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Chalk Talk The Balance of Time

Anne Marie Bettencourt and Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester.

Anne Marie Bettencourt and Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester. Purchase photo reprints »

Like the holiday season, teaching is all about the art of balance.

For the next two months, people will scramble to fit in family time, holiday shopping, their children’s activities, and if there’s an extra 20 minutes here or there, the gym. Articles pop up in magazines in supermarket checkout lines that focus on topics such as how to deal with the holiday stress, when to fit in a quick workout, and local YMCAs open up special weekend activities for children so parents can sneak away for shopping, or plain old quiet time. For teachers, the pace of the holiday season runs year round. The stacks of papers to grade never disappear, and we are often racing to squeeze in all of the skills, all of the books, and every bit of life lessons we can before our students leave us.

Walk by any teacher this time of year and one can often hear us exclaim, “It’s November already?!”

With early bird specials, Black Friday deals, and the flood of festive décor ideas offered by Martha Stewart, it’s easy to forget that these next two months are really about celebrating family. It isn’t about carving turkeys. It’s about carving time out from our busy lives to remind ourselves of the warmth and comfort our friends and families bring to the table (apple pie doesn’t hurt either.)

In the same vein, it’s equally important for me to remind myself that teaching isn’t about how many books my students can read in four months, or how much data I can collect on all 52 standards of the Common Core. It’s about giving my students what they need in terms of quality teaching, not quantity of curriculum. Balance means knowing when to focus on analytical skills and nonfiction writing, and when to look at their faces and say, “OK, we’ve done a decent amount of work with this for now, let’s switch gears.”

My students also remind me that I need to balance their other needs in addition to the skills of the curriculum. The group of boys that flood my room in the morning throwing around a stuffed ball remind me that I need to balance the amount of sitting they do with some time to sprawl out on the floor and think, or move around and discuss things in groups. The girls who can barely keep their eyes open the morning after their soccer banquet ended at 10:30 p.m. remind me that I need to balance the amount of homework I’m assigning in a given week. The student who belts out, “What does the FOX say!” while working in his paper reminds me that silent thinking and writing can also be balanced out with listening to popular music.

When planning then, I think a lot about entry and exit points. While I want my students to exit a text thinking about craft and structure, we might enter it thinking about Star Wars and The Hobbit. If the last paper I assigned was a critical analysis, it might be time to move towards a personal narrative or some found poetry for the next one.

As the holidays approach, teachers will juggle standards and shopping, texts and trees, assessments and apple pie.

While stress seems inevitable, we should remember to take some time out this month to celebrate, with our families and our students.

Anne Marie Osheyack is the current Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. She teaches English at Northampton High School and is a teacher-consultant with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project.

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