Pacing Yourself


I've found a common theme in my first 4 years of teaching is mid-semester burnout. I get a point where I'm just ready for that semester to be done so I can start fresh. My first semester my first year, this moment occurred six weeks into the year.

I remember that I would do this as a student as well. I would start a semester with these lofty visions of actually reading everything the teacher assigned* and actually paying attention in all of my classes. Inevitably, I would reach a point in the semester where I would get tired or busy or overwhelmed or distracted or something. I would switch into a survival mode where I did the required work but no more. I figured out where I needed to be to earn my points and I would get right there on that line, but no further.

*A good reminder for myself that I did this, so I shouldn't think my students are terrible people when they don't read their homework. They're just teenagers.

There are several things to take away from this little bit of reflection:

1. Do my assignments really matter? If a student does not complete a particular assignment, will they or I feel like they've really missed something? I remember my first year teaching a student missed a day. She came to me when she got back and asked what she missed. I told her we did a worksheet, but it wasn't that important and to not worry about making it up. I thought about that story earlier this year while giving a student a detailed breakdown of the work they had missed and shook my head at myself.

I wish I could tell that small story wasn't true. Getting past this challenge is harder than you would think, but it's a good habit to come back to the question regularly when planning work for the students. I regularly remind myself to assign less work that more meaningful rather than more work that is less meaningful.

2. Does my class have a flow, or is it full steam ahead at all times? I think part of what led to my burnout each semester was that there were very few natural breaks. I'm not saying that there should be weeks where there should be no work, but I do think it is good habit to think about the stress that I am putting on students at any given time.If my goal in class is to foster thought and reflection, I need to create an environment where that can take place.

I have started giving vocabulary work each Monday. This looks like pretty quiet individual work as the students complete their weekly vocabulary. On Friday, they take a short quiz and then they write a journal over our essential question for the week. The simple fact that there is more of a routine to my week has helped both mine and my students stress level. I asked my students in a survey after 3 weeks "Does the weekly vocabulary help you learn better throughout the rest of the week?" A shocking 94% of my students answered this question with a 'yes'.

My fantastic wife Angela (@autismteacher13) teaches a classroom for kids with autism. Their entire schedule is based on building and maintaining routine. Routine is important for all kids. Routine helps kids feel comfortable. Routine can free a student's mind from worrying about what the hell is going on in class so that he can think about why inequality exists in our world.

3. Do students see the skills they learn in class revisited? I realized last year that most of my students cannot accurately make a timeline unless their given an unrealistic amount of guidance. So this semester, we used a timeline as the method for learning about the French Revolution. We made two full timelines. The second was more complex than the first. I was able to teach specific skills relating to timeline building in-between each formative assessment and see those skills grow. The plan is to do the same thing during my current unit with the Revolution except with maps. The skill of reading or creating a map isn't the content, but knowing that each Tuesday we're going to layer on* to map-reading this unit provides structure that eases the minds of the students. While this may seem like basic stuff, it's not really taught in teacher education classes - or at least the one's that I took.

*Three cheers for scaffolding! It actually works! 

This is also a great way to build assessments into your unit that are not multiple choice tests. In this unit on the Industrial Revolution, the students' summative assessment will be to design a small town from scratch. This will test their knowledge of what parts of a city are most important - do they include a trash dump before they include a hair salon? It will test their basic knowledge of the important aspects of a map. It will also provide a different kind of assessment to help those students who absolutely freak when they are given a test.

4. Am I building a model that I can sustain my entire career? Listen, I'm a 27 year-old teacher married to another teacher who understands the need for working in the evenings and on the weekends. She does the same. But we have our first kiddo coming in May, and that has me thinking about what my class will look like for the rest of my life. Can I do what I'm doing now with a baby? With a teenager? I've begun to think more about the time constraints that I will have once it is not just two work-a-holics living alone like my wife and I are now. I can reuse the lists of vocabulary words and their corresponding quizzes year after year. I am able to grade 3rd hour's vocabulary sheets as 4th hour is completing theirs. The weekly quiz is online and grades automatically. My Moodle online classroom will preserve the bulk of what I do year-in and year-out when I teach and reteach curriculum. There will surely be tweaking, new lessons and projects. But I have started to plan with my future a bit more in mind so that I can be a great teacher next year and in ten years.

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Thanks for reading this blog. I hope you'll consider taking a moment to comment below and turn this into a conversation. Whether you are an educator or not, we have all had common experiences with education both good and bad. I want to hear what you think! 

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