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It’s pretty common to hear stories about a teacher’s positive impact on a student. I’m sure many teachers reading this article were originally inspired to get into science education because of a particularly fascinating science teacher they had. Or perhaps it was a relationship with a non-science teacher that gave them the idea of becoming an educator. I don’t think it’s quite as common, however, to hear about the lasting impact a student can have on a particular teacher (ignoring, of course, the type of student who causes you a few extra gray hairs!). Recently, a simple question from one of my students had an unexpected and resounding impact on me.

My reality

© eamesBot/Bigstockphoto.com

I'm a middle school science teacher — and, while I like that title, it really describes only a portion of what I do. For instance, I serve as the technical support specialist for my school, which means I provide technology support for both teachers and students (including Google admin). In this role, my tasks include troubleshooting user account issues, fixing devices, and answering technology related questions. I also serve as the school’s science fair sponsor, which means I’m responsible for supporting the development of student projects, and also organizing and running the local science fair.

Additionally, I supervise study hall and teach several 7th and 8th grade classes that aren’t science, such as Health, Religion and Study Skills & Executive Functioning. In this course, I teach about how to be an effective student. One skill that we focus on is time management, and I’ve noticed that many middle students struggle with it.

Recently, I asked students to write down their schedule for the day, from wake until sleep. My goal was to get students to view and reflect on their daily routines in order to schedule regular time for studying or homework. Ultimately, I hoped to help reduce the number of times we teachers hear the famous student excuse, “I couldn’t get it done because of [fill in the blank] practice.”

As we finished this activity, one student raised their hand and asked me to write my own schedule on the board. I had recently shared a wry observation that many of my students have their afternoons and evenings (3 - 9 p.m.) pretty much wide open, yet somehow still try to use the “I don’t have time to do homework” excuse. I had never really thought about my schedule before; it was just something I did from day to day. So, to answer my student’s curiosity, I began to write and talk about my average day, eventually completing a list something like what is shown in Table 1.

Table 1. The student-inspired daily schedule that led the author to re-examine many of his priorities.
My Typical Daily Schedule
5:50 am Wake up, get ready, eat, walk to train
6:22 am Board train to work (read education-related book)
6:49 am End train ride, walk to school
6:53 am Morning prep (prep labs, maintain science room, teacher stuff)
7:30 am Student arrival
8:00 am 1st Period: 6th grade Religion
8:35 am 2nd Period: 6th grade Science 
9:42 am 3rd Period: 8th grade Science
10:49 am
4th Period: 7th grade Science
11:56 am Recess duty
12:20 pm Lunch
12:40 pm 5th Period: 6th grade Social Studies
1:22 pm  6th Period: 6th grade Study Skills
2:04 pm 7th Period: Technical Support
2:46 pm Prepare students for dismissal
3:00 pm Dismissal duty
3:10 pm Afternoon prep (lab cleanup/prep, lesson planning, grading, contacting parents—as well as grant writing, program applications/requirement fulling, graduate school work, etc.)
4:40 pm Walk to train
4:49 pm  Train ride (read education-related book)
5:16 pm End train ride, walk home
5:20 pm Make dinner and eat with family
6:00 pm Spend time with family, work on graduate course work, complete any extra school related matters, respond to emails, grant/program requirements, virtual PD, chores
8:00 pm Put my sons to bed
8:05 pm Cycling (Peloton obsessed, shout out to Power Zone people!)
9:05 pm Shower/shave (I shave my head, so this takes a little longer)
9:20 pm Prep for next day (put out clothes, make lunch, double-check lesson plans etc.)
9:35 pm Chores, etc.
9:50 pm Get ready for bed
10:00 pm Sleep

The period shortly ended after I finished writing my schedule on the board, and all I did was stare … and stare, and stare. The feeling that began to crawl over me was that of horror. Oh, jeez! Was this really my schedule? I’ve been a teacher for five years. Had I been doing this for so long? It’s funny: at some point in your career you sort of just go into autopilot mode and don’t really notice all the things you do — instead, you just sort of do them. How had I overlooked the fact that my schedule was so fully packed every school day?

Reliving the past

Have you ever felt drawn back to a moment in time, as if a wormhole opened up inside your brain? That happened to me as I stared at the schedule in front of me. I thought back to when I was student teaching at Macomb Junior Senior High. My mentor was a veteran teacher who had been around the block quite a few times and had experienced many student teachers before me. We would often get together for a “morning snack meeting” during 2nd period in the lab. I recalled that during one particular meeting, after I had just blitzed through my edTPA (Teacher Preparation Performance Assessment and Write-up), my mentor looked at me with kind eyes and said, “Scott, you know…. Teaching isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon. You can be one of those incredible, mind-blowing teachers and probably burn yourself out after five years, or you can dial it down and be a pretty good teacher for 40. Which way do you think is going to help more students?”

Well, here I am in my fifth year of teaching, and I clearly haven’t been taking my mentor’s message to heart. When basically every minute of my day is scheduled in advance, maybe something is wrong.

Rethinking the future

As I look at my schedule, I can’t help but notice that I want to spend more time with my boys and with my wife. Forget about hobbies that aren’t exercising. Time to relax? Ha! Well, how did I get here? Was this some sort of rookie teacher mistake? Probably!

An obvious solution to my schedule woes is to increase my efficiency. There are lots of tricks to make teaching more efficient. You’re probably already using quite a few yourself. There’s using the magic of Google Forms to autograde; reusing materials and content from the previous year instead of creating new materials; and mastering an organizational system so that paperwork is easier. Of course, I’ve been doing quite a bit of these things, which leads me to consider that efficiency can be a trap!

Efficiency can be either a lifesaving buoy or an anchor that will cause you to plummet to the depths. It all depends on what you do with that efficiency. Healthy efficiency should result in more free time. The trap of efficiency is that you may give into the temptation of adding more stuff onto your plate to fill the room that has been freed up by efficiency. Later, you can then make even that more efficient, and then add more stuff. This keeps piling up until you eventually notice that you’re drowning. This isn’t some sort of high-stress, “I’m overwhelmed” type feeling. Rather, it’s more like a slow boil, and a gradual realization that things aren’t quite all right, and you’re not okay.

Regardless of how I got here, I want to regain control and aim for more balance in my life and career. Here are a few strategies I’ve decided to implement going forward:  

  1. Exercise the Power of No: “No” is a one-word sentence. An explanation is not required. Handle that new club? Take on this extra task? Cover this for so and so? No. I plan to say “no” more often in my career. I need to say no in order to maintain a healthy balance.
  2. Prioritize my non-negotiables: These are the things in life that I don’t want to live without. They are vital and key to my well-being. I have two of these: my family and my health.
    1. My Family: I want my boys to have a dad who can play with them, teach them, and be a parent for them when they need me, not simply when my schedule allows it. Similarly, I want to be consistently present with my wife, so we can all be a family.
    2. My Health: I bike an hour a day, but this is one of the few things that keeps my stress in check, and I’m not changing this. My health and my well-being are priorities.
  3. Focus on my Passions: I’m going to prioritize my passions, and eliminate the things that are not. I started making a list of what really matters to me, and plan to make those my priorities, and forget the other things.
  4. Reinvent myself:  I need to reflect here. I’m overwhelmed and stressed, so perhaps a change is in my best interest. As an educator, there are many potential things that can be evaluated for change: scenery, teaching assignments, non-teaching responsibilities, etc.

I think my mentor was right: Teaching is a marathon. Marathons are tricky business. Early on, you can feel really good and fall into the trap of increasing your pace. And suddenly, what felt like an easy marathon pace for the first 15 miles becomes a nightmare for the remaining 11.2 miles. As an educator, the pace that felt right for five years might suddenly not be right at year six. Time’s change, and you’ll change. Find a pace that is right for you, and don’t be afraid to modify it as needed. My first five years of teaching have shown me that if I want to continue helping students as a science educator, I need to make some changes — and you can be sure I will be making some.  

Scott Valenta

Scott Valenta
Middle School Ambassador

Photo credit:
(article cover) eamesBot/Bigstockphoto.com