Friday, April 3, 2015

Just because I can doesn't mean I should

In the last nine weeks I have learned that I can teach three different courses in one day. I also learned that it's something I shouldn't do again for a long time. 

For many high school or middle school teachers, having three different courses at a time might be commonplace. In the jargon of teaching, we call it having "three preps" (though "prep" also refers to the period set aside to complete work for one's teaching . . . I have one of those per day and can only dream of having three). In specialized subject areas in my district, three preps might be common. In schools that are smaller and that feature 45-minute periods rather than 90-minute blocks, it might be more common. So I don't look for sympathy bringing up my plight. In my own corner of the educational universe having three preps is unusual. Two or just one is much more likely. And nine weeks of teaching three preps has shown me the benefits of the normal arrangement rather than this aggressive one. 

Since late January, my typical day looked like this: arrive at school, work through my scheduled prep period, then teach Intro. to Law (no one calls it Introduction to Law), supervise homeroom, eat lunch, teach AP Macro (again, we never call it by its full name), and conclude my day with AP U.S. History. 

There are some neat things to come of this arrangement. I wasn't bored. In fact, it was quite nice to not find myself repeating instruction more than once in a day. Also, I did a better job listening to the students and reading the classes' moods. Finally, I stopped formal lesson planning. There were, on most days, plans to what I was doing. But the sequence of activities and learnings were informally represented through a series of "detail sheets" and calendar posts in my plans. I might have shown myself that I need to question the time I might be tempted to spend next marking period engaging in formal lesson planning. 

The downsides are obvious, though. I could tell I was defaulting more into teacher-centered instruction by the end of the nine weeks, particularly in my AP U.S. class at the end of the day. Simply, I ran out of time to prepare good activities that would put the learning in their hands. Too easy, instead, to talk my way out of a class and period of history. I also noticed it in AP Macro where I wasn't able to find the time and space to do some of the simulations I typically do with the students. 

The end of the day, at 2:30, saw me very tired. I don't know if I was as good of a father, husband, and friend because I was spent. Heck, the end of a class saw me tired, and sometimes students would ask me very specific individual non-content questions I couldn't answer. 

If anything came up to disrupt my prep period, the lost time cascaded throughout my day and meant at minimum one of my classes wouldn't go off as well as it should. 

Having to grade a big assessment would upset the rhythm of what I was doing, too. 

I had to borrow pockets of time from all over the school day. I don't talk with colleagues as much when I'm so tightly scheduled. 

I haven't been able to post anything of substance here for nine weeks, and this blog is a useful release for me. 

Since I am the fella who makes the teaching assignment recommendations to principals, I have only myself to blame for my teaching assignment. About 11 months ago I made the decision to run this gauntlet for nine weeks, and I think the wisdom was sound then. I would make the same decision this spring, even knowing what I know now. But I am more appreciative of the costs of putting myself, or a colleague, in such a situation and will look for ways in which I can better position the department to make it unlikely I have to go this direction again. 

The most important observation I have to make, though, is that the students still are engaged and positive about the class experience. Despite my fatigue (and how it sometimes lead to me saying things out of turn in class) my students still seem to understand that I like them, like my job, and know what I'm doing. That all tells me that I can schedule myself as tightly as I did. But I probably shouldn't do it again any time soon. 

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