Curse The Countdown: Teaching to the End

At this time of year, in any school community, teachers and students have their sights set on summer vacation.  An anticipatory energy seems to fill the school as the weather gets warmer and days get longer.  In the international school community, this time of year also signals a time of transition as highly mobile expat students might be moving onto their next school and as teachers say goodbye to one school to move to their next placement.  A lot of energy and resources are placed on year-end activities and providing closure for students and staff, alike.  I enjoy all the aspects of wrapping up an academic year.  All aspects except one:  the COUNTDOWN.

The dreaded countdown.  

How many instructional days left?  How many days till summer break?  How many student contact days?  How many days till I am on a plane headed “home?”  

No matter how it is framed or what method is used (corner of white board, calendar cross off, having students count remaining days, a countdown app on your device), I believe a “countdown” devalues the educational process.  Why?

A countdown tells the viewer (students, peers, parents, administrators) that the only thing that really matters is when school ends — not the learning that is in progress.  Why are we telling students to be so excited for their structured learning environment and daily inquiry process to come to an end?  If we are so focused on the end of the academic year then what value are we assigning to all the days of meaningful instruction that have not yet occurred?  By highlighting the last day of school as a celebration, I feel the messaging is that school is a chore, boring, something that has to be done rather than something we get to celebrate daily.  Educators should be counting every contact day with students as a learning opportunity yet to be had and creating an atmosphere of excitement about the opportunity to gather as a classroom community to inquire, unpack, and explore together.  We should model for students that learning is something to celebrate and build excitement for as learning happens every day. Counting down toward the end of an academic year does not promote the zeal and excitement around acquiring knowledge to create lifelong learners.  Instead it says “Hey, you get 180 days to learn and then — BOOM — take a break (and you “deserve” that break because school is hard, boring, and monotonous).”  Students pick up on our attitudes and messaging whether we intend them to or not.  If we are not placing a value on every academic day then why should they?  While we might not intend for a countdown to be detrimental to academic progress, I have yet to hear anyone to argue the benefit for student academic growth.

So, in a time when we are all getting ansty and thinking about things to come, what can we do instead of a countdown?  My suggestions:

1. Set daily goals of things you want to accomplish during the workday and cross those off the list instead of days.  Make them small goals of meaningful tasks to accomplish.  Give meaningful feedback on the latest assessment.  Get in a peer’s classroom for an observation.  Read a blog on assessment in inquiry.  Try a new teaching strategy.  Set a daily goal or two and make yourself follow through on accomplishing it.  Then, once you have achieved your daily goal, scratch it out and reflect on the process.

2. Take the initiative and lead a year end closure project or opportunity.  As the end of the academic year approaches, there are always too many projects that need accomplished at the school and never enough time.  Volunteer to take the lead on a goodbye assembly, grade 5 moving up project, organize a year end celebration for leaving staff, review documents that need updated prior to the next academic year, be part of the new staff orientation planning process, facilitate group sessions for students leaving the school and moving, or plan something totally new and innovative in your community.  By focusing on something extra or bigger than yourself, you will find the year end becomes too busy to count down.  You also model learning and growing yourself professionally and not shutting off because the “end is in sight.”

3. Develop engaging, innovative lessons that you have not tried before to promote student engagement and inquiry.  Excitement is contagious.  When students are engaged in meaningful, impactful, and purposeful learning, they will let you know.  You will also find that the more student excitement there is, the more excitement you will feel as a teacher.  When you are excited about something, do you really want whatever it is that is making you feel good to end?!?

4. If nothing else, remember — you are a teacher.  Your job means that you should be promoting learning and knowledge in your practice.  You chose to join a profession that, yes, has long breaks, but is tasked with developing a passion and desire for learning with every student you interact with.  Focus on the task you have at hand and represent the profession well.  Set high standards for yourself and then strive to achieve them.  At the end of every day, reflect and ask yourself, “Did my actions today promote or discourage students from becoming life-long, self-directed learners?”  I would reckon a big number on the board representing how many days left of the school year would not garner a tally in the “promote” column.

So, please, I implore you — wrap the academic year up when it needs to wrap up — after the students have left for the summer break.  Don’t start wrapping it up 54, 53, 52 … days early.  Kill the countdown and focus on the day in front of you.

One thought on “Curse The Countdown: Teaching to the End

  1. tbondclegg says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this – I couldn’t agree more. I love your end of the day reflection question. “Did my actions today promote or discourage students from becoming life-long, self-directed learners?” I think that is such an important question that needs to be at the forefront of both our personal and collaborative reflections… at the end of the year… and all year long.

    I think sometimes “The Countdown” can become part of the collective culture of a school, where everyone is counting down – because, well… everyone else is counting down. As someone who ‘curses the countdown’, as you say, I often find it hard to know how to respond to colleagues who are sharing their countdowns with me.

    Thinking of our own attitudes and messages, not in isolation, but linked to what’s best for students is a powerful thought. Don’t students deserve better than having us count down the days to when our involvement in their learning and growth will end?

    Your post has helped me to reflect and re-frame the way I intend to spend my upcoming weeks at school. How can I make the most of these last remaining weeks to maximize my impact on student learning and development?

    Like

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