Anonymous writes: I became a better teacher during COVID. I didn’t yet know I had cancer

By Anonymous

Remember the COVID shutdowns? Remember the months of remote teaching?

As a middle school teacher, I thought I handled the remote phases pretty well. We had two big ones in the ACT – week after week of innovating lessons.

So, when I felt pretty tired at the end of last year, I chalked it up to being middle aged, to having had a few years of classroom challenge, even to the research and writing required to finish my Master of Education.

Heck, I even wondered if I was experiencing long COVID.

But over the summer holidays I didn’t really recharge properly. Not like I had in previous years.

The news was then full of stories about teacher burnout. About teachers getting tired. Yeah – that’s me, I thought.

As the weeks of Term One passed, it was getting clear I was more tired. Not the just-have-a-nap tired. By May, when I came back from a conference, I slept for 14 hours straight.

By June, I went to the doctor. Tests for all sorts of things. Test after test. Samples and vials and specimen jars. Machines I had never seen before, probing parts I had never really thought about.

The tests raised a few red flags. So then there were different tests in July. Then a biopsy. Then a cancer diagnosis in August.

Looking back, my hardcore tiredness was the result of a billion blood cells fighting a battle against tumours each day.

But (and here is the funny thing) I became a better teacher this year. I refined my approach. I focussed on my classroom craft and I was ruthless about my approaches to overcome workload issues.

To deal with the tiredness – remember, I thought this was just a COVID-shaped hangover for most of the year – I went back to my toolbox this year to consider what works. What works for me and what works every time, just so I didn’t have to think so hard to be a good classroom operator. 

I found my auto-pilot with the following approaches.

  1. If it doesn’t work, don’t do it. This one sounds simple, but I wanted to make sure my limited energy was going into what works. I had long been a fan of the Victoria Department of Education’s High Impact Teaching Strategies. These provide a drive-through summary of work from Hattie, Lemov, Marzano, and the Teaching and Learning Toolkit from Evidence For Learning. Yes, they all use different methodologies to measure effect size and identify what works well in a classroom. The HITS set aside the variation in approaches and terms and provide 10 powerful strategies, and meant I needed less brain energy to plan my teaching approaches.
  2. Get the students to do the work. As I started to get more and more tired, I plugged into the energy of my students by flipping the classroom. I had tinkered with this during remote schooling, but I went full flip with a lot of guidance from Catlin Tucker’s work on blended learning. I also tuned into effective classroom preparation and talk using TQE from Marisa Thomson. This meant students came in with the ideas and the questions for the lesson. It wasn’t up to me to light up a lesson. I had started the process with the students doing the work, even before I got to school.
  3. I do, we do, you do. Every lesson finished with a modelled writing from me, then a cooperative writing task, then student writing. This worked in my early-career classrooms with support from First Steps/Stepping Out and it still works today. Every lesson. The routine became my friend. The students knew what was coming.  They got to ask “why did you do that?”, they heard my think-alouds while writing and they tried the ideas themselves. They got better at their writing. They knew they were getting better. You want energy in a classroom? Tap into the confidence of students on the move. Bandura has been saying this stuff for half a century and it is a powerful ride.
  4. But what about the marking? Yep – more writing would normally mean more marking, right? If you don’t mark it, how do the students know where they are going? It’s all about formative assessment, yeah? Well, kinda. I tapped into some marking techniques from Jennifer Gonzalez via Cult of Pedagogy . She writes “It’s important for students to get lots of practice, and to get credit for their effort, but not everything needs careful grading.” These techniques changed my classroom and helped my students progress every week.

Every classroom is different. Every class is different. Every teacher is different. I am not writing this to tell teachers how to do their job – you might be surprised how much your ego gets trimmed when doctors poke and prod at you for a few months.

But, there may be something here to help teachers use their energy budget effectively. There may be a way here that helps a tired teacher achieve more and feel good about themselves and their classes, and not burn out.

(One more thing. I have had a level of support from a partner, a principal and a head of department that is beyond words. The spoken and unspoken support often made the difference between hope and despair. If teaching is about relationships, then it is these relationships that will rescue you on the days when you feel about to drown.)

Teaching is hard. 

Teaching in a pandemic is hard. 

Teaching in a pandemic with cancer is hard.

Let’s be kind. Let’s be smarter. Let’s do the absolute best we can do to support each other and build the skills of our students.

Note from the editor: This piece is written by a former contributor to the AARE blog. That person wanted to remain anonymous. I agreed to the request and published the piece as it is.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

One thought on “Anonymous writes: I became a better teacher during COVID. I didn’t yet know I had cancer

  1. Excellent advice with those four suggestions: 1. “If it doesn’t work, don’t do it.” Yes, I get annoyed by advice saying you have to aim for the sky, when we are just trying to cope. 2. “Get the students to do the work.” The teachers job is not to work really hard, it is to use their expertise to get the students to. 3. “I do, we do, you do” Especially with older, vocational and university students, we are aiming to make them colleagues. 4 “But what about the marking” My approach is to have simple quick tests on a coarse scale for frequent small assessment items.

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