This year I have taken on the task of applying for my National Board certification. I have been trying (possibly unsuccessfully) to work through the material, and as usual, I am completely overwhelmed. (To the point that I should probably stop telling people I am in the process…. For my dignity’s sake).
Nonetheless, there is value in whatever outcome arises from this. Our school’s instructional coach mentioned that it was the best PD of his life - and he’s not wrong. Of particular note is the emphasis on self assessment and self directed learning.
Imma start with a hard truth. I am a control freak. I struggle with anything left to the students, and often, I assume it’ll fail. (Apparently, I am very narcissistic about my abilities). Being an AP teacher, however, has forced me to rely on their independence because frankly, I can’t hold their hand on the test. It puts me in a position where I need to teach them to be reflective and how to effectively evaluate their own work and progress. Therefore, I’ve always had some form of self-assessment. This year - while undergoing my own person Odyssey - I’ve found even more ways to engage students in reflection. After weeding through the muck, I have a few worth sharing.
Really, it’s a shift in mindset for ourselves as the teacher. Why should we burn out creating feedback when the kids are perfectly capable? Yes, it takes frontloading with samples and rubric analysis. Yes, they will complain when you ask them to evaluate on their own. Yes, it means giving up some control (cringe).
The value lies in the process itself. For example, I can tell my kids a score at this point, and they know exactly what that number means: what’s missing, what’s successful, the next steps. Best of all - at least for me - it cuts down grading time. Significantly. It’s honestly the only reason I have time for individual conferences with students... and what's left of my sanity.
There’s a basic formula for teacher burnout, and it works like this.
Passionate Teacher + Coaching/Advising + Committees and Meetings + Professional Development + School Politics and Administrative Bullshit = BURNOUT
Note it isn’t the kids or the work itself. Instead, I have yet to go one school year without (at minimum) two of each of the preceding , things - sometimes in a single day. Hell, a single hour. And THAT is what exhausts me. Not teaching.
Needless to say, I frequently find myself clicking on articles about teacher burnout and retention, hoping to find the holy grail. Unfortunately, I get a mixture of the same thing.
Self care. Prioritizing. Reflection. Community. Saying “no.”
And, of course, those things help. My world changed when I moved in with my significant other and made the decision to leave all grading at school. (Or at least, get home at a decent time). In much the same way, I find immense comfort in my colleagues. Simple nights of Moscow Mules and venting have single handedly keep my afloat. And I’ve said no - or, let’s be real, ignored - more requests in the last two years than ever before.
But the burnout is still real, if not worse.
I come to a new conclusion. There’s a reason that some teachers need to prioritize or say “no.” It is the constant stream of requests directed at them because they are the reliable, trustworthy, accountable member of the team.
It is a tendency of humanity that infiltrates every level. My AP students are pulled in too many different directions, simply because people know they are capable. Even within this microcosm, there are variations. These same kids are currently creating documentary films, and I can promise you, the reliable, trustworthy, accountable kid is responsible for so many more aspects than their peers. When is it my responsibility as their teacher to hold the other students accountable? To bring them up, instead of relying on my harder workers. How do I teach the RTA (Yeah, I made it an acronym) kid to not accept the apathy of their peers?
Especially when I am not even capable of that.
I deeply understand their frustration. The fact of the matter is, you can’t always say “no,” and frankly, if I tried in my current situation, I would look inflexible or irrational - despite years of being the team player. It’s a pattern of inequity that chips away at my resolve. I just can’t shake this whining voice in the back of my head, saying, “Why do I always have to make the sacrifice?”
And just like the tightrope I walk in my classroom, I don’t see a logical solution. Putting my foot down either makes no difference or makes me look like the inflexible peers I complain about. Going along with another request just continues my own self-destruction. For my students it’s the same. Either they throw up their hands and let the project fail, or they push themselves one more time.
But those “times” aren’t going to stop. Every day, week, month, year - there will be new requests, conflicts, and demands. These are the kids whose potential gets buried. The kids who get swallowed up by college. The kids who turn out like myself - still fighting that whining voice indefinitely.
I apologize that I have no solutions tonight. I’ll keep looking, of course, but fundamentally, we can’t make everyone invest the way we do. Just know, you aren’t alone as the teacher constantly being pulled for one more thing. In fact, schools in this country wouldn’t survive without us, and I guess, there’s something admirable in that.
Wednesday, at 10 a.m., I plan to walk out for 17 minutes with my students. Not just because I want to support them, but because I want change myself. As a lesson, I wrote sample letters to representation for my students to emulate - careful to represent three different perspectives.
dear very republican senator,
I understand that what I am about to express may be one cry in a howling wind. I understand that there are many louder, stronger voices screaming the opposite of what I’ll say. Nonetheless, I must insist. This country needs serious, logical gun control, beyond any recent initiative.
I am of the Columbine generation. It was a day past my 10th birthday when Harris and Klebold massacred their high school, achieving the one thing they desired most – relevance. That day, a nation sat up and paid attention. Parents pulled their children from school, drastic lockdown procedures went nationwide, and kids like me suddenly had something to be afraid of each time they went to school. That fear hasn’t dissipated. Rather, it’s grown and catalyzed over the years, climbing towards an unknown, devastating culmination, I think.
The same loopholes in gun sales exploited by these troubled young men remain today. In fact, North Dakota has some of the most lenient rules on ammunition sales, registration, and even storage. If such nightmares can occur in states with stricter policy, our own tragedy seems horrifyingly imminent. And I’m scared. Just as I was at 10 years old. Just as I was in my first year of teaching, when Adam Lanza took the weapons kept in his home to an elementary school. Just as I was this year, when Nicholas Cruz terrorized his former high school with weapons bought legally, despite his clearly unstable mental capacities.
I must ask the obvious: how many lives will it take to see action? Real action. Not minimal restrictions of bump stocks or whatever else can squeak by the gun lobby. Real action. Action that prevents further disasters. Action that makes my students feel safe once more. Real gun reform has to start somewhere. Why can’t this one cry in a storm of statewide opposition be the voice that gets through?
Honestly, I am begging you.
Modern education is a network of tight ropes. The teachers, the aerialists, move from one rope to another.
Today, I'm teetering as usual.
As an AP teacher, my tight rope is often the same, linking day one of class to the exam at the end of the year. To my right is my responsibility to the test - that I need students to perform well. On my left, I feel the pull of my own teaching philosophy. My shoulders bare the greatest weight. My students: their well being, their success, their hearts.
It's an ugly game of chance. Will I make it to the end, with all these things in perfect balance? I'm not sure I have yet.
Unfortunately, the task becomes more daunting each year. With only the weight of my students, I could possibly make it, but we all know the variables. Initiatives, score reports, parents, and admin target you like barnswallows, unintentionally throwing you further off balance.
I should say; it's always well intentioned. Adding score incentives probably pushes the students and/or me to work harder. Engaged parents - as long as they remain just that, not invasive - are an incredible asset! Even admin (the unfairly labelled "bad guys") are only looking out for kids.
Add it up, however, and the pressure is immediately overwhelming.
The hardest part of this circus act - at least, I think - is the foundation of these problems. That everyone wants what is best for the students.
My struggle is this...
My kids need confidence, love, character, integrity, and most obviously, fewer stressers. It's so devastatingly clear with advanced students, who bury themselves in their own impossible expectations. They need fun, kindness, and freedom.
The problem is that, as a third party, I know they won't all pass. Statistically, it's implausible, and therein lies the challenge of this time of year. I've seen enough to guess who will be successful on the exam, but standing in front of that classroom, I am pained to make any concessions. I want to believe that with more practice for the exam - more prompt drills, more timed writes, more multiple choice passages - they can all pass the test. Experience tells me it may be poorly allocated time.
Because the other half of the problem is that there is so much more - beyond the test - that I want for them.
They need to read beautiful novels, but fiction won't be on the test.
They need to be creative, but every moment not practicing for the test is a possible disservice.
They need to practice citizenship and integrity, but no test will ever measure those things.
Essentially, I am zeroing in on our final weeks together and wind from both sides of the tight rope has me hanging midair.
So what now? Do I inch along, servant to two masters - the test and myself? Do I commit to one side (probably the test), forsaking the other?
Both likely end the same - the way they have for my last three years with AP.
Assessment data is necessary. I understand the value in monitoring where our students are throughout the year and building from one year to the next. Each year, however, I am more at war with myself. I think we all are, calloused by years of clinging to wire.