Since Easter came later this year, my wife and I had already begun Spring Cleaning before break even arrived. By this time in the season, I’m sure we’ve all been switching to warm-weather clothes, figuring out what needs to be handed down and what thrown away, trimming bushes, cleaning up outdoor spaces, (re-)organizing garages, workshops, laundry rooms, or sheds.
This annual tradition also gave me time and space outside of the classroom to think about my own teaching. We have about six weeks before summer hits. So I’m suggesting some questions to help teachers do some of their own spring cleaning to end the year intentionally and well, rather than just on auto-pilot. At this time of year, we are often tempted as teachers to escape into the exciting plans for next year: that new class we’re going to teach, the altered schedule, the trip we want to take over the summer, the books we will read. Rather than fall into that trap, I offer these three questions, and some ruminations approaching answers, to keep us focused on this year and ending well.
Rather than only focusing on the future, though, I want to reflect on the past, look at the present, and then ask one question about the future to make this exercise most effective.
Who Were My Best Teachers?
Sometimes a colleague or parent will ask me why I have a certain approach (using notecards to call on students) or tradition (not allowing pencils in my classrooms). Generally, they’re curious and sometimes they’re even complimentary. The truth generally is some great teacher of mine used these techniques or pass one these traditions. We carry so much of our past teachers into the classroom with us. I’ve distilled that our love of our past teachers generally has two sources: their love for us as students and their love for their subjects. That, however, does not explain why we took one or two arrows from their quiver and use them in our classroom. I think that is because, even if we didn’t end up loving Math or Physics, we could tell that everything they did was motivated by wanting to see us succeed in the subject they loved. I fall back on these past teachers because they exemplify concrete ways to improve our own teaching.
Who is in Front of Me?
At the beginning of the year, it can be inspiring to remember why we teach or how we’re going to do it differently. Our head of the Middle School, Andy Reed, always does a great job during the teacher workshop to remind us, and in so doing inspire us, that we’re working every day with immortal souls entrusted to our care. The difference between August and April, though, is that now I know all these souls. So I find this question to be more helpful in April. Picture your class—grab your seating chart or roster if you need to—and think about each student: his family, interests, strengths, and weaknesses.
One temptation we may have here would be to focus on the negative interactions we’ve had with our worst-performing or worst-behaving students. It can sometimes feel like one or two students in a classroom of twenty can consume 80% of our focus, energy, and time. I have had years and students like that and have found the best solution to come from a suggestion our headmaster repeats every year: take your roster to prayer. We have a chapel at our school, but we can pray for our students anywhere. In this eternal perspective we all realize that our greatest tools and influence as teachers are all indirect. One person has direct access to the soul in front of me: The Holy Spirit. Taking the roster to prayer usually allows me to see two things clearly. First, those I need to apologize to and second, what I can realistically offer each student in front of me. This has often been as simple as deciding to smile more at a student who needs it or chatting with that student when I see him in the hallway.
What Small Changes Will Make the Biggest Difference?
As we return from break, we’ll step back onto a moving walkway already accelerating rapidly. Summer will be here before we know it. This is not the time of year to make huge alterations to a plan we’ve already largely put in motion. Rather, we should ask ourselves: what small tweaks will have the largest impact? Can I improve overall classroom tones by starting on time? Is it grading that I need to stay on top of so that I can be aware of who is struggling? Should I make some students come to lunch help or study hall help instead of just requesting that they do? These are all achievable goals on a short time-frame.
So as we clean out garages or re-organize desks, we should remember there’s more to order than our physical spaces. Spring offers an opportune season to recalibrate our approach to our students and finish this year serving our students and their families as they deserve.