Letters to a New Teacher, Part 2: Life Outside of School

Teacher-150x150This is the second of a series of letters I’m writing that are drawn from emails I’ve been exchanging this year with a new teacher.  You can read the back story and part one here.

Dear New Teacher,

I’m sorry to hear that grading and planning continue to overrun your life during your evenings and weekends.  I know how you’re feeling. I made a decision several years ago that I would not take any more work home. I would stay late, I might go to a coffee shop if I needed a change of scenery, but I would not allow my personal life to be tsunami’d by my job.  Perhaps other teachers can take work home and still maintain that critical “wall of separation” between school life and home life.  I can’t.  Regardless of where we do our work, it is imperative, not just for our personal lives, but for our professional lives as well, that we maintain thriving, interesting lives outside the classroom.

This may seem counter-intuitive: wouldn’t spending extra time on school stuff while we’re at home make us better teachers?  Just think of how detailed and intricate we could make our lesson plans!  The problem is that writing more detailed lesson plans doesn’t necessarily improve our instruction.  We have to invest some time in organizing the material, but there’s a point at which we stop getting a return on our investment.  I once heard the saying, “Schools are where young people go to watch old people work,” and it forever changed my life.  When we spend hours and hours on lesson plans, we tend to do all of the heavy lifting ourselves.  I don’t need to know how to explicate a sonnet.  I have explicated hundreds of them over the years.  I need to give students the necessary tools and then have them do the work themselves.  If they discover things for themselves, knowledge becomes exponentially more significant to them.  Instead, look at the material and ask yourself, “What do my students need to know in order to understand, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate this material?”  Give them the tools and put THEM to work–as a class, individually, or in small groups (my personal favorite).  Circulate and answer questions by asking questions; resist the temptation to provide answers.  Above all, don’t think for your students.  Teach them how to think and have them get busy.

Then there’s the objection that if we don’t spend hours during the evenings and weekends grading, we will fall hopelessly behind and our desks will be overrun with stacks of student papers.  There is no doubt that grading sucks, and nothing is more disheartening than watching that paper pile grow.  But I have decided that I will not make grading a priority.  I have decided that relationships with God, family, friends, and of course my students will all come before grading.

When I made that decision a while back, I found that it had three main implications. First, it meant that I assigned less work. I somehow had it in my head that if I didn’t give a daily homework assignment that I wasn’t doing my job. Not true. The weird thing was that I expected to hear about it from the administration or at least one parent. Not a single solitary complaint. Now, when I sit down to plan, I think mainly about the quality of the assignments and how authentically they assess learning rather than just how many assignments I give per week.

Second, it meant that I had to seriously limit the amount of feedback I gave kids. So I started thinking about other ways I could give students feedback. I started using writer’s workshops, conferences, and peer editing. And I used an online stopwatch to limit the amount of time I spent writing comments on each paper.  That forced me to focus on the issues that were most important and not be an editor.

Third, it meant that it took longer for students to get their papers back. If you have already established a reputation as a speedy grader, you will have to manage students’ expectations in this regard. As long as they have a general time frame for when they can expect to see their grades, they will usually not complain.  I had two classes of students submit papers just before Christmas this year.  Guess what happened to those papers over the break?  They sat on my desk while I was in Pennsylvania playing Scrabble and drinking hot chocolate with my family.  A student asked me, shortly after classes began in January, if I’d graded the papers yet.  I smiled and replied that no, I didn’t do any work over Christmas break.  She replied, “Oh, that’s right, I forgot that you had a life!” Yes indeed I do.  And my students are better off for it.

Here’s a trade secret: interesting people make interesting teachers.  Interesting people embrace a wide variety of experiences.  They listen carefully and with authentic interest to other people’s stories.  Are you starting to recognize the ways in which teaching breeds narcissism in us if we’re not careful?  We listen to the sound of our own voices all day every day.  We have a truly captive audience.  And yes, we will always sound better to our own ears than a bunch of 14-and-15-year-olds.  That doesn’t mean that we will always have the best things to say, because someday, hopefully, many of them will outshine us rhetorically.  To stay grounded, we need a lot of stimulating conversation with people from many different backgrounds.  Interesting people avoid snap judgments (how boring is the person who is quick to judge!).  They travel.  They try new and obscure foods and hobbies and events.  They make friends from all walks of life.  And yes, staying closely connected to your friends outside of school will prevent your reliance on students to serve in the office of friends.  Interesting people write a lot and they read, read, read all sorts of books.  All of those pages and experiences and conversations provide substance for your teaching, even if you never discuss them directly.  Simply understanding how big the world is and how small we are in it makes us better teachers.  When will we ever learn that if our heads are buried in stacks of grading during all of our free time?

Also, in regard to reading, please remember that when your primary reading is student work, you can lose a sense of what good writing is.  This is not meant to disparage students; they are learners, and we are assisting them in their growth process.  It just means that we must read a lot outside of student writing and outside of the texts we’re teaching so that we remember constantly the deep pleasures and personal rewards found in a book.  If we lose the joy of reading for ourselves, how will we hope to inspire our students to become lifelong readers?

I know that we are always busy and poor–the Purgatory of most teachers–but if possible, take classes at a community college, university, or seminary.  Even joining a book club can be beneficial.  You need to be inspired by ideas not your own, and you need to remember what it is like to a be a student.  If the class is good, it will expand your mind and help you recapture the joy of learning.  If the class is bad, it will increase your empathy with students who must deal with all manner of teachers.

In short, lighten your own workload, and don’t feel guilty about doing it.  You are the primary person who determines how much work you have.  I believe that you will find that giving yourself a bit of a break (while still remaining faithful to your calling) is not only possible, it makes you a better person, and therefore, a better teacher.

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