Friday, August 12, 2016

Resolve To Breathe

For the next couple of weeks, as the beginning of my school year approaches. I'm going to write to renew my resolve to keep focus in my practice. This is one of that series of posts.

Years ago, when I would take a long trip either by myself or with family, my focus stayed on the destination, the goal. Drive-through restaurants so that we wouldn't "lose" time stopping to eat. No more restroom stops that were absolutely necessary. Eyes ahead, foot to the floor-- let's get to where we are going.

It's easy to start teaching like that. You've got that list, whether it's in your curriculum or your pacing guide or just in your head, and by God, you are going to get through that journey before the sands of the school year clock run out. And then before you know it, you're designing units based not on effectiveness or engagement or possible usefulness to the students, but based on speed. "If I cover the major aspects of Romanticism like this, I can polish that off in a day."

Worse, you start to roll over the students. Hopefully it just stays in your head, but there's a voice saying, "Dammit, kids-- stop asking questions and trying to discuss this stuff. We've got material to get through and we don't have time to waste on your yakkity-yak." You're getting unreasonably irritated with that student who doesn't understand something and makes you go back and re-explain a concept when in your head, you know you're supposed to be moving forward.

When you reach that point, you know you have completely lost your sense of what you're supposed to be doing. You've lost the thread, missed the point.

It's time to breathe.

First, there is no pedagogical value in ripping past a bunch of material at high speeds, turning the passing landscape into a blur that nobody can discern or make sense of. Sure, there's such a thing as going too slow, of boring the brains out of everyone in the room. But that's not really a danger at the moment, is it.

Second, and I think this is way more important to remember, this is your students' lives.

At some point, I came to understand that the journey was not a chore to get through so that the adventure, the vacation could begin. The trip was part of it, and it could be enjoyed and savored and experienced just like whatever awaited at the destination.

Our students are not putting in time in school to stock up on knowledge and skills in anticipation of the day, somewhere off in the future, when their lives will actually start. Their lives are not going to start later. Their lives are going on right now. This, while they're sitting in my classroom, right now-- this is their life.

Primary teachers have perhaps the hugest level of responsibility in all of education. Sure, they are teaching the fundamentals of reading and writing and art and science and all the rest. But those primary kids are babies. Their lives have been so short (particularly if you only count what they remember) and they have seen so little, and so the subtext of every single day in class is "This is how the world work. This is what life is like."

That is perhaps less true for my high school students, but still-- this is part of their journey, and there's no reason, no excuse for it to be a senseless breathless blur. When I drag them through high-speed instruction, piling lesson on lesson like a berserk tennis-ball cannon, I'm wasting a day of their life. I'm not teaching reading or writing or literature and I'm certainly not teaching speaking or learning-- I'm teaching that education and life are about keeping your head down, holding on, and waiting for it all to be over.

I fall into this trap with the best of intentions. Over the past decade, my teaching periods have been literally shortened, and my teaching year has been virtually reduced, with days given up to testing, test prep, the rest. One of my colleagues ran the numbers, and my teaching year is essentially about eight weeks shorter than it was a decade ago, and every year it seems I have to grieve those lost weeks again, fight against giving up the instruction that would have filled those dear, departed hours.

But what's gone is gone, and while I try hard to be efficient and clever, I only have the hours I have. I need to breathe, to remember that the pace in my room is sometimes set by my students. When the teachable moment comes, I can't just drive the car over it because, dammit, we've got places to go. When the students need to talk, to process, to ask, my job is to respond to that. My content is important, and every year I promise on Day One that I will do my best to never, ever waste their time. But ultimately I don't serve my content-- I serve my students, and I must remember not to get so caught up to driving to the destination that I treat my students like cargo instead of fellow travelers on a long road through rich and beautiful country.


  1. Peter-

    I just started a book yesterday called Scarcity: Why Having So Little Means So Much. In the introduction the authors speak of poverty (financial scarcity) and being busy (time scarcity). The second of these seems to map well to this post of yours. Here are perhaps some relevant passages:

    "Scarcity captures the mind. Just as the starving subjects [conscientious objector volunteers during a WWII study] had food on their mind, when we experience scarcity of any kind, we become absorbed by it. The mind orients automatically, powerfully, toward unfulfilled needs."

    "They were focused on food. Of course if you are starving, getting more food should be a priority. But their minds focused in a way that transcended practical benefits. The delusions of starting a restaurant, comparing food prices, and researching cookbooks will not alleviate hunger. If anything, all this thinking about food—almost a fixation—surely heightened the pain of hunger."

    Maybe there's a vision/perspective you can take that would change your view about time as scarce? (Because it seems like that's a belief at some foundational level, one you must choose absent factual evidence one way or the other.) Maybe this book has a suggestion. I'm certainly not there yet.

    Jakob G.

    P.S. Conscientious Objectors are near and dear to my heart. My grandfather was one during WWII and he has some great stories in his letters to my grandmother. Their story, as a whole, hasn't been captured in mass media.

  2. The nicest thing anyone ever told me about my teaching came from my college coordinator during an early phase of my student teaching to overage high school ESL learners. I remember precisely 42 years later: "Christine is not afraid to get lost with her class."

    One of the reasons I bitterly oppose the practice of posting daily objectives (the kind that begin SWBAT) is that it is deleterious to allowing the kids to have any input into what goes on in the classroom. Sure, you need to know where you want to take them but the sidetrips matter. If there's no time in your class to let life intrude, your kids won't bring stuff to you, and if they can't, you'll be less effective at teaching them. It's only authentic teaching and learning if there's a connection.

    Christine Langhoff

  3. Exactly how I think. Well written.

  4. I had a colleague who would find out that a teacher in another school in the district was two units ahead of her, and she would think she had to hurry and catch up, as if it were a race, to "cover" just as much material. I never understood that way of thinking.