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Friday, November 6, 2009

New School Year, 1/4 down (Self-Analysis Edition)

So the new school year is 1/4th past now. Now I have two AP preps, as opposed to last year, when I had one (and the year before, when I had none). In some ways, Calculus AB is like a new prep to me too, because I'm approaching it rather differently this year than last year. Last year my students' pass rate wasn't what I hoped it would be, so I'm trying different strategies--different and time-consuming.

Still, I tend to find the first quarter the most draining, in terms of my personal time. The reason for this is that I don't believe in spending a ton of time reviewing material from previous classes--especially when teaching honors or AP classes. So I tend to fly through the early parts of the curricula, hoping that in so doing I can free up time for me to go more slowly later on in the year, when we cover material that is actually new to the kids. The consequence of that for me is much more frequent quizzing and testing, and so a heavier pile of grading. The fourth quarter gets rough too, but that's just at the very end.

So it's time to get off my ass when it comes to writing. I've hardly done any writing or revising at all since the start of August, and I am properly ashamed about that. (In my defense, I have done more than you could tell by looking at this blog. I sacrifice blogging before I sacrifice writing. Since my last blog post, I have revised two short stories and done some preliminary planning on a new YA novel. Not a lot, I know, but not nothing.)

A huge problem of mine, and one I need to work on, is my tendency toward perfectionism--more in teaching than in writing, actually. For the past nine weeks, I have averaged around four hours of sleep a night on school nights. When I grade, I don't just mark stuff wrong--I make detailed comments explaining where student work went wrong. But most kids don't look at that; they just look at the number at the top and put the thing away. So I need to find a way to help the kids that want help, but not spend my whole life on grading. I also operate a forum where I answer questions from kids, but I tend to spend too much time on silly details. For instance, the forum doesn't support LaTeX or any other mathematical mark-up features, so I make mathematical expressions with other software, capture it as an image, and upload it that way. But then I waste time trying to get the typeface and the background to match, so that it will look as if it were actually native text instead of an image. Who the hell cares? Well, besides me, that is.

(Not all the things I spend time on are that silly. I spend several hours each weekend on lesson planning, where other teachers tell me they spend maybe a half hour. I almost never give kids seatwork in class, which means I can't get my work done while they're doing that, which means all my grading and lesson-planning and communicating with parents are always take-home work. I tutor kids four afternoons a week. I think a lot of these things make me a better teacher, but it's time for me to start thinking about bang for my buck, and about when I get time to be more than my job.)

It's not perfectionism, exactly. It's that I'm very detail-oriented. As a consumer, I appreciate that tendency in the art and craft I most enjoy. That's what I love about Disney--both their movies and their architecture. Always that little bit of extra "Ah ha!" for those of us who are looking out for it. Maybe that's why I'm such a big fan of the Indigo Girls--those amazing harmonies are like that little bit of extra detail that most artists don't bother with. That's what I loved about the original Star Wars trilogy: the sense that there was a greater storyline, and that someone behind the art already knew where this was all going. (That's probably why I'm more of a plotter than a pantser.)

I have a difficult time giving myself permission to not get the details right. I think as an artist, this leads to some of my strengths. I think I use foreshadowing well. I also think I'm good at throwing in little self-referential "symbols," for lack of a better word. Of course, this also leads to my tendency to spend too long revising.

As a teacher, this focus on details may be hurting me, and, ironically enough, making me less successful. I spend so much time doing things that nobody notices. Things that nobody particularly appreciates. I may be the hardest-working teacher I know; but I don't necessarily work smart. Who appreciates that I stay up until 2 am or wake up at 4 am to grade or lesson plan? Am I crankier or less effective during the day because I'm tired from working so hard? Am I crankier or less effective because I put my artistic dreams on hold for so much of the school year?

I had a bit of an epiphany at the end of the last quarter. I tend to fall behind on my projects because of my perfectionism. If I don't have time to do it perfectly, I'll wait until I do. Eventually, some things become emergencies, and that's when I finally give myself permission to cut corners, to do less than a perfect job. It occurred to me that perhaps on some level I fall behind on purpose, as a way of giving myself permission to cut those corners. (Ironically enough, nobody notices the difference between when I cut corners and when I don't, though they certainly do notice when I'm behind.)

The trick, then, is to learn to back off on the things I do for my day job without waiting until things are emergencies.

We'll see . . .


LJO said...

I kind of wish my calc professor would give me a little bit more feedback on where I screwed up. Once in a while he does write something pointing out where somebody messed up, but it's not typical.
And it's possible that they do look through their tests later. I know I don't like to go through a test that's just been handed back, especially if I did poorly, because I'll be thinking about the test instead of paying attention to the lecture.
I always appreciated the lack of seatwork in your class, btw. :)
Don't run yourself ragged for your day job, though. It's admirable to be a good teacher, but if you're not getting enough sleep you might be cranky anyway.
I don't know what my point is. I probably don't have one (if this were FCAT I'd be in trouble!). :)

Joe Iriarte said...


FCAT writing will be the death of any sort of written creativity among Floridians.

I think what I need to be able to do is stick to a middle ground. Like maybe not writing notes, but just circling the specific spot in the work where stuff went wrong. The thing is, I resolve to do that from time to time, but I'm not very good at sticking to it. It's very hard for me *not* to do some things, because of my obsessive/compulsive tendencies.

If I could only make spending less time on schoolwork a compulsion . . .