Whew. Fall semester is over, and it has officially been zero days since I showered and changed into
real clothes clean pajamas. The stuff of teacher vacation dreams, right? Besides chugging hot chocolate, only eating food that should come with a side of Lipitor, and bingeing Netflix, I’ve also been coming back to the same reflection: Spring 2020. For me, on block schedule, it’s all new classes, a new prep, and basically the first day of school. There is a lot to think about re: routines, what went well last semester, what could use tweaking (or perhaps scrapping altogether), and so on. This year especially, I feel that my teaching and my teaching behaviors have all matured noticeably and as a consequence, my to-don’t list is getting longer and more specific.
In early 2016, I started setting a #OneWordResolution for myself for the upcoming year. My word was enough and was to reinforce that I am enough, my work is enough, my effort is enough, and I am doing enough. It worked, and I saw a spike in not only productivity but also calm. Believing, really believing, that I am already doing enough made it easier to say no, set boundaries for myself, and protect my time. Now, four years later, I see that time period as a catalyst, a door to simpler, less-stressed teaching. My #OneWordResolution for 2020 is light: seeking it, providing it, and ditching burdens that prevent my workload from feeling like it. (Also, here are 2017, 2018.)
My To-Don’t List:
Grade/make-up work conversations during class. I used to engage with students who asked at the beginning of class only to realize I’d only been half-listening, I missed out on greeting the rest of the class, now where the heck did I set my marker, “Oh just write that down, would you?!”, “Wait, which quiz? Were you absent? What day was that again?”, the list goes on. Now, when students start to ask, I either quickly re-direct them to a better time (“Oo, yes, let’s chat, stay after and I’ll write you a quick pass,” “Signal me when you finish your warm-up and I’ll check,” etc.) or point to the array of make-up/missing/grade book typo forms that streamline the process. They take a form, fill it out, and turn it into the inbox as if it were an assignment for me to see and check. Done! I’m able to be much more direct (especially when they have tunnel vision and stop smack in the middle of the doorway as the others are coming in) and can anticipate their needs for a faster, more efficient answer (rather than me getting overwhelmed and annoyed). Overall, having a go-to procedure has made me a better listener.
Provide things for students that I don’t constantly want to be providing. Looking at you, utensils, microwave, letting them leave their gym bag stuffed into the corner, the list goes on! When I look at my first several years teaching, I said “yes” to a lot of things because, really, I didn’t mind. I still don’t really mind, per se (I mean, it’s just a fork, right?), but I no longer do it. I will unabashedly provide pencils, erasers, paper clips, band-aids, Kleenex, unit copies on color-coded paper, hot chocolate on reading/café days, air-popped popcorn during stations, breakout box activities, Bitmoji stickers, and so many other supplies and extras practically ad nauseum. But, what I won’t provide are things that aren’t my place to provide, like the forks, the refrigerator space, the quick minutes in the microwave, or the space to leave their gym bag “only until fourth block, I swear!” Nope. No can do. One fork turns into now I’m the teacher who has forks for everyone whenever they need it; microwave/refrigerator usage opens the door to students bringing exclusively food that requires one or both and blurring boundaries of teacher spaces (ours are located in the workroom and I see lunch as some much-needed down time); leaving their possessions in my classroom, every inch of which I can’t possibly monitor all day, begets something happening to it and me being liable to a degree. Again, nope. My line at first, because I felt like I was letting students down, was, “Oh shoot, I wish I could say yes, but I can’t,” and that did the trick until I was more comfortable with a firm, “No, I’m not comfortable with that, sorry,” which is almost always my go-to line. When students want to push boundaries and refer to administrators or colleagues as “they”, “If they see us, we’ll say we’re going to the bathroom! Please!” I remind them, “You guys realize I am ‘they’, right?” We laugh, but it calmly reinforces that I value the rules where I work as well as what my colleagues and supervisors think of me. (Because also, the cafeteria provides utensils [and hot food] and our school has lockers for those pesky extra bags – no need for me to provide either or feel guilty.)
Administer re-takes before school, at lunch, or during homeroom. Our district has a mastery-over-time policy, which is great for students and teachers (with some planning on the part of the latter). The only downside is making time for assessment re-takes, not to mention giving them the first time for absent students. While the sooner the better really is true with grades and feedback, I stopped giving them before school, at lunch, or during homeroom last year and never looked back. We start at 7:10 in the morning, and suddenly the student I agreed could take the quiz before school wants to show up at 6:30am. Yes, you read that correctly. SIX THIRTY IN THE MORNING. Uh, no. I have my own family and my own morning to take care of, plus anything going awry will cause me to then be late and in creep the feelings of guilt because so-and-so’s mom dropped them off early and now they’ll be rushed in their quiz, yada yada yada. In true #highlightREAL fashion: I found myself resenting students and starting my day off negatively when I’d rush around the corner to my classroom with my keys out, coffee in hand, juggling bags, only to hear a 15-year-old voice snap, “Finally!” I was o. ver. it. So, I stopped. After school is my only available time now so that I can be prepared with copies, the grade book logged into, and hopefully a deep breath and a cup of tea. This google form makes scheduling students a breeze thanks to the google form add-on that makes them choose a date that automatically adds to my calendar. Boom! (Same goes for lunch and planning period: no. students. allowed. Students know where they’re supposed to be, colleagues know when we allow them [knowingly or unknowingly] to be away from those places, and both our authority and professionalism suffer. Don’t believe me? Watch a student careen over to your door seemingly to catch up only to hear the late bell and ask for a pass. Psh — nope! These days, my time is my time, period.)
Send Remind101 updates. Whewwww, if there had been a pageant back in the day, I’d have been Miss Remind101, no doubt. Seriously, I used the heck out of that service, now just called Remind.com. But, three years ago, when our district tightened up on third-party apps, I stopped. At first, it was out of necessity until they told us how we could still use it, and I was devastated: “But, how will I keep them updated?” Then again, it was 2016, my resolution was ‘enough’, and I thought to myself: Good grief! I use Instagram, Snapchat, email, Google Calendar, you name it, all to keep up with students. I’m practically sending carrier pigeons and smoke signals to tell them they have a quiz tomorrow that I’ve written on the board and mentioned at least 439 times in class. Sure, life has lots of reminders (thanks, Siri! Alexa! Google! I can’t live without you!)… but at what point are we not keeping our students accountable for knowing what they have going on in their own lives? My biggest mistake was enabling the two-way communication so that students could respond. Suddenly, they’d comment (“OK.” “Cool.” “Whatever.”), react (thumbs up, etc.), or inquire (“Is there a quiz tomorrow?”) at all hours of the night and weekend, AND I WAS RESPONDING. What?! I was engaging in the absolute dissolution of boundaries between the school day and my personal life. It’s 2019, about to be 2020, and there is already wayyy too much of everyone’s lives available to them as it is, nor am I paid to be on call. Nope. Instead, I keep our Google Calendar updated to the letter and that’s my go-to response: “Everything is on the calendar. Every. Single. Thing. I swear. Just check the calendar, always.”
Contact parents about grades before talking to the student. Craig Seganti rocked my world with his book back when I read it in 2013 or so, and the same principle he applies to discipline works for grades. We don’t need to contact coaches or parents to negotiate consequences; rather, we contact those people (others who care about our students just like we do) in order to inform them. Asking and informing are two very different things, and I no longer ask parents or coaches how I can do X or Y. Instead, I let them know about X and Y and what my consequences are to enlist their support. This mindset shift worked wonders with student behavior and it does for grades, too. Parents are delighted when I call to say, “Hi Pam, just wanted to let you know I spoke with Sam today. He has a few things that he hasn’t turned in and he got a little bogged down with the work. I gave him a to-do list, though, in order of priority, and extended the deadline. He knows where everything is and is able to update you, just wanted to let you know so you didn’t panic when you logged into eClass!” Parents are relieved, students feel (and are!) proactive, and all involved are witness to the flexibility and goal-based mentality that are integral to proficiency-based language teaching. It isn’t only about doing all the assignments; it’s also about how students do on those in order to achieve our goals. But, that does start with completing assignments. It’s easy to put in a zero and move on; it’s not as easy to formulate a plan with a student, have a real conversation, and follow up with parents after the fact to pat the student on the back and advertise some of their responsibility. I have students email me often when they have missing assignments or we want to share a to-do list in Google Docs; that can be a great opportunity to cc: in a parent’s email to keep them in the loop and witness their student’s time management. Win, win!
React to every comment, question, or action. The more I observe inexperienced teachers who respond to every student’s every whim, the more I see myself in them and realize I used to do the same. With each passing year, I realize sometimes the best reaction is the absence of one. Especially when I’m trying my darndest to stay 90/10, I can’t waste any time commenting in English, or acknowledging that I hear way too much of their conversations (my students are expert yell-whisperers). Perhaps it’s maturity, confidence, or both, but it is becoming second nature to not engage with blurt-outs, English insertions, snarky comments, teenage eye rolls, or inadvertent actions that used to bother me (throwing away papers I just spent time commenting on, leaving a water bottle behind, etc.). It probably doesn’t merit a response, and if it does, I still need to breathe and pause first.
Assess more than one thing at one time. Over the years and with the ebb and flow of collaboration and professional development, I’ve taken long, hard looks at my assessments, namely my quizzes. If it’s as fill-in-the-blank quiz where students need to 1) come up with the verb and 2) conjugate it, what am I assessing, vocabulary or grammar? Because really, in that example, it’s both, which isn’t a bad thing… but are the sentences contrived or is there an authentic end goal? Partial credit? If students have to come up with the verb AND then conjugate it into a specific tense AND spell it all correctly for any credit at all, that’s a heavy cognitive load. And for what purpose? There are tons of proficiency-based rubrics and writing prompts out there that achieve the same goal, support SLA research findings, and focus on what students can-do rather than what they have-memorized-so-far. On large vertical course teams, it can be tricky to align philosophies, resources, the whole lot — but, Thomas Sauer is right that the best PD is right down the hall. It makes sense in all aspects to observe and learn from colleagues, ask tough questions, and collaborate on these types of assessments. Together, we can reflect and divide the work toward focused assessments that are accessible to all of our students.
Give corrective feedback before it’s wanted/needed. Let’s face it, what’s more annoying than spending an entire evening marking papers only to watch students glance at the grade and then move on? Not much. But, who can blame them? We’ve raised them to grade-grub in a school system that has made an A a commodity in many ways. Plus, my students are 14-18 and have zero concept of the fact that I missed time with my family to mark all those accents and comment on level-ups, proficiency, etc. They see an 85, think, “Cool,” and usually move on. I, on the other hand, am devastated. But… why did I comment that much anyway? There are quicker ways to give feedback, the quickest being asking students directly on a writing assignment: check this box ____ if you want corrective feedback. Many students don’t want it, and many students do – I’m always surprised which fall into which category. It’s like a car or an allowance: before it means anything to them, they don’t care. Suddenly they earn a few bucks and see the value of a dollar, they get a little choosier with how they spend. Now that they are providing the car insurance and the gas, joyriding might not seem so fun. When they’ve asked for the feedback specifically, they’ll look over it. If they haven’t, they’ll notice the grade, and that’s the end of it. Eventually, though, most of my students look around and see others getting specific comments, “jajaja”s, etc., and they want a part of that, too. Then the responsibility is on my shoulders to provide timely, genuine, forward-moving feedback to further my and their language goals… and that’s pretty cool. But until then? We can mark accents until we’re blue in the face and it doesn’t really matter (and if we’re doing all that marking, maybe we’re assessing too many things at once? See previous point.).
Make copies the day I need them. Oh. My. Gosh. This one was a game changer for me, which, I know, sounds ridiculous. Anyone who plans ahead is thinking, “Well duh, of course you should have materials prepared.” However, the rest of us, who some days are barely hanging on with all of the plates we’ve decided to spin and juggle, are doing the best we can. Last year, I realized that there was unnecessary chaos in my life: making copies the same freaking day I needed them, and I had been doing it for years. “Oh, I’ll just come in early and copy those.” Yeah, right, scoffs pretty much everyone reading this. (And myself when not in denial.) I realized we have a person on campus who monitors and makes copies when needed. Why was I not utilizing this service? If I could just get it together long enough to print out every document I knew we’d use during the unit, give or take, send them for copies, and then put them in students’ folders, surely that would help? I. Had. No. Idea. It made everything easier. I’ll never go back, and now, I’ve got almost every unit, granted thrown together-ish, in one .PDF apiece, ready for printing. What started as a pre-planning goal has turned into a habit, and my life is so much better for it. Time passing out copies is saved, emergency plans are made (“Do pp. X-Y.”), I’m not rushing around in the mornings, if I’m not feeling well there are plenty of materials for students to continue learning, and if students know they’re going to be absent, I can look ahead and say, “Make sure you look over ___ on page ___,” and I’m taken care of. If you can get a skeleton for things you use every unit (warm-up papers, vocabulary sheet, whatever), a loose idea of the other handouts and things you’ll do on paper, you can really just go from there. Ta-daaaaaa! (I keep several files here, as thing-we-do-every-unit, at the bottom, free.)
No matter what is on your to-don’t list, I hope this winter break has allowed you to rest, reflect, recharge, and rejuvenate. And, if part of that means getting some lesson plans taken care of so that you’re less stressed next month, go for it. If it means not thinking one single thing about school until you absolutely must, live your best life. Whatever a ‘break’ means to you, I hope that part of your self-care routine is thinking about and adding to your to-don’t list. You are already enough.