Jeff Is Concerned

Jeff registers his concern over the hours I work and the ethic I keep (third comment down; dunno why the anchors aren’t working):

I’m concerned that you’re going to burn yourself out before you can get in and make the kind of impact that I know you want to. 18 hours on a 45 minute lesson is NUTS, my friend, and though I know you and TMAO are all about the “bring it hard every minute of the day” approach, to which I say: respect. But we’re going to lose you guys to frustration, to exhaustion, to all the side effects of slamming your head into the wall to entertain adolescents who’d much rather be anywhere else, no matter how much they like (or you think they like) you and your class.

To which I say: thanks for the concern. I’d be a dunce to disregard the counsel of anyone who’s been at this longer than I have. Two reasons why your concern is misplaced and one important point of clarification:

  1. Over the long term, I refuse to keep these hours. That’s the last time I’ll spend 18 hours on that 45-minute lesson. It’s done. Next year, I’ll just play the DVD. Or spend a few new hours on Christian’s film festival idea. But on Monday I was rehired to teach the same courses next year so I’m effectively done with those hours. By posting my lessons for other teachers to use and steal and thereby spend their free time planning just a little less, by sending DVDs across the country, I push the return on investment even higher.

    Incidentally, this here feels like a significant separation between old and new guard teachers. I have two large filing cabinets in my classroom (you know the type) which, for all I know, function only as dormitories for rodent and insect life. My instruction is entirely digital. Every Keynote lesson, every handout, every hour I’ve ever invested in my practice this year exists in reproducible bits-and-bytes. I carry my career around on my keychain. I feel like your concern and mine would be better directed at those who re-invent their wheels on a yearly basis.

  2. Over the short term, my satisfaction/excitement/triumph has outpaced my stress by at least an order of magnitude. The year’s almost done and for every time I’ve posted a cry for help, I’ve posted ten times crowing proudly (probably annoyingly) about some lesson or to declare my affection for this job of ours.

    If I felt like I was throwing sixty hours into a ditch every week, I’d be the basket case you predict. But my efforts at strong, satisfying, scaffolded lessons, at better presentation and presence, every hour of that has gone straight to my kids. I’m pulling down nearly 100% attendance in remedial Algebra not because there’s nothing better do in this sunny Santa Cruz spring outside our open campus (hells bells … ) but because they want to be there, because I pump something new and curious through my projector every day (Monday: a cruise through the Panama Canal), because this Algebra nonsense is finally making somesense, and because I bring my best to them (nearly) every day of the year.

    That’s crack I can’t sell from this blog. I can describe the high but until someone has felt that special 99% correlation between effort and result, it’s gonna remain annoyingly aloof.

All that said, one point of yours demands some clarification.

… you seem to believe that the only way to succeed in a classroom is to spend a pretty ridiculous amount of time preparing each lesson.

I hope you’re the only one thinks I’m pushing this lifestyle. I’ve explicitly advocated the opposite at least twice.

From Back On My Grind (the post you link):

I wish I knew a better way to pull off lessons like these than through copious man-hours (18 over this weekend for a 45-minute lesson) but, at this point, that’s my only tried-and-true technique for not sucking at this job. [emphasis added]

And then from Did You Know Bullet Ants?:

Bottom line: it is your professional obligation to pursue the best examples of every slice of your field. If, at the point you discover truly great technique, you shrug and say, “There isn’t enough time in the day to be great at everything.” then I’ll shake your hand and agree wholeheartedly. You aren’t paid enough.

Hopefully that settles that. One last time: I wish I knew a better way to see the results I’ve seen but I don’t. If anybody finds the work attractive, the results appealing, or feels convicted by my work ethic, however, I have no idea how to assume that responsibility.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Duly noted, and I’ll be the first to admit that I should’ve read more carefully. And if you can work like this:

    It’s done. Next year, I’ll just play the DVD.

    then more power to you. I have to keep my timing a bit more open–though maybe you can have some more rigidity as a math teacher than I can as an English teacher, as I tend to adjust my lessons to take into account which writing skills need work when. I don’t do a week-long comma bootcamp if I have a batch of kids who understand commas and can prove it.

    All the best to you…and you gotta understand that your stuff about slides and graphic design is hitting home out here on the East Coast–my Odyssey sheets were pretty awesome looking, if I do say so myself.

  2. Love what you said here, Dan:

    “Incidentally, this here feels like a significant separation between old and new guard teachers. I have two large filing cabinets in my classroom (you know the type) which, for all I know, function only as dormitories for rodent and insect life. My instruction is entirely digital. Every Keynote lesson, every handout, every hour I’ve ever invested in my practice this year exists in reproducible bits-and-bytes. I carry my career around on my keychain.”

    A guy — could — jump on the ‘why all the 2.0 fuss?’ bandwagon over this pretty telling self-description you offered, however, but that’d be exaggerating to make a point.

    All that matters is that you’re invested. We’ll let the historians years from now sort out the semantic artifacts.

    In the meantime, have a hell of a close to your year. Enjoy the kids. Period. Definitely curious what your summer — refuel and renaissance alike — has in store for you.

    Cheers, Christian

  3. With all due respect, I think you are wrong.

    Ten hours of effort for a first year teacher is worth perhaps one tenth that for a ten year teacher. And any ten year teacher who is using their 2nd year lesson plans…. well, I don’t need to finish that. I’ve never met one.

    Look at it this way: if you were right, one really good teacher would send out a (book if it was a few decades ago) (dvd if it is today) of the perfectly worked out lessons for each course. None of us would ever write lessons.

    In fact, it would be a good thing if first year teachers were handed a notebook or dvd with a set of reasonable lessons to use. The beginning teacher has enough to learn. But over time, it becomes possible to modify, then to write one’s own. But as our teaching changes, so do our plans. As our students change, so do our plans. State standards. Standardized assessments.

    Look, I use similar lessons year to year. There are parts I keep identical. But I consciously keep a few, and write the rest fresh. It keeps me fresh. It keeps the material appropriate for the students in front of me. And it allows me to continually reflect and modify.

    When you asked for some logic stuff, I produced a list of topics. I have taught some form of logic for 7 or 8 of the last ten years (mostly shorter units; only the last two years have I had the elective). But I didn’t offer plans. I have a few worksheets. But each class gets freshly prepared ideas. And that’s the way it should be.

  4. Jonathan, I’m not exactly sure what you’re disagreeing with. I’m not saying I’ll never have to plan again. I’m saying that every second I’ve spent planning this year has been preserved.

    Whether that’ll mean anything ten years out remains to be seen. Exactly how much my workload will drop next year will remain kind of a mystery until next year also, but I have a hard time believing the difference between starting out with zilch and starting with several gigs of slides, handouts, and lessons, is as negligible as you’d have me believe. Hell, even if I pull an extra hour of sleep each night I’ll be ecstatic.

    Jeff, I’d jump at the chance to have a look at your handouts if you felt like posting them.

  5. A few points from Sweden…

    I have never spent 18h on one lesson but some come up to about 10-12h. It is not common but there is no question to me that those hours make a better lesson and I know I can reuse them with little modification next time on the same topic.

    The biggest problem with PowerPoint/DVD style lesson are that they normally become more “fixed” than those not so hard planned lessons and I know that one of my strong points is my ability to feel and understand at the moment what is understood and what’s need to have more time but I have learned to not feel like a failure when I need to leave my preplanned lesson to go on the fly instead.

    My goal is to make a few new “great” lessons each month and still try to keep the rest at “good”.

    Personally I think as a math, physic teacher it is more important to spend a lot of time with students when they approach me with questions on their breaks and after school.

    When it comes to working to much I think it is important to remember that we don’t get paid to work 60h week but if that is what makes me(you) feel good then go ahead. It is important to remember how much we are paid to work when we judge other teachers and that most good teachers gives many “normal lesson” mixed up with “good” here an there and that students and society cant really expect more with the workload they give us.

  6. As someone who has suffered stress, burned out, and had to put my professional life back together again (not to mention the my personal life), I really would heed the advice you’ve been given, Dan.

    Teaching is not about being McGyver. It’s about being part of the A-Team. Get other teachers at your school on-side and work together. After all, it’s not about us, it’s about the learning… :-)

  7. I am sorry I didn’t realize earlier what you were doing. Somehow I thought you were putting these together occasionally, maybe once a week. It did not occur to me (and I must not have read closely enough) that you were doing it every day.

    I know this sounds negative, and I don’t mean it to. The amount of effort you’ve put in is clearly amazing. But to the extent possible, you probably want to scale back. Take care of yourself. Beginning teachers burn out at an amazing rate. And remember that whatever you have done, you will probably be able to do it better, faster, in the future.

    Your gigs of material, how easy will it be to give some of them up, to throw some of it out? But you will be a more experienced teacher, better able to consistently produce high quality stuff, a few years from now.

    You’ll need to be careful not to make decisions about keeping or junking material next year based on the amount of time you put into it this year.

    After my first year, when I learned that other teachers had material they could have handed me, I made it my mission to try to prevent beginning teachers from doing too much lesson planning. Time spent on management, on questioning, on delivery of instruction etc, is far more valuable. Plus, lesson writing is very slow at the beginning. I can write in 20 minutes today what would have taken me 3 hours 10 years ago.

    I saved a couple of lesson, worksheets, and tests from my first year. It makes me sad and angry that anyone let me kill myself producing such mediocre stuff.

  8. Jeff, I’d jump at the chance to have a look at your handouts if you felt like posting them.

    I’m working on getting a whole paperless (well, as paperless as I can) system together for next year, so when that’s going I’ll definitely have those handouts up.

  9. Per, I agree, and would caution anyone thinking about going all-PowerPoint-all-the-time, that digital presentation can make teaching stiff. There have been moments when I would’ve been better off freestyling things a little more.

    But, assuming you don’t come to your lessons completely emptyhanded, that maybe you’ve got a few examples you’d like to talk about, or some notes you’d like to discuss, or some drawings you’re definitely going to put up, all we’re talking about is investing the time drawing and writing those things before class, on your own time, so you can get through more fun stuff in class.

    Plus my boardwriting’s godawful-terrible compared to Keynote’s crisp, anti-aliased lines, so there’s that, in my case.

  10. I spend my first two years teaching developing a program for grammar/ writing instruction that actually works for Far Below Basic, CELDT 1 & 2 ELLs. Eighty hours a week? Absolutely. The extra time was in the teeth-grit production of the whole thing, starting from near-zero because everything I had to work with sucked. Now, five years in, the time is spent on big think, tweaking, and issues of presentation. But the time is still there, of course it is. It’s just different time now.

    And Jonathon’s point is well-taken: What used to take three hours, a pint glass of Bushmills and at least 45 minutes of interior football (four first-year male teachers living in a suburban house so big there were rooms designated solely for the running of pass patterns) now takes 15 minutes.

    I gotta say, too, that different kind of time, the difference in the kind of work you put in, is, in many ways, the difference between the guy who creates the lightbulb and the guy who makes the lightbulb better. Even if the latter is more effective, I always had more fun doing the former. It’s that transition, rather than some of the dire warnings about burn-out, that I’d call your attention to, Dan. I find myself as effective as ever, maybe more so, but it doesn’t feel as good, the fourth time I did this cool lesson didn’t feel as good as the third, which didn’t feel as good as the second… And you can go home muttering under your breath that it’s about the learning and about the kids and not about you, but that’s only partly true, isn’t it? I get stuck in an endless cycle of needing to create and recreate, with ever diminishing returns, not in the form of student achievement, but as the bottle-rocket of the brain. It’s shooting less high and bursting into ever dimmer light.

    In other words, the better I get at this stuff, the worse I feel.

  11. Well that’s scary. This is “about me” to the extent that I enjoy feeling successful, feeling the result of work, and then channeling that buzz into more work. But, yuck. I’m glad to know now that I’ll eventually build up a tolerance for this thrill. Not sure what to do about that yet, though.

    This makes more sense out of your recent writing.