Thursday, March 3, 2011

Is it okay to skip this workshop?

Grand Valley’s teacher preparation program is fairly unique; it has preservice teachers engage in field placements over two semesters. The second semester represents a typical student teaching placement. In their first semester, preservice teachers spend the morning assisting in K12 classrooms and their afternoons and evenings taking seminars in classroom management, content literacy, lesson study, and content methods (in the case of secondary teachers). It is this last seminar, math methods in secondary classrooms, which I currently teach with my colleague John.

The seminar meets once a week for two hours. We use a workshop model (similar to the approach used in literacy instruction) for both class activities and home assignments. Our expectation is that the teacher assistants will put in five hours into the home workshops.

We recognize this is a lot to ask of the teacher assistants (TAs) and begin the semester acknowledging the fact. The idea is that providing too much to do will help them to learn a valuable time management skill – prioritization. I like to think about it using Covey’s model related to urgent-important activities. Unfortunately, while we offered the rationale for giving too much work, support was lacking. I will do this better next time.

Consequently, some TAs shared that they were close to the breaking point. In an effort to address the issue, I sent them all the following email. I wanted to share it because I believe it addresses an issue many teachers struggle with.

It was brought to my attention today that many of you are stressed out. Now this wasn’t a surprise to me as this is a packed semester, and teacher assistants often find it overwhelming. However, the extent of the stress (including physical symptoms) and the cause of the stress (our five assigned workshops) are concerns to me.

We began the semester telling you that we knew we were asking you to do more than you could in the time available. This was an intentional decision in an effort to prepare you to make critical choices as to how you spend your time as a teacher. We wanted to provide a safe place where you could practice making those choices by prioritizing what is important to you and your learners without fear of punishment.

The choices you make also help us to determine which workshops are meaningful to you and which you consider unimportant. It actually helps us in subsequent semesters to select workshops to assign. Essentially, we are trying to put Conditions of Learning (such as responsibility, employment, and approximation) into practice in the seminar.

You all are successful students, however, and some of you are finding it difficult to skip a workshop. The mere thought of it brings on stress and anxiety. You skip it because time does not allow for it but you feel no sense of accomplishment or growth as a decision-maker as a result. These unintended consequences are not acceptable and must be dealt with immediately.

I do not want to reduce the workshop load since this ignores the realities of the time commitments you will face as a teacher. But that means there is still too much to do. So, from here on out, if you need permission to skip a workshop, please do not hesitate to email me. I will do my best to absolve you of any guilt you may feel for not meeting the expectation. Be assured, if I think skipping the workshop is not in your best interest I will be direct about it. Otherwise, I plan on affirming your decision and letting you move on to more important things.

Hopefully, as time goes on, your sense of guilt will lessen and you will find your need for reassurance to diminish. I will try to do my part by adjusting my responses from, “It’s okay to skip that,” to “I trust your judgment,” to “You know what you need to do.” Because I do trust you and believe that you know yourself better than anyone else.

In times of stress, I have a friend who reminds me that everything that NEEDS to get done gets done. The important part is to realize that there is more that I might WANT to get done but time doesn’t allow. And looking back on my life, I see that my friend is right. I have had to make some hard decisions and turn my back on certain opportunities, but in the end everything that needed to get done got done in order for me to get to this place. It is my hope that this is a lesson you’ll learn and remember from this semester.


I am passionate about this issue of making teaching and learning sustainable. Partly, it is because I see how hard my wife works as a first grade teacher. It also stems from memories of my mom (also an elementary teacher) responding to my questions about what she wanted for Christmas with, “Two more hours in everyday, two more days in every week, and two more weeks in every month so I can get everything done.” My dad, a high school math and science teacher, also worked hard but he suffered in silence. Mostly, I am passionate because I see committed and competent preservice teachers facing a system that chews up and spits out new teachers.

So, I offer the preservice teachers I work with absolution for their perceived sins of skipping a home workshops. In other words, I offer them permission to prioritize what they spend time on during their five hours of out-of-class. It can even be something other than the assigned workshops if it makes more sense to them.

Recently, I found that affirming preservice teachers’ critical thinking skills extends beyond homework choices. During a debriefing after a coaching session, a TA asked me about an upcoming lesson. The TA wanted to know if it was alright to skip a particular topic because of a time crunch. Before I could respond, the complete rationale for the choice came out. I smiled and said, “It sounds like you already know what to do. Are you asking my permission?” The TA responded with a nod. I assured the TA that it seemed like a sound decision.

What kind of educational system have we created where intelligent people do not trust themselves to make good decisions?

Not that you need it, but you have my permission to prioritize. You have my assurance that you can make good decisions. And you have my appreciation for the hard work that you do?


  1. Good for you! I think it is so important that teachers see themselves and are empowered to be "teachers as professional decision-makers". This was the theme for one of The Learning Network's (TLN)Summer Institutes--in fact, the very first one I attended. It's sad that at that time, being a professional decision-maker was a new concept for me, after teaching for 7 years!

    With all of the pressures coming from every direction, prioritizing is an essential skill for all teachers.

  2. I received the following in an email from a former GVSU preservice teacher and thought it was relevant:
    Kate writes:
    … I was reading your post about time management and prioritizing. You have hit it head on sir. I didn't so much at the time, but after teaching for the last 7 months I can truly appreciate the lessons I learned at GV...mostly of time management. (For the record, I also read your post on what it means to do mathematics -- very cool idea.)

    I am currently at a boarding school in Taiwan. I teach five classes a day to ESL students of an American curriculum and coach 5 days a week (and have been since August for different sports). I live at the school, which means there are children around all the time. They have mandatory study hall every night from 7-9, and more often than not I get requests to meet with them during this time so they can ask questions that they have about the material. I see children from the time I get up in the morning until I sneak into my room at 9 and lock the door.

    Please share with your classes this semester that the hardest lesson they are going to have to learn is how to say no. There are nights that I have no plans and definitely could meet with students, but I've learned to say no on some occasions because I need "me time". I need time to get my work done (and to veg out a little). I ran myself into the ground for a while trying to do everything and it's just not possible. Prioritizing is important -- and as selfish as it sounds, you need to come first. When I tell colleagues or the students that I didn't get something done the night before because I had other things I needed to do, they have all understood 100% of the time. Your colleagues and students are making the same decisions that you are -- what is most important, what needs to get done and what do I need to do for me. There are days that I don't do any work after school, but instead go for a run or just hang out and chat with students about things other than school. This is my escape, and everybody needs one on a regular basis.

    Saying "no" also teaches students to plan ahead. I have students that ask me last minute for help -- sometimes they get lucky and sometimes I just tell them that I can't, usually because it's time for me to escape somewhere for the night. I now have students ask me 3-5 days ahead of time if I can meet with them. Then I can say "yes" and plan my "me time" for another day. Saying "no" doesn't just give you a night to yourself, it's also teaching your students how to plan ahead (which then allows you to do the same).

    Planning is a skill. So is saying "no". Both are necessary to succeed as a teacher. Otherwise you will run yourself ragged.

    All of what I learned at GV is definitely coming into play this year. I look back on my ed. classes and laugh a little -- because you were all spot on. Most things that you said would happen have happened. Thanks for trying to teach us ahead of time!