Excuses…excuses….

I was at a division meeting when (from another table) I heard these famous words, “I don’t have time to teach like that.  I have a curriculum to get through.”

“I have a curriculum to get through.”  I used those same words myself in a long ago teaching world, but then I grew up.

It frustrates me when teachers talk this way and I even hear these exact words from people I would consider to be quality educators.

Here’s my issue:  We in Alberta all have the same curriculum and we all have the same number of teaching days.  Disagree with me if you want, but I feel like saying that you can’t do quality education in your classroom because you have a curriculum to get through is a cop out.

It’s a natural fall back though.  A fail safe, if you will.  You’re facing final exams or a PAT (standardized tests for Grade 3, 6, 9, and 12) and you’re under pressure to make sure the students perform.  So what do you do?  You scrap the projects and the quality learning tasks in favor of test prep and practice exams from years gone by.  Hey, I did it myself when I taught Grade 9 LA five years ago.  But I’ve learned from my mistakes.

It’s called “cognitive dissonance“.  Whenever we do something that is in direct conflict with our morality, we seek to lessen this “dissonance” by creating a way to minimize those negative feelings.  A smoker knows that smoking is bad for their health, but to minimize the dissonance he/she feels one might say, “Well, at least I don’t gamble!”  or “I grew up with two smoking parents, it was inevitable that I would be a smoker.”  or “It helps relieve the stress I face in my life.  I’d be a basket case if I didn’t smoke.”

In teaching we know that test prep isn’t good teaching.  We know giving notes and tests as the sole means to educate kids isn’t good learning.  So we reduce our cognitive dissonance with some of the following:

I don’t have time.  I have a curriculum to get through.  I have finals to get ready for.  I have to prepare them for middle school.  I have to prepare them for high school.  I have to make parents happy.

And this is supposed to make us feel better.

I was there.  I taught Grade 9 LA (that comes with a two part standardized test) for several years.  I did the practice tests to get them ready.  I assigned endless parades of business letters and essays because I knew that’s what they would be facing.  But then something clicked and I said to myself, “There’s got to be a better way….”

I would like to issue this two part challenge to every teacher who has ever said, “I have a curriculum to get through.”

#1.  Erase those words from your teaching language.  

and

#2.  Make a list of all the things you would love to do in your teaching if you DIDN’T “have a curriculum to get through”.

Then pick one….just one.  Make it your goal to do just this one thing.  May it be blogging, project based learning, critical thinking, incorporating social media, or whatever else has perked your interest at some point but you’ve immediately shut it down because you didn’t think you would have time to do it.

Maybe you’ve already written off your year since you are days or weeks away from being done.  So be it.  Make it your goal for September.  But write it down because if you don’t, you won’t do it.

And once you’ve given it a shot, whatever your new goal is, let me know how it went.

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About Cherra-Lynne Olthof

I've been a middle school teacher for my entire career (which began in 2001). Like my students, I too am a life long learner. My goals include helping my students to achieve their goals, support them in their learning, and to encourage them to think "beyond the grade".
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5 Responses to Excuses…excuses….

  1. Greg M says:

    Fantastic post, I am doing exactly what you suggest, although perhaps without the writing of lists. I am changing the way I teach, and I am trying to include more of the good stuff (which coincidentally I also find to be the fun stuff ). I still find it interesting the many ways that things get hamstrung. It’s a battle I still fight everyday with myself and others. Thanks for writing this.

  2. martenis says:

    How about a third option:
    #3 Love the curriculum you’re with.
    Sure, we’ve got a long list of topics that our Intro Physics students will get tested on. You know what? There’s a lot of good stuff in there. Circuits, kinetic theory, the EM spectrum, energy conservation… The way it comes from the state, the statements are often awkward and disconnected, but the concepts are good physics. Part of what I love about teaching the subject is that we get kids able to do all these different parts of physics.
    So we find ways to combine topics and otherwise compact the course. We’ve even been able to add in a few extra topics that help to connect the required concepts, or to go beyond the more simplistic standards.
    Don’t “get through” it, just get excited and do it.

    • I love this comment! So many kids over the years have told me that it’s much easier to get engaged about something going on in class when the teacher is excited about it too! “Love your curriculum”….could be a whole blog post just on it’s own! Thanks!

  3. Agree, agree, agree! I cant help it. I’ve said this almost as soon as I began teaching. I just could never bring myself to the test-prep notion. I just posted this comment at Mary Ann Reilly’s blog, too (apologies for cross-posting, but it fits):

    “I recently, at the last minute, changed my final exam for 12th grade Government. Literally, four days before the exam, I chucked the 150 question, minutia-based exam and gave a final exam that asked students to write about 10 things they learned this year. I provided a list of over-arching themes we studied throughout the year and encouraged “outside-of-the-box thinking.” I asked students to ‘talk’ to me on paper. Tell me what they learned and why it matters to them in the real world.

    Needless to say, I was astounded at some of the responses. One student even wrote, “Thank you for making us do the final this way. I didn’t even realize how much I learned until you made me really think about it.”

    p.s. ~ Students were given some options as to how/when they could complete the final. Think it is also important to note that, as well.”

  4. I am going to adapt my curriculum so that the students can give whatever evidence they want to demonstrate mastery of the standards. I will let them retake tests or redo projects until they get the grade they want. I will have them do blogs. They can make the class simple, or extend the activities for greater challenges. I’m going to put them in charge of their own learning. Since my school is doing common assessments among grade levels and subjects I will have to coordinate with the other 11th grade English teacher about the culminating assessment for each unit. That would be the only compulsory assignment. Otherwise, the students will have their choice on how they master the standards. They will keep a portfolio of their work to show what they did, as well.

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