Let me start here: each of our situations are vastly different. I’ve had the opportunity to talk with a number of teachers over the past few weeks, and it’s clear that a number of variables lie outside teachers’ control.

That said, there are some factors that do lie within our loci of control. And sometimes, small changes in pedagogy can make a big difference when it comes to lightening our workloads. Above all else, though, know this: you matter and your sustainability matters. I hope some of these tips can help you lighten your workload and put yourself first!

STOP GRADING SO MUCH

I know this may seem easier said than done, but the fact is this: you don’t have to collect every single thing your students complete. I sure don’t. While I encourage my students to upload photos of their journals and classwork to Seesaw, I only ask them to do this for accountability purposes.

Let me clarify what I mean by accountability. There is a fine line between accountability and compliance. While we don’t want to run our classrooms through compliance metrics, we do want to hold our students to high standards. We want them to see their school work as important, and we want to build within them the executive skills necessary to be a functioning human being in our society. In this context, accountability simple means that students gave the work their best shot and submitted it: they attempted the assignment, wrote you a note if they encountered an obstacle, and otherwise made a reasonable attempt at the assignment.

Oftentimes, at the end of a synchronous learning block, I sift through my students’ work on Seesaw, looking for glaring misconceptions or class-wide trends. Not only does this help me reflect on my effectiveness, it also informs future lessons, helping me adjust my plans as I go. But what I don’t do is “grade” each assignment, add it to a gradebook, and leave written qualitative feedback.

There are a couple reasons for this. First, I just don’t have the time. But it’s also because there’s no point in doing all that work unless I’m going to make time for my students to formally reflect on the assignment and process the feedback. While sometimes I was able to assess the work before the next day’s lesson, a lot of times I was not. My students would get back batches of work that neither allowed them to reflect nor process my feedback in an actionable way. In the event that I was able to assess prior to the next day’s lesson, my hard work would often go to waste because I didn’t have time to scaffold the skill of reading and processing the feedback.

I realized I needed shorter feedback loops and to bake reflective practices into my daily pedagogy in order for it to become sustainable and fruitful. That meant that, instead of taking home work to assess nightly, I would conduct the assessment in the moment through interpersonal conversation with my students, making them partners in the process of reflection. While I knew this would constitute a rather radical change in my practice, I didn’t realize it would end up making for a more sustainable pedagogy, too.

Move away from didactic instruction

When we teach didactically, teachers hold the mic. We over-rely on rote-based pedagogies like the Gradual Release’s I do, we do, you do. While the spirit of Gradual Release can be helpful when modeling classroom procedures, it can be counterproductive if it engenders dependence or a fixed mindset in students. If you find yourself constantly moving from whole-group to “guided practice” to independent practice–and if you find that while moving between these three stages that students are simply replicating what you did during whole group–you may want to reconsider your approach.

We want our students to be flexible and strategic learners who are able to interpret problems, persist through challenges, and pull from a toolbox of strategies in doing so. By teaching didactically for regurgitation on an assessment, we send our students implicit messages that learning isn’t for authentic problem-solving and instead is for the sake of its own institutionalization. We tell them that they must learn these procedures and reproduce them on a test that likely feels purposeless to them.

To move away from didactic instruction, we must embrace The Workshop Model and Complex Instruction (Cohen and Lotan, 1997; Boaler, 2015). These lesson structures allow for inquiry and constructivism, as opposed to rote memorization and regurgitation. While a mini-lesson within The Workshop Model may entail modeling a skill or strategy, it’s not necessarily for regurgitation; it is, instead, intended as another tool in our students’ toolboxes when encountering novel situations or problems.

Moving away from didactic instruction entails repositioning ourselves in the classroom. When we embrace inquiry, constructivism, and Complex Instruction, we are no longer the sages on our respective sages; we are teachers who shape discussion in our classroom, ultimately passing the mic to our students as much as possible. Of course, this is good for our students, but it’s good for us, too, because we can take a step back, rest our voices, and listen to what our students have to say.

Pass the mic

It’s hard to stand back and let your students shape the discussion. It goes against most of what we’re taught in our training. That said, when we reconnect with why most of us went into teaching, we remember that teaching is about student empowerment and liberation. We can’t build liberatory learning environments when we’re constantly holding the mic.

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Complex Instruction and the Workshop Model allow us to do just that. When we teach with Complex Instruction in mind, we find open-ended, multiple-ability curricula that allow learners of all abilities to collaborate to solve problems. When teaching with the Workshop Model, we maximize small-group instruction and individualized conferences, granting students ample opportunities to speak with teachers and peers in more intimate settings. Not only does this help our students find their voices, it also makes pedagogy more sustainable.

You may not be ready to move entirely to Complex Instruction or the Workshop Model yet–and that’s okay. No judgment here. There is a simpler way to pass the mic that doesn’t require an overnight overhaul of your entire practice. Here’s one very powerful tip for passing the mic.

Ask lots of questions. Like, a lot of them–and resist giving your students a lot of “answers.” Try some of these simple questions:

  • What makes you think that?
  • How did you come to that?
  • Can you prove that to me?
  • Will you tell me more?

The more open-ended, the better, because it gives you an authentic picture of what your students know and are able to do unsupported. But it also allows you to take a break, informally assess your students through their comments, and to allow your students to share the responsibility of shaping learning experiences. I know it’s tempting to take the shortest path to the answer you desire, but we must remember that in order to support our students’ independence, we have to sometimes allow learning to be inefficient, messy, and slower than we’d like.

You matter

I’ve spent too much of my career subscribing to the teacher savior mentality. You do not have to give up your entire life for your job, and if distance learning feels unsustainable, you have to make a change–not only for yourself, but for your family and your students, too. A burnt out teacher isn’t helping anyone, and so I encourage you to find sustainability in your practice as you continue to explore distance learning.

You got this. Next week, I’m going to share more about questioning techniques for students, and in the following week, I’ll provide some tips for easy student reflections.

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