To be perfectly frank, I’m not a big fan of T. S. Eliot or of The Waste Land, but I can’t help but agree with what is perhaps the most famous assertion in one of his most famous (but little understood) poems. This is not a post about poetry, though (as much as I would enjoy writing one). This is a post about many teachers’ least favorite month of the year. This is a post about the cruelty of April.
To be sure, there are positive things that come with April: seeing in student assessments the fruits of months of labor, drawing to the end of a year of preparing for high-stakes exams, and enjoying the increasingly mild and sunny weather (if you’re into that sort of thing). Every year, however, I find myself beaten down a bit by the month of April.
In today’s brief post, I want to share three things that get me down in April and how I do my best to counteract the stress, frustration, and melancholia that come with “the cruellest month”–as much to remind myself as to inspire you, perhaps.
Cruel Reality #1: Heavy Work Load
With AP and IB testing just around the corner, not to mention final exams, I find myself grading a LOT in April. There are units wrapping up in all my classes, which means essays, projects, tests, and collections of classwork all coming in to be graded in the same few weeks. On top of that, this is the time of year that I’m called upon to read Extended Essays for IB in my capacity as an examiner, and scholarship applications for UCLA in my capacity as a volunteer reader. I’m swimming in papers, papers, papers. Luckily, I’ve learned a few tricks for coping with this deluge of both digital and written student work.
For one, I see what I can avoid grading. Some classwork, for example, needn’t be graded because its primary purpose was practice and formative assessment, not accountability or summative assessment. Another important way to manage the load is to break it into manageable chunks. Staring down a pile of 120 essays can be a debilitating experience, but sorting them into piles of ten or even five and giving myself a time limit in which to grade them makes the work less daunting. Prioritizing certain assignments over others and being okay with taking a bit longer on certain assignments is also key to maintaining my sanity in April.
Cruel Reality #2: Absent Students
My seniors are traveling the country–the world, actually–to tour the colleges to which they’ve been admitted before making a four-year commitment. My juniors are sick one day and getting pulled out of class to make up the state test the next. My sophomores are–well, they’re mostly here, but they’re kind of (completely) over this school year and eyeing summer hungrily. How do I manage that kind of chaos?
Step one is flexibility. I have high expectations for my students, but being a rigid enforcer this time of year doesn’t work for me, and it doesn’t work for my students. When I have seven seniors out in the same week but for different durations and for different reasons (on top of college tours, there’s a competition and a concussion), my only tenable approach is to say, “get to it when you can” when it comes to make-up work. I simply don’t sweat the syllabus policies this time of year. Step two is organization. I write names of absent students on their missed work and put it in a folder by the door for them to find when they return. I keep piles of papers in labeled trays to be graded. I record in one place the names of students and when they’ve arranged to come make up an essay or a quiz. Organization and staying flexible are the only ways to keep April from getting the best of me.
Cruel Reality #3: Teacher’s Regret
While April is a time for celebrating students’ learning and growth in the year, it’s also when teachers like me start cataloguing where we fell short. For my sophomore class, I don’t think I provided my students with enough writing practice with Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night before the final essay on that text. For my AP junior class, I didn’t have a strong structure in place for making outside reading an essential piece of the curriculum this year. For my IB senior class, I don’t think my students had enough opportunities for fun or risk-taking at the beginning of the school year. It’s easy to let these regrets defeat you, but I try to make sure regrets are motivating rather than deflating.
After five years of teaching, I’ve accepted that I’ll never have a perfect year–and this is exciting! If I nailed teaching the first year, imagine how boring the next 30 would be! This time of year, I open up my “Teaching Ideas” document, where I have a hyperlinked table of contents to direct me to all the classes I teach and their respective units, and any time I identify a regret from the past year, I turn it into a plan for next year. Failures become promises for growth. But this is key: I don’t just think about what I want to do differently. I actually write it down in the right place and, where time allows, I change a unit plan, an assignment handout, a part of my class website, whatever. I take action to ensure that this year’s regrets don’t also become next year’s regrets. This makes me excited about how much better I’ll be the next year rather than discouraged about what I didn’t accomplish this year. In short, my strategy is to redirect the negative energy of regret into positive motivation and a tangible plan for improvement.
April is, without a doubt and despite all my best efforts, the cruelest month of the year for me. But it could be so much worse. I know I can’t avoid the stress of April: it’s not in my nature, and it’s not in the nature of my job. By identifying what makes it so difficult, though, I’m able to respond with positive solutions and keep my stress levels manageable.
I would LOVE to hear your thoughts on my dear frenemy April! Do you agree that it is the cruelest month? What other challenges do you face this time of year? What do you do to survive or even thrive in the face of these challenges? Comment below!