I don't want to panic anyone, but I just realized that we're a third of the way through December.
"But Doug," I hear you shout. "It was September just last week! School just started! I haven't even handed out the planners yet!*"
I know, my friends. I do. I am not sure how it happened either. I'm currently developing a theory which involves my classroom being some kind of TARDIS. This would explain the time thing and how they fit so many students in- it must be bigger on the inside.
No matter how it happened, it did happen. It's already December. Which means it's basically Winter Break. Which means *starts hyperventilating* we're halfway through the school year. Friends, there is no way I'm halfway through teaching my kids everything they need to learn this year. They need to learn so much. Fourth grade is hard. And I just got finished teaching fifth grade, so I know where they need to be at the start of next year and we're not there. I guess we can see it over the hill. If we stand on a ladder. On our tiptoes.
But it also feels like we've learned so much!
This is one of the most basic challenges at the heart of teaching. You can lead a child to knowledge but you can't make them stand in front of the fire hose and drink as much as they can as fast as they can. Kids learn at their own speed. All thirty-three of them. All moving at their own gait. A non-constant one. The kid who was running yesterday seems to have developed a severe limp. We were on pace for a second there.
Ah, there's the word-Pace. As in, "The pacing guide says you should be teaching division of decimals right now, why are you still on rounding whole numbers?" I'm not blaming district-issued pacing guides either, because I live in the real world. I understand that districts have to have a standard pace of learning because there's a lot to get through in a year. I don't see some malicious intent in a standard pacing guide. I see bureaucracy and CYA and an honest attempt to help teachers**. I think they help too. Yes, I need to move my kids at their own pace, but I also need to be moving forward. We can't wait for everyone to be 100% with us on everything. There's too many kids for that. The district pacing guide is a nice anchor to reality, reminding me that though I would like to spend two more weeks on this topic, I've got a lot more to do and I need to move on. I see you waving your hand back there claiming that this is the perfect case for digital differentiation and you and I both know that's just a fancy way to say digital worksheets assigned by a computer. You know how Amazon is able to say, "I see you mentioned Frank Zappa on Twitter, would you like to peruse our wide selection of Zappa-related products?" That's the exact algorithm that powers student-paced computer programs. It ain't personalized, it's just a program, and the kids are the product/test subjects.
My personal pacing guide never lines up with the district pacing guide. How that impacts my teaching depends entirely on how much of a stickler my principal is, and how well my kids are learning at a pace I find reasonable. And what I find reasonable, like everything else in teaching, is completely flexible. I will take longer on this lesson than the book suggests because my kids need it, and I will shave a day off this lesson because come on, this is so boring. I love the freedom to do this and recognize this is not everyone's reality. I taught in a scripted "You vill be on zis page on zis number at zis time! Ve haff vays of makink you teach." I wanted to chew holes in desks. If that's you, you have my sympathies and I suggest the older desks, better flavor. This has all gotten gross now. Moving forward.
On top of all this is the honest reflection which tells me I always feel like this in December. I never feel like we're as far along as I want to be. I never feel like we're doing the work we should be doing yet. I never feel like we've done enough writing, enough building, enough creative math work (I actually feel like I'm doing pretty well with this this year), enough difficult reading. I always hit December feeling depressed that I'm not as good a teacher as I think I am and my students aren't learning as much as they should be. But I cling to those hints that I'm wrong. I cling to seeing responses I hadn't seen before, creativity that is new, thinking around corners that hadn't been thought around. Hell, sometimes I just cling to when that one kid got out his journal, sharpened his pencil, and got to work without having to be told a half-dozen times because that is a massive improvement. Teaching is a long game with uncertain successes and we take what we can get because this job is amazing and it's also brutal.
Whose pacing guide matters? In the end it's not the district pacing guide, and it's not my internal pacing guide. It's each student's pacing guide. Part of my job, our job, is to help develop that. This is a conversation I have with my kids all the time. "Are you doing fourth grade work?" But I follow it up with, "Remember, your fourth grade work is not the same as his fourth grade work or her fourth grade work. Are you pushing yourself as hard as you can? Are you growing?" We need to teach that internal conversation. We must teach reflection strategies. I tell a story about when I was a lifeguard and we would do swim workouts. No one cared if I was making the time standards because I was a swimmer. They weren't setting times that were challenging for me. They cared if I was sucking wind at the end of every set no matter how much rest I got because I was swimming to improve myself, not to meet the time. Just like the RappSheet (yes, that was his nickname, yes he earned it, yes he was a great guard and amazing with the Mommy and Me Aquatot classes) on the other end of the pool who missed every single time time standard and so never had the chance to stop swimming the whole workout. He did every lap I did, and worked just as hard. His pacing guide was just as strong as mine. Gazelle or grunt, it doesn't matter as long as you are pushing.
It's December. We haven't done enough yet. But we've done a lot. And though it doesn't feel like it, there's plenty of time to grow yet to come.
*who has two thumbs and a stack of planners on his back table?
**I've been in districts that were out to get us too, so this is a blanket statement, but one of those blankets with holes in it.
If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and the just released A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.