Before I started teaching, I was in graduate school working towards my Ph.D. Back then, communicating science was as important as doing it. When I was to present at our lab’s weekly meeting or at my annual student seminar, I designed beautiful PowerPoint presentations, with images and text boxes carefully aligned and slides thoughtfully organized to best deliver my update to my colleagues. In the days leading up to a presentation, I would spend my drive to and from campus practicing my talk, whether it was 10, 20, or 45 minutes long, looking for just the right phrasing to communicate chemistry and physics to doctors, engineers, biologists, and fellow chemists alike.
In my first year of teaching, I taught Algebra II and Calculus. I was extremely fortunate in that the other Algebra teacher was excellent and willing to share all of his files with me. These were my lesson plans, complete with warm-up, instruction, independent practice, ongoing formative assessment, and a closing evaluation. All I had to do was open the Smart Board file, prepare my notes, and guide the class through the lesson. My developing teaching style was molded nicely by the 360° Math approach used in the math department. In a nutshell, I only ever lectured for 5-10 minutes at a time and the students spent the majority of class time working out problems individually or with partners on the whiteboards.
Satisfied with the method that worked so well for my algebra students and for the other math teachers, I tried to recreate it in my calculus class. The lesson planning itself was fine, for the most part I naturally think in a way that is conducive to learning, but creating my classroom materials was a nightmare. Despite how nicely SMART Notebook could work on the Smart Board, actually making the presentation and inserting images and equations was so challenging that I quickly gave up and turned back to PowerPoint, my old friend. Unfortunately, a lifetime of learning Office keyboard shortcuts did not facilitate the process. If anything, being so familiar with the software and with the feeling of creating the perfect presentation slowed me to a snail’s pace. Watching me develop my lessons drove my husband crazy. In as level a tone as he could, he regularly said to me “Make it work, then make it pretty.”
I had a hard time using our textbook’s teacher resources because some of the material was too technical for the purposes of my class. I was writing and copying math problems daily so that we could use them in the 360° Math setup. My students’ abilities varied widely, so differentiating the work was a huge factor in keeping everyone engaged and moving forward. It was exhausting.
Eventually, I gave up on having digital slides and tried other approaches. I transcribed my lecture notes by hand onto the whiteboards or the Smart Board (when it wanted to work). For my very last unit, I wrote handouts that essentially flipped my classroom using a combination of typed explanations and handwritten examples. Those were some of my favorites, and many of my students really enjoyed that style of learning. But I still felt like I was writing a mini math textbook, with perfect spacing and formatting, and year 1 of teaching wasn’t the place for it.
In May, I had a conversation with my Assistant Principal. I talked a lot about all the things I hadn’t accomplished. It wasn’t just about creating pretty lessons. There was the curriculum that had received a passing glance. The enduring understandings that wouldn’t stick. She empathized, then firmly told me that I was exceedingly hard on myself. I had an expectation for perfection that just couldn’t be reached. I needed to learn to accept that I wasn’t always going to get it exactly right. And for someone who had spent her lifetime getting things exactly right, that was going to be really difficult.
So when August arrived again, I decided to do this year differently. I would “make it work, then make it pretty,” and I accepted that the “pretty” part wouldn’t come tomorrow, next month, and probably not even the following year.
Come back next week and I’ll tell you how I’ve been applying this mentality this year, starting with my lesson plans.
What part of teaching are you trying to make “pretty” while making your life more difficult? Is there a way to “make it work” now and make it pretty for the next unit or next year? Let me know in the comments!