Applications of The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande

For summer reading, I chose The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.   I watched Gawande’s interview on the Daily Show some months ago and immediately bought the book.   The book is certainly going to help me as a music teacher, but for reasons I was not expecting.

When I purchased the book I think I was reading the title as “the To-Do list Manifesto.”  I needed help with to-do lists.  My wife is a master of them, and as I have struggled through my first full year teaching full-time high school band, I realized that I needed to be much more organized in the order and manner I set out to accomplish the day-to-day tasks of my job.  I was hoping that Gawande’s book would give me some insight, and a procedure for this.   It did not, but I think that’s OK.

A checklist is not a to-do list as I soon found out.  Gawande is concerned about how doctors and pilots miss minute details that cause catastrophes.   Checklists are great ways to get the habitual right every time.  Though I was disappointed not to have a great way to start a to-do list, I started thinking about the little every-day things that make my classroom function and how easy it is to miss them.

Here’s a list of checklists I plan on developing:

  • Concert Checklist with Dates
  • Honors Ensemble checklist with Dates
  • Class Procedure Checklist
  • Game Day checklist for Marching Band
  • Rehearsal checklist for my Drum Majors
  • Percussion rehearsal checklist (for set-up, breakdown, and switching between pieces)
  • Rehearsal checklists for section leaders
  • Practice checklist for students to use at home when they practice

The idea is that these are all no-brainer activities.  But as we all know, if you forget to take attendance, don’t have the right music in the folders, etc, etc, a rehearsal or performance can be totally derailed.   Perhaps the first thing on ALL the checklists will involve getting to know each other.  Gawande is shocked how much just introducing each other helps a team function.  I guess he had never been to band camp!  As much as I understand the power of knowing names and social interaction, it’s easy to forget in the hectic beginning of the year and I plan on making this my first course of action this year!

Gawande has a bigger point with checklists:   that problem solving needs a set order.  If a problem is encountered in construction, the idea is to push the decision making out to the periphery rather than having a single individual responsible.   As a teacher, this idea is promising though I don’t know how I can put it to use yet in a band program.  The idea is VERY applicable to school administration, however and I hope principals and superintendents across the country are reading!

Finally, Gawande aims his texts at a class of professionals who he lists as doctors, lawyers, teachers, soldiers, pilots and public authorities.  He defines ‘professional’ as having three common elements no matter the field:

“First is an expectation of selflessness:  that we who accept responsibility for others _ whether we are doctors, lawyers, teachers, public authorities, solders, or pilots _ will place the needs and concerns of those who depend on us above our own.  Second is an expectation of skill:  that we will aim for excellence in our knowledge and expertise.  Third in an expectation of trustworthiness: that we will be responsible in our personal behavior toward our charges.”  (page 182)

Do teachers meet these three expectations?  Do administrators, superintendents, school boards, legislators, and voters work for a system that fosters these between teachers?  I think ‘mixed’ is as positive as I be about an answer.

Gawande’s book is about checklists, but it is a bigger indictment of professionalism and individualism in a time where there is too much information than any one person can hope to comprehend much less use effectively.   As teachers of children and colleagues of other teachers we may have to suck it up and admit that we can’t keep track of the thousands of demands that tug at us each day.  We may need a checklist or two to remind us to take our attendance, submit our grades, or even speak to each other as one professional to the next.  Not because we’re incompetent, but because we owe it to our students to spend more time on teaching than the every day management of our jobs.  Lord knows as a band director in charge of teaching, finances, and logistics and time saved is worth it’s weight in gold.