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Dec 18, 2008

Ode to simplicity

Svetlana, Gleb, Prosha and I took a walk in the snow – a mile, maybe a mile and a half. It was one of those experiences that take you back in time. Cold air on my face, squeaking snow, and a white, colorless plain around us: I always miss the stark austerity of winter, the white and black, without color, without much detail. It puts me at ease, and resets my mind into a state of balance and clarity. My craving for simplicity comes from a similar source. I dislike unneeded complications, excess of detail, layers and additions. Things should be simple, elegant, and dependable.

Here is an example of an unnecessary complicated process. To place student teachers, we ask them where they want to go. Most just need a geographic area, but some want a specific building or even a specific teacher. We collect all this information from 300+ students (thank God, electronically), sort it, filter it, and send to individual school districts. A district HR person then sorts these requests, clears them with the district's authorities, and passes them on to building principals. Then each of the overworked, distracted principals will have to take these requests, think about matching them, then talk to each teacher, and send a confirmation to the district. The district then approves a match, and lets us know. We, in turn, create a confirmation letter and send it to our student.

What's wrong with this picture? - Almost everything. First, there are too many steps, which take a lot of time to complete. Second, there are bottlenecks for information flows. Marita, our student teaching coordinator cannot process all requests at the same time. Each district cannot do it fast either. Everyone tends to lose track of their requests. Building principals are tasked with an additional work which they tend to put off, because very often, other things are higher on their list. Is it working? Yes; we have never left a single student not placed somewhere. But it is not simple, not elegant, and not snow-like. The process takes too many steps, too many decisions, most of them unnecessary. It involves too many points of information transfer.

Essentially, two people should find each other – the host teacher and the student teacher. They are the primary players in this game. The only reason we won't allow students to find their own placement is that it is too intrusive for the life of schools. There are also three parties to give consent to the match: UNC, the building principal, and the district. In some cases, it is     just the principal and us. But it is clear that people who should just have the power of consent, are also involved in passing the information to each other. Moving information is not the same thing as giving approval, and it does not have to go together. And this confusion is what creates the friction in the system.

What we should do is use matchmaking software, where people look for each other by certain criteria: location, grade level, perhaps even teaching philosophy. The three parties approving the match can actually give their permission in advance. For example, a teacher needs to be cleared to post his or her profile. A UNC student can only select a host room under some criteria, known in advance. We do not have a stake in knowing too much about the process, and certainly don't gain anything by passing a lot of information.

Of course, there is some distance from an idea to reality. But once it's done, it is going to be so clean, so white, like snow. I am looking forward to it. Peace.

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