This is a post about hope, but it won't always sound like it.
I've been teaching for eleven days so far this school year — we started, in-person, the day after Labor Day. And every day ends with me driving home or walking in the woods or zoning out at dinner, internally asking a variation on the same confounding question:
“Why is this so hard?”
Confounding is just the right word. The work this year “causes surprise or confusion in (someone), especially by acting against my expectations,” and it “mixes up (something) with something else so that the individual elements become difficult to distinguish.”
I expected the year to be different — but I didn't expect to be drowning in a way that I haven't felt since my first years.
I expected there to be change — but I didn't expect that the pedagogical patterns and the workload management strategies that I've long relied on would leave me defeated and behind at the end of each day.
Remember: this is a post about hope. But there's no sense pretending that the overall experience of being a teacher in 2020-2021 is pleasant so far.
In good company
About four or five days into this, I went to a colleague and said, “Gosh, I really did not want to get out of bed this morning. I kind of don't want to be a teacher right now. I just need to confess that.” My colleague responded, “Yeah, I was looking at other jobs last night.”
This was surprising to me. I figured I was the only one. I assumed beneath all of their masks were big smiles, like the one that I was putting on. This colleague that was job-searching — he's not the day-counter type. The whole “I'm 3,472 days away from retirement” thing — that's not him. The man is dedicated and passionate; he's been in pursuit of excellence all the years I've known him.
I began asking more people how they were doing. I was surprised at how few were doing well. The ones that were doing well, I started to ask them questions. But the answers involved techniques and strategies and tech integrations that were foreign to me. My list of things that I needed to learn grew like COVID at a maskless frat party.
So my experience was normal, I learned. But this did little to help.
There is a sense in which misery does love company. But even moreso, I think misery loves the reduction of itself and the return of shalom, of flourishing.
The twin problems and their vicious partnership
It turns out that the difficulty of this year isn't just a my-school thing, and it's not a thing having to do with the model we're using. I've heard from teachers around the country in all types of scenarios, and the consensus is the same. This is hard. It hasn't felt like this before. “This year can suck it.”
Here's what I think the difficulty comes down to; this is what we've got to grapple with together: workload and pressure.
Increased workload: more to do than ever
Whether you're all-online, in-person, or somewhere in between — and let's face it, in-person is somewhere in between because of the needed symptom-based protocols — you've got more to do this year than you've had to do before. I'm going to list some things — you probably don't have all of these, but you for sure have some.
- More emails
- More students
- More digital content creation
- More digital content curation
- More assignments to grade
- More feedback to give
- More documenting
- More organizing
- More tech troubleshooting
- More questions to answer
- More variables to lesson plan for
- More students with gaps in their preparation for what you do
Your list will vary based on your school's flavor of back-to-school 2020, but what's true is that you've got more to do.
To be clear, having too much to do isn't new to teachers. There's always too much to do in this job. That's basically why I'm a teacher-writer — because my loyalty to my wife and children means that I have to research the practices that matter most so that I can skip or satisfice the practices that don't, and so I might as well write about what I learn and discover in case it helps someone else.
But the workload this year is especially hard because the added task volume is A) not skippable, B) very difficult, or C) too new to know how important it is. I can't skip making a way for my quarantining students to access my instruction and coursework because every day in every class there is some new configuration of students who are there, students who are absent for unknown reasons, and students who are virtual during a health department-mandated quarantine.
And that task that I just mentioned isn't just not skippable — it's also really difficult. The tried and true pedagogy that has made my work progressively easier and more impactful during the last decade is proving unsustainably time-intensive in this new, weird limbo state called Teaching During 2020-2021. It's like I'm relearning how to do everything. And in case you can't tell, this has caught me unawares. And so I can read and reread Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey, and John Hattie's Distance Learning Playbook all day long, but guess what? It doesn't help. It sounds good — but what the authors are describing is an idealized pedagogy that right now I feel like I'd need a team of teachers to pull off.
There's not enough time in the day.
And that produces pressure.
Pressure on every front
The Yerkes-Dodson Law has always been true — that human beings need some pressure to perform at their best, but when they are over-pressured, their performance declines. What we're seeing this year is hundreds of thousand of experienced, high-quality teachers finding themselves on the wrong side of this curve in a way that they haven't been since their earliest years. Hyper-pressured and experiencing less for it — it's a place of pain.
This compounds with the fact that life is already pretty pressure-filled in Fall 2020. There's pressure in the social realm — e.g., politics or suffering colleagues — and in the realm of our intellect — e.g., so many new things to learn and tough problems to solve — and in the realm of our emotion — e.g., fear or sadness or anger or depression or anxiety — and in the realm of our body, and in the realm of the will — e.g., I can't have my wedding or my sports or my _____ the way I'm used to.
Work pressure + life pressure = a frazzled mind, a frazzled heart.
The vicious partnership
As I've said, pressure and workload are normal in teaching. But when either one increases rapidly, you end up really destabilized and seeing the other rise, too. They play off of one another.
Pressure makes our minds mushy. It makes giving in to distraction easier. It goads us into using brute force — working harder — to solve problems that require tactical savvy. And by doing this, pressure makes our workload increase. And an increased workload makes us constantly feel like there is too much to do and like we're not doing a good job. And that increases our experience of pressure.
So what happens if you find yourself in circumstances where both workload and pressure rapidly increase?
You wrestle with feelings you may not be used to. Confounded. Defeated. Hopeless. Blindsided. Stuck.
I'm not saying it's good. I'm not saying that the feelings are the reality. I'm just saying that those are the kinds of things you're likely to feel if you find yourself in a circumstance where workload and pressure increase simultaneously.
In other words, it makes sense that a lot of us aren't liking things right now.
What to do — or the ways through the woods
In normal circumstances, this is how it works.
- The way to solve workload issues is to find opportunities for reducing, simplifying, focusing, skipping, satisficing elements of our workload until it becomes humanly possible. This takes time, clarity, creativity, collaboration, research.
- The way to solve external pressure is to invest in the revitalization in all the parts of our being — physical, intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual. This takes learning and discipline. And the way to solve internal pressure is to assess our expectations and determine proper readjustments.
The good news is that these solutions didn't stop working all of a sudden. They'll still do quite well. The trouble is that it's just an especially hard set of circumstances in which to work them. Difficult, but not impossible.
So, let's work the problems.
First, we manage the internal pressure by resetting our expectations
Internal pressure is an “us” issue. We've got to be ruthless with it.
Look at this, from our colleague Cara Gregory via Twitter:
My principal helped me to understand,today, that I’m approaching this all wrong. I’m thinking in “normal” parameters and using that as the stick against which I’m judging myself. This isn’t normal. I need a new stick. My wins need to be small and I need to forget last year.— Cara Gregory (@MrsGregoryKHMS) September 22, 2020
Me too, Cara.
A lot of the best teachers are getting crushed right now because the measuring stick we normally use isn't the one to use this year — not if we're going to stay sane, not if we're going to marshal the internal resources needed to make this year work as best it can, given the realities of our circumstances.
I'll say it: we may need to sacrifice or severely modify our pedagogy this year. I'm starting to accept this. I don't intend to become a distance teacher when this is all through, and there's zero chance of me becoming a guru of distance or blended learning in the next nine months. In other words, I don't need perfect or fast or best. I need a “good enough” that my students and I can work with.
So it's back to basics:
- Can I provide coherent lessons and units for my students in which they read, write, speak, build knowledge, and argue about my assigned course material?
- Can I do so in a way that works whether they are in-person or not?
- Can I do so in a way that doesn't drive me crazy?
Those are the new benchmarks. They are the measuring stick.
They have to be.
At least for now.
Then, we manage the external pressure through taking care of ourselves
Times like this call for deeper, longer draws from the springs of well-being — not shallower, quicker ones. I know it's annoying to hear self-care-self-care-self-care-self-care all the time — partly because of the way it's often packaged as a set of “life hacks” rather than a discipline and a way of life. I'm not talking about lip-service self-care — I'm talking about special, sustained attention to the realities of human nature — that we are physical, emotional, social, intellectual beings far more than we are units of educational production.
We've got to approach this like learners. When someone you are with shares something that helps them in the physical or mental or emotional or spiritual or social elements of their lives, get out the notebook. Write it down.
I'm talking about learning. Experimenting. Being strict with our self-created schedules so that we have time for more than work. We've always needed to end work when we said we would — but now especially so. Deal with the consequences of not being done tomorrow — don't visit the consequences on your home and your family time tonight.
We can't let our work conquer our other commitments, the self withers. And boy does work ever seem bent on doing that this year.
Finally, we attend to the workload through disciplined learning, thinking, collaborating, and execution
Each of those matters.
- Learning — how to upload a thing on Canvas, how to make a three-step workflow become a one-step.
- Thinking — this looks like getting away from screens with a pad and a paper and attacking a single problem at a time.
- Collaborating — there are people who are further with organizing their learning management system or their contact logs than you are — figure out who they are and ask them questions!
- Execution — stuff like OHIO for emails and single-tasking during feedback are key.
That's all I've got. This article has been bubbling inside me for two weeks, and I've not had a minute to sit down and write it. I hope it's a contribution to your work and well-being. And I hope that, by its end, it became a bit of a post about hope.
Best to you,