Like Spinning Plates

As an English teacher I’m always looking for the apt metaphor, that one-of-a-kind allegory which will once and for all, 100% no-questions-asked-put-your-hands-down-please definitively define what it is we do, day-in and day-out, as 21st century educators. I believe this one comes close.

The reasons why I like the visual synecdoche of the plate spinner may surprise you. In my heart, I know this is the healthiest model to explain why teachers need to give themselves a break, before they break themselves. And more often than you might think.

In talking with a colleague recently, the age-old adage of teachers not having enough TIME reared its perennial head. If it’s not TIME than it’s surely RESOURCES; (un-PC trigger warning alert!) the two twin towers of educational stress and anxiety.

But if we simply re-framed what we do as already impossible, perhaps then (only then) glimpses of the possible and profound would peek through. If politics is the art of the possible, then teaching is the impossible art!

If we divide teaching and learning into four ready-made components, they might be:

  • Curriculum Design
  • Instruction
  • Assessment & Evaluation
  • Reporting

If you think of these as the 4 plates we are constantly spinning, then you would be forgiven for thinking teachers have it easy, perhaps even under control. But, we know, like all good magic tricks, control is an illusion. The reality is there are spinning plates underneath these 4 plates, and more spinning plates under those– turtles on top of turtles, all the way to spinning infinity (R.I.P. Stephen Hawking).

The secret thus becomes this: in order to survive the greatest show on earth that is our noble profession, we can only spin ONE PLATE AT A TIME!!!

Yep. That’s it. Sarcastically sublime. Not as memorable as “with great power comes great responsibility” (R.I.P. Stan Lee), but nonetheless, reflective respite.

In other words, if you are concentrating on updating or improving strategies with your Instructional practice this year, you can let your other plates wobble for a little while. If- as I am doing this year- you find yourself with an opportunity and willing department, to radically change how you approach Assessment & Evaluation, than your Reporting might just not produce those wonderful bon mots you have so carefully curated and copy-and-pasted in previous times.

We set our own priorities, then we define personal best practice by them. If we don’t measure up to this exponential diagnostic quagmire, we imagine our plates have smashed and we have failed. We also unfairly project this best practice onto our colleagues and schools and when we do this we are guaranteed to find discrepancy- you see, we are all spinning different plates! This discrepancy may lead to stress and anxiety if used as performance comparison, especially as school mandates and department initiatives pile up, distracting you from your default-setting favourite plate; you know, the one you have the most control over so you spend all of your time spinning because if anyone noticed that your other plates were not spinning (or, gulp, missing) they might not see you as that grand wizard teacher anymore.

What we need to remind ourselves of, when everything is spinning, we can only control that which tasks our immediate concern or is in our sphere of influence. From there we can decide which plate to spin next, which one deserves the most attention, AND, most importantly when it comes to innovation and cultivating a growth mindset, which one we haven’t spun in a while.

Who are the expert spinners I look up to? @gnichols, @jmedved, @lmcbeth, @adamcaplan, @nblair@gvogt, @ckirsh, @lbettencourt, @ddoucet, @timrollwagen, @amacrae, @lmustard, @amaingot, @lfarooq, @dmonson, @shelleythomas, @vboomgaardt, @tfaucher, @lmitchell, @mmoore, @ljensen, @mneale, @egelleny

Wow, that’s a lot of sturdy plates!


Here is a handy graphic to help you prioritize. Turns out it was invented by former U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower!