Can It Wait?

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We know that teachers make a lot of decisions, many of them split-second and with a lot to consider. In all of that question answering, however, I think we as teachers sometimes forget to do some of the asking. Coupled with that is how hard it can be to prioritize and decide when assessing if we can answer at all, especially if the question deals with our own wellbeing. Confession: I’ve always thought teacher “wellbeing” was a tad vague, and, if not made concrete, meaningless to teachers. We put others’ wellbeing before our own many days, and it can be hard to figure out what our own self-care, mental health, etc. even looks like. Plus, we teach in 2017 – there’s a constant pressure to make lessons jazzy, smooth, and exciting, because if they aren’t tech-filled and pedagogically sexy, our classroom will be the backdrop of sleeping students on Snapchat, or, gasp, we’ll be known as the “packet” teacher who spends hours at the copier and does anything but engage students. The horror!

The truth? Just because we can do anything doesn’t mean we have to do everything. Innovative teaching lies somewhere in the middle of the aforementioned so-called extremes. And, unless certain stars align in our favor, we may not always (ever?) have time to figure out what that or any of it ‘looks like’ for us as individuals (also why the term “best practices” is slowly being debunked). Many of these stars lie in our immediate environment. For 2.5 years, I was in a high-stress, hostile, undermining-from-the-top-down department that looked not to advocate for its own members but rather initiate their removal, preferably sooner rather than later. It was in that department that I felt a high degree of anxiety and pressure, every single day: Am I doing enough? Am I grading these fast enough? Am I teaching well enough? Notice the common theme of enough. What I eventually said was exactly that, “Enough!” and relocated.

When it came to my own decision making for those 2.5 years, I would’ve liked for someone to tell me that it could wait. ‘It’ was the aforementioned doing, grading, teaching, and feeling like I had to be every teacher in every moment, Johnny On The Spot. Instead of making decisions that progressed my professionalism and pedagogy, I was making decisions based on what I thought others’ perceptions of my classroom were, would be, etc. What I should’ve been asking myself all along was, “Can it wait?” Learning to reflect on this first and foremost was a transformationally positive shift in my career.

This works for us as teachers in a number of literal and figurative ways:

  • Students asking to go to the bathroom during precious class minutes? Especially with older students, “Can it wait?” It probably can, and then they forget, or grow some patience and ask again at a more opportune time. This applies to other errands and miscellaneous tasks, too. If it can wait, it will.
  • Been grading for a couple hours but haven’t seen your [important people] or done [other plans/exciting things that keep you sane]? “Can it wait?” Odds are the kids won’t explode if they don’t get their quizzes back tomorrow, perhaps you can pace out the grading and finish tomorrow? (Truth: I have to be careful w/ this one and really self-discipline, or else two weeks suddenly whiz by – I plot out the time. “From 4-6pm on Wednesday I will grade their tests,” and then it’s a race to see how much I can get done so that I do not go over that time slot.)
  • Those 81,204 e-mails since checked, I swear only an hour ago. Sheesh! As a very young teacher, I wish someone would’ve told me that these can wait, because many can. And, many didn’t apply to me; those are deleted first, so that I can really see what I’m working with and need to care about. Then, do they merit a response, or merely for me to remember/schedule/keep something in mind? If they do need a response, but I’m swamped, “Can it wait?” Lots can, and that saves my sanity to prioritize them and actually have a plan instead of just seeing 81,204, *ding!*, make that 81,205, messages waiting, staring back at me.
  • “Oooo, cool ideas!” We say that after conferences, workshops, podcasts, great books, and more, but perhaps it should be followed up with, “Can it wait?” If it cannot, then great, let’s do it! But, if it can, perhaps then it can be even better. That new tech tool would be cool right away, but what if it waited a unit or two and could then actually incorporate stuff you’ve taught or that students have produced up until then, and therefore is even more meaningful and exciting? Asking myself if certain tools or projects or ideas can wait also helps me weed out the stuff I should’ve eliminated a long time ago — as Thomas says, don’t just look for the tools in your box you can change, also look for the ones you can scrap altogether. If it can wait, and you don’t really notice, or you feel relief (been there!), it probably wasn’t worth the time in the first place and may have been a comfy fallback or a crutch (I’m looking at you, family tree poster!). We all need our comfy familiars from time to time, but if they aren’t furthering students’ language acquisition and growth experience, perhaps our comfort, too, can wait?
  • Assessment. If your department is on a strict pacing guide, and Unit Blahdy-Blah must be “covered” by such-and-such date, this can be really tricky. When it comes to assessing students, if you’re apprehensive at all, I think it’s critical to ask, “Can it wait?” What if we pushed X back a few days and really focused on Y, so that they’re prepared for Z. Deep down, we know what our students do and do not know, can and cannot do; it’s whether or not we’re ready to face it that counts. When I switched to proficiency-focused teaching, I really had to blow off the cobwebs and open the closet door for those skeletons to come out. They didn’t just walk out, either; it was more of a sashay, set to music, for all to see. Proficiency-based teaching does that – it puts students can-dos and can’t-dos on display for all to see, and if we aren’t somewhere where we can be vulnerable and trusting to that, undoubtedly there will be issues. Miriam Patrick waits until she feels 80% will score 80% or higher to assess, and then their feedback comes when the students are ready. If the test can wait, let it. If the writing assessment can wait, let it. If the students can’t speak on x, y, and z yet, and it can wait, let it. Nearly nothing else in life has a strict [date] deadline, yet education still does — “No test retakes! Must know Chapter 6 by 5 NOV! End of story!” So, adults can take the Bar, MCAT, teacher certification, GRE, and other exams multiple times, but a sophomore must show mastery of ser vs. estar by the end of Unit 3 in Spanish I? “Can it wait?” Most likely it can, and should. If our curriculums are written properly, themes will spiral up and topics will be revisited within the framework of high-frequency structures and vocabulary. If Johnny will inevitably fail an assessment, but the content is imbedded in the next unit’s themes and s/he has more time and context, “Can it wait?” Seems likely.

Budgeting our time is important, but I think for teachers, budgeting our mental effort is even more important. I’ve found that if we can reflect more often on how we view and pace the tasks that do need to get done but aren’t necessarily impending, we are more equipped to zoom out from the day-to-day, and be present to prioritize the things that truly can not wait.

Face-to-face with students should be our focus, not paperwork that can wait.

Meredith White is a high school Spanish teacher and golf coach in metro Atlanta, GA. She is a…

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Can It Wait?

by Meredith White time to read: 5 min
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