Robert Macfadden is a history teacher at Palmdale High School in Palmdale, CA. A while ago, Robert wrote in with the following story. There's a very important moment in this story that I'd like to expand upon after Robert is through. So, I'll be back in a minute.
Four years ago I had what was probably my worst year teaching. I was spending way too much time grading things my students were just cheating on, my lessons themselves had stagnated, and I was no longer receiving feedback from observers because I managed student behavior well.
I still don't know how I found you and your blog, whether it was recommended by another teacher or I was looking for an answer and stumbled upon it. But something that you wrote resonated with me especially on what ended up being a day that was the straw that broke the camel's back. Another school in my district had had a shooting, and we spent the majority of the day on lockdown. As soon as the lockdown was over, parents came and picked up their students and the campus was a ghost town except for the 2 or 3 students who's parents couldn't or wouldn't pick them up remained. I had been suffering from anxiety attacks but they were intensifying. That day I decided that I wasn't going to have another year of teaching like that. If I did… I'd look for another thing to do. Because after 14 years of teaching, it wasn't working anymore.
That summer I read some more of your blog entries and started listening to the Cult of Pedagogy podcast. And then the realization hit me: I was constantly adding more for myself to do, and this always led to me finding myself sacrificing everything to keep doing it. That was not only not healthy for me; it was unrealistic. I realized that the only thing that said I had to grade endless papers and assignments was me. I reduced my grading load while increasing the meaning that the things I did do with my student had.
The next year, it worked. I wasn't spending entire weekends grading piles of meaningless busywork. Instead, I was spending an hour or maybe two grading things that worked to improve the performance of the students (which is fantastic considering I teach AP US History). It was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Instead of taking weeks to grade SAQs [Short Answer Questions] and LEQs [Longer Essay Questions], I was giving them on Friday and handing them back graded on Monday. The anxiety attacks disappeared, and I had a newfound confidence in what I was doing in my classroom. Then your student motivation PD came out and I was one of the first people to sign up for it. That too helped to shape my outlook on not only my students but the students of the school. I began working with the PBIS team at my school trying to find a way to positively affect the students of the entire school, not just the ones in my class. I'm now the PBIS coordinator for my site. I'm also taking classes again at the local University in Instructional Design and Technology, which was good timing for all this online teaching I've had to do.
Here's what I notice in Robert's story
First, Robert's pre-realization experience of teaching is the norm. We're a set of professionals rife with anxiety, overwhelm, and a sense of stagnation. The default conditions of our work are either frenetic, unceasing attempts to manage impossible task sets OR frustrated resignation to the senseless chaos that is the modern education system's initiative/policy/program maelstrom.
I'm not trying to be negative here. I'm just saying that how we experience our work is a top contributing factor to worsening teacher attrition rates.
Second, Robert demonstrates how slight, internal shifts can make things very different.
Did you notice that most things didn't change in Robert's story?
- He didn't teach different classes.
- He didn't switch schools.
- He didn't switch jobs.
- He wasn't approached by his administration with some new opportunity.
Instead, what happened is that Robert broke through an inner obstacle: the belief that he had to grade everything. When he had to grade everything — when this is how he defined success — success became impossible, effort became meaningless, and the work lost its value.
But then came:
- The realization — “The only thing that said I had to grade endless papers and assignments was me.” — and
- The fruit — “I reduced my grading load while increasing the meaning that the things I did do with my student had.“
Tiny change. Large result.
What tiny changes might be whispering to you right now?
Robert's shift led him to SKIP lots of the grading he had loaded on to his shoulders — SKIP is one of the ten disciplines of
time management life stewardship that we examine in the Time Management Stewarding Our Lives Seminar for Educators. Learn more here!