Monday, September 21, 2015

Time To Breathe

I looked over the brink today. For a moment, I wanted to throw stones at a teachable moment.Context. Not an excuse, but context.

My building has been in a state of flux for the last few years. This is not all bad news-- we have made some moves that have removed toxic elements from the life of the school, and we have embraced some new opportunities. But, oh, the time.

Last year we started a new schedule. It provides a chance for teachers to meet during the day (something we haven't had for over a decade) and some other new programming activities. But to do that, the Powers That Be shortened class periods to 40 minutes, down from 45-55 minutes previously. To anybody who doesn't teach, that seems like peanuts. Five minutes is a lot of teaching time, and it adds up quickly-- 25 minutes/week, 900 minutes/year. This year we're adding a new diagnostic test, and a digitized on-line platform for doing lesson plans, unit plans, curriculum alignment. We switched the platform for the school website, so everyone has to rebuild their web pages, and we're breaking in yet another platform for classroom stuff (just give me back my moodle, dammit). My duty period is now cafeteria duty, walking around the cafeteria, and that is a great chance to see the students, but it's instead of a study hall that I can cover in my room, at my desk. Last year we launched PLC's, and now that effort has veered off somewhere, and the waves of SLO's hit. We have a new curriculum director who's trying to create a newly aligned curriculum. At the end of last year, we cut a position from my department, so we are trying to pick up the slack, which includes trying to analyze the test data from last year's Keystone exams, but so far the data are just a list of which students passed and which have to retake, with raw scores appended. And today our latest assistant principal announced that she's leaving  for a new job, which means we will be suspended somewhere between old,  new, and whatever is coming next procedures.

You get the idea. It's nothing special-- it really isn't. There are teachers all across the country facing real challenges, working against real issues, fighting real obstacles. What I'm talking about is just a slice of the same old same old in school settings. There's never enough time.

So we were laying some groundwork for the discussion of American literature, and we discovered that my class didn't know about the local connection to the French and Indian War, didn't know about the soldiers who fought and died probably right near the present-day site of a playground about a block from my house. I had a split second to consider giving up 15 minutes of precious time for this side trip about their own heritage, or to put my head down and plough on into the path I'd laid out for today's lesson.

I balked.

I took the side trip. When you see those faces looking at you like you have something Really Interesting to say, like they are really ready to hear it and talk about it-- well, you don't step over a hundred dollar bill on the sidewalk just because you're in a hurry and you don't pass up a teachable moment because you Have A Plan.

But I balked. Not only did I balk, but the rest of the day I felt a sharp tooth of resentment gnawing at the corner of my brain.

This is one of the dark traps of teaching, one of the places we must be sure not to go. There is only so much time, only so many resources, and especially now, with so many people looking over our shoulders to make sure we get where we're supposed to when we're supposed to-- it would be so easy to see our students as obstacles in our path, to get frustrated when they demand one more precious minute.

We can't make more time appear. Well, we can, but it costs us. You might well say, "Buddy, if you feel so strapped for time, step away form the keyboard and stop wasting time blogging." But this blog is my journal. It's my venting. And on days like today, it's my message to myself, my reminder to keep my eye on the prize.

And the prize is not the finish line. It is not the prize for covering the most ground in my 180 days. It is not the prize for winning battles over Common Core or charter privatization or whatever wrangle will be going on next year (because it really will always be some-damn-thing).

The prize is watching my students grow. The prize is watching my students become more fully human, more fully themselves, growing in understanding of who they are and who they can become. The prize, in my classroom, is watching them get better at speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Nuts to my plans and nuts to my school's plans and nuts to the tests and the programs and the ticking of the clock as my chance to get One More Thing Done slides by, one quick jerk of the second hand after another.

All of those things are important. None of those things are as important as my students.

One of the lessons I salvaged from the wreckage of my first marriage was that the important things, the things that matter-- you have to recommit to those every day. But in the rush and pressure and "cloud of war" in a classroom, it can be easy to forget why you're there and what you care about.

So this is a message to me. Me, are you reading? Pay attention.

Remember why you're here, what you're doing, what your purpose and focus are. Look past the mess, stop listening to the tick-tick-tick of the clock. Don't fantasize that the challenges aren't there, but do keep your eyes on the prize. Take a moment. Breathe. Focus. Listen. Pay attention. Now go do your damn job.


  1. You have sincere compassion from me and countless others, I am sure. Methinks you need a chuckle. How about this quote from Gogol?
    “Moreover, he had a peculiar knack, as he walked along the street, of arriving beneath a window just as all sorts of rubbish were being flung out of it: hence he always bore about on his hat scraps of melon rinds and other such articles.”
    ― Nikolai Gogol, The Overcoat

  2. Thank you for writing this! I've been struggling with the same thing- I switched schools, and the new one has shorter blocks and it is hard to adjust. I have to keep reminding myself that coverage isn't learning.

  3. Here is the "actual student contact time" that all secondary (7 -12) teachers are constrained by. Non-teachers, out of touch administrators, and all edu-fakers please take notice.

    (40 min. period) X (theoretical 180 periods) - (*time lost to interruptions) = ASCT

    Actual Student Contact Time =
    100+ HOURS per class (20 - 30+ students) - per YEAR

    That's equal to about 2.5 - 3 weeks of full time ( 8hr/day) work.

    What miracles are all of the non-teachers pulling off in 2.5 to 3 weeks of their work year?

    *NYS interruptions/lost instructional time

    12 fire drills
    4 bus drills
    4 lock-down drills
    Emergency exit drill
    2 hour and 3 hour weather delays
    Half-days/Conference days
    Testing days
    Student absenteeism ( 10+ days on average)

  4. Thank you for writing this! We all need this reminder as the pressures will always be there and growing to stay on course covering material. The students are the reason we teach. I so appreciate your eloquence!