Aborted Landings, Airsick Bags and… Teaching?

I’m recent arrival both to teaching and to the city of Wellington. Over the summer I made the move from Auckland to the capital to take up my first teaching position. With my wordly possessions making their way by road, I decided to fly to my new home.

Despite my love of travelling around the world I don’t do well with flying. And by don’t do well I mean absolutely petrified. Of the dozens of airports I’ve flown into around the world Wellington definitely rates as one the scariest.

Wellingtonians are curious breed. At best they seem to a best tolerate white knuckle landings into their airport. At worst they consider it a business opportunity. I spend most of my time during final approach having panic attacks.

My last flight into Wellington was a nervous flyer’s nightmare. The stormy night resulted in 3 missed approaches, 20 minutes bouncing around tory channel a trip back to Auckland to refuel and re-crew before I made it to my destination nearly 4 hours after we departed.

Suffice to say my airsick bag got used that night. Yet in between minutes of abject terror, I realized that the actions of the people in charge of the jet and the well-being of the passengers could readily be applied to my new life as teacher.

The first lesson is the importance of effective communication. After each unexpected turn in the journey, the crew in the cabin and the flight deck always told us where we were going and why.

This clear and confident communication helped bring my anxiety down notch as I looked out the window wondering if this flight was EVER going to end. So my teachable moment is that when the going gets tough, the tough get talking.

The next lesson I learned is to always have enough gas in the tank to get you home. Obviously not having enough actual fuel has some rather dire consequences in aviation. But airlines know that tired pilots put lives in danger too. Is the same true for teachers?

I’m sure that I’m not the only teacher who has at some point commiserated with a colleague about skipping lunch because of inter-class sport, coming in on the weekend or spending 11-12 hour days at school.

Shouldn’t teachers be calling each other out more often on this kind self-congratulation disguised as self-deprecation? Or would we rather our students see us as the frantic, overwrought, resentful teachers that not taking time out to refuel can make us?

Is that why so many teachers crash and burn?

The third lesson is the importance of having a sense of humour. At all the times the crew on that flight were friendly, approachable and did their best to keep the passengers laughing during our multiple attempts to land.

My next lesson from the crew is doing the best with what you have. Even though I was grumpy and tired, somehow getting both jet planes and cookies instead of choosing between one option made up for spending those extra hours up in the air.

The final lesson is perhaps not so funny, the importance of managing human error. In aviation, accidents are usually highly visible, and as a result aviation has developed standardised methods of investigating, documenting, and disseminating errors and most importantly heeding lessons from crashes.

Yet when we look at education we aren’t so good with managing errors. In the past our education system failed half of our learners each year before the students had opened the exam book in order to preserve the bell curve. My dad was one of those learners.

Today we’ve gone to the other extreme where failure must be eradicated. Missed approaches, bad weather be damned. Our students need to arrive at the end of year at standard OR ELSE. Failure is no longer an option.

The night I travelled to wellington other planes managed to land or at least didn’t get turned back. Should the crew have been held accountable for aborted landings? Did the pilots make an error in deciding to turn back to Auckland due to a lack of fuel and foul weather?

From a bottom-line perspective the pilot’s decision cost the airline time and money. Moreover as a passenger I paid to arrive at 7. But I’m sure everyone would rather have a late safe landing to the alternative.

Aviation learned the hard way that focusing too much on narrow targets can lead disaster. Human errors need to be managed through monitoring and cross checking, as well as reviewing and modification of plans to improve safety.

Which sounds a lot like the idea of teaching as inquiry. Because rather than being a dirty word, if you look closely at closely, a FAIL is actually a First Attempt In Learning.

Or should that be landing?

5 thoughts on “Aborted Landings, Airsick Bags and… Teaching?

Add yours

  1. Another lesson from flying which could apply to teching, and indeed life, and related to you leve enough gas in the tank lessons, is: to put your own oxygen mask on before attending to anyone else.

    People who don’t look after themselves end up not being able to look after anyone else and sometimes become a burden to them.


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