The beginning of the school year feels like a frenetic blur. I’m writing lesson plans, learning names, trying to build community, catching up with colleagues, and attempting to teach some content on top of it all. A few days ago, I watched my first sack of grading materialize in front of my eyes; 90 in-class essays from my sophomores over their summer reading. I quickly did the math that I assume all teachers do: how many essays do I need to grade per day so that I can get them back to the students with a reasonable turnaround rate? I ended up taking a small stack home that night, convinced that if I could grade 5 at school, and 5 at home every single day, it would mean that I could get them back to the students in less than 2 weeks and not even have to grade over the weekend. I mean...10 essays per day? No problem. In my head, I convinced myself this was a completely attainable, perhaps even a lazy goal.
I drove home with those five essays tucked into my pack, motivated to knock them out in an hour. I sat down at the kitchen table and graded two essays, rapid fire. To my delight, they weren’t even poorly written! Then I got distracted by my unfinished kitchen renovation, I took my dog for a walk, made dinner, and proceeded to get even more distracted by a glass of wine and the nightly news.The other three essays just lay on the table for the rest of the night.
The next morning, as I packed up my teacher bag to leave for work, I saw the ungraded essays and felt the all too familiar lurch in my stomach: disappointment. How did I let this happen so early in the year? How was I already off track?
That thinking was the trigger of a wicked cycle, and I’ve been caught up in it so many times: I bring work home, my life gets in the way, and I must catch up somehow the next day... but I can never get it finished. There’s always work to be done, and the cycle repeats and repeats. That morning, as I added those three essays back to the top of my “to-be-graded” pile, I at least had the presence of mind to stop and think to myself: Hold on. This cycle isn’t sustainable. That thought, of course, has not stopped me from setting unattainable grading goals, but I’m glad that I can at least recognize the pattern (and the feeling of disappointment in myself) as being completely toxic. It’s just a baby step that I’m taking towards embracing a more sustainable teaching practice; I’m trying to recognize when I need to cut myself some slack. I mean, honestly, isn’t it ridiculous? Why am I so upset with myself when I let life distract me from my work? Shouldn’t I be more appalled that I’ve allowed work to overrun my life?
Several other teachers from my department have attended the sustainable teaching institute, and over the past few lunches, I’ve been asking them what their takeaways have been. For Stephen, it was adding a note to his email signature stating that emails would be answered within two school days, which has allowed him to feel more comfortable to not check his work email over the weekend (something which encouraged many of us to do the same). For Creighton, moving towards sustainability has meant a shift in his before and after school routines. He has started biking to and from work several days of the week, and it gives him mental distance from the classroom, which allows him to be more refreshed and positive when he gets to work or when he gets home. Tiffany, who attended the institute the previous summer, mentioned that she likes to incorporate breathing exercised with her students before tests; she reports that the atmosphere in her room after these exercises is much calmer.
Of course, none of these practices are one-size-fits-all fixes, and we are a long way off from perfection. I don’t believe that attaining complete sustainability in my teaching is something that is going to happen overnight; it’s going to take conscious effort and lots of time to break the cycles of unsustainability. For me, it starts with that recognition of the problem and then making one small move to correct it.
This weekend, I’ll take some grading home, but I’m going to consciously put it away after an hour. Whatever I don’t get to can wait until next week, and I bet my students will understand.
WRITTEN BY: Beth Bratschun, CSUWP Teacher-Leader and Poudre H.S. English Teacher