Jonathan From The Mailbag

From the mailbag

Jonathan, from Admin v. Doctorate:

Why can’t you manage your effort/energy better? It’s a little problem.

Two text-heavy slides from last year:

The same two slides, revised and expanded this year:

I can’t settle on what I know to be inferior.

I reckon we agree that some people shouldn’t teach. Maybe, like me, you think that’s pretty obvious.

What is less obvious to me, but what is also, honestly, no lie, probably true, is that I am one of them. I imagine this seems like a bit of pointless self-deprecation to most, but it’s an idea that’s made a lot of sense of a lot of frustration these last few weeks.

Like with those two slidedecks up there, I can’t settle on what I know to be inferior, no matter how much time it costs me. This is an attribute which, in my life, has always lived on the line between vice and virtue.

Once teaching and I met, however, it became fully vice. Teaching, like no other job I’ve worked, is greedy for that work ethic. It takes and doesn’t stop taking.

I used to think that relentlessness made me great for this job but now I’m not sure.

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. Just wondering if there is a way you can do this AND teach.

    I think sometimes if we know our strengths and weaknesses, we have to pick a teaching situation that allows for that.

    My hope is that out there, there is one that would allow you to dedicate this seriousness of purpose to your teaching, without such an overload of classes or students that you can’t do it the way you want to?

    Private school?

    Teaching small tutorial classes?

    Special programs?

    Online courses?

    Just thinking aloud, but hoping you find the teaching environment that allows you to do your best job and also is manageable somehow!

  2. Thanks for your less depressive take on my crisis. I guess I’m tempted to teach a large load online and a reduced load in the classroom.

    It’s the entertaining that murders me. I can always do more to make my lessons more engaging, more fun, more clear, to incorporate more interesting outside resources and anecdotes. That kind of Sisyphean boulder-pushing six hours a day is, I think, what’s been taxing me lately.

    So maybe I do that four hours a day and chase the rest of my paper online where responsiveness is the preferred virtue.

  3. Dan,

    Did your students not learn with last year’s slides? I doubt it.

    There will always be something we can do better. I truly believe that if I/we stop thinking this –then it is time to get out. The trick is to somehow know this and be OK knowing that we are improving. I read somewhere that a reasonable goal is to change 10% per year (anyone know where I read it?). That is tough for me. I want to do the best – right now, every day, every minute of every period. I have to find a way to overcome this or I’ll be blubbering in a corner pretty soon. I’m not saying I won’t strive for perfection, but I know that is a goal that I’ll probably never reach. Does that bug me? Yep. Will I get better – I hope so or I’m turning in my gradebook.

    Would you ask your students to go home and spend six hours on a math assignment? Every day? I doubt it. Maybe you can pick the one slideshow per week that you think needs the most work, change that one, and use the old ones for the other four. Is it a compromise? Yep. Will they not be learning on the other four days. Nope.

    Why is this so much easier to tell someone else than to internalize myself?

  4. I think Jackie’s got the right idea. I was once told that teaching is no profession for a perfectionist, because there will always be something to improve upon. If you aren’t selective about the things you’ll work on in a given year, it will overtake your life. That may be OK for a single, young teacher looking to hone his craft; in fact, that sort of dedication is quite admirable. I think that as you advance in the profession, develop relationships, have children, etc. – if that’s in the cards for you – you’ll have to seriously reprioritize. Try explaining to 6-year-old Dan Jr. that you can’t make it to his game/recital/Scout meeting/etc. because you’re reworking your Keynote slides again.

    I don’t mean that disrespectfully; I speak from personal experience in that regard. Getting married started me down that road, but having a child really put into perspective for me where my lesson plans fall in the grand scheme of things. I still try to innovate and improve aspects of each class each year, but my family comes before my students. If I have to put off grading papers to spend an afternoon with them, then so be it – my students will live. I don’t think that makes me any less dedicated an educator.

    It doesn’t make you selfish to set aside time for Dan the film enthusiast or Dan the stamp collector, as opposed focusing all your waking hours on developing Dan the teacher. I think the most effective teachers are ones who can strike a balance between work and play in their lives (also less likely to burn out before the dreaded 5-year mark).

  5. We’re just two weeks into the years, but this past Wednesday I was actually feeling somewhat low about the relatively little time I’ve been spending polishing the boffo factor of my daily lesson plans. (Life has been good but quite busy at home…I’m not working hours a day after school…no regrets on the home front, but I’ve harbored some guilt on the work side.)

    Wednesday also happened to be the day one of my still-new students blurted out how much she loved the class. Kind of shocked, I told her I wasn’t sure how well I was doing yet and asked why she felt that way. I’m quoting her best I can here (and having cleaned up the language a wee bit): “ because you always start by asking about us and then telling us jokes or something from the news and smiling during your lectures and stuff. Even when you’re serious you seem like you’re having a good time and that you like being here and that makes me have a good time and want to come to this class.”

    She pegged it. I do like being there… it is just the best. Perhaps she was also sending the message that when it comes to teaching, we don’t always need the super-WOW to suck ‘em in.. When they understand that there is no other place you would rather spend your work day, that you actually like being around them, most students will respond positively and be open to taking in something you’re trying to teach–whether or not your slides have been revised and expanded to the next level of clarity and richness.

    While teaching is “greedy for the work ethic,” as you note, Jackie too has the right idea. Of course, we must always work at upping our game. But sometimes just talking to your kids about “stuff” without consciously trying to entertain is enough to unburden yourself and give the kids exactly what they crave.

    As always, I’m loving your blog.

  6. last year, our faculty had t-shirts made with the slogan, ‘edutainer’ on the back, bold and slate-colored on our navy shirts.

    I’ve been at this game for 13 years and nothing gets me more irate than the constant desire, urge, OCD-thing to keep up-ing and reinventing every wheel I’ve created.

    Sooner or later though (and this is where I see Damian’s point), the re-creation of everything becomes, as you noted, Sisyphus-like.

    Kids, extra degrees, and a shiny Xbox360 will most assuredly alter your mind-set (and sleep cycle).

    I’ve stopped trying to re-create every product, handout, slide, diorama, and puppet and reached the realization that it’s the teacher that matters.

    You too can be Stuart Smalley:

    “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”

    Keep up the good work…for as long as you can.

    The real tragedy in education is that the best teachers tend to leave.

  7. I used to be exactly like you. All the older teachers told me I was going to burn out if I kept it up. I just thought, “Okay. If I start to burn out, I’ll slow down.” I did, and I did.

    I am just starting my 5th year (the dreaded mark, as Damian pointed out) and I am getting very close to the burnout point. (This is also compounded by the fact that I’ve taught summer school for the past two summers, so I’m working on month 23 with no break.) If I hadn’t been given electives to teach this year instead of five English classes, I think I would have spontaneously combusted on the first day of school. (Maybe there are electives you could sign up to teach one year when you get exhausted?)

    But teaching electives has, so far, given me the chance this year to relax a little with my students and just get to know them and have fun. Lori has something, I think. I had a kid today tell me the same, “This is my favorite class.” (I asked him if it was because it was an elective and we didn’t work as hard.) He said, “yes, but also because we always talk about cool things.”

    I always tell my students that English is the most important class they take all day. I know that’s not what you want to hear. They say, “The math teachers say the same thing.” I say, “I certainly hope so.” But English & Math are core subjects and the pressure of HOW VERY IMPORTANT THIS IS sits on me every day. It makes me work them very hard, which is ultimately good for them. Many of my students thank me the next year, (“you know… I actually think I learned something in your class… English doesn’t seem as hard this year…) But they hate it at the time. Taking this hard a** stance gets tiring, though. However hard they are working, I’m working 10X harder.

    Anyway, I just don’t want to get old and think, “man I didn’t do anything but teach my whole life.” Which really is a possibility for me since I’m 36 & have no children and don’t plan on having any. I have to force myself to have a life, or teaching will take up my entire time on this planet.

    I really think the universities have the right idea with sabbatical. I have to have time to learn, to stay a learner myself, or I’m not going to be good for anyone.

    Maybe you could be a curriculum specialist? Instructional coach?