In my seventh year of teaching, when I was really hitting my stride as a classroom instructor, I was ready to quit. I didn’t want to. I loved teaching. The best way to put it is that I had hit a crisis. In plainest terms, people experience crisis when their behavior and choice patterns no longer work work for them, requiring some kind of change. Another way to put it is, “What has ‘worked’ up until this point WILL NOT work from here on out.” That was me. I felt stuck in an endless loop that was wearing me down more and more each day.
My crisis centered around guilt. And this was no ordinary guilt, where I found myself going between two sides. This guilt loop had three elements, one for each of my main roles at the time: teacher, spouse, and parent. I had responsibilities for each role, and I wasn’t handling any of them well. Maybe I had people fooled, or maybe they were just being kind to me, but inside I was all tangled up in knots. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do next for any of those roles, and felt like I was frantically running from one to the other. That caused a lot of stress, and I was exhausted. I was at quit point.
Here’s the thing. It wasn’t that each role was stressing me out. Not at all! It was only ONE aspect of ONE of my roles: grading. That’s it! Just grading. That killjoy was robbing me of my energy, sanity, and happiness in all three of those roles. Grading had me getting to school earlier and earlier, staying at school longer and longer, staying up later and later, just so I could keep my head above water. And any time when I would think about taking a break, grading would whisper in my ear about all that still needed to be done, while planting a vision of an ever growing stack of papers. Then I would wake up a little earlier, work a little longer, and stay up a little later.
I knew it was bad when I was at school daydreaming about how nice it would be if I were single–like a few of my professors from college–so that I could just focus on handling grades and be a better teacher. That’s low. I was wishing I lived in a world that didn’t include my wife and kids just so I could slay the grading dragon–Or was I chasing it?
When I realized just how far gone I was, I decided that year seven was the end of my teaching career. During mid-October, I started saying it out loud. And when I first began talking about it, I realized how complicated of a move this would be. I owned a house and my wife took care of our home and kids full-time. I couldn’t just hope to find a job that replaced my salary and benefits. And there was the issue of timing. There were seven months remaining in the school year. How was I going to do this?
When I was eating dinner with my friend, Matt—a fellow high school teacher who started around the same year that I did—I asked him to pray for me to find a new job. He was incredulous! “Why,” he barked. In a one syllable question, I felt shamed and judged, like I had let him down. Like he was shining a light on how I would be letting my wife and kids down if I quit. This may have been my lowest point. I just wanted to hide.
It turns out that I was misreading where the conversation was going, where my friend’s heart was. Matt is intense and direct. When he needs to, he doesn’t pull punches, and in this conversation, he hit me hard with some real truth. And it was just what I needed to hear. He was full of care and concern, and by the time we were done talking, I was hopeful and on the road to recovery!
After he asked why I wanted to quit, here’s the gist of how the conversation went:
Me: Because . . . It’s too much. I can’t do it all.
Matt: Yes you can! What’s taking up your time?
Matt: Why are you spending so much time grading? Have your students grade the work.
Me: I can’t do that!
Matt: Why not? I do.
Me: Because, in English, it’s so subjective. The students won’t do it right.
Matt: Then show them how?
Me: Well, that works for quizzes and small assignments, but I can’t do that with writing.
Matt: Why not? You teach them how to do it, right?
Matt: And you expect them to pay attention, learn how to do it, then be able to do it, right?
Me: Yeah, but . . .
Matt: Then they should be able to assess it.
Me: Look, it’s not that simple with writing.
Matt: Why not?
Me: Well, it’s really complicated, and they don’t know writing like I do. So I have to do all the grading because . . .
Matt: Then break it down for your students. Make it simple for them.
Me: But . . .
Matt: And if it’s subjective, if you keep all the secrets of the how-to and the learning, that means they’re not really learning it. So, make it objective.
Me: . . .
I Was Doing All the Work
And the conversation continued from there, demonstrating several ways a teacher can have his students grading the work of peers as well as their own. And not just as a clever time-saving technique, but as the next step to deepen student learning.
The conversation completely flipped my world upside down. Up until that point, I thought that I had to do all the work! But I didn’t. And I shouldn’t have. If students are going to own the learning they are doing in any class they take, then they need to own the learning by showing that they can self-assess their work accurately. If my students can’t assess their own work, then I question the depth of their learning.
Here’s the simple truth: one day our students won’t be our students anymore. We all want our students to leave our classroom remembering everything we taught them, fully capable to reproduce and transfer the skills they learned under our teaching. And what I have learned is that the best way to predict, to know that your students will carry their learning with them when they move on is to train them to assess their own work, effort, and process. And they need to be able to do with care and competence. If they don’t do this while they are enrolled in your class, then your hopes for their retention are no better to you than wishful thinking because you’ll never know.
At this point in my career, my goal (and my hope for us all) is to make every element of my planning, instruction, and grading point the students toward full ownership of their learning. I want every inch of my classroom to funnel students to take full possession of the learning. I aim to design a classroom that MAKES THEM MASTER IT!
QUESTION: When was the closest you have ever come to quitting at this thing called teaching? What were the circumstances?