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?