The Burden of Choice

If there is one word that would sum up the pressure that my participants feel, it’s this one: burden.

This is the word they most commonly use to describe how they feel about the performance expectations placed on them at school, and also to describe their sense towards the work they have to accomplish during our training program. Ask any other teacher trainer in Korea, and they’ll probably agree that this is one of the the most used words among their participants.

Burden of Choice

Wanting to help alleviate some of that burden, I’ve recently been introducing the element of choice. On two occasions this semester, some participants didn’t complete in-class writing tasks, and so I told them that if they wanted, they could finish it at home, but emphasized it was their choice. From my point of view, the writing task didn’t need to be finalized (published) in order for learning to happen. The writing process was the center of my objective, not the final product. However, I could appreciate that some may have liked to finish it to feel a sense of completion, so I gave them the option. No matter how the task ended, I asked them to add it to their progress portfolio. By giving them the choice I thought I was fostering a sense of autonomy, and control over the end result of their portfolio.

What I never realized was that by giving them the choice to finish a task at home, I may have been inflicting more pressure. This was brought home when I heard,

“I feel more burden now that it’s a choice.”

It is at this point that I decided to examine this word  more closely. When I say that I feel burdened, is this actually a feeling or is it a pseudo-feeling? A pseudo-feeling, or faux-feeling, is actually a judgment about what others are doing to us. Another example of a pseudo-feeling is ignored or abandoned. I cannot feel these without the action of another. The actual feeling behind ignored, or abandoned might be lonely or sad. Another honest feeling behind ignored could be relief. If someone ignored us, we would feel relief if we needed time alone (p. 43, Rosenberg). When I hear someone say they feel burdened, this is the sense I get. It seems like they are blaming the person behind the action instead of taking responsibility for how they are really feeling.

I bring this up is because I noticed how some participants welcomed my decision to make homework an option. What this told me was that the element of choice was not seen as bad by all. Some felt relief, and even cheered for the choice. They could go home knowing they didn’t have more work to do.

Others, however, felt confused, and sighed with irritation. I can appreciate this confusion. The participant who felt burdened by the choice probably felt more like this, “I feel annoyed because I’d like some clarity. I want to know, if I don’t do this task, will I look bad? I need assurance that I am doing my best work.”

What this has taught me is that choice may work for some and not for others. It is clear that some people need strict support and guidance, whereas others feel just as safe when set free. My job is to understand these two sides. My job is to see beyond the burden.

Rosenberg, Marshall B. 2005. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. 2nd ed. Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press.

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6 thoughts on “The Burden of Choice

  1. Yes, there seems to be a sense of “burden” among the students here in Korea. And actually, I feel that they probably have a right to feel this way. For most of the time, do they have any choices in the things that they are expected to do. It must be like being in the army, where one must obey orders—or else.

    Also, if the choice is too wide, the students may get confused, especially when they can’t predict the outcome of their decision. This could be what happened when the students were given the choice of doing homework or not doing homework. They may have felt as if they were being “tricked,” and were unhappy because they couldn’t predict what would happen to them if they chose not to do their homework—no matter how much they wanted to take this path.

    Maybe the way to go is to give them choices within a tighter perimeter. I had a situation today that I had to discuss with my students. The department in which I work, as opposed to the rest of the school, doesn’t really give holidays to the students (or teachers either, for that matter). They give the day off, of course, but then students have to do a Saturday makeup class or suffer the consequence of an absence—which is minus five points.

    When I told them about the departmental rule, they were very unhappy. I think they felt betrayed. Some of the students live two hours away or have part-time jobs on weekends. So I gave them three choices—all of which guaranteed that they wouldn’t lose five points.
    1. They could attend the Saturday makeup class as scheduled.
    2. They could come to another class of mine on a different day (I currently teach the same lesson to several different classes each week).
    3. Or—they could come to class on the holiday itself (I could arrange for the room to be available).

    They immediately and unanimously rejected coming to class on the day of the holiday, so I sent around a sheet of paper giving them the choice of the Saturday makeup class or attending another class. The decisions were made on an individual basis—whatever worked best for each student. In the end about 70-80 percent of the students (varied slightly by class) chose to come to the regular Saturday makeup class. But their unhappiness seemed to have disappeared. I think that giving them some choice in their destiny, however small it might have been, helped them to feel a little sense of freedom.

    Maybe they weren’t aware of what had happened, but I do feel they left the classroom that day happier. Sometimes we just stumble upon answers—that makes things better for everyone. Perhaps it’s staying open to the possibilities that works the magic.

    I have applied to the INTERLINK/SIT program and Marshall Brewer suggested that I check out this website. This was my first posting and I’m finding the site fascinating–like some kind of therapy that brings up things from inside you that maybe you didn’t even realize were there.

    Thanks, guys,

    Susan Pompian

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    1. Dear Susan,

      Thank you for sharing your experience of how choice played out in your classroom. Both these quotes resonated with me, “I think that giving them some choice in their destiny, however small it might have been, helped them to feel a little sense of freedom.” “Perhaps it’s staying open to the possibilities that works the magic.” With the first quote I connected to the idea that choice creates freedom. When we feel that we are in charge of our destiny, happiness seems more attainable. The second quote brought to mind the idea that teachers and students are more apt to learn from each other when they stay open to the possibilities. Once we close ourselves, this may be where learning stops, and fear creeps in.

      I’m happy Marshall connected you to this blog, and that you joined in the discussion. I look forward to reading more of your comments.

      Enjoy SIT! Are you going this summer?

      Josette

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  2. Hi Josette,
    I am so glad that I finally could make time to read your profound reflection.
    I’ve arrived at the midpoint of the spring semester, (time flies lightspeed here) which students often describes as ‘putting out fires’, ‘a series of emergency’.
    The time that i am having at SIT is a critical turning point in my life and career with no doubt. Also it offers me to reflect on things that I had taken for granted in Korea. Taking things as “Burden” can be a byproduct of Korean culture, where everything has been graded in comparison w/ others’. i.e. my achievement can be undervalued/overvalued in comparison to others’s achievement. Others can be siblings, cousins, neighbors, my mom’s daughters, friends…the list could go on….
    In SIT classroom, what makes me still astonished is how students express themselves as freely regardless of the quality of their thoughts and teachers acceptance without any judgement.
    I am not defending your participants’ lack of diligence or mere grumbleness. Just I can emphasize their long-held burden and fatigue of having to show the best to be valued.

    Hope to share things with you in person soon.

    Cheers,
    Jungyoung

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    1. Thank you for reading Jungyoung! I love discovering new readers. I also love hearing from fellow SITers on the hill. I miss Brattleboro.

      I like what you wrote ““Burden” can be a byproduct of Korean culture, where everything has been graded in comparison w/ others’. i.e. my achievement can be undervalued/overvalued in comparison to others’s achievement.” This is truly the sense I get from this word. It seems to be a feeling wrapped up in a lot of judgment, or fear of judgment. I also feel there exhaustion. They are so tired of being in a system that judges, and they just want a break. However, they still aren’t sure how to take a break from themselves.

      Thank you for your empathizing words, Jungyoung, and I hope to see you here again. Say hi to the professors (Elka, Susan, Pat, Ray..) for me!

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  3. Great question Kevin. It’s possible that the bridge is built via the teacher’s ability to empathize. I think it is safe to say that we can’t please everyone all the time. When our students complain, all we can do is try to understand. In the end we know why we decided to reduce their workload. Of course, it would be nice to get recognition for our efforts, but that may be our “burden” to carry. It’s like the ungrateful teenager. We give and give, but our efforts go unnoticed.

    As I write I realize that one way to help them see our perspective would be to raise their awareness to their behavior. We could do some kind of experiential task (or code) that would ask them to experience a teacher who is trying to make a task lesson burdensome, but their students just complain. Maybe the code would be that of the teenager….thought?

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  4. Yes, “burden” is the word I hear most often when students are giving negative or constructive feedback. I’d never considered “pseudo-feelings” before and love the concept. I also appreciate your ability to empathize with the students by trying to articulate the feeling that may be causing the burden. This is one of the words that often causes me to feel irritated and annoyed – especially in situations like the one you’ve described. Often it seems that the more energy I spend trying to make the task or assignment less burdensome – the more I hear this word from participants. I feel that “I’m putting forth lots of time and energy to make this task easier for you and and you’re not recognizing my efforts.” My students perhaps feel that “I’m trying as hard as I can to do well in this course and you’re not recognizing my effort.” How do we bridge these perspectives?

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