Dear Sarah,

How do you deal with the constant cycle of planning, teaching and grading? It feels like a never-ending process, and I am having a hard time giving it my all consistently.

Sincerely,

Never-Ending Process

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Dear Never-Ending Process,

Let’s get straight to it. Here’s the bad news: you simply can’t give it your all consistently. Here’s the good news: you thankfully can’t give it your all consistently. If at first that feels like a defeating response — hang on — let me unpack it a bit.

You’re right. Each of these pieces of a teaching life takes a different kind of energy. If you’re creating new lessons, it means you’re delving into research, generating materials, trying to predict difficulties and thinking about making learning relevant. Even though your brain probably feels stuffed with standards language, this act of creation fuels your passion and enthusiasm.

The act of teaching takes presence. It takes a commitment to being “in the learning moment” all the time. It’s the space where we let go of our beautiful designs and hang onto the signs our learners in front of us give. We cling to the days when it’s euphoric, knowing it will be exhausting too.

The act of grading, of managing the paper is downright tough. At best, it’s another way of teaching through feedback, but at worst it feels like an existential malaise. Each of these parts of a teaching life (which don’t even include the social and emotional facets of staying connected to our learners) is overwhelming on it’s own. And that’s before they start to overlap.

Just when you have given two late nights to this amazing lesson plan, you realize that pile of student work to be graded doesn’t even have a rubric yet. Maybe you’ve devoted 10 hours of your weekend to giving feedback on student work only to realize it’s 9:00 on Sunday night and the lesson plan is still skeletal. Or you’ve created this interesting lesson to help students be reflective on the work you’re returning to them, only to find they want to talk about grades instead of learning and your sense of teaching presence has just deflated like a balloon in too hot sun.

You can’t do it all consistently. Unless, of course, you want to lose yourself along the way. So while it may seem unfortunate that maintaining this cycle is largely unattainable for sustained periods of time, it’s also a reminder that you are a person not a widget. This is where it gets dicey.

Our desire to feel like we have this cycle under control can unintentionally lead us to create mini-factories out of our classrooms. Our need for some reprieve from this cycle leads us to explore efficiency. Of which I’m all in favor of, until efficiency turns to desperation and we do things like refusing to grade assignments that come in without names or planning out quizzes and tests so far in advance that the calendar dictates the learning instead of the students.

While I don’t agree with these practices, I do empathize with them. I see them for what they are: products of exhausted and well-meaning teachers who are trying to manage this cycle, but end up pushing themselves further away from what will replenish their energy: kids and learning.

This is all sounding kind of depressing, I know. But, there’s a flipside! If we recognize we can’t consistently live in this cycle, then we can start to see it less as an assembly line and more like water that ebbs and flows. There are weeks where your best teaching will be done while you’re conferencing with students and giving them feedback on their work. Lessen your lesson planning that week. Other weeks they’ll be working on projects or assignments where you can’t waste a second of time during class, but then your planning and after school time can be focused on generating new lessons. It also gets easier when you can reuse some of your materials or a grading apparatus. As your experience grows, so will your resources.

Most importantly, don’t try to be perfect all at once. As a recovering perfectionist, I can assure you it will only reveal the flaws and hide the brilliance. Rather, think like the tides: rolling in, rolling out, leaving smooth sands and unexpected treasures.

Teach openly,

With Teacher2Teacher

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