Teachers routinely try to deal with too many students, insufficient time and too few resources. In short, they struggle with chronic scarcity. This leads to a centrally important questions any conscientious teacher must ask. Who most needs my help? Do they need so much assistance others will suffer? Who can wait? And who can get along without me?

Dealing with chronic scarcity afflicts almost every aspect of public education. So one wonders why so many educators fail to face it directly? Some teachers pretend the issue doesn’t exist. Probably because aknowledging it makes them feel uncomfortable. Others ignore it because they don’t want to seem incompetent. Still others are sappy sentimentalists intoxicated by the fantasy that pathological optimism and unreserved self- sacrifice conquers all.

This is the self-same nonsense that Hollywood peddles in feature films about education. Self-sacrificing teacher surmounts every difficulty through force of will, uncommon devotion and relentless optimism. But this happy horse crap only works in the movies. In the real world even the most dedicated teachers routinely face situations where available resources simply are inadequate and difficult decisions have to be made.

Sound horribly severe? Here is a thought experiment to try. Imagine you are in your initial year of teaching in the chronically underfunded School District of Philadelphia. Thanks to conservative up-state legislators both your school district and your inner city school are catastrophically short of resources. That is why you have a class of 34 first graders that, thanks to mainstreaming, includes a child severely handicapped by Down syndrome. Some administrator decided that your class was the “least restrictive environment possible.” The youngster is low functioning and has serious behavior problems. His uncontrolled actions ruin many lessons and he assaults classmates who obstruct his desires. Sometimes he strikes out for no apparent reason. Once, while seated in the Caring Circle, he even impulsively kicked a classmate in the face.

You can forget about getting him transferred to special education. Such assignments do not begin until second grade. You have no aide. They all disappeared, (along with the school nurse and guidance counselor) because of those draconian budget cuts. When you try to teach this youngster something it takes an enormous amount of your time and yields comparatively little. Meanwhile you have 33 other inner city youngsters to teach, each with their own needs, problems, emotions, interests and abilities.

The plain fact is there is no way to adequately address everyone’s needs. So what is one of the first things you must do? Figure out how to distribute your time and resources to maximize learning for the greatest number while trying to deal with the guilt that these imposed choices induce. Your training probably never even suggested you might face such choices, much less explored how to deal with them. The romantic drivel that was handed you in teacher education is no help. You urgently need to know what to do.

Fortunately, there is a time-tested method for coping when urgent demands that exceed existing supplies. It is called triage, and those dealing with mass disasters routinely practice it. Here is how it works. All the casualties are sorted into three categories. Those requiring immediate life-saving attention. They are assigned first priority. Those that can wait must do so. The dying are left untreated until the needs of the others have been satisfied.

Emergency medical personnel simply cannot afford to pretend that their time and resources are limitless. This grim but essential allocation saves lives. Yet teachers in training are rarely taught that they too will likely lack the time and resources to do everything that needs to be done and thus must perform triage. This lack of candid preparation tacitly encourages new teachers to expend unjustifiable time and resources on the most needy youngsters, while neglecting those who would most profit from their help. Such misappropriation is understandable, but ethically indefensible.(1)

Ignorance of the necessity of triage causes many potentially good teachers to blame themselves when they cannot do everything that needs to be done. This is one reason why, five years in, nearly half of newly minted teachers will have either abandoned the occupation or transferred to a new school.

Moreover, maintaining the fiction that triage is never necessary plays right into the hands of the politicians who, by perennially short changing public education, put teachers in situations where triage is ethically unavoidable. Then, making matters worse, these very same politicos demand that no child be left behind or, currently, that every child succeeds.(2) This, of course, is sheer bullshit.

It is past time to end this humbug. Teaching is just like any other occupation that requires extensive time and resources for its accomplishment. Short-changing either results in sub-optimal performance. But at least the very worst outcomes are avoided when triage is employed.



Sincerely, GKC


1. See Edward G. Rozycki, <a href=”” target=”_blank”> <b>The Ethics of Educational Triage: is Special Education Moral?</b></a>

2. In December 2016 President Obama signed into law the Every Child Succeeds Act. It replaces the unlamented No Child Left Behind Act.