Teachers, Keep Your Foot on the Gas

I know this post is going to anger some and perhaps alienate others, but I’m feeling bold.

“I gotta hand it to you, Ms.Teague. AP exams are over and we're still going. You’re the only one who hasn't let off the gas.” The student went on to explain how he wasn't doing much of anything--academic or otherwise-- in most of his classes. Now, I think he is exaggerating but I also believe that the notion of “teacher as performer” is real come May and June.

I get it.

The end of the school year is a challenging time. Sun’s creeping out, honeymoon is long gone, testing season is draining to everyone, and no one knows what bell schedule we're on.

I get it.

The light at the end of the tunnel is shining brightly. No one wants to assign work because it will need to be graded. You've worked really hard and students are exhausted. Heck, we're all beat and ready for summer.

But the longer I'm a teacher, the more frequently I hear weird excuses for the lack of engaging, thoughtful, relevant curriculum the last month of school.

Can't be creative when there’s so much testing happening.

It's a Monday!

Gosh, Wednesday-- hump day!!

Since it's Friday we'll just have a free day.

Now that AP exams are over, we’ll just...

If I had a dollar for every excuse tweeted, posted, or uttered in the hallway,  I'd have paid my student loans off much sooner.

Here's the deal: when we throw in the towel, students do too. More skipping. More fights. More time for drama that gets in the way of learning. Packing up my classroom (even if I have to move), tells students I’m done. Showing a movie for a whole class period (or days) with no connection to standards, assessments or higher level thinking--let alone actual relevance--tells students that I’ve become a glorified babysitter. I’ve now become an anecdote in Conservative Cousin Conner’s rant about wasted tax dollars and teacher summers.

If education is the great equalizer, how are we providing opportunities for our students to learn all year long. If we stop writing lesson plans three or four weeks before the end of the semester, we're telling our students their education doesn't matter. If we let all our routines go out the window, we’re telling them that we have low expectations for their behavior.

I find this especially problematic from an equity point of view. If a student is long-jumping over benchmarks, then we should keep the challenges coming, preparing them for post-secondary academic experience. If a student is behind in reading and writing, we ought to be milking every last minute with them in order to help them get to grade-level.

I can’t help but wonder how much less remediation might be necessary if teachers used their class time more efficiently. I also can’t help but wonder how much unconscious bias plays a role. John Hopkins already proved that white teachers expect less of their Black and Brown students. Knowing this research and the history of gate-keeping, our choice to call it quits when we still have over 1,000 minutes with students is shameful. This is especially essential for White teachers who espouse ideals of racial and social justice.

Bottom line: our baggage can’t matter more than their learning.

The end of the year is an opportunity to ensure that all students have exercised their academic muscles as much as possible. As an ELA teacher, I'm pressed to hit all my standards (reading, writing, speaking & listening, and language). Districts develop power standards for this very reason. So, at the end of the year, teachers should be digging deeper or going into skills and content that is perceived as “extra”.  

The end of the year is the perfect time to try a new strategy (dice!) or assessment tool (Kahoot! Socrative!). This is the time of year when my student relationships are the strongest--I’ve spent all year cultivating community and have the most buy-in. I can ask them to do almost anything. But, they have to see the reason and have choice.

I look to several colleagues for examples of this. A couple of English teachers I know built student-interest driven units based on Google’s 20% approach. After the AP exam, my husband teaches two units-- Mock Congress and How to Handle the Police. I collaborate with my 10th grade ELA team and World History teachers to create an interdisciplinary inquiry-based research projects. Each of these units has a clear connection to future academic needs or personal relevance to the student, elevating student autonomy and student voice.

I’m not going to pretend all my students are excited about my approach, but for the most part it is how I frame the conversation. I am honest about how we all feel, but I am positive about the final days of the school year. I explicitly discuss the connection between the unit/assignments and the real world, their personal lives, or the longer term trajectory (this will give you a leg-up Junior year). Most importantly, I expect all my students to arise to the occasion and I support them with my scaffolding.

We must overcome our lethargy, embrace a “fake it till you make it” mentality, and keep our foot on the gas the entire school year.