A Little Faster, A Little Better

One of the most depressing lines in the hilarious movie Office Space is when the main character admits that at his current job, every single day has been worse than the day before. "So that means that every single day that you see me, that's on the worst day of my life."

My experience has been exactly the opposite: each year I teach is a little easier than the last.  Each year I'm able to anticipate the miscommunications, fence in the problem students and keep up with the grading just a little bit better.  Each year I enjoy it more, and I think I get a little better at what I'm doing.

So when I look at the last semester through the glow of two weeks' vacation, I realize it wasn't that stressful.  There was only really one problem that kept recurring over and over: student absences.  In six years, I don't think it's ever been this bad, not even during the swine flu epidemic last fall; between field trips, parent and student illnesses and visits to the guidance office, I was losing one or two students from almost every class, almost every day.  This meant I had to decide when and how they can make up their work and how much, if any, they will be penalized for doing it late (a family emergency is an acceptable excuse; a field trip is not.)  I often had to decide these things on the spot, as the student would approach me the day she got back and want to know what the plan was.  And if there's one thing I hate, it's worrying about loose ends.

The thing is, when I'm busy being a parent and bookkeeper to my students, I lose some of the passion and enthusiasm for my subject that made me want to teach in the first place.  And when I have to penalize students for turning in late work, I feel bad; I know a one-day absence doesn't justify an assignment that's two weeks late, but I feel for the kid who was sick and just plain forgot, at the same time that I realize it isn't fair to the others to just let her hand it in late.

In trying to decide what to do about this, I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite method books of all time.  In Tools for Teaching, Fred Jones gives practical advice as follows:
"It is not your job to work yourself to death while the students watch.  It is your job to work the students to death while you watch."

This may sound a little off-putting, and it definitely reeks of melodrama, but I think he means exactly what I just said: teachers need to be free to teach, not bogged down in the mundane details of classroom management.

So I decided to turn around what I had been doing.  I had been filling out a form each time a student was absent, stating what she had missed, and placing it in her mailbox in hopes she would make it up in a timely manner.  From now on, I would have the student fill out a form each time she was absent.  If she wanted any kind of extension or grace for late work, she'd need to tell me when and why she was absent, what she had missed and how she planned to make it up -- and do this on the day she returned, so that we both knew what the plan was.

I cannot tell you how excited I am to try out this new system.  Partly because I adore new systems, and partly because I hope it means, once again, that this semester will be the best one so far.