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The Onus of Learning, Part 4: Teachers

Apple for Teacher
Apple for Teacher

Oddly enough, I wrote and rewrote the Teacher post for my “The Onus of Learning” series numerous times and they all read differently and dissatisfying for too many reasons.

One sounded as motivating as Linguine’s speech to his kitchen staff in Ratatouille before Anton Ego came for dinner. If you’re unfamiliar with this kid-gem of a movie, Linguine intended to pump up his staff but left everyone feeling oddly uncomfortable until Collette cut in to say “Ego is just another customer. Get to work!”

Another was motivating in the first read, but the subsequent readings sounded to me like a hollow toxic-positivity rah-rah go-team locker room speech. I scrapped that one, too.

I’ll spare you details of other versions, the only one of this blog series that I struggled to write and I realized why it was so hard. It comes off as difficult because I’m not in the trenches with you all. I’m not decorating a classroom, diving into data, juggling back-to-school meetings, or rehearsing lesson plans. I recognize that being out of the classroom and speaking to teachers in the classroom automatically comes with an air of you’re out, so you’re out.

Okay, I get that.

When I was a teacher, and later as I trained in leadership with my Master’s and in-school leadership, something that always irked me was when someone would come in and give some speech that sounded great but completely avoided the real challenges and issues that teachers faced. A sweeping figure-it-out, make-it-work, just-do-it or we-got-this-yay! would be frustratingly annoying, whether it came from a campus leader, a hired consultant, or a campus eager-beaver (every school has a few). So let’s lay it all out there to start.

Teachers, I hear you. If no one else hears you, know that I get it. Your burden is heavy, your workload is unsustainable, your work/life balance is nonexistent, and many are seriously considering any other career. For many teachers, the problem isn’t salary (although it could be depending on your district and the cost of living in your community). The problem is dignity and respect as professionals.

For most teachers, one of the biggest challenge these days is battling the “should be’s.” In all of my years in education, I believe in nearly every meeting someone somewhere protests something using “should be” or “should not” as justification.

A few examples from not-so-recent memory:

  • Kids should be able to read (at grade level or period);

  • Kids should be expected to clean up after themselves;

  • Kids should treat adults (and each other) with respect;

  • Disrespect should not be tolerated;

  • Damage to property should not be acceptable;

  • Parents should be involved in their kids’ education;

  • Parents should respect teachers as professionals;

  • Society should respect teachers as professionals;

  • Leaders should recognize what they’re asking and why it doesn’t work…

I could go on, but the problem is, this line of thinking wallows. This soapbox can derail into paralyzing negativity, and then what? The problems remain and so does the work. So what’s the solution?

I’m not a fan of the “should-be” point of view unless you are in a position of control to manage the massive amount of variables that impact that perspective. (For a more literary diatribe on this idea, read the following chapters in my memoir, Magnolia in November: Game Face, parts 1 and 2; Brain Matters; Numbers; Song of Stories). If things aren’t as they “should be,” focus on how they actually are and how you can best learn, grow, and thrive as professionals while helping your students learn, grow, and thrive themselves.

The following tips helped me tremendously during my education career:

  • The work of a teacher is never done. There is always more you could do, more you could prep, more you could grade, and more you can plan. If you don’t establish realistic boundaries with work, you will burn out. When you leave work, leave work (and all that’s undone). Devote your personal time to whatever fills your cup and your personal responsibilities. If you’re married, bond with your spouse. If you’re a parent, bond with your children. If you’re single, make friends, find a hobby, join a sports team, or do whatever fills your cup and makes you feel like the best you you can be. I say this because I was the teacher and leader who would work almost nightly for hours on end after my own children were asleep. I barely gave myself time to sleep, let alone recharge. Focus on yourself because only you can prioritize your own needs.

  • This means that work will be left undone. It has to be because there are simply not enough hours in the day to accomplish it all. So, if you want to avoid burnout, learn how to prioritize so what’s really important gets done while you avoid spinning your wheels on what isn’t. Your priority list will change as the year moves on, but figure out your school district’s nonnegotiable deadlines and work around those as a starting place.

  • Your classroom does not need to be Pinterest-perfect or TikTok chic (or whatever platform or influencer you favor). Make a few subject-specific anchor charts relevant to the needs of your students, add a word wall of subject-specific jargon, leave room for any district requests (data wall, etc.), and call it a day. After a week or two of school, use your wall space to prominently display exemplary student work. I used to be the type of teacher that would exemplify the "print-rich" environment. My perspective on this changed after having an autistic child and realizing that some students may find walking in to such a classroom overwhelming before the real learning has even started. If you really want to fancy it up, recruit a few students to play decorators during lunchtime or after school and reward them with whatever seems appropriate (snacks, stickers, cute pens, etc.).

  • Grading is probably one of the most time-consuming tasks for a teacher outside of the classroom (especially for an English/Language Arts teacher because of writing). There was an initiative from my former district called Aggressive Monitoring. Many teachers I worked with initially recoiled from this idea, partially from the “aggressive” connotations and the initial awkwardness of implementation. At first, I wasn’t a fan, at least I wasn't until I realized that mastering this strategy would spare me hours upon hours of grading outside of the classroom.

    • (A very condensed explanation of “AgMo”): 1. Take your standard (whichever is required by your state and district) and write your lesson objective and demonstration of learning. Essentially, you are determining what they need to learn and how they need to show they got it. 2. Moving backward from that demonstration of learning, scaffold your lesson. The number of scaffolds should be determined by the length of your class time, but three is a good starting place. 3. Have each scaffold of the lesson show that they are getting the skills they need to get to the end. For example, scaffold one should be lower-level skills like identification (highlight the claim in the argument, underline the thesis statement, divide the subject and predicate, group like factors, color the nucleus, etc.); using something you can check instantly, go around the room and literally check off whether the students got it or didn’t while keeping track using a roster or an app (like Google Sheets on your phone). Also, ask the kids to write a short explanation for their response so they can track their thinking and prevent them from randomly selecting when you come around. 4. Repeat with other scaffolds using higher-order thinking skills pertinent to the lesson (analyze, compare/contrast, evaluate, synthesize, create, etc.). 5. By the end of your lesson, you won’t need to grade a class load of whatever. Focus your time on detail grading your demonstration of learning, which should be short like a three-question multiple-choice quiz, a short paragraph, or a couple of sentences. Instead of reviewing all of the work that led to the learning, you can analyze the thesis statements your students composed for the elements in the lesson (or whatever you’re teaching). Even with multiple choice questions, have kids explain their rationale for their selection. You’ll be doing them a favor when it comes time to review or reteach down the line. The added bonus is AgMo will nip classroom management issues before they start. Kids are more likely to stay on task if they know you’ll be frequently checking over their shoulders. For a very detailed explanation of this practice including videos, read Get Better Faster by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo.

  • As I wrote in “The Onus of Learning, part 2: Parents,” parents and teachers are partners in supporting children’s education. Recruit parents as supporters for students by introducing yourself (email, phone call, class website, whatever makes sense depending on your student class load and age group) and laying out your requests and expectations. Most parents truly want to help, but they don’t know how. If you build a positive relationship with parents from the start, this will help tremendously when problems arise later, whether they’re academic, behavioral, or anything else. Treat parents with respect and consideration as partners in learning and carry yourself as the professionals that you are.

Although you may not have a gag order as part of the terms of your employment, you essentially do. Going public with concerns, legitimate or not, within the privacy of the teacher’s lounge, happy hour, or even on social media can and has caused all kinds of serious professional repercussions for those individuals, especially when their concerns don’t toe the line of the district’s vision (the most immediate example that comes to mind is “Rainbowland”). As an employee, part of your job is to execute the vision of the district leaders. Whether that means time-stamped scripted lessons, zero autonomy in text selection, a literal song and dance greeting at your classroom doorstep, or wearing fifty pieces of flair, just do it. I have not written this blog post with the intention of sowing discontent or supporting insubordination.

I firmly believe that meaningful reform of an institution or industry cannot come from within. Attempts to do so are viewed as insubordination and I don’t believe that malicious compliance is an effective way to inspire learning. If you are employed by a district (or a company or whatever), ask yourself whether you can get behind the vision and expectations of your district. Can you fulfill your responsibilities to the best of your abilities with the enthusiasm that first drew you in? If you truly cannot, there are other schools, other districts, and other jobs. It is better to step away than trudge through the school year in misery. After all, you’re responsible for the learning of your students and that is a heavy responsibility that you must fully embrace to be successful as an educator. Even if the kids act like kids (teachers, you know what I’m talking about), you set the tone and the rigor of your class, regardless of whatever demands are asked outside of your classroom.

But just because you are unable to raise serious issues without repercussions, that doesn’t mean that I am not. Teachers, I volunteer as tribute. Message me your concerns and if it is an issue that I agree with, I will be your voice and champion your cause.

Before the school year starts (or even if it already has), set yourself an emotional intention for the year that will help keep you grounded when challenges arise. Read it aloud to yourself before getting out of your car at school or reflect on it while shuffling kids in the hallways. My two favorite go-to intentions are “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:23) and “If you see someone without a smile, give them one of yours” (Dolly Parton). Find yours and ground your intentions and purpose in this statement throughout the year.

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Aug 29, 2023
Rated 4 out of 5 stars.

Overuse of the connector 'and' reminded me of an accusatory reprimand (or two) received during my essay grades. "Used 'AND' too often to bolster 'word count'!!" was the red pen editorial remark the critic(s) in the teaching profession usually scrawled across my submission. 🙄 😑

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