Have you ever gotten behind the steering wheel of your car and ended up somewhere without recalling much about the journey except where you started and ended? Do you ever go through a specific routine or experience (i.e. - getting ready for work in the morning) and before you know it you're done and ready to move on to the next thing without being able to recall everything you've done? I don't know about you, but that happens to me on a regular basis. I have a 25 minute ride to work that involves using some side streets and two major highways but on most mornings as I pull into the parking lot at school, I don't remember much about the journey (luckily I haven't ended up totally lost and I only went to the wrong school once when I ended up at my old school). Fortunately, it seems that my brain has committed this whole morning journey to memory so that while I am consumed by thousands of thoughts, ideas and questions, I am subconsciously getting to work. I think I can confidently say that in this instance, being on auto pilot is my savior and a critical part to my success on any given day!
With that being said, there are times when we need to avoid being on auto pilot because auto pilot mode often means that we get too comfortable, too complacent, too stagnant and our opportunities for growth diminish. From my perspective it seems that auto pilot can be negative in certain relationships (friendships, work colleagues and even marriages), situations and work settings - especially in the world of education! As educators our whole world is about teaching and learning; learning and teaching. This constant cycle of learning and teaching means that educators are always growing, changing, evolving and rarely kicking it into auto pilot; except, when it doesn't.
We can all close our eyes and recall that teacher, principal, central office administrator or college professor who had clearly engaged the auto pilot feature and forgot to turn it off and re-enter the cycle of learning and teaching. That educator whose notes for the day were written on faded yellow lined paper (paper that started out white decades ago) and were found in a binder that hadn't been updated in years. Or that educator who gives the same lecture in the same class year after year completely neglecting new and relevant information that has surfaced since they started teaching the course 8,000 years ago (the one that still refers to U.S.S.R. as a place that exists today). Or that educator who believes that children's minds are like sponges and that they will absorb everything they hear so their only instructional approach is direct instruction where they function as the "sage on the stage" as opposed to the "guide on the side." The examples are endless and I am confident that each of us has come across an auto pilot educator at some point during our lives or careers (in fact, some of us are probably working with an auto pilot educator as we speak).
Please understand that I am not saying that the auto pilot educator is a bad educator or person at the core and sometimes being on auto pilot is necessary - but only for a short time! The full-time auto pilot educator has decided that they don't need to learn anything new because what they do works "just fine." In my mind though, "just fine" is not good enough and being an auto pilot educator is not in the best interest of children. With every new group of children, students, teachers or administrators we encounter, the dynamic, complexion and readiness levels vary, which means that our approaches towards teaching and learning must change, even if the change is minor and potentially unnoticeable. As educators we have many goals but one of the most important is tailoring what we do to meet the specific needs of our current group of learners to whom we are responsible. In my humble opinion, I don't think an auto pilot educator can accomplish this goal because they have exited the cycle of learning and teaching.
Recently, I felt myself engaging the auto pilot mode in regards to my own personal learning and growth because everything seemed to be "just fine" and I didn't think anyone around me was necessarily being impacted in a negative way. Then, after a Faculty Meeting this past January, I walked to my office and realized that I hadn't provided my staff anything new or current that they could potentially use in their own classrooms or spaces because I was starting to engage in the dreaded auto pilot mode. The meeting, like many of the recent meetings, was all about administrative odds and ends, which were important on some level but there wasn't much learning or growing happening at our meetings. That is when I decided to push myself and engage in something new - I joined Twitter! Well, over the last three and a half months, my whole professional and personal world has changed simply because I disengaged the auto pilot feature and tried something new. I have learned about things that have changed the way I work like using Google docs, Evernote, Diigo or Dropbox; I have learned about blogging, which has provided me with an outlet for my thoughts and opinions as they relate to the world of education (before I used to drive just my wife, colleagues and friends nuts but now I can drive all of you nuts too); I have been introduced to things like Prezi, the "Flipped Classroom" and Visual.ly, which have changed the way I do things and the way I view things (literally and figuratively). The list can go on and on thanks to my PLN and the information I have been exposed to on Twitter but the point is that by trying something new (just ONE new thing), I was able to stay in the cycle of learning and teaching and I avoided auto pilot!
So, do you think you might have lost your way in the cycle of learning and teaching? Has it been a long time since you tried something new in your classroom or school? Has it been a while since you reflected on a specific lesson or activity to really analyze what went well and what you would like to do differently the next time? Has it been a while since you tailored your instruction to meet the needs of a specific group or learner? Well, if you have answered yes to any or all of these questions, then you probably have engaged the auto pilot mode; but, don't fear because all you have to do is TRY ONE NEW THING or APPROACH and you can successfully avoid auto pilot!