For this Sunday’s For Teachers post, I’m featuring a great friend and Golden Apple Teaching Award Nominee: Jeff Vazzana. He asked if he could have a sounding board to discuss some stuff that has been swirling around in his head, so here you go!
Hello! I’m Jeff, Eric’s longtime classroom neighbor and friend. I think that it’s awesome that Eric does a Sunday’s for Teachers blog, and I wanted to jump in and offer some tips/advice.
FIRST let me give a shoutout to Eric, because he doesn’t give himself enough props. Eric is going to be leaving us next year for bigger and better things- he’s going to be a department chair at OLCHS. He’s very excited, and we are incredibly happy for him, but also, it’s a huge loss. It’s incredibly sad to not have my friend, collaborator, and gifted educator teaching next door to me anymore.
So, here’s what I’m going to be writing about today- how to keep yourself sane in the face of a billion anxieties. Too many good teachers get burned out; too many teachers leave the profession. Here are some tips that worked for Eric and myself – so maybe they’ll work for you too.
Tip 1- Feedback
Traditionally, I would say that English teachers are the most stressed out the week after a big essay is due. And then, from that point forward, they are hermits and live in their classroom as they note every single grammar and punctuation mistake and try to make feedback meaningful. I remember the first few years of teaching feeling my soul crushed as kids just either read the grade at the top and then stuffed it in their bag, or worse yet, I’d find it on the floor or in the recycle bin. KIDS DON’T READ FEEDBACK.
So, how can we still give feedback on essays that is meaningful without losing your mind or soul? Strategy.
Here are a few thoughts to help strategize the feedback:
-The end product is just that- the end. A plane isn’t flown in the air until each individual part has been product tested. When a plane IS flying, you’re not going to be talking about a bolt that is under three layers of carpeting (unless it causes the plane to crash…), so let’s build the plane and discuss the parts before it flies. Metaphor aside, breaking something into parts and discussing it with kids before a summative exam makes your life easier.
-Give a holistic grade. One grade at the top of the page, with one or two things to work on. Stick to one or two things. The one-two most important items to fix for their next essay.
-When returning an essay, pick a low, medium, and high scoring essay and talk about the parts that made it score low, medium, and high. Then, have kids reflect on which essay looks most like their own and how they can get to the next tier.
-A “Dear Reader” Letter. I learned this from Eric, actually. It’s a letter written by the kid after he/she writes the essay. It has three parts: what they are proud of, what they wish they had more time to work on, and what they specifically want me to notice. Then, rather than me writing on the essay at all, I just respond to their letter. It’s a conversation about their writing then rather than the teacher responding to a shout in the void.
-Stop making essays have such weight in your class. Essay writing is aways existent in my class- the kids write like 15 essays a semester in my class. They write constantly. Most of the time, they just get a number at the top of the page, and that’s ok. The kids get better every time because they’re practicing.
Tip 2- Allow yourself to check out / be unreachable to the kids (You need to be able to have your own time.)
When I started teaching a decade ago, many coaches allowed the students to have their personal phone numbers. If the kid had to quickly let the coach know that he/she was canceling practice, a text was sent out and that was that. That system of communication was A) problematic and B) inefficient. I’m glad that that was replaced by Remind101, which is a middle-man in the texting world. If you don’t know anything about it, it’s a way for kids to text teachers without the kid knowing the teacher’s phone number or the teacher knowing the kid’s number. There is no expectation of privacy, and administration as full access to any and all conversations between teacher and student. So, that’s great, right? Well, what was once a great tool for coaches has started to bleed into the classroom. And that’s my main point in this segment.
For now the third year in a row, I’ve set a Remind101 for each class period. I set up reminders to go out to do their homework and whatnot, and kids can send a message to ask a question about the day. Here’s where it’s a problem. Kids expect it to be instantaneous. It’s a text, right? Are they metaphorically waiting for the little three dots that signify that I’m replying back? They need to learn to email me and wait for an answer. Or, GASP, they need to wait until the next day and ask me in person.
Here’s what was my tipping point – two weeks ago, my mom passed away, and at the funeral mass, I was getting remind messages from a student to re-open a digital quiz for her. When I wouldn’t reply, she was sending more messages about how she really needed it open and why I should do it for her. Clearly, this platform has broken the two spheres of work and private lives- so, we need to give it up for the classroom. Maybe there’s a generic remind that the teacher sets up for emergencies only, and coaches should definitely still use it, but classroom Remind messages? Sayonara. We need time where kids cannot reach us.
Allow yourself to go home and not be reachable. Spend time with your loved ones, your family. Put the phone away from yourself and be in the moment. It’s ok to give yourself some time.
Tip 3- Create a community, and then become a part of that community
The best advice that I can give to make your life easier is to create a community in your classroom. In doing so, you make your own life easier. If a kid is acting up, the other kids in the class will control that kid. You can dive into your lessons faster, and the kids will want to work harder because they’ll want to be a part of the hard working culture you’re creating.
I do this a few ways. One of the things that I try to do each day of school is to check in with my students. It’s my way of keeping a pulse on all of them. At parent/teacher conferences, or when I call home, our conversation is rarely negative, as it is like catching up with an old friend. This allows me to engage with students and families on a more personal level than just with negative news. Realistically, I use the information I glean in the first few periods to make it sound like I know a lot about what’s going on in the school in the later periods…Here’s something to be mindful of though–the kids will want to talk beyond a minute. I try to keep this “check-in” to a minute or two, max.
Also, my physical classroom is different. Like Eric’s classroom, my classroom is unique. There’s no way someone could walk into my classroom and not know it’s mine. I’m going to include a picture of my classroom to this blog. It’s filled with my personality and vibe. I do not assign seats. My desks are grouped in fours and resemble a café. My walls are filled with posters of various interests, from sci-fi and fantasy to Disney and traveling. When students enter, I always have music playing from an Amazon Echo. I try to make it match with the content of the day, if possible.
My classroom, for many students, is a haven, a break from the usual rows and lecture of the day. My classroom is both an exciting and welcoming place, and yet, I teach one of the most difficult classes my department has to offer.
In my last evaluation, my evaluator said: “This is an inclusive classroom where students’ contributions are more than academic; they are earnest functional and procedural contributors as well.” My students are not just receivers of information, they are a part of the procedures and lessons of the day. For example, if my students are learning a new topic, I will find ways where they themselves teach it to one another. Or, students have to work together to solve a particular problem. Direct instruction is no friend of mine.
Let me put it this way. There’s a stress or anxiety if you put the weight of every student’s success on your shoulders each period….because, at the end of the day, that is your job…So, how can you mitigate that concern? Let the kids in on the secret. Let them have ownership in their own success. Your life will become easier, and they’ll enjoy your class more.
I’d like to thank Jeff for that discussion, and I look forward to hearing more from him in Sunday’s For Teachers blogs to come. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions for future posts, hit me up on dem emails or in the comments section.
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