Tired and Overwhelmed – I Hear You

My middle grades teaching career began in August 2003 when I found a teaching job in line with the guidelines for the Master of Arts in Teaching alternative route to certification.  My family moved from the metro suburbs to a rural community. Yes, we moved one day, and I attended a teacher inservice the next.

I worked full time as a 7th and 8th grade teacher of record with a provisional license, teaching three classes of each grade level for a total of approximately 160 students.  The administrator and language arts department  assisted me, but I had come from the private sector — administrative assistant in marketing — and feared relying on others too much.  Certainly I could handle reading 160 essays, providing feedback, and grading revisions before the statewide portfolio assessment was due.

Teaching full-time, grading students’ papers and writing my own, and leaving two little ones behind while I attended class each Saturday made me question (many times) why.  I felt stuck — we had moved, I needed to finish this degree, and I did not know if I could handle one more day.  One Saturday, I entered the university classroom, saw other students with their composition notebooks, and realized my journal assignment was incomplete. Before class even started, I had hot, overwhelming tears of frustration spilling from my eyes, no longer containable.

It is years later, and I am okay.  I have written several times about classroom successes and exciting professional experiences.  My colleagues — friends — make me thankful each day for choosing such an amazing career.

But not everyone is okay right now.

The Padlet board “An Anonymous Teacher Speaks” reminded me of hot, overtired, stressed, one-more-thing tears of not enough — not enough me to be my best.

Not enough of my best to read, provide feedback, and grade

and learn new technologies, plan engaging instruction, implement online activities

and conference with students and parents

and attend workshops, trainings, and committee meetings

and be a parent

and be something for myself.

I hear you.

Tell me how I can help you be okay.


On the Heals of Summer – A New Semester

The new semester begins barely days after the summer term ends.  I feel mostly ready for classes this week – there are always details and adjustments I can continue to make if I let myself; yet, it is important to take a few minutes to reflect on what I learned from teaching this summer’s online course before it fades into a too-distant past.

One course, the middle grades English Language Arts methods, was a hybrid with a blend of face-to-face meetings, email check-ins, and asynchronous online engagement.  Even though it was a short, 8-week summer term, we created a community of learners who learned a great deal from one another.  The presentations, interactions, and conversations challenged each of us to consider the middle schooler at the heart of instruction.  Informal feedback seemed to indicate positive responses to the overall course design, which demonstrates that necessary changes from the previous summer have moved the course in the right direction.

This was the third summer teaching the second course, the young adult literature with a methods focus.  The first summer was a complete shake-up finding a new professional text as the anchor and developing genre explorations through choice literature selections.  The second summer built upon the lessons learned from student feedback with changes to some novel selections and the sequence of assignments.  Students responded positively to this second iteration of the course — its design, the choice YA literature selections, and the assignments — at least informally.  It seemed to be moving in a good direction.

The course as it has evolved first asks pre-service candidates and current teachers working towards master’s degrees to learn “who” would be in their classrooms by interviewing teenagers and posting the transcripts on our discussion board.  The cross-interview analysis requires candidates to consider the reading and writing interests of these teenagers as well as suggest a book for one of them with a book talk.  Other assignments have the candidates engage with writing as they would have their own students do in the classroom. They collaborate on Google Docs on scripts that have different book characters “talk” to each other in other settings (talk show, alternate endings – based on Jennifer Buehler’s Teaching YA Literature). Through Google Classroom, a popular platform across school districts, candidates post summaries of novels and connect to one another’s posts through questions, comments, and possibilities for classroom use.

Enter this summer.

Throughout the summer, most candidates had shared with me the difficulties they were having in balancing this class with their work and family responsibilities.  Many candidates told me how burnt out and stressed they were with having a final, required course before their student teaching capstone internship in the fall.  I met with a candidate who shared how his initial confusion and frustration changed after he acclimated to the rhythm and flow of the assignment schedule.  This did not seem to be true for others.  Surveys indicated negative feedback with pacing, texts, assignments, instructor availability – nothing seemed to work well for the few candidates who submitted the formal Student Evaluations of Instruction.  These surveys are anonymous, but notably no graduate students responded.

After receiving the SEIs, I emailed each candidate for feedback on the course so that I can improve its design and my role in instruction.  I am particularly interested in hearing the voices of the unrepresented graduate students.  Though the feedback anyone provides at this time will not be anonymous, I hope they will share honestly in order to guide me in further improving the course.  However, I do wish concerned and stressed-out candidates had reached out to me early in the summer.  Perhaps my lessened role in this course compared to their previous methods courses with me was off-putting.  I wonder if we had not formed the necessary relationships during the fall and spring semesters to maintain the connection they needed at this pivotal point in their program.

I am a reflective practitioner who will consider all feedback, anonymous or not, as I begin this new semester.  It is my job as instructor, program coordinator, and university supervisor to develop future teachers.  My job does not end in the classroom; it only begins there.

When Weather Hits

Partnership Placements

Our district-university partnership for teacher preparation presents me the opportunity to teach my spring English methods course in a local high school every Tuesday.  The embedded field experience hours (practice) interplay with the theoretical readings and other assignments (praxis) to better prepare candidates as practitioners.  This clinical model depends on the high school division chair and university instructor planning as well as mentor teacher buy-in, both of which have developed positively over the past year.

This arrangement works, until it doesn’t.

Alternate Avenues

This week’s snowfall and polar vortex presented new challenges to this model when the district schools closed – and the university did not.  Three emails from candidates alerted me to this problem and asked where we will meet.  The university planned to be open, yes.  But what about an online class?  I looked at the types of engagement I wanted candidates to have with the material and decided on three ways they could interact with each other: Padlet, Google Docs, and Backchannel Chat.

Screenshot of Blackboard post with step-by-step directions for online class

During one of our planning meetings, the division chair recommended my students watch Sugata Mitra’s TedTalk “The Child-Driven Education.”  Candidates used Padlet to chart ideas from this video along with their readings from Patrick Finn’s Literacy with an Attitude and 180 Days by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle.  The next step was for them to take these ideas and categorize them onto a Google Doc, a strategy called Affinity Mapping – the School Reform Initiative has a nice description of this process.

Finally, we watched Sean McComb’s TedTalk “Let’s Put Compassion Before Grades” and logged onto Backchannel Chat to write reactions to the video.

Capturing Conversations

I made this screencast video using QuickTime Player on the MacBook:


Understanding Student Perspectives – SEIs Unpacked

Filling a College Need

When I signed on to teach the Educational Technology course for one semester, I was ready to innovate the curriculum.  I had just spent the summer with team members working on accreditation reports and knew that updating the ISTE standards and assignments in that course would make a difference in the way we and the students approached technology.  Having always enjoyed exploring and implementing new technology tools throughout my teaching career, I felt comfortable modifying assignments, creating rubrics, and updating syllabus language.

Then it was class time.

Educational Technology Course

Students in the Educational Technology course came from a myriad of programs — early childhood, elementary and middle grades, high school — and a few not in the college of education at all.  With that in mind, I decided to emphasize that in this class we wear two hats: (1) future teachers who must gather technology tools and resources for future students and (2) future professionals in the field who need to collaborate with other teaching professionals.

In most class meetings we got our hands dirty with a variety of resources.  We used them ourselves, evaluated their effectiveness, and, as small groups or individually, presented them to the class.  On the last day, they presented their final assignment, a digital story of their technology journey.  Students in both sections of the course shared their growth and Aha moments from the class activities, content exploration, and discussion with others who were on the same journey.

Student Evaluations of Instruction (SEI)

At the end of each semester, as our university courses must, student evaluations of instruction (SEI) surveys were distributed.  My experience with abysmal response rates, not unlike this study reports, prompted me to offer a few bonus points if the response rate reached 80%.  I was pleased with the resulting 88% response rate of 66 students – almost as many as I had taught in total during my previous four semesters.  Though opinion pieces, professor appeals, and university decisions posit varied views on the usefulness of SEIs, I appreciated the opportunity to see these students’ perspectives.

Thinking Positive

Filling in for the Educational Technology course at a critical time of updating lessons and assignments to new standards left me frazzled.  So when I viewed Educational Technology section one’s responses, I felt that the time invested in developing new assignments and rubrics was well worth it.  The comments included the following:

“I loved doing the tool curations and finding out new tools which I could find for my classroom in the near upcoming future. I wish I could take her again. I also loved doing the small lesson plans which I had to implement tools like that. I really enjoyed learning about different ways to use apps and see how a lesson plan fits with the technology.”

“The instructor was great. I learned about new resources to implement into my future classroom’s curriculum.”

“She really cares and is there to help with any questions the class had for working with the pieces of technology. I really enjoyed her course!!!!”

“She is very well informed in the field of educational technology and seemed like she was comfortable with the tools presented in class.”

“Honestly, Dr. V was amazing. She did such a great job teaching the course. She opened my eyes to a lot of new things. I just wish this course was a hybrid because there was a lot of workshop time that could have been done outside of the class where she seemed like she didn’t know what to do. We were working and didn’t need much help. The questions we had could have been answered via email. I think she would agree.”

I do, indeed, agree with the last statement about hybrid or online instruction.  The class included workshop time to ensure student-to-student and teacher-student assistance.  We could have had these productive work sessions online.

Checking My Ego

Unfortunately, the only way I can describe the responses of section two of this same course is “brutal.”  Students complained about the content, stated that the course was only useful for other teacher preparation programs, and criticized the communication:

“I sat through this class all semester but learned nothing. I feel like this class was a waste of my time and money.”

“This course had nothing to do with what we were supposed to be learning and it was very frustrating. Instead of learning about tools to help us as teachers, we were learning tools that students could use in the classroom. I didn’t feel like I was learning anything valuable in the class so I stopped attending. It’s frustrating paying for a course you won’t get anything out of. I think clearer goals and objectives would have been better.”

“This class needs to be a hybrid class and should not be required for Early Childhood majors. There was hardly any useful information for Early Childhood majors to actually use in our classrooms and I am severely disappointed.”

Responding to such different student perspectives in my tenure portfolio SEI reflection is daunting and nerve-racking.  I sought out advice from my division chair who suggested “stymied” for some language to use.

Digging Deeper for Meaning

In digging deeper to find reasons for these contradictory perspectives, I can point to several factors that may have been the difference.


As Samantha Thomsen writes, classroom design influences educational outcomes.

In section one, the laptops were arranged on six-person tables.  Students routinely sat in certain seats, often next to an acquaintance or friend, creating natural proximity for group work.  I walked around the room during workshop time and was able to pull up a seat next to students when they asked questions or needed guidance.

In section two, the desktop computers were arranged in five rows of six seats on both the left and right side of the room with a wide aisle in the center. Students sat sometimes two or three in a row, but there were enough seats that some rows consistently only had one student.  I tried to circulate through the rows during workshop time, but even if I sucked everything in really tightly, I could not get to some areas.  During group workshop time, students awkwardly moved to other areas with their personal laptops in tow if they had them.

Class time

Many students worked full– or part-time jobs, limiting their choice of class times.

Section one was taught on Mondays at 1:30, drawing in primarily full-time students with part-time jobs.  My day started around 10:00 with office hours and planning.

Section two was taught on Tuesdays at 4:30 and was filled with students who started their days very early with full-time jobs.  My day started at 8:30 teaching a methods course from 9:00-1:00 off-campus.  Then, between 2:00-4:00 I either planned or more often attended meetings.


The SEIs overrepresented some groups and underrepresented others in both sections.

Section one student majors had the following breakdown:

  • Early Childhood – 11
  • Elementary Education – 4
  • Secondary Education – 1
  • Interdisciplinary Studies – 1

Section two student majors were the following:

  • Business Administration – 1
  • Early Childhood – 6
  • Elementary Education – 9
  • Content area major (math, English) – 2
  • Informational Technology – 1

Interestingly (and too late), I just discovered this site that outlines the Guiding Principles for Use of Technology with Early Learners.  The overwhelmingly positive statements in section one do not sync with the complaints from early childhood majors in section two.  Section one’s early childhood majors had larger peer support for applying technology standards to younger children.  The same could be said for elementary education majors in section two.


The technical aspects such as classroom machine capabilities, Blackboard assignments, and Blackboard announcements seem to be foundational.

The laptop webcams in the section one classroom allowed students to capture themselves in a picture for their personal introductions on Padlet, unlike most of the personal introductions in section two that used clipart.

Usually navigating Blackboard is fine, but one of the assignments I tried to post and link for section two did not show up where I thought it should.  I posted it again and caused a ruckus.  This problem was unique to section two; whereas, most times the first section taught during the week would be where kinks and ironing happen.

For one class meeting, section two was supposed to attend a teacher panel for the first hour or so of class and write a blog post about it.  Very few students showed up and then some of them were waiting in the classroom unaware. The course announcement system seemed ineffective on this and other occasions.

Next Steps

We hired an outstanding new faculty member to pick up these course sections and other technology responsibilities in the college.  Frankly, I’m relieved.  But as a highly-reflective teacher and lifelong learner, I cannot ignore some important findings from this analysis:

  • Classroom setup matters.  Planning lessons needs to include a vision of the space in which the instruction will happen.  This setup includes group dynamics, as well.  Intentional grouping of content areas and majors makes a difference.
  • Clarity is essential. Nothing can be spelled out too much, said too often, or modeled enough.
  • Concentrate on the present.  This means close off everything that keeps me from being mentally ready for the upcoming class, including   meetings too near class time.

I’m interested in how you reflect on class evaluations or use student perspectives to inform instruction.