Procrastination is such a dirty word.
In our competitive, production minded society, procrastinating is a sin, but I have always been a procrastinator. There is something about waiting until the last minute that is alluring and exhilarating: the adrenaline rush, the caffeine binge, the loss of sleep.
Despite all those thrilling benefits, I have rarely gained anything by procrastinating. Actually, it led to the majority of the arguments between my parents and me during my teenage years and continues to irk my partner on a regular basis.
I know there is a better way, but I just can’t seem to break the habit.
Now, at the end of my third year of teaching, I may have, for the first time, learned something valuable from my procrastination. After winter break this year, I stopped grading papers. I wish I could claim that this was intentional and thought out, but rather, I told myself every day that I would sit down and get some of it done. I made plans to grade just 5 papers a day, but my prep period would come and go and I would still be organizing my classroom library, making posters, redoing the seating chart, emailing parents, meeting with the counselor, and discussing next week’s lesson plans with my teaching partner.
I just couldn’t do it. Weeks passed, the assignments started to build up and so did the guilt. My brain was telling me that I was being unfair to my students, they worked hard on these assignments and they deserved a grade on them, they deserved the same follow through from me that I expect from them. Here is the thing: despite never receiving a grade, my students continued to work, continued to improve, and seemingly continued to increase their engagement. So, was I really doing the wrong thing? Was my lack of grades making me a bad teacher?
Here’s the deal: I teach 7th-grade writing. I have 5 classes a day of 57 minutes with an average of 30 students in each class. That comes out to about 150 students. I have 57 minutes of prep time a day. Let’s say it takes 5-7 minutes per paper just to read and evaluate using a rubric. That means that their work would not get any personalized commentary or feedback. That comes out to 15 hours of grading for every assignment just to get a score in the grade book. Once an assignment is turned in, if I used every second of my prep period to grade, it would take me 3 weeks to grade every paper. That would require me to not need any time to plan new lessons, prep materials, collaborate, or communicate with parents.
I know we all love and support the educational martyrs who eat, sleep, and breathe teaching, who seem to have endless energy for meeting with students after school, organizing extracurricular activities, planning life changing lessons that engage their students so deeply that they never have to worry about fidget spinners or cell phones, who write compelling DonorsChoose proposals to fund a class set of standing height desks, who are the first to arrive and the last to leave, who still manage to exercise, cultivate meaningful relationships outside of work, bring in fresh baked cookies for the staff once a week, and somehow always seem to have their grading done.
I envy their endless supply of time and energy, but I have yet to drink from that magical fountain. So, here are my options: take the work home and use my personal time to get it done, grade during class while students are working rather than interacting with them, or just not do it. If none of those options is the “right” thing to do, how do you choose?
Maybe I wasn’t actually procrastinating. It might be more accurate to call it prioritizing.
I used my prep time to plan and collaborate, I used my teaching time to directly support my students and their work, and I used my personal time to care for myself and my family. Would anyone say that I used my time poorly? Teaching is a constant negotiation: Who needs the most help? Which skill needs to be taught first? Which assignments actually need to be graded? Do any of them?
This negotiation process is never easy; I am often left with the gut wrenching feeling that I have forgotten something very important. But it is from the process of battling with these choices that I have learned the most about teaching, myself, and my students. This specific scenario of failing, or choosing, to not grade taught me several things that I am still finding ways to incorporate into my personal pedagogy.
Lesson number 1: I am a better teacher when my stress level is lower.
When I spend more time than I have on my work, I bring that deficit into my teaching. I begin to resent the needs of my students and the duties that come along with being a part of a school community. I lose my sense of humor, which every middle school teacher knows is a mandatory tool, and my creative well begins to run dry. My lessons become uninspired, my responses are rushed and reactive, my patience is brittle. I morph into a teacher monster and end my days in frustration and anger. Knowing how miserable that version of myself is, “prioritizing” my work load to exclude grading was a relief and kept me in better spirits when it came to the really important things. This relief would have been even better had I not felt guilty about it the entire time.
Lesson number 2: The sky did not fall on my head and I did not lose my job.
I actually incurred ZERO negative consequences other than several hectic days of cramming to get something in the grade book for the end of the school year. I was only contacted by one parent who noticed the lack of grades online. My administrator said nothing, my students said nothing, and my teaching colleagues said nothing. I may have just been lucky, but it makes me wonder how often protocols like grading are enforced simply out of habit because when they are gone, no one really notices.
Lesson number 3: Written feedback and grades do not make my students work harder or learn more.
My students engaged in writing tasks every day. They deeply invested in their projects and produced impressive pieces of writing, none of which was returned to them with any type of marking. What they did receive was daily mini lessons to push their work forward, one-on-one conferencing, and facilitated peer support. I invested in creating writing assignments that mattered, that spoke to them on a personal level, that pushed them to think hard and ask big questions. I set my expectations high with the assumption that they are all capable of reaching them. The focus on conferencing, mini-lessons, and connection was what pulled my students along. I made time to laugh with them, to help them pick out a new book, to problem solve a tricky paragraph.
I am not endorsing procrastination, work avoidance, or ignoring responsibilities as a catch all solution for teacher workload and student engagement. But what I know now is that more hours spent alone in front of a stack of papers is not the key. I am ready to leave behind the guilt I feel when 3 weeks have passed and I still haven’t read a single paper. I am inspired to seek out a better system to help my students track their own progress, set goals, and focus on growth rather than grades. My procrastination gave me the gift of a new perspective. It helped remind me to question the status quo, to fight against things that aren’t in the best interest of my students and myself, and to not be afraid to take the road less traveled. I sat down to write this reflection of what I learned from procrastination as the last school year was ending. It seems only fitting that 8 weeks later I am writing these last sentences and the next year is beginning.
Let’s just say I needed time to reflect. This will definitely be the year that I stop procrastinating… maybe.
Molly Soloway teaches 7th grade in Beaverton, Oregon. She is passionate about education that empowers students to think deep and dream big.
Photo by Eugenio Mazzone