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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?


  1. >Shoot for perfection in three years.

    I'm shooting for perfection before I retire. I think it takes something like this blogosphere to get my creativity going, which of course I didn't have until recently.

    I've been teaching for 20 years, and I'm still going mostly from the textbooks. I have a few really cool lessons, a few whole units I've designed right, but mostly my enthsiasm carries us along. That's not enough.

    I want to do more, and I think this new world of online communities will change my teaching. But I can't even carry the pace Kate talks about. I'm a single parent, and I like getting my 9 hours of sleep a night. (Well, 7 to 9, but I don't set an alarm.)

  2. I think it depends on where you are in your life. When my children were liivng at home, they were my priority and I mostly just followed the textbook. Once my kids started getting older, and now that they are grown, I spend all summer working about 4 hours a day preparing lessons and assignments for my 2 courses. I know they won't be perfect so during the year, I will revise as I go. I love the curriculum writing aspect of my job, but I like to get it done in the summer so during the school year I focus solely on my students and their performance. My philosophy is I teach students first and math second. So if I have to choose between having the time to make more parent contacts or giving students feedback and writing a new cool lesson, I choose the students. Lesson writing for me happens mainly in the summer or school breaks.

  3. The "year" of writing my own curriculum, or rewriting everything as Kate explained, came in the summer between my first and second year of teaching. By the time I was in the classroom I was pretty well set with material, and came up with new stuff as the need arose.

    Over the years, you get to know several things that make assembling an interesting lesson much easier. You know your state standards and tests inside and out. You know exactly what materials your school and district has made available (textbook and otherwise), and you know what your own resource books contain. Ideally you have some online sources to draw from as well.

    When the time comes to teach content X, it takes less time and effort to come up with a way to teach that content. You have a sort of treasure chest of methods that are flexible and can work with different content (this was the idea behind my book). This takes off some of the pressure and stress of not knowing what you're doing, which is kind of the norm for new teachers.

    Also, this knowledge makes it easier to take traditional materials--textbooks and their supplements, test prep workbooks, etc--and use them more effectively. Even after all these years, a lot of my time is spent literally (or virtually) cutting and pasting materials from different sources to create something more effective. This is not anything original, but it requires the same set of skills.

    Finally, taking a step back for a moment, good teachers learn to manage their time and leave work at work more effectively. You may still do two hours of prep work a day, but you figure out how to get it done during the school day. There's no way I'm taking home hours of work per night any more--I might always be thinking about it, but I'm not hauling things back and forth from school.

    Time is the key!

  4. I just wish I could have held a teaching position at a university long enough to anticipate teaching the same course more than once (maybe twice). I could have leveraged experience like you say.

  5. I like your thoughts. Can you send me a link to your other posts?

    Justin Davis
    Internet Filter

  6. i've had very little control over curricular matters ever.
    even as an assistant prof; certainly never as adjunct faculty.
    so this stuff is sort of inspiring. (and not just of envy.)

    it's always "here's this mountain of stuff i'm supposed
    to pretend to hold these guys responsible for...
    and here's my best guess about what i can get 'em
    actually to *do* about it tomorrow":
    *one good lecture*
    followed by
    *a few well-selected problems*
    to work on (singly or together,
    and as guided by me as i can get)
    was the usual order of my planning.

    the syllabi were obviously fraught with lies
    and i tried to have as little to do with 'em as possible
    except as section-by-section guides to course material.

    i was better at it than most in the sense
    that my students would be a little bit more likely
    to be able to say something intelligent about
    course material than the next guy's; i'm not
    the best possible judge of this of course.

    but, wow. seems to me there's always somebody
    trying to stop you as soon as you get out of line.
    and that was allegedly college. is my experience
    *that* unusual? isn't the *fear* on around here?


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