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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Is This Your Life's Work?

I'm starting to believe that my and other math teachers' blogs are giving the impression that we stay up all night making amazing lessons to deliver to every single class starting immediately.

I can't speak for anyone else. But speaking for myself...this is not so. I decided to publish part of an email I received recently, and most of my response, to clarify my very non-super human reality.

From my inbox, excerpted:
I am curious if .... this is a common phase of the dedicated teacher's career: the year you give your life over to making a curriculum you can be proud of.

I have spent much of my summer planning out my curricula so that, at the start of the school year, I will be prepared to begin my own year of designing smart lessons. However, as September approaches, I am becoming anxious. The daily routine I've been looking forward to seems grueling. How can anyone balance making fresh lesson plans and worksheets and homework assignments and quizzes while keeping up with grading and the hundred or so other chores that become part of a teacher's job? Coming up with challenging work is challenging itself, and I have found no way to speed up the process.

How do teachers, who are just getting into the brave new world of curriculum development, manage to get it all done? Is a 5am-7pm schedule, like I'm anticipating, required? Does every teacher who makes their own materials spend at least a year in monk-like isolation working continuously?
(From Alison Blank, who it turns out is a blogging natural.)

And my response...
The year you teach a course for the first time is definitely going to take more time than one you have already taught and refined. I have found it goes like this : first year of a new course, I'm keeping my head above water and trying to stay a unit ahead of the kids. (Sometimes, I'm only a day ahead of the kids.) In the second year, I am heavily revising my materials from last year. And in the third year, I'm polishing it.

I plan a unit at a time. I like to get the unit calendar, activities, smartboard files, assessments, and keys all done during unit planning, so that when I'm delivering it I can focus on the kids. Unit planning has to be a big chunk of uninterrupted time, like 3PM-7 or 8PM or come in on a Saturday. But that's not every day. That's maybe once every one to two weeks for each course.

I don't make all my own stuff. I have colleagues who are very generous about sharing their materials on a share drive on our school network. I rarely make anything from scratch. I usually start with someone else's unit and revise it to my liking. It's still a significant amount of work, but it's way easier than starting from scratch.

When I am planning something from scratch, I don't try to do it all. I use some selected materials (assignments, activities, etc) provided by the textbook. Yes much of the textbook materials are crap, but if you look through everything they provide for a particular chapter, you can usually find two or three things you can use, maybe with modifications. And I find stuff online to use.

Or, I will decide to use something from the book or that I find online that is not perfect, but it's good enough for now. (My goodness, I might be kicked out of the blogging community for that.) Then when I refine the course next year, I will focus on designing something better for that particular lesson. You don't have to achieve perfection in one year. Shoot for perfection in three years.

I guess what I'm saying is, for me, trying to invent everything out of whole cloth would be unrealistic. I can't work twelve hours a day every day. I wouldn't be a very good teacher if I tried to work that way. I need a few hours in the evening to go to yoga, go for a walk, cook a healthy dinner, watch tv, or honestly sometimes I just sit on my couch and stare off into space.
So I hope that's helpful to someone up late, panicking. Getting good at this will take time. No one who has spent more than ten minutes in front of a classroom expects you to be an expert teacher tomorrow. Maybe you plan to teach for a while and then move on to something else. In which case, it might make sense to light the other end of the candle. But are you in this for a couple years? Or is teaching school your life's work?