Falling Back Into Old Habits When I Try Too Hard

As a teacher I take pride in my work. Many of my students would say that I’m passionate and so would my peers. My wife sure knows the effort and dedication I put into my work. So with this recognition, why am I not providing the best education out there?

When you do your teacher training (we’re “student teachers” not “teacher candidates”, don’t fool yourselves. Remember, med students are med students and law students are law students) we are taught the basics of education. We study areas like how to make lesson and unit plans, build planning skills in relation to our subject areas, how to assess work, child psychology, and educational philosophy, amongst other things. We are shown how to transition from various methods of instruction throughout our hour or 80 minute classroom period. Things like the hook, the info, the practice, and the reflection/assessment. We also are told multiple times that everything that’s important to learn will be obtained in the actual classroom, not the sterile university environment. And learn we did.

Lessons never turn out the way you want it to, classroom management techniques are guidelines and not slam dunk solutions, understanding complex child psychology requires more than one semester long course, and formative assessments inevitably turn into summative assessments. Oh how quickly the visionary falls.

I would like to say that most teachers, primarily the newest ones from the past 10–15 years, want to be the most efficient and inspiring educator they can give their students. Honestly, we want to change lives. I know I want to focus on the life skills that make students into highly functional human adults when they walk out the school doors at age 18. I want them to think critically, weigh potential life options, be able to argue a point or be their own advocate, take pride in a passion even if it’s just a hobby and not a career. Essentially, I, we, want students to “human” well in this ever increasingly complex world.

Ideally, I would have my entire year prepped over the summer. You know, that time in a teacher’s life that people think we don’t deserve (Oh I earn mine. Raising your children is hard and if you think I’m not, you have no idea what they they feel comfortable talking about with me but not you). Anywho, I would spend at least half the time doing prep like researching materials, arranging speakers or planning field trips, and getting all my lesson and unit plans laid out. I would hit the ground running and run the most efficient ship any school has ever seen.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. All four of my last teaching positions had less than a week to prep ahead of time. Actually, the first contract I received was pretty much coerced onto me by penciling me for the first three days of the beginning of the semester as a sub with no prior teacher. My next two contracts had me take over the classes in December after the previous teachers peaced out for being unable to stomach the students. My current position at least had a sub who covered the first two weeks but when I was hired I started the next day only the find that the sub vaguely left a description of what he did and nothing else telling me where they were going next. So, prep time isn’t a luxury that all teachers have.

And as my resume lists out, I’m pretty good for picking up the pieces of jobs people don’t want or are too afraid of taking on. Yay me. The issue is that when teachers come in the middle of a school year, setting up that efficient ship is kinda hard to do when it has already set sail and you’re paddling behind to catch up, yelling instructions at it trying to get it where you want it to go.

Ideal doesn’t come often for 21st century graduate teachers. The teaching market is more precarious and funding is getting cut, stretched, manipulated, and if you’re lucky (like I was here in British Columbia) magically dumped in the middle of the school year, forcing school districts to scramble to make that money work best. It’s not pretty but it’s the norm. Teachers go from contract to contract, often expecting their pink slip by the beginning of June but then hoping they can pick up something new for the coming fall semester. Preferably before September 1st.

When we fall into our ramshackle contracts with a mixed bag of subjects that often include maybe one or two, or even none of your qualified subject areas, we try our darnedest to make thing optimal. However since our prep time isn’t optimal, and our outside school lives isn’t optimal, and our work/life balance isn’t optimal, especially if some of us have children of our own, we do cut corners. We try to hit the curricular expectations as efficiently as possible with the time allotted. God be praised if your contract started on time and you don’t have to play catch up (hint, you never can catch up if chunks of time were wasted by the previous failed teacher). Time crunched efficiency rarely results in optimal efficacy.

I am guilty of teacher cheating. These include worksheets, cop out videos, regurgitated notes and testing. My soul suffers when this happens. I can’t help it. Whether it’s because you’re teaching something you’ve never taught before or maybe you’re brand new and you’ve only done theoretical lessons in university. We say we don’t but we all will fall off the wagon eventually. We hope we can use these lessons that we ourselves hated in high school so that we can give ourselves extra time to plan that big finale. Hopefully it works out but often times it fizzles out with an unexciting pop. Timing doesn’t work, the materials don’t pan out, or maybe you totally misread how much your students would respond to it (or maybe they don’t at all). It happens. Even the most planned out teacher will hit these bumps and hopefully they’re experienced enough to find work arounds. I’m slowly getting there, as are so many teachers.

I’m not writing this asking for forgiveness. I know I’m good and I’m always striving to become better. I also know that I’m better than most, and I won’t apologize for my ego there. I’m writing this for catharsis, and to remind myself what my goals and hopes are for my students. I need to remind myself what I’m capable of doing for my students. I also need to remind myself of the rigid classroom methods we learned in university and that, although they rarely work out in practice, they do serve as important guidelines to show how and why you are covering certain materials.

Teaching is about balance and we all struggle with it when we juggle a hundred things at once. We won’t master all of them and we will drop the ball once and a while. I just to to reset to focus on the other 99 I have going, where I want to go with them, and how I am the one who can do this.