The Good-Intention Abyss

Early in my teaching career, a colleague told me about her plan to give every one of her students a personalized card on their birthday.

What a wonderful way to show students she cared!

I decided that I, too, would be the type of teacher who gave out birthday cards to students. I bought the cards, wrote the birthdays on my calendar, and proudly announced the plan when I gave out the first birthday card in September.

Then, new students joined the class, and I forgot to write their birthdays on the calendar.

Then, the morning schedule got hectic.

Then, the wheels started to come loose on the filing system I was using to manage daily paperwork.

It wasn’t long before students who had watched classmates get a birthday card were reminding me in disappointed voices that I’d forgotten their birthdays. At that point, wow, did I wish I’d never promised to give out birthday cards.

I never asked my colleague if she kept up with the idea in her own classroom. I have my doubts, though, because early in the fall she posted a “student of the week” on her door; then she left the same student’s picture up for the entire rest of the year.

Upkeep is often where teachers’ best intentions go to die.

It’s one thing to start a class website, another to keep it up to date. It’s one thing to tell the kids you’re going to create a “hallway behavior compliment chain” that will earn them a pizza party when it stretches across the ceiling; it’s another to make sure that the blank compliment loops are stocked, that you stop class to write down every hallway compliment, and that you find time at the end of every long day to stand on a chair and staple loops to the chain. If your classroom management strategy rests on sending conduct folders home every Friday? Ouch.

Once the school year is underway, teachers often find themselves surrounded by the remnants of well-intended ideas—or locked into a chore cycle of maintaining systems with hours of hidden steps.

That’s a sign that it’s time to take stock of which ideas you can streamline and which ones you can sideline. What can be reshaped into a classroom job that a kid can take over? What might be automated so you can set it and forget it? And what grand plans are just not as important as your ability to hold it all together on a daily basis?

It’s also useful to think about how you can turn down your teaching treadmill in a more lasting way.

This is something I’ve been helping teachers do for years and can assist with on an individual basis in a session of See Me After Class Office Hours.

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