The absent teacher

Over the last nine weeks, I've been off for five (more or less) and distracted even when there.

My trimester started with the birth of my son. My wife's labor started just as parent conferences for the second trimester were beginning, and then I was out for three weeks of government-provided paternity leave. (I scheduled things so I could come in on Fridays of those weeks, keeping tabs on some of my classes, especially the IB Diploma students.)

When I returned, I faced a staffing crisis in our department which resulted in me spending loads of time managing other teachers' classes, helping substitutes with lesson planning and transitions. Essentially, I was planning for and/or teaching an extra 15 hours a week of lessons, and the attention to my own classes suffered.

Just as that was getting sorted out, I got sick. It's a virus known as nephropathia epidemica, or translated from the Finnish, mole fever. I was feverish and sore for one week and too tired to do very much for a second week. Even now reading for long periods is challenging and climbing the stairs requires a rest. And now we have three weeks left, just enough time to wrap up and ship out.

My students managed. We did units that I've done many times before, and I was able to set them work that would help them complete the summative assessment at the end of the unit. They have had an opportunity learn and show their learning, and the results are what you'd expect: those who were motivated to work through it did well, and those who weren't didn't.

Take, for instance, my grade 10 class. They read Much Ado About Nothing. For each act, they watched the film (Branagh, 1993) and did a series of activities that required them to look carefully at the text of certain scenes and speeches. These activities varied from straight discussion questions to graphic organizers to performance activities with reflection. I used a Google doc to answer questions from home when I was able. At the end, they did an in-class writing activity requiring them to do a close reading of passages and an oral activity (which I was there for) doing some character analysis. The work varied widely, from excellent to barely mediocre. The gap between those who used the in-class activities to hone their skills and knowledge and those who did not was startling.

So what did my students miss out on by not having me there? First, there was no flexibility or improvisation of lessons based on formative assessment. I designed a process for them to go through, and while it was designed to get them to the objectives, it could not meet individual or even the collective needs of this particular class; basically, I was 'teaching' a generic composite of past classes.

Second, there was nobody 'pushing' the students. I was not there to look over their shoulders and ask provocative questions about their work, or scaffold the process for those who needed it, or help with the transition between process steps or ideas for those who needed it. That personalized, differentiated interaction would have reduced the achievement gap on assessments.

I am sadly aware that too few teachers offer these things in their classes, and I will admit to offering neither as clearly or comprehensively as I ought to. For my students, it was an adequate trimester; for me, it has provided a moment of clarity about my role in the classroom.