The Sloshing Pail

For the internal lexicon of this blog, a term which will certainly crop up again, one which describes a frequent scenario with scary accuracy for me:

The Sloshing Pail

Our students store their attention, energy, and perseverance in a sloshing pail. We’ve gotta help them steady that pail as we move on a path toward classroom activities. We steady the pail in small ways, almost always by eliminating distraction.

We steady the pail by:

  • keeping our transitions between activities organized and short.
  • speaking clearly.
  • maintaining clear expectations for behavior.
  • etc.

We slosh the pail by:

  • keeping a messy classroom.
  • designing unclear worksheets.
  • maintaining a tense classroom environment.
  • stocking insufficient supplies
  • etc.

It is very easy to let attention, energy, and perseverance slosh out of the pail. It is very difficult to get it back in.

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. So the metaphor of the sloshing pail communicates primarily that someone or something is accelerating/being accelerated too quickly. What is that someone or something?

  2. It isn’t really a matter of forward-going speed (through a textbook, let’s say). No matter how quickly you move your students through a section, lesson, or activity, it’s the side-to-side motion (the sloshing) that’s killer.

    The side-to-side has nothing to with speed and everything to do with your gait, your stride, which can be smooth (fast transitions between activity, clean instructional design) or wobbly (” … now where the hell did I put those handouts … “).

    Of course, the faster you run with the pail, the easier it is to swing it side-to-side.

  3. Thanks for that analogy, Dan. I like it alot. Working hard on “unsloshing” my bucket before school starts on Monday.

    I think the goal is to be able to swing the bucket in a full circle over your head without spilling a drop, right?

  4. Yeah, that’s the week-long, standards-based, fully tech-integrated lesson you pull off in a day. Good luck with that one.

  5. I like your analogy. I think we could holding on to outdated supplies with stocking outdated supplies. I often see teachers unwilling to part with outdated textbooks and other materials.

  6. Hmm.
    straying off topic, and interrupting students at work – those are bad things?

    During one episode (ok, it was a year and a half ago) a student compared me to a brother – a really annoying little brother – and asked if I would let them work.

    Of course, if the option is chat with teacher or do math, and they are choosing to do math, it’s something of a set up. I know that 20 minutes focused is too long, so I provide the breaks. On a good day, the work is sufficiently engaging that they don’t mind, after the interruption, going right back to it. On other days they might refuse the distraction altogether (annoying little brother story).

    I guess I’m saying, a steady bucket is good, but you got to give it a swing now and then.

  7. You’re talking to the guy who breaks for five minutes to show commercials. I’m all for stopping the pail entirely on its path. That’s necessary nonsense.

    What I’m trying to lump into one definition here are all the ways we interfere with our own goal of moving our students from one place of understanding to another.

  8. Yeah, I think I know the difference. At this point I think I keep things running forward, even when I am making a mess. It’s not always this explicit, but I know I’ve said out loud: “I can’t work, I can’t find anything” and then added “but you can work. Keep working!” and let them laugh at my frantic clown routine (necessary break) but without causing the “slosh.”

  9. @dan & jonathan…i am also all for sloshing of pails with random interruptions. loved to be able to do things like show commercials or youtube clips when i taught junior history.

    but i’ve found in one year of teaching middle school that the effect of things that aren’t directly related to the lesson/task at hand can often have the effect of emptying the bucket.

    if the interruption is a good mental break, i would say that’s simply smart teaching – helps you break the lesson down into more segments, which can thus be more easily recalled.

    but if the interruption sets their brain going someplace you don’t want it to…that’s definitely some bad sloshing of the pail.

  10. Controlling the situation is the name of the game. By initiating the diversion, it leaves me in control, which makes it not so hard to come back.

  11. Hm. And I’ve gotta clarify again that what’s important to me here (which ain’t gospel by any stretch) is what happens while the pail is in motion.

    Start, stop, start, stop, whatever. Controlling those interruptions are merely a matter of will. What’s really tricky for me (and a lot of teachers) are the small disruptions to the classroom flow while we’re already inside a learning moment.

    Those are much harder to identify and harder still to control.

  12. So, as you gain confidence, practice taking them off track and bringing them back. Separate skills, mind you. Start them. Stop them and bring them back. Teacher kegels, if you’ll pardon the analogy. In your terms, shake the pail now and then, and try to steady it. The more you do it, the easier it gets.

    That way, when a kid or a cough or a loose paper breaks the flow, you will know how to come back, and they will expect you (be waiting for you) to bring them back.