels don’t hold their water long.

9. Turbulence is an inevitable part of the journey.

If you’re lucky, the captain will forewarn you of incoming turbulence. Most of time, it just envelops you -- an unexpected rattle and jolt, the kind that tilts your feet off the ground and your stomach in knots. The same can be said for educators who must absorb the unsuspecting blows that are the byproducts of everyday instruction. No student is perfect all of the time, and a class full of students is perfect none of the time. There will be letdowns, frustrations, unfulfilled wishes and unmet expectations. The best thing a teacher can do is to learn how to ride out the turbulence, because once it passes, things tend to clear up and smooth out.

10. All of us are more powerful than any one of us.

It takes an airline’s ground crew upwards of 15 minutes to clean the cabin of a Boeing 737 after passengers deplane, but only seven minutes if travelers assist the flight crew by disposing of their own trash while airborne. In other words, when people act as force multipliers, their actions are more powerful than any single entity, even if it is armed with power vacuums and sanitizers. If teaching is an art form, then teaching through collaboration is a master stroke. When teachers pool their knowledge and talents through shared professional learning and experience, they are “smarter” than any single person on the team. Teachers who think together tend to grow together, expanding their reach and range of practice. That growth bodes well for practitioners everywhere, whether or not they are crammed into coach.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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