I taught freshman English for six years, six class periods each year.
In every one of those classes, we read Romeo and Juliet.
After the steep learning curve of my early years, this was a relief. I was a pro now! I had lesson plans I could reuse with only minor changes.
A couple of years after that, I was even more of a pro; I barely even needed to look at the lesson plans. I gave the same explanations and told the same jokes at the same point in each chapter.
By year six I had memorized the exact point in the audiobook where we could hear saliva coming out of the voice actors’ mouths.
One day I suddenly felt like if I had to teach Romeo and Juliet one more time, I would throw up. I begged my principal to put me in a different grade level, and luckily she did.
This was how I became a writing teacher.
The position isn’t as exciting as it sounds—I was mostly working with students who needed extra help to prepare for the essay version of the state test.
And yet. It woke something up in me. Teaching became creative again. I was back to asking myself how to get this set of students to learn this particular skill—and was coming up with unexpected answers. It turned out that even though I was relieved everything wasn’t new to me anymore, I didn’t want everything to feel old, either.
One of the many factors teachers consider when planning a lesson is optimal zone of challenge. Students should feel challenged enough to feel like they’re learning, but not so challenged they feel like they can never catch up.
The principle of optimal zone of challenge isn’t just for students. It also applies to teachers.
There are times in teaching that are so overwhelming you need to turn your treadmill down to a lower setting. There are other times when things become so familiar they begin to feel stale. Teaching feels best when it demands—and then rewards—your A-game.
Level of challenge is one of the dials that teachers are constantly adjusting on behalf of their students.
It’s also one you should be monitoring for yourself.