I feel like I've paved my own road to hell through good intentions these past two weeks, and it's really about time I learned from my mistakes. I'm profoundly burnt out. The past few evenings have been spent lying on my bed staring at a wall, my mind bereft of movement. Blank. I'm only able to write this at all because I just came back from a run to re-oxygenate. You know your stress levels are overboard when you actually worry for the health of your brain. That's been my life lately.
The really irritating thing about all this isn't the overwork or the burnout, it's that I really thought I had, finally, learned from my mistakes. I was certain that I was going to avoid burnout this year, and here it is again. And it's only November.
Last August, I spent at least two days planning my entire year's units and major assessments, and I had every intention of sticking to it. Every project deadline, every test, every blog post. it was all planned out and the workload was balanced. Everything should have been much easier; all I would have to do is pay close attention to Google Calendar and plan backwards from there. But my carefully laid plans were completely upended, and I have no one to blame but myself.
All the trouble started when I defied my own strategy by extending deadlines for my students. Now, I have to say I don't regret those decisions. They really were the right ones based on sound formative assessment, and the effects have been, not to toot my own horn too much, really rather remarkable. My kids have really shone this quarter. Their Major Research Projects (MRPs) were, on the whole, truly outstanding, and without a doubt the best work pretty much every single one of those students has ever produced. I'm really proud of that and they are, too.
That said, I'm done living like I've had a lobotomy. I shouldn't, and moreover I simply can't continue to martyr myself every quarter. I need a new strategy, one that maintains the very high standards I hold myself to, while also providing some semblance of emotional well-being and free time beyond those precious months of summer respite.
Fortunately, I think I've found the right one.
But before explaining how I'm attempting to kick this can of worms out of my life, I first want to explain how and why I opened it in the first place.
The Extensions Explained
A few weeks ago I was working with a group of students in the hallway on understanding analytical tools for critiquing arguments (how to evaluate for precision, relevance, logic, depth, bias, and so on). They would use these tools to assess and improve on the arguments their fellow group members were constructing in class.
Wanting to drive home the importance of this task, I let it be known that what we were doing was especially important because they would be later applying these tools to their Major Research Projects (MRPs), which, by the way, I would be letting them hand in a week later than the impending deadline.
Like a Canadian who just realized his loathed PM had been dethroned, my students’ eyes bulged with excitement--then, as reality set in, they erupted in sheer joy. I had liberated them, at least temporarily. I was now their saviour. One gangly teenage boy even gave me a hug. Twice. Needless to say, no one declined the offer.
But what must be said is that this effluence of positive emotion was never my purpose. While I could argue for hours as to why we need to be placing emotional well-being at the heart of the educational project, in this instance I would have made the same choice even if the anticipated outcome had been grumbles instead of gratitude and jubilation.
In other words, I did it not for the short-lived hero status my beneficence gave rise to, but because it was the responsible educational decision.
Why did I offer them this extension? Well, in reviewing their rough MRP drafts the day before this incident, I noticed I kept inserting the same comments into their Google Doc files again and again. Vague. Evidence? Explain. Relevance? Clearly, their analyses were superficial and not going to meet my expectations.
In my estimation, feedback was not going to be enough. I needed to re-teach some key concepts and have my students revise and resubmit their work. So I did what I judged to be in their best interest and extended. And then stupidly, I ended up doing the same for a couple other classes as well.
In doing so, I threw out my plans. No longer would MRPs from different courses come across my desk week by week, as I had intended. Instead, they came all piled in at once. If I hadn't held fast to the rest of my planned deadlines for other assignments and had already finished all of that marking and most of the report card comments, I would now be going completely bonkers and would surely miss the reporting date.
So why did I do this? It turns out that I'm actually not an idiot and I did know what I would be putting myself through. I knew I'd be giving up at least an entire weekend and more than a week's worth of evenings to assess their work. And I knew I would end up simply wrecked.
I did it for a couple reasons, First, I extended because I really believe that students fully develop skills in the final stages of revision. It's the fine-tuning of skills that leads to refinement, consolidation, and thus much better transfer. A 'B' paper evolves into an 'A' paper only in the final stages of the writing process. Pushing kids to that next level, however, takes time, and the evidence was that they needed more of it.
But there's also a deeper, more personal reason why I gave my students more time. I have a serious aversion to externally-imposed deadlines in education, particularly when they halt the learning process prematurely. If I had insisted they meet my deadlines, the only real explanation for it would have been that my needs superseded theirs. I would be in effect saying (at least to myself) that if they hadn't learned by now, well, tough luck. I simply can't stomach that. It's selfish and anti-educational.
The only thing worse, in my view, is the concept of late penalties (which--full disclosure--I do technically have in my syllabus and have used in cases of sheer irresponsibility on the part of the student). I hate late penalties because I suffered under their tyranny through most of university. While I am generally a very good strategic planner who easily meets deadlines (I don't have that stupid nickname, "Planning Manning" for nothing), when it comes to essay writing, I am unfortunately very slow and deliberative and simply cannot be rushed without incurring massive sacrifices to the quality of my work. This meant that no matter how early I started my research and writing in my undergrad, and no matter how many hundreds of hours I put in, I could never meet the system's needs. So I was a recidivist late submitter.
Let's be honest here, deadlines in university are 100% arbitrary to the learning process; indeed, any monolithic, one-size-fits-all deadline necessarily is. No deadline can possibly meet all students' learning needs. Therefore, deadlines privilege those who are able to meet them easily, while systematically disadvantaging those who struggle to. The logic of motivating work through external pressure works for many people, but for others who are more like me, they wreak emotional havoc, and if followed, end up amputating learning. That word's intentional. Deadlines mutilate minds. Not all, but certainly enough to warrant the accusation that deadlines engender a form of hidden systemic discrimination.
Knowing this, I cannot ethically do unto my students what I was put through. Essays were always a joyous journey until that day was about to dawn, and then they were nothing but torment. The system wants us to hand in our essays and submit to the sorting and selection process. Most learners, though grading, are selected-out of the system through attrition. University is largely about intellectual natural selection. They have very little to do with teaching or learning below the graduate level. Remember, they are, first and foremost, research institutions, not teaching institutions; the teaching exists to fund the research, and many profs do it only reluctantly (and quite poorly, I might add).
But I didn't play their game. I refused to get into that silly calculation students like me know all too well.
If I hand it in now, I'll probably get a B. But if I take the weekend it might be an A, but I'll lose 15% so I may as well just turn it in now.
This is the antithesis of what an educational institution should be about--strategic calculations about grades rather than deep thinking to seek truth, build knowledge, and promote fairness and well-being in the world. But it's a structural outcome of most every educational institution on the planet.
I'm a bit odd in that I had bigger ambitions, but had a longer and bumpier path to get there than most who shared them. You see, I was determined to do a PhD (at one point in my life I was silly enough to think academia was a smart option). However, I really was not at all prepared for survival in an elite university when I first arrived and was made painfully aware of that fact when I got my first papers back. I was intellectually capable but was a very weak researcher, analytical writer, and public speaker..
I knew I needed to really develop my skills, and I knew that what I did at the end of the process made all the difference. So in each and every instance I took the late penalty hit. It was short-term pain for long-term gain. I can still see the tears welling up in the eyes of one of my TAs as he handed back to me an A paper that received a D grade. Was I mad at all this? You bet. My starting behind meant I was never once eligible for a scholarship and probably have a lot more debt now than would have been the case in a system that put learning before grading and equity before equality. But in the end was it the right decision? Absolutely. I became a much, much better thinker and writer because of it, and I would be a worse teacher now if I hadn't.
So, anyway, I think that's why I extended my students' MRP deadlines--so I could take pride in making the choice that best served my students. So I could sleep well knowing that I did better for them than was ever done for me.
Now, for a couple reasons the reader (I'm pretty sure there's no reader, lol, but whatever) might object to this argument and my decision to extend.
I know that this kind of approach is derided by some educators and parents. Many would object to my granting an extension, seeing it, perhaps, as a naive choice. They might argue that my decision would actually end up hurting students in the long run. This reminds me of the line my teachers gave us all through high school. If you don’t learn to meet deadlines now, you never will.
I think this line of reasoning collapses under scrutiny. We spend so much time in education thinking deeply about how to help students solidify a wide range of important skills, yet we somehow assume that students will magically just acquire the ability to manage their lives and their time effectively.
I don't know about you, but I was never given the slightest bit of help with this beyond the dull refrain to "Use an agenda." Kids today, more than ever before in the history of schooling, really have the deck stacked against them. We know that self-control is a better predictor of school success than IQ, but it has never been harder for them to exercise the powers of the will. In decades past, kids might have had to ignore their little kid sister to focus on their math. Now they have a multitude of sensory stimuli vying for their precious attention: Snapchat pings, Facebook status updates, YouTube celebs, buzzing pockets. It never ends. Those who can more easily unplug or otherwise remove distractions do better. The anecdotal and research evidence clearly indicates that girls have an advantage in this regard. The results bear it out. Regardless, the point here is that time management takes self-control, which in turn is increasingly difficult for kids to exercise. Why would we assume kids will somehow learn to do this on their own? Indeed, how many adults can you name off the top of your head who seem to live in constant flux and amidst perpetual disorganization?
I feel strongly that simply imposing deadlines and expecting kids to meet them without giving them the necessary support is both unrealistic and unfair. It benefits some while hurting others, generally those who need help the most. Our students need and deserve to be taught explicitly how to increase and manage their willpower. Moreover, they need to be shown how to plan ahead by setting their own deadlines based on their own unique circumstances, so that they can meet the expectations we set for them. Unless and until we go that far, I have trouble stomaching the argument that it's in their best interests to be held rigorously to a deadline, most especially when the formative assessment evidence clearly indicates that doing so will cut off the learning process before skills are fully consolidated.
Now, there's actually a much better objection to all this, which is that if teachers follow my lead and bend backwards until their kids excel, they will end up just as drained as I've been these last two weeks. This argument makes sense. After all, if teachers become the Walking Dead, they simply cannot be effective over the course of a semester, much less a full year or indeed a career. It's unsustainable.
So how am I going to fix this? Well, if external and arbitrary deadlines are the part of the problem, it stands to reason that the way we approach deadlines needs to change. But the fundamental issue a serious absence of social and emotional learning in schools, at least in high schools. I have tomes yet to write on this, but for now I'll say that we need to better understand the psychoemotional dynamics of the learning process, support students to develop habits of introspective analysis to better cultivate self-awareness and self-understanding, and to explicitly and intentionally teach students how to get a handle on their emotions so they can exercise self-control and learn to regulate their behaviour.
This is all very complex and not at all a good starting point for dealing with my immediate situation. So, I'm starting simple. Today in two of my classes, we took a good, hard look at what we are doing, made judicious decisions as a class about which assignments are the most meaningful and which could be pared down or omitted, and most important of all, we started planning out the next quarter. Together.
I brought my kids step by step through my planning process. Using the set-in-stone dates in the school calendar as the starting point, we identified when the next quarter ends, when exams are, and then worked backwards to plot out assignment due dates accordingly. To facilitate this, Google Calendar is a godsend. It took a lot of serious discussion about what should go when, but deadline by deadline we worked it out so that both their needs and mine would be met.
I explained my need for a buffer week at the end of the quarter "just in case," and then set their MRP final due date a week earlier. Now we knew how much time we would have to get the whole project done. From there, we identified the dates we had to work around and be mindful of, all those that would impact on our time: MUN trips, SAT tests, and the like. With the parameters fully established, we were now able to make smart planning decisions.
The class voted as to which stages along the MRP process I would give them feedback. Because it is their second one and, quite frankly, because I made it clear to them that I was only going to give them feedback at one stage this time (my feedback is voluminous and takes hours to do), a really interesting debate erupted as to the benefits and detriments of getting help at the outline or first draft stage. This was precisely what I was hoping for. They were now doing the strategic planning, and thinking through the nuances and implications of the possibilities. In the end, they decided the outline stage was the wiser choice.
We did the same in assigning dates for a presentation, tests, blog posts, and Socratic Seminars. The reading list dates are more complicated, so I'll be doing that myself. I am also encouraging them to voice their opinions if, as I tend to do, I end up giving them too much day-to-day homework. As a class, we now have a workable plan that students and I are not only fully aware of, but also have ownership over. The next step is following up with them to make sure they apply the same process in Google Calendar for their other classes.
I'm cautiously optimistic now that we will have just as productive a quarter without anyone going nuts. I would bet that between my different classes, there will be some tweaking and modifying, but I hope there won't be much. I really do feel that I deserve to live a half-decent life outside of work. I think I've earned that by now. Just as importantly, my students deserve a teacher who is emotionally present and available for them. Not one who's on the brink of losing his mind.