Friday, December 7, 2007

Dear Younger Teacher Self: Keep the Holidays Grading Free!

Dear Kate circa 1997,

Hello, sweetie. It is I, your older and wiser self in 2007. Recently, I looked at some pictures of you, and I’m stunned at how exhausted you look. I realized I sleep better now due to lessons I learned through you, and I wanted to see if I could give you a head start by writing to you, so you can get more rest all the sooner.

Look, teaching isn’t like college or graduate school—you don’t plan for it to end in a few years! You plan to do this for twenty or thirty years, so please pace yourself better. I’ve learned so much from you, and there’s one thing I want you to know right away: Keep the holidays grading free. Don’t look at me like that…you have almost two weeks before the winter holiday season; I want you to re-work things so your students have the vacation to work on the major stuff instead of you collecting it before the holidays and grading it on vacation. I see you shaking your head. I know you think you’ll never be able to grade it without the vacation time to do it, but I’m here to assure you that you will. A rested and relaxed version of you in January can do amazing things…

Here’s what I know that you don’t know: Every year there will be good reasons for you to spend your vacations grading. The sense that you’ve caught up and all the preparation is finished doesn’t come for teachers. Teaching is a vocation that puts no boundaries on self-sacrifice. However, I now know that without some genuine R and R, you’ll start to resent teaching, and that will depress you. In 1997, it’s your third winter holiday over which you plan to grade; I know you’ll do it next year, too. In fact, you’ll take “landscape journals” students kept on setting across three months to California with you when you spend Christmas with your future husband’s family. (You’ll meet him the summer of ’98.) After that is when the resentment starts to flicker, so you leave the grading pile at school next time and guess what happens? You get it done when you return. Consider the following:

  • If you collect things after vacation instead of before, the students will appreciate the extra time; you’ll be seen as generous not lazy.
  • Teachers draw strength from their personal cheering sections of friends and family. By spending the holidays truly present instead of tucked in a corner furiously scribbling on “the pile,” you’ll be investing in your own support system who will be there for you when you need them.
  • In the future, you’ll be a parent during the holidays, and that means you’re the one who makes the holidays happen around your house. If you don’t learn how to pace the work to leave your holidays free now, you’ll lose out on so much enjoyment as your children grow…
  • Students deserve for the person who grades their work to not feel overly burdened by it. Distance really does make the heart grow fonder!
  • Vacation days in education are unpaid, and once you really start thinking about that, you’ll start to sour yourself, which fosters negative feelings you don’t need.
  • Enjoying your life is one of the most restorative things you can do for your classroom energies. Many, many people envy the teaching calendar. Give yourself permission to enjoy it.

I know you are never certain that what you do is enough, and carting around a big pile of grading gives you a sense of penance, a sense that you are working hard enough to earn the title of teacher. Kate of 1997, your students will wait another week for papers in exchange for your genuine delight at seeing them again after the break.

With much affection,
Kate, 2007

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher


Kelly Jean Walden said...

Thanks for making that letter open to the public. :) Of all the advice I've heard, this is the most fun. I'll keep it in mind when I get out of grad school and into the real world of teaching!

Adina said...

Thank you, Kate. I am a first year high school teacher ... and just collected the big Hamlet essay from my students. I've already begun to dread grading them during my winter "vacation." I had my students turn in their essays before break, so they'd get a couple weeks of rest. In the process, I forgot that I could use the rest, too. I needed some permission and perspective to put the essays aside for now and enjoy the extra time I'll have with my son over the next few weeks. So, thank you, again, for your wisdom.