Taking the 20,000 foot view on my class

A confession:  I found myself, in one dark and gloomy moment of the semester, completely fixated on the size of the fonts I was using in a presentation for one of my classes.  I was almost paralyzed by the itty bitty…and in retrospect the really  insignificant…details of class prep.  I had somehow become THAT teacher… the same person I had mentored others not to be.  And yet somehow choosing the right hue of purple font and light background seemed more comforting (and under my control) than figuring out what I should have been doing, what I know I should have been doing… developing a communicative task around the vocabulary and the themes of the chapter we were studying.
Looking back on it now I can see why it happened… I was starting a new job and it was an anxious time.  Let’s face it: it -is- an anxious time for anyone in Academia who is not tenured.  I am an experienced classroom teacher but I also one of the (growing?) numbers of teachers for whom teaching is a constant dance with anxiety. That’s not something that’s easy to admit, but I have been pleasantly surprised to learn how many of my colleagues feel the same way.  And yet we all make it look like teaching is the most natural thing in the wooooooorld.  It’s not.
Oh if my students only knew ????

During my font fiasco, I realize now that I had convinced myself that by micromanaging every facet of my class I was somehow gaining more control over that anxiety.  In actuality, the opposite was happening. Why? Well, I can be my own worst critic (shocking, I know). And as my worst critic,  I convinced myself that if my presos worked then it was just blind luck, that I was just fortunate that day, but next time it would be different.  The reckoning was coming!  So down the rabbit hole I would go…doubting myself with the fury of a thousand suns, and digging myself deeper into an anxious mess of hyper-prep and yes, gasp, even the occasional fotocopied cloze passage workbook exercises (Blasphemy!)
Finally it all came tumbling down.  I was spending inordinate amount of time tweaking the presentations and yet had completely lost track of the goals and the objectives for the class.  I was exhausted, overwhelmed, frustrated and ultimately angry with myself for falling into the biggest trap out there: the trap that as a language teacher you can actually control how and when your students learn…that you are the funnel of knowledge and they are the humble recipients.  Just typing that makes me feel sad and angry at myself.
But the good thing about teaching, or at least the way I teach, is that change and adjustments and admitting your humanity is always possible.  This was something I needed to change and once the self-flagellation stopped, I made some adjustments.

  • Take the 20,000 foot view of whatever you are doing in your classroom.  While focusing on the micro is important, it can also be a trap.  I am working on reminding myself that keeping my students abreast of WHERE we are going is as important as HOW we get there.  Even if this means explicitly telling my class (and myself) at the beginning of class what the objectives for the day are going to be.  I can’t assume they know what’s in my head at the beginning of class.
  • Endings are as important as beginnings.  I find that I plan the start of my classes really well and then the end of class… just sort of happens.  For my sake as well as that of my students, I need to make sure we have endings too.
  • Remember the 4/5 rule.  That is, if you divide your class into 5 chunks or content areas, the last “chunk” should not contain new material.  It should be for consolidating, reviewing, and winding down.  Also for looking forward, but definitely it is not the time to start something new (research upholds this idea: students tend to remember best what happens at the beginning of class and at the end of class)ter
  • Don’t be afraid to backtrack and recycle vs steamrolling ahead.  Teaching with a textbook this semester (reluctantly), I see how easy it is to get sucked into that vortex of “we need to get to chapter 6….or else.”  The reality is that even though I might get to chapter 6  the content might not be acquired by my students because I might be rushing to the finish line. And the reality is when they start up in the next class next semester, there is always a period of review and catch up built-in.
  • Get feedback from students.  I still do periodic informal evaluations and then share the results with the class.  I don’t make all the changes they suggest, but certainly try to get to the ones that seem to be popular and then check in as to how it is going.

Taking the long view vs micromanaging is hard, I will admit it. It takes patience and restraint (something I seem to have in short supply as the semester grinds down).
Would love to hear from others how they balance the short term with the long view.  I’m pretty sure this is something we all face at different times in our classes. Please leave a comment and let us know how you balance between the two!!

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