3 “If Only” Myths Killing Education Today

by: Alex Stubenbort

 For like a poisonous breath over the fields, like a mass of locusts over Egypt, so the swarm of excuses is a general plaque, a ruinous infection among men, that eats off the sprouts of the Eternal.-Søren Kierkegaard

Despite our personal desire to hold educators in our hearts and minds as superhero-esque miracle workers, we are but human. We laugh. We cry. We give piss-poor excuses to explain away our shortcomings. The clickbait you’ve fallen for has brought you to a blogpost focusing on the latter—on the excuses. Although excuses come in many shapes and sizes, one characteristic seems to hold true across every single one—the commitment to the “If only” mentality. “If only my wife didn’t nag, I would be happily married.” or “If only I had the time to workout, I’d be in better shape” or “If only I made more money, I’d be able to do more good in this world.” 

Although the variables change, the propositional formula remains consistent: If only (a) then (b). The fundamental flaw with such logic is that rarely can problems of any level of complexity be solved by changing any one variable. Instead, complex problems have a multitude of factors that demand myriad approaches. Logicians know the phenomenon of assuming that there is a single, simple cause of an outcome as the Single Cause Fallacy . And the use of the aforemtioned logical fallacy in education is rampant. That is why I hope to debunk a non comprehensive list of 3 common “If only” myths all too often used by educators to eradicate the lazy and human practice of excusemaking from the profession:

1) If only I had a different group of kids... 

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Undoubtedly, when in conversation with an ineffective educator, you will hear some semblance of the aforementioned myth. “If only I had the ‘smart kids’.” or “If only my kids came from more affluent neighborhoods.” or “If only my kids knew how to behave.” The problem with such excuses is that they ignore the overwhelming research that concludes that kids can learn despite socioeconomic factors, familial factors, and/or previous disciplinary problems. In Robert W. Cole’s Educating Everybody’s Children, he shows that a child’s struggle with learning has far more to do with her teacher’s prejudices and biases than it has to do with her own race, socioeconomic status, gender, or sexual orientation. Great teachers don’t mistake students that are hard to reach with students that are unable to learn. Avoid the temptation to spend your hours wishing for someone different to teach while ignoring the kids you’ve been given the blessing to serve.

2) If only I had different administrators, district personnel, or legislators...

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Before addressing this excuse, allow me to first acknowledge two things: 1) those in positions of power over you do, in fact, have a direct impact on the scope and depth of what you are able to teach and how you are able to teach it and 2) most educators have little to no voice in choosing those that hold these powerful positions. So how can I, in good faith, acknowledge these realities and still urge educators not to use these realities as excuses? Because of George Couros. In Couros’ Innovator’s Mindset, he calls on educators to innovate INSIDE the box: “If you want to wait for others to make the changes that you see as necessary in education, you might be waiting forever. It is crucial to do what we can within the ‘system’ or the ‘box’.” Again, in no way do I believe that the impacts of those in power are not real and...well...powerful; but this can’t be where an educator throws up his hands. Take your little corner of control and innovate inside that box. By doing so, you may just reshape the box itself.

3) If only I had more time...

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Time tricks us into believing that we are owed something more than today when, in reality, todays are all we have. When we allow ourselves the excuse of “not enough time” we negate the endless possibility that every day, every hour, every moment possesses. That is not to say that deadlines and due dates don’t create limitations, but innovative educators should view these limitations as assets instead of roadblocks. These limitations can build a sense of urgency and inspire novel ways of approaching problems. When my back’s up against the temporal wall I find peace and motivation in the words of Mother Teresa: “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”

Don’t fall for the “if only” mythology. Problems facing education today are far too complicated to be boiled down to bumper-sticker-sized excuses. Ultimately, excuses are part and parcel of the human experience. However, if we lean on these excuses as crutches instead of treating them as hurdles to be overcome then we discredit ourselves and the power we possess to positively impact the lives of the children we serve. 

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