A question came in through the Facebook page that deserves it’s own blog post. This is an edited version of the question. (I removed everything she said about her own practice. It was an email to me, not meant for the public, but it’s an awesome question, so I’m using it.)
I’m writing this email to ask your advice as a someone who understands the challenges of teaching a “higher order thinking discipline”. When do you grade papers? Do you take work home? How do you evaluate your students? Do you require them to show work? Do you grade answers only or are you grading solutions? I end up with lots of paper, no time to workout, no time to shop or fix proper meals. How do you do it???
A little background…
I have a BS in Mathematics – yes, I can BS about math and can hold my own with the best of ’em. I have awards. One from the US Dept of Education – no money, but a nice recognition with one of those surprise assemblies. (I cried.) I’m also a National Board Certified teacher, AYA Mathematics. Anyone who knows anything about that process knows it’s a tad challenging, but I used to be one of the “hard core-do it right or don’t do it at all” types who did that process early in my career because I wanted to get better faster. I learned a ton and have learned a ton since using the best-practices I learned as I wrote papers and analyzed videos of my teaching. I’ve paid for my own professional development because the district wasn’t giving me what I wanted – flew across the country for a weekend seminar about cooperative learning and secondary mathematics – on my own dime(s). And then I did a masters in Instructional Leadership that specialized in preparing people for the boards, but my focus was to prepare my renewal, which is due in… last month I think. I chose not to do it.
Yes, you read that right – I’m letting my National Board Certification expire. I do not want to invest any more money into my teaching career. I feel like I’ve done everything I want to do in my field and I’m planning my exit. I am making a gamble that I’m supposed to be doing something else – it’s literally a gamble. I will be losing a nice monthly stipend when it expires. I am NOT burnt out. I love teaching. I adore my students. And I believe with all my heart, and I think my students will concur, that my teaching is BETTER since I’ve stopped working so hard as a teacher. But I am confident that I will be able to replace that lost income following this new path.
I invested EVERYTHING into this career and you know what else I got with those awards and recognition? Obesity, depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure meds. When it became crystal clear to me that the system didn’t give a sh*t about me as an employee, everything changed. And luckily, the Universe provided everything I needed when I needed it to make these changes, so I’m confident I made the right decision.
First, I don’t do a lot of grading. I give one quiz a week in precalculus and calculus. It’s based on their homework. Heck – it can actually BE a textbook question if I didn’t have time to type a quiz. They open the book, do questions I pick on a half sheet form (hotdog – teachers’s know what I mean) I made. I have about 500 of those blank forms copied and ready to go. Kids sit in groups of four, so each person is assigned a different set of questions. No typing. No rushed photocopying. AND – more kids are doing more of the homework now. Not all. 100% for that behavior might be a little tough, but if they don’t practice, they get what they worked for on the quiz. Homework is never graded by me. They are required to do the problems and self-correct and I make keys available. All of the homework, with corrections, will be part of their semester portfolio, which is 10% of their grade. There are only two or three exams. Big ones. I make my final worth 10% of the grade, but if the final exam score is higher than one of the semester exams, I replace that score with the final score. So 90% of their grades comes from exams and quizzes. No retakes except for that final. No homework graded by me. I do make time in class for everyone to work at least once a week. During that time, heads are together, and they are tearing into those problems. They will ask questions, but amazingly, they prefer not to. They would rather discuss, argue, and find their own solutions. Perfect. And what am I doing while they are arguing about calculus? I’m grading papers or lesson planning.
Precalculus uses MathXL for School for their homework, which is the high school version of My Math Lab that our local university and local community college uses. So they don’t even need a portfolio. Occasionally, there are sections where I don’t like the computer’s questions. I have a class set of books and assign practice problems there. Same drill – they work together. Since they are my “first year kids”, they tend to ask me a lot more questions, so I don’t get a lot of work done, but that’s just fine. The table will send a kid over, they get the info they need, then they go back to the table and teach the others. The quiz and exam structure in that class is the same as for calculus.
Exams are mostly multiple choice and I use Edusoft to make scantrons. Quizzes are short and that’s where I grade solutions and give feedback. It takes at least a week for quizzes to be returned. Hate that, but that’s how long it takes. I am a very bad employee. The contractual prep periods are insufficient to get everything done, so I’ve skipped a few staff meetings to grade. I delete emails without reading them. I don’t spend hours watching ‘mandatory’ safety videos. I cannot be all things to all people anymore. I say “no” a lot. I am now “that teacher” who I used to criticize.
Now here’s why you can pick apart my methods – my AP exam pass rate is not high. But at my Title I high school, it’s never been high. When I started teaching this class in 2007 (?), there were seven students in the class. We didn’t have enough textbooks on campus. The year before, there were only 3, and I think there were 5 the year before that. This year, I have two sections of AP calculus AB, with a total of 45 students. I want that pass rate to go up, of course, but I mostly want to them to learn how to think and be resourceful. When I had elaborate lessons, lots of activities, and was doing a ton of grading, I ran myself into the ground and kids still didn’t know how to think. Needless to say, the pass rate wasn’t good then either. Since I changed my approach to accommodate my training, they are learning more. Hmmmm…?
I still rewrite most of my lessons every year. It seems like my brain is finding more efficient ways to teach concepts.
I do get to work about 30 minutes before I’m supposed to be there. Since I workout in the morning, I need to eat breakfast there. I leave at contract time and don’t take anything with me. Even if I wanted to do work, I don’t have time. I’m either working out again or training someone every afternoon. By the time I get home, I have just enough time to eat and then I have to go to bed. It’s really hard. We don’t have kids, so I imagine my schedule would be impossible. But I definitely wouldn’t bring work home then. I just wouldn’t be training clients. But you see, that’s my exit strategy. I’m building a business. When I think it can replace my teaching salary, I’ll jump.
I’ll be the first in line to pick apart my teaching and my new approach. But I don’t think anyone seems to care. I’ve actually gained a lot more traction with my students from the bodybuilding than from anything I’ve ever done in the classroom. They tell me over and over that when I tell them that they have to believe they can do hard stuff, they believe me now. They are on the Facebook page. They are asking to see motivational quotes before they take a quiz. We laugh and we play and we learn. I really don’t ever want to leave that job. I just need more time to do this other thing.
So maybe that’s what happened to me – what used to be my “calling”, turned into my “job”. My life got a lot…bigger. I’ve written about this deal I made with God in 1990. I trust He is still running things, so I’m going to continue to hold up my end of the deal.