Poppie and DJ:Lessons on life choices

As I think back on the role models that I’ve had in my life, my grandparents were probably at the top of the list.  My grandfather, Arnold “Poppie” Schwartzmeier, used to joke that Arnold Schwarzenegger was “giving him a bad name.”  He was a meticulous person from top to bottom.  His clothes–a white or blue button-up shirt and dress pants–were starched each week by the same dry-cleaner for 20 years.  He listened to the same radio shows everyday, at the same time, on the same radio. His house was immaculate (Though, he would blame this on my grandmother.). He spent his weekends making beds and cleaning bathrooms that no one had used all week, but that he needed to clean.  Each day of his career, he drove the same route to Rochester Telephone Company, where he served as the Director of Safety Operations.   And he remains the only person I have ever known who would carry pocket-sized loan amortization tables in his chest pocket because he wanted to be prepared in case he needed to take out a loan for something.  

My grandmother was the complete opposite. Which is not to say that she was a mess, but Donna Jean (MacDonald) Schwartzmeier was a fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants kind of gal. She was the first to laugh at a joke–especially if it was inappropriate.  She once wore fishnet stockings and a boa to a bachelorette party for my sister’s wedding.  (She was 75 years old at the time.)  She was a fun-loving, caring, perfectionist who would literally work until she dropped. During the Holidays she would go to work–she was a High School Nurse for about 20 years–and then spend her entire night in the kitchen baking cookies, breads, roasts, etc. Even in her later years, she refused to have anyone live with her, or to live with anyone, until her health wouldn’t allow her to be alone.  

Their different personalities led them to make decisions in very different ways.  My grandfather believed that the best thing to do when a decision had to be made was to establish clarity.  If, for instance, he was looking for a new car, my grandfather would shop around and find the best deal, and then he would buy it.  There was a clear advantage to buying it at one place over another, and that clarity allowed him to make a decision.  In the absence of clarity, his mantra was: “If you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything.”  

Despite their 65-year marriage, this idleness drove my grandmother insane.  She made decisions in a very different manner.  She looked at everything as a series of pros and cons. If you asked her, “What college should I attend?” She’d grab her paper and respond,  “Let’s make a list of the pros and cons.”  And then, she’d look over the list and say, “Now, what are you going to do?”  The expectation, of course, was that you’d WOULD make a decision because she didn’t believe in idleness.  Unlike my grandfather, my grandmother made decisions based on the best possible evidence available.  There was no idleness and no looking back.

I’ve been thinking about these points of view a lot lately because as educators we make a lot of decisions.  (I’ve made hundreds of decisions in the process of writing this blog post!) What should I teach? How should I teach it?  How do I know if I taught it well?  Should I find a new occupation? (You know you’ve asked yourself this question!)  The list of decisions that we need to make is nearly endless.  What is less exhaustive, in my case, is the amount of attention that I give to how I make decisions.  In Smart Choices (1999), John Hammond, Ralph Keeney, and Howard Raiffa suggest that we often make decisions based on either a poorly thought-out, or non-existent process: “The result: a mediocre choice, dependent on luck for success” (p.3).  They go on to outline a decision making process based on the following steps:

  1. Work on the right decision problem
  2. Specify the objectives
  3. Create imaginative alternatives
  4. Understand the consequences
  5. Grapple with your tradeoffs
  6. Clarify your uncertainties
  7. Think hard about your risk tolerance
  8. Consider linked decisions


I don’t know that this process is any better than my grandparents’ process, but I do know that I don’t pay enough attention to the way that I make decisions.  Too often I focus on my intuition and rely on my past experiences to shape my choices–and sometimes this is effective–but I’m not sure that it passes the Parent Test. By this I mean that any decision that I make should be good enough for my child.  Would I want my child to do this assignment/test/project?  Is this policy good enough for my child?  If the answer is anything other than an informed “yes,” then I question the decision and/or the process used to make it.

If the past few years have shown us anything it is that poorly made decisions can cause upheaval and distress–I’m thinking of CCSS, Modules, APPR, etc–and I think that we owe it to our students to spend more time thinking about how we make decisions.  Not only will our outcomes be better, but we will be doing a better job of modelling good decision making practices for future generations.


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