The cruise control setting on our automobiles offers several benefits. We can set a specific speed and maintain it for extended time, and as a result, we can avoid inadvertently speeding up or slowing down, thus needlessly wasting fuel. Additionally, we can give our foot a rest from constantly pressing on the accelerator. In short, cruise control allows us to maintain a consistent pace without constant attention and adjustment.
However, cruise control also presents challenges and potential dangers of which we need to remain aware. We can approach road hazards without full attention and anticipation of adaptation. Cruise control does not adjust for curves, intersections, accidents, roadway hazards, or construction zones. For that reason, we need to be attentive and ready to take control well in advance of these highway features and exercise our judgment and skills in order to navigate safely.
There are times during our careers when we can find ourselves approaching our work as though we are on “cruise control.” Recurring schedules, daily routines, static curriculum, years of experience at the same grade level or teaching the same courses, and other elements of teaching can feel as though one week leads to the next—the same can be said with one quarter, trimester, or semester—to the end of the year at a predetermined pace on an often-repeated path. We set a standard pace to be regularly maintained. We may even use the same lesson plans, handouts, worksheets, and practice activities as previous years.
Yet, when we place our teaching on cruise control, we risk ignoring and sacrificing important opportunities and elements of the process that can be among the most rewarding aspects of our work. We can also find ourselves in trouble if we fail to recognize the signs and symptoms of what lies ahead. Let’s examine five of the most common dangers we are likely to encounter if we allow our teaching to be on cruise control.
We can come upon rough spots in the road that demand attention and adjustment before we are aware and prepared. A student who normally is engaged and well-behaved begins to slip; the level of disrespect grows subtly until we realize that it may soon get out of hand. Failing to be fully engaged can leave us reacting to challenges rather than anticipating and adjusting.
We may not see the upcoming “curve” that will require us to adjust our speed. This year’s students may not have the same characteristics and needs of last year’s students, or the previous year’s lot. We need to be careful not to blame them any more than we would blame the curve in the road. We are the ones who must adjust our speed and respond to changing conditions.
Our focus on pace can lead us to miss opportunities for creativity, see ways of exploiting the unexpected, and bypass teachable moments. Meanwhile, we can neglect to slow down, give attention, and provide support when students begin to struggle—and before they are too far behind.
We may speed past timely “rest areas,” where a brief pause and time to stretch, reflect, and refresh are needed. Rest areas on highways are strategically placed to provide rest and respite in a timely manner. We, too, need to keep in mind that learning is challenging, and periodic breaks and opportunities to recalibrate and refresh are important to our students’ ability to remain focused and continue to learn.
Our default to cruise control can also leave us feeling detached and stale. We risk not experiencing the full measure of our relationships with students and the surprises, delights, and inspirational moments that can unexpectedly present themselves. Over time, leaving our teaching on cruise control can lead to feeling a lack of satisfaction and forgoing a sense of accomplishment.
Teaching is a demanding profession that can be frustrating and exhausting. It also offers unique opportunities to engage students in experiences of wonder, inspiration, and possibility. As tempting as it might be to occasionally place our teaching on “cruise control” and relax, we risk not being ready when our students need us most and missing the most important and rewarding elements of our work.