Take what you have and get on with it

James Barber, The Urban Peasant"If I only had ___", or, "wouldn't it be nice to have ___", "We can't do that unless we get___." These are familiar refrains in any situation, not just education. Those of you from Canada may recognize James Barber of The Urban Peasant cooking show in the 90s. He was well-known for enabling viewers in the absence of materials. "If you don't have x, use y. If you don't have y, use z. If you don't have z, find something else." Rather than ditch the recipe because we were short an ingredient or two, he thought about what we DID have and encouraged us to forge ahead and make something wonderful.

When I was attending Memorial University of Newfoundland I took a few English methodology courses with Dr. Frank Wolfe. Of the many things I learned in university, this piece of advice was, and still is, the most valuable: He said something like: When you get to be a teacher you're going to walk into your new classroom and think about all the things you want but don't have. You'll never have it all, and it isn't about the stuff you don't have. What you do have is kids - kids to teach. In the end you just have to take what you have and get on with it.

A classmate of mine posted the following description of the very unique teaching situation in which she works. Her job is to teach inmates about financial planning and responsibility:

I have flexible pens (so they can't stab anyone), 4 un-stapled sheets of paper (staples can be used as a weapon) and a white board.  I cannot do small group discussion or ask anyone to come to the board to work out a problem (they are not allowed to leave their seats during class),  cannot have full group "other directed discussions (men are not allowed to talk to women) and while we can have "discussions" they must be directed to me and not each other.  This makes for a difficult environment in which to be creative.

I don't have calculators and most have lower level math skills - making it very difficult to explain compound interest or credit card interest rates in anything more than "this is it" manner.  I have one hour (not a minute more!) and there is no pre-or post class work or ability to familiarize oneself with the material.  I have no access to computers for YouTube explanations or cute examples.  In that hour I have to explain how  income (to those without jobs) and debt (to those without credit or a place to live), long and short-term financial goals (to those who are impulsive and not really known for planning) and explain how to create a budget !  These are things that people have trouble with in the best of circumstances.

What if you have nothing? What if the getting-on-with has to happen when you have nothing to take? Can education happen in a material vacuum? What does my colleague have? Is hers an impossible task? She has words, a whiteboard, a little bit of time, and (with apologies) a captive audience. It raises all sorts of questions about learning expectations, accountability, demonstrable progress, motivation, and more. But is it enough? I guess it has to be, until things change.

In the end, Dr. Wolfe is still right. Taking what we have and getting on with it a required element of all our situations. Meanwhile, we advocate for change, and  seek enabling innovations while tending to our primary task of educating our academic charges.

The saying works with cooking, construction, relationships, finances, gardening, playing with Lego... life in general. Take what you have and get on with it.


  1. B Clendenning says:

    Thank's again for this advice. It's posted on the wall in my classroom as a constant reminder.

    • milesmac says:

      Hey Ben! Nice to hear from you! Sage advice for everyone... that and Yoda's "Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try." 🙂 going to send an e-mail, will be nice to catch up.

  2. Harvey says:

    Absolutely true Miles! We're always short something but need to get things done anyways - by improvising and changing.

    • milesmac says:

      Yes, if we choose to look from the side of abundance rather than the side of scarcity, the same situation can seem so much more positive and filled with possibilities!

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