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I'm trying to be efficient. It's driving me manic.

Stuff my students teach me, part one.

By Catherine DorianPublished 3 months ago Updated 3 months ago 7 min read
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I'm trying to be efficient. It's driving me manic.
Photo by Mr Xerty on Unsplash

Early last week, I requested that my ninth graders fill out a midyear course evaluation. On it, I asked pointed questions, like the activities that were most and least helpful to their learning and which units were their favorite so far and why. I also left room at the bottom for students to give me any feedback that they'd like. I made the evaluation anonymous; I wanted students to be honest, to share their points of view from their desks without fear that I would penalize them for their candor.

I almost always ask my students to evaluate the course midyear, and I'm almost always nervous to read their criticism. Teaching, like writing, is an art: save for the quizzes and essays that assess the extent to which my students are improving, many judgments are subjective to taste. Teaching, like writing, is personal.

This year, though, I felt more than nervous. I'd started at a new school, one of the top-ranked public schools in the state of Massachusetts, my fourth school in my eight years in the profession. You'd think by now that I'd be proficient at both teaching and adapting to new environments. But since starting here, I've felt aimless in that peculiar way that comes with feeling like I don't belong.

From the moment I started at orientation, I compared myself to my new colleagues, several of whom had doctorate degrees and were far more critical and articulate than I was. In ninth grade, my new school teaches classics like Paradise Lost and The Canterbury Tales, texts which I had not only not taught at my prior schools but which I had also not learned during my undergraduate studies. For the first time ever, I did not have to build curriculum from scratch but had a plethora of unit plans, activities, assessments, and resources available to me in a shared Google Drive. The school wasn't really in need of my dream to start a student-run Writing Center, and the literary magazine already had a club advisor.

I took the job because for once, I knew that I would have time to write. But, stripped of my modus operandi, which consisted of working myself to near insanity, I had no idea what I brought to my new department, my new school, my new students.

Halfway through the year, at the time that I gave my students their evaluation, I still had no idea why they'd hired me. I was terrified that some students felt the same.

I posted the midyear evaluation on a Monday and told my students that it would close the following Friday. I refreshed it throughout the week, rereading my students' critiques as if I were flicking a rubber band to the wrist.

To the question: what activities are least helpful to your learning?

"When you or any teacher talks for more than one minute."

"When we spend the first 20 minutes of class reviewing everything we already know."

"When you ramble on and on and don't let us get to our work. Let me ask you: how long does it take you to write a five-paragraph essay?"

And this, from the final "anything else you want me to know?" question:

"The amount of times you say, 'Take out Canterbury Tales' is stressing me out."

There it all was: a swamp of self-hatred, reflecting back at me.

I've written before about how teaching has made me manic. I blame it, unfairly, on a particularly stressful period in my teaching career, when, after co-running an English department that was subjected to a preposterous "personalized learning" approach that set our students arguably one year behind, I read Teach Like a Champion 2.0, among other texts, and fixated on all of the things that I could control in my classroom. Tormented by my students' loss of learning and my own responsibility for catching them up, I pledged allegiance to a set of pedagogical principles:

  1. Every 45-minute lesson should be planned with clear, measurable objectives which are aligned to state standards.
  2. Following every lesson, students should be able to perform some portion of the skill that you've taught them in that lesson.
  3. Every minute of every 45- (or 90-) minute lesson matters; waste no instructional time deviating from the day's objective.
  4. You are responsible for ensuring that every child learns and succeeds. If a student doesn't know something or can't perform a task, make them try until they do.

These principles made every school day feel like a performance and drove me into a caffeinated frenzy of logistical acrobatics. They also became my addictions. I planned lessons around them. I operated by them. I justified them with the assertion that taxpayers were entrusting too much in me if I did not earn them the results that a democratic society demanded.

This year, as I joined a new school and sought to prove my worth, these principles seemed especially important. I needed to get results, and I was determined that all of these methods that the offices of public instruction and departments of elementary and secondary education and teacher preparation programs claimed to be good practice.

Throughout the first half of this year, I also felt dejected by my job.

My classes felt monochromatic, even shallow. I had daily "Do Now" questions that I projected at least two minutes before the bell, but I spent the first two minutes of class commanding everyone to take out their notebooks and talking about how the Do Now was relevant to our objectives for the day, which I always had written on the board. I spent 20 minutes reviewing material from the prior class; so few students wanted to answer the review questions, and so I assumed that no one knew the material. I wasted breath and sanity trying to optimize time during transitions; students must take out copies of Things Fall Apart in 60 seconds or fewer, so as to keep the class on task. I had daily exit tickets or closing verbal assessments, where I asked students to repeat the main points or definitions of ideas back to me. I almost always made them tell me what their homework was or what had to be in their next essay before they were allowed to leave the room. I wrote punctilious weekly overviews, which detailed our activities and assignments for the week and which I always posted the Friday before on Google Classroom. Almost no one read them, but they were there, just in case.

I hated myself for all of it.

"It's not that students don't like you," one freshman, who shared my indulgence in the color-coded weekly planner and who has lately been visiting me after school, once told me. "It's that they don't like your class."

I'm used to that feedback. I teach vigorously, and I make my students write a lot. Their attention spans, preyed upon by Big Tech and sometimes ill-adjusted to the task, resent me for it. I can martyr myself for that. I'd rather that my students, when they reach tenth grade, impress their teachers with their support for their arguments and logical reasoning. But I sensed that this freshman's insider information was coming from a place of truth: students found me cumbersome, just as I find so many of the bureaucratic measures of "good teaching."

Many of us, particularly those of us in public schools, teach in a system which prioritizes efficiency. It's the decades-old system that so many theorists and social commentators have admonished: our schools are designed to mirror factories, which prioritize compliance over innovation and processes over souls. These criticisms were part of the reason why I attempted to leave the classroom a few years ago.

Reading my students' evaluations this year exposed the very habits that had driven me out of teaching once and to near insanity.

On Friday morning of the week that I had posted my midyear evaluation, I learned that I'd won the #200 Challenge here on Vocal, for an essay I'd written about teaching and writing. In that piece, I talked about the ways that I'd used teaching as a distraction from writing, but also about how teaching had driven me to develop the kind of perfectionism that suffocates all the magic that's waiting for me on the page.

And here I was again, subjecting myself and my students to the bombardment that was an efficiency-based instruction. I'd relapsed. I'd made my students as stressed out as I was.

But teaching is also like writing in that it demands, in many ways, the opposite of insanity. Your students, like your novel, short story, essay, need you to abandon futile pursuits and pursue what works.

Teaching is like writing because it demands the faith that we can do our craft better.

Last week, my students were my editors. Their suggestions unearthed the misjudgments and forced narratives to which I'd subjected them as I tried to conform to the standards of a bureaucracy that treated them and me like machines to be optimized for their output.

Not all conformity is bad; not all standards are bad. But education is no place for optimization.

***

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About the Creator

Catherine Dorian

Writer and teacher. Sometimes, I write about teaching.

For me, writing is compulsive, but it never feels self-destructive; it’s the safest medium by which I can confront what scares me.

I've been told my Instagram needs a makeover.

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Comments (2)

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  • John Cox3 months ago

    Dewey believed that the primary purpose of the public school was to train a compliant work force. I admire your courage and determination to actually teach your students rational argumentation in the face of the bureaucratic nightmare our education factories have become. You are absolutely right. Education is no place for optimization. Forceful and impassioned writing, Catherine!

  • Alex H Mittelman 3 months ago

    I always wanted to be a teacher! Well written!

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