I am so excited to start my #Teach2Teach series which is a collaboration project I am doing with Karen Tharrington, Foreign Language Education Program Coordinator at North Carolina State University. She and I met for the first time at ACTFL 2014 and came up with the idea for her Methods students to send their most pressing questions to me so that an experienced classroom teacher can answer them. On that note, here we go!
My first official #Teach2Teach post will be answering Garrett's question. Here's what he asked:
Well Garrett, the truth is that you have asked the quintessential question for teachers of all subjects everywhere in all of mankind. I know, you probably didn't want to hear THAT, but it is true. It is also the reason I chose your question first. As a teacher, you can't do anything with your subject matter until you develop a system for managing your workload. I think the quick answer is that this is a constant struggle that every teacher deals with every day of the school year. The longer answer is more connected to each teacher's personality, style, strengths and weaknesses. All I can really tell you is how I try to manage things in my world. So, here is my list of things I do to manage the balance between teaching and planning.
This takes time to do. Know what you are distracted by and what helps you focus, know what things are hard for you to do and know what things are as easy as second nature for you, and finally get to know what things you know well and what you don't know well. Give yourself permission not to be perfect and to have areas that need growth, but make sure that you find solutions for them. The reality of teaching that most outsiders DON'T know about is that there is never a moment where there isn't work to do. From the early days in August before students are ever in classrooms until the very last day of school, teachers are busy. There is never one single day when a teacher leaves his job saying, "It's all done." The only way to really manage all that you have to do is to know what your organizational strengths and weaknesses are and supplement in whatever ways are easiest to integrate into your lifestyle. For example, I have the style and temperament of an artist, so anything remotely creative I am on top of like white on rice. I know I have a tendency to choose those tasks over the more mundane parts of my job because I like them better, and I even find myself making excuses for it, too. I know that one of my biggest weaknesses as a teacher is getting the miscellaneous administrative paperwork done and done ON TIME. This includes web based training, digital surveys and all the red tape that no one ever tells you exists before you start your first day of work as a teacher. In order to get those things done in a timely manner I literally have to schedule their due dates into the calendar so that I can prioritize them based on importance and deadline. I make lots of lists and I check them often. A relatively new tool I use for listing is Google Keep. It is like digital post it notes, and I love post it notes! This Google app allows me to access my lists from any web connected device, so my lists are always right there whenever I need them. I have to admit, even with these tools in place I don't always get things there on time, but it helps. I highly recommend that you start to analyze yourself now to prepare for what this will look like when you are in the classroom. What things do you struggle with? What responsibilities are you an ace at getting done without reminders or help? It is likely similar things will have their similar qualities about them when you start teaching, so be brutally honest with yourself about these things and avoid trying to convince yourself otherwise.
Train Yourself to Faithfully Use ONE Calendar
When I was younger I was a genius at keeping track of dates and deadlines without writing anything down. At least I think that is true. What is probably more true is that I had less to keep track of so I am romanticizing my younger self's memory. Nowadays I often feel like there is a fog that has consumed my head when it comes to keeping dates and deadlines straight, but tagging onto my first point, I know now that I am a person who relies upon this premise: If it is written down, I don't have to remember it. So this means I have to always write things like dates down. For me, using my Outlook calendar and syncing it to my smart phone has been the easiest thing to do. I put everything I can into it. As soon as I know any dates I program them into the calendar, color code them and set reminders. Everything goes into it: duty, meetings, blogging plans, grading periods, important assessments, state testing, and anything else I can think of. Nothing is too important and nothing is too basic not to note in the calendar. Whatever you do, make sure that you commit to ONE calendar to manage and be disciplined about keeping it current.
Keeping a calendar is especially important when it comes to balancing the teaching side of your job with the planning responsibilities you have. You are the captain of one ship in the fleet of your district, especially if you are in a larger district, so you have to make sure that you are true to meeting the instructional requirements your district has outlined for you. The calendar will help you keep track of time and the dozens of interruptions your instruction will have such as state testing, fire drills or inclement weather days. It will also help you prioritize your content and help you focus on what has to be done rather than what you might like to get done. All this being said, your calendar is so much more than a time management tool, it is your instructional insurance policy.
Let Your Learning Targets Navigate for You
I don't know if you can tell, but these things are building on each other. Even I as write them, I see that they are interconnected cogs in the machine that is my teaching methodology. The first to items I outlined for you pave the way for your instruction to happen as smoothly as possible, but this final item is the vehicle that transports you and your students to your destination. Whether you have objectives, can do statements or whatever name for your curriculum standards, use them as the rubric by which you evaluate every part of every lesson you plan to teach. In my district we call them learning targets, so for the purpose of this blog post that is what I will call them. I post them on my white board in the front of the room and always have them stored in my planning binder so that I can refer to them often and measure my ideas against them. If I am inspired with a new idea for an activity or lesson I first read through the unit's learning targets to see if that idea moves my students towards our learning goals. If so, then I proceed in my planning and design. If not, the idea is shelved for another level or another time. Nothing, and I mean nothing can get in the way of the learning targets. This means that really fun game I discovered on Pinterest can't be played unless it helps my students proficiency move nearer to the end goal.
When I first started learning about proficiency based instruction, this was so frustrating. I found that there were legacy practices that I loved to do with my students and I would defend those practices by saying that my students were engaged and they enjoyed them. At the end of the day I had to come to the realization that there are some things that we do with our students that have no effect on their proficiency and there are some things we do that actually have a negative effect on their growth. I have to be the toughest critic of all when it comes to what I include and don't include in my instructional day. I have to continually remind myself that I am not there to entertain my students. I am there to grow them into Spanish speakers. Jelly beans are yummy, but they don't make flowers grow, so if I was a gardener I probably wouldn't feed them to my rose bushes, right? It is a good analogy for world language classrooms. The time we have with our students is precious. It is probably more precious than for any other subject area because that 50 minutes may be the only time that student interacts with the target language all day. I have to make sure that none of that time is wasted, so my learning targets serve as blinders to me that keep me focused on the destination ahead of me and not the cutesy activities that are fun but have no substance. I think of those things as "empty calories."
Alrighty Garrett, what do you think? Did I answer your question well? I so hope this helps you begin to self evaluate and come up with an organizational plan that will help sustain you once you get into your own classroom. Also, THANK YOU for asking the question. This exercise is so good for me because it makes me really think about what my answer is. A question like this, while not directly connected to language teaching, makes me evaluate my current practices and decide if they work or not. Great question!
A Challenge to My Readers
My challenge to any experienced world language classroom teacher who reads this post is either to post your own answer to Garrett in the form of a comment to my blog, or even better write your own blog post answering his question and publish it to the Twitter community using the #Teach2Teach hashtag. Help me start a movement of veteran teachers reaching out to teach future teachers so that our move towards proficiency based world language instruction is strengthened and soon becomes the standard practice rather than the vanguard.
(n.) A special place where we remember that students are humans that need to feel loved and important, where their achievements are celebrated every day and where we learn Spanish along the way!
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