Good Enough

“Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.” ~Voltaire

If there’s a lesson that this year is likely to teach me, it’s the value of saying good enough.

As usual, I’ve taken on a lot this academic term. Teaching five classes (three preps, two of which are new) in middle and upper school, serving as an Instructional Technology Facilitator, serving on the Faculty Evaluation and Review Committee, and creating a new club (Cooking 101). I suspect most teachers know this kind of busyness. Bill, for example, writes about his struggle to do the kind of formative assessment he’d like to and still have dinner with his family.

I constantly struggle with the desire for things to be perfect and that desire plus a heavy workload can be a recipe for disaster. This year, rather than aiming for excellence in everything, I’m looking for places where I can be “good enough,” as a means of keeping the boat afloat and having an enjoyable voyage. I’m far from a perfect system or mindset, but the following are some principles that have proved useful.

Spread out the good enough
It’s tempting to cluster your good enough efforts in areas in which you think are less important or less enjoyable. Maybe it’s the class that meets post-lunch or house cleaning or organization of your classroom or blogging. Spreading out the good enough doesn’t mean that there aren’t some areas that won’t get more of it than others, but if you’re always making good enough efforts in one area or for one class that can begin to shape how you view it. So clean your house with reckless abandon (or hire someone!), but only do that once every six months and the rest of the time clean it good enough. Prepare a beautifully designed, carefully-documented lesson occasionally for all your classes, not just the ones you like the best.  

Plan for the good enough
This seems somewhat counter-intuitive.  Isn’t the time for good enough when you haven’t had time to plan? It can be ok to say good enough in the moment. But I find if I do that, I’m more likely to feel like I’m slacking, which often leads to an ultimately unproductive mini-meltdown 🙂 Better to plan ahead for tasks/spaces in which you’ll do what needs to be done but no more.

If offered opportunities for good enough, take them
If a colleague offers to help out with something, say yes, even if it means things not being done exactly the way you might do them.  Don’t always feel the need to re-design activities from scratch. Beg and borrow. (I find spaces like Twitter and the English Companion Ning great resources.)

Help your students say good enough
This is particularly challenging at a school where one of the cornerstones of our mission is excellence and the bulk of our students continually push themselves to excel in an array of activities.  I found that giving students quick, informal feedback on their work can help alleviate those anxieties about expectations. I also try to follow up whenever, I get an email from one of my middle school students after 10pm on a week night to see what was keeping them awake and if there are adjustments we can make to help them say good enough and get some sleep.

First Week Reflections

We finished our first full week of school today. A few quick reflections…

Mind warp at mad speed
This year I’m piloting a blended learning class at our school. It’s a 11/12th grade section of US History that meets twice per week in the classroom. On the other days, students have assignments to complete online and independent research they’re working on. On the days we have class, I have to make it from my sixth grade Language Arts class across campus and upstairs to the second floor of the Upper School building in less than 5 minutes.

It’s a logistical hurdle, but more than that, it’s a mental shift. This is my first year teaching juniors and seniors. So far the biggest difference I’ve noticed is how much harder I have to work to read them. Sixth graders are still at an age where most of them will cry or sing or dance or laugh or openly pout or look seriously confused in my class, but that’s certainly not the case with the juniors and seniors. I’ve dialed my usually gregarious teaching persona down a notch with the upper schoolers. Which isn’t to say I don’t get excited about ideas or make the occasional wry remark, but I’m still feeling out the right tone with them in a way that I feel like I don’t have to do with the sixth graders.

max speed 15 km/h

Can’t stop
By Tuesday, I was feeling pretty caught up on work, so I coasted a bit. (Played with blog design for longer than I should, read some articles, etc.) By Friday morning, having been at school late for Meet the Teacher night on Thursday, I was pretty snowed under. There’s a sweet spot working hard enough to keep up with the demands, but not so hard that I’m tempted to slack afterward. I am finding that working in the library during my planning periods several days a week is helping my productivity.

I love teaching
The messiness. The intoxicating feeling of getting sucked into a particular lesson or quandary. The incredible complexity of it. The hilarious things my sixth graders say and their sometimes strange obsessions (so far they include Chuck Norris, cupcakes, and eskimos). The incredulity of the Upper Schoolers when I had all their names memorized on the first day and the great personal artifacts they posted on the group blog.

What Do I Owe My Digital Colleagues*?

I love contributing to conversations of other educators online. I’ve been the beneficiary of generosity of many, especially the members of the English Companion Ning in my first year of teaching English and several really helpful teachers and professors who use Twitter.

But recently, I feel like I’m not keeping up my end of the bargain particularly well. I’ve gotten direct messages on Twitter from people concerned I was angry/upset/ignoring them because I hadn’t replied to their @ messages. I’ve left discussion thread questions and emails unanswered.

I’ve also seen things from the other side of the fence. When a promised comment on a post I’ve written never materializes or an email goes unanswered for weeks, I feel a little disappointed.

Each of us has a limited amount of time. As a full-time classroom teacher, I have less time and less flexibility than some might have. A good deal of my time needs to be spent being present to my students. (Time spent interacting with colleagues online certainly enriches my subsequent interactions with students, but they are two different things.)

My time is going to be especially tight in the coming year because I’m adding a blended learning section of 12th grade American History to last year’s teaching load. To that end, I’ve started putting limits on my online time, as opposed to trying to respond to everyone I feel like I need to before getting off. (Off the internet by 10pm on weeknights and midnight on weekends and no answering school-related emails from Friday night-Saturday afternoon.) These limits seem necessary, but I also hate that they will limit the extent to which I can be helpful/keep in touch.

The voluntariness of digital communities and colleagues varies from face to face colleagues in that my school administration likely won’t step in if I fail to respond to queries or keep up my end of communication. But I do feel like being the one who fails to reciprocate has consequences. It’s also interesting to realize that some people perceive our online interactions differently than I do. The other curiosity with online interactions is that it’s often easy for people to see when I am online, but not responding to them and vice versa.

What, if any, responsibility do you feel toward those with whom you interact online? How do you balance that responsibility with other responsibilities? Does this responsibility vary from the responsibility you feel toward face to face colleagues and acquaintances?

*It may be a stretch to call the people with whom I interact online digital colleagues, but to me that term seems more apt than PLN (Personal Learning Network) or PLC (Personal Learning Community). I’m imagining the term applying to anyone with whom I interact with in a professional capacity online. The strength of these ties varies, as they do with face to face colleagues.

The Gift of Time

A colleague and I sat in a room with no outside light, affectionately known as the fishbowl, for several days this summer. While this may sound like torture akin to the rubber room, it was actually quite a gift.

Because we had the gift of time to plan, we had the freedom to spend 30 minutes or an hour chasing an idea down a rabbit hole. Some of those explorations resulted in fantastic plans, while others were abandoned because we realized they were too complicated or didn’t accomplish what we’d hoped. This time was made possible by a grant from our school to revise, update, and expand the resources which make up the World Cultures East Asia unit. (If you’re interested, here’s are some of the resources we created/updated.)

Image by LeoReynolds

Image by LeoReynolds

I find that the teaching life rarely offers this kind of time. School starts on Wednesday and time feels nothing like a gift right now. More like a wild beast in hot pursuit.

In Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, David Whyte quotes a poem by Ranier Maria Rilke containing the lines:

My life is not this steeply sloping hour
in which you see me hurrying….

I am the rest between the notes,
which are somehow always in discord
because Death’s notes want to climb over-
but in the dark interval, reconciled,
they stay there trembling,

And the song goes on, beautiful.

I love that image of being almost over swept by busyness, by Death, but those notes being reconciled in the silence. Here’s to the interval and the song.

I’d Be Brave as a Blizzard

This post was inspired a question Kelly and Todd asked on their blogs- What are 5 things you would do in education/the classroom if you were brave enough?

Before I answer the question, I think it bears saying that anyone who teaches is already brave. Standing in front of and alongside of teenagers or children everyday is a vulnerable and courageous act. Bravo to all the teachers out there who do it every weekday morning.

1. Finish this post already
This post has been a draft for way too long. It’s given me a good deal of pause because it was difficult to distinguish between factors that are inhibiting the things I came up with. Several times I thought of habits or practices I might change but realized it wasn’t fear or lack of courage that was holding me back. It was lack of motivation. I also realized I am significantly more courageous as a teacher than I am in other areas of my life 🙂

2. Mix up the traditional classroom arrangement more often
Last year I spent more time outside the classroom and varied the arrangement of the room more often. My merry band of 5th graders and I went outside to make a human map of the United States and reenact a colonial taxation protest. We regrouped desks to create 3 early colonial settlements and the three branches of government. Leaving our typical physical space brought some risk, but those were the activities which students recalled most fondly at the end of the semester.

3. Learn to use a one-handed keyboard.
I bought this keyboard last year and played with it a bit, but it has been sitting in its box for most of the year. To get a sense of what typing on a standard keyboard is like for me, try typing with your right hand and your left elbow. (I don’t actually type with my elbow but that position approximates the uncomfortable placement of my shoulders when I type.) I type around 40wpm and learning a new keyboard would take time. I’d like to think that’s the only reason I haven’t used it, but if I’m honest, I hate reminders that I only have one hand. Anything that feels like an accommodation makes me uncomfortable. If I were braver, I would care more about alleviating the discomfort in my shoulders than my pride.


4. Stop being afraid of grammar
I have struggled with grammar since middle school. I didn’t receive much direct grammar instruction, so I seem to freeze up when it comes to teaching it. I can plan and execute a decent grammar lesson but if students have questions outside the scope of the lesson I clam up.

5. Stop using work as an excuse
I’m less likely than I once was to turn down invitations to do social sorts of things because of school work, but I still do it more often than I’d like. I fight the inclination to work long past the point of diminshing returns. I’m still figuring out how to balance “having a life” and teaching. It’s a dance that more seasoned teachers assure me never goes away.

How about you? What would you do if you were braver?