Right now, this very moment, I am the best version of myself.
Every year, right around this time, there’s a two-to-three week stretch where I’m a super-teacher. I’m well-organized. I’m on top of my game. I’m creating engaging activities. I’m connecting with parents. My bad jokes are landing.
And it’s all because I teach semesterly, half-year classes.
The majority of my school’s courses run the length of the full year. However, Art and Design courses go a half-year instead to give students the opportunity to sample multiple disciplines in the field. And I love that.
Semesterly courses help me as an instructor, help my students as learners, and help the department do its job better.
I’m a third-year teacher. However, I now have the benefit of entering my sixth time teaching certain courses. You can do the math… compared to a full-year teacher, I’ve had twice the opportunities to assess my curriculum and classroom policies. As a designer, I’m a firm believer that the more you iterate, the faster you can revise and improve your product. I poll my students at the end of each quarter, and I now have the opportunity to immediately implement that feedback with a new set of students. Students last semester requested more 1-on-1 feedback on projects and opportunities for more discussions, and I now can build that into what I do with a fresh set of students.
With my new classes, I’ve gotten more specific about my classroom policies and procedures. I was able to look at my curriculum and determine the projects or resources that worked and didn’t. I can cut articles and videos and assignments that didn’t work, allocate more time to the ones that did, and ensure that this semester goes better than the last.
Also, the end of a semester provides me the chance to connect with other faculty to get “scouting reports” on the upcoming students.
Even us Pats fans have to keep an eye open for the cheaters.
I get the opportunity to see which students have which learning styles, who may require additional attention, and the strategies to work with new students. A few teachers reported that one of my students is a wanderer, for example, and now I can stay on top of that behavior right from the start. That said…
It’s a Chance Make a New First Impression, and Reset Expectations
To Mr. Taylor, with Love
Students sit in classroom, grumpily. They groan to one another about the new Art and Design course they’re taking, stare at their phones like zombies. Wide, colorless shot of the dead, lifeless room. In walks a strikingly handsome teacher.
Mr. Taylor: Hello everyone, and welcome to my class. I’m Mr. Taylor, and I think there’s something special about starting a new class in the middle of the year.
Students appear bored and unfazed. One particularly overachieving student musters every ounce of energy to glance up at the teacher. A chord of uplifting music plays.
Mr. Taylor: When you started the year, everything was new—seven new teachers, a new building. A new school.
Some student eyes widen, more begin looking up.
Mr. Taylor: You had new activities to do, new sports, new hobbies, and hundreds of new students and thus prospective friends, crushes and enemies… or all at the same time.
A couple of students chuckle, breaking the ice. Some begin to nudge each other to pay attention. Something’s up. The music builds.
Mr. Taylor: That’s so overwhelming, and when we have so many new things thrown at us, our brain tends to just turn into survival mode.
Johnny [whispering to his neighbor]: He’s so right.
Students nod in agreement.
Mr. Taylor: We don’t think about our actions, we’re not ourselves, we’re on autopilot—just trying to survive all the newness until we wind up starting to feel comfortable again. And when we’re in autopilot mode, sometimes we don’t think, and we act a little meaner to fit in, or we act a little more apathetic to fit in, or really we just do whatever we have to in order to fit in.
Lisa [mouthing to Ally, her former best friend whom she had a huge fight with earlier in the year]: I’m so sorry…
Ally [mouthing back]: No, I’m sorry.
Both [mouthing together]: We can fix this.
Mr. Taylor [re-commanding class]: And then we lose ourselves, and we end up autopilot-ing our life, and sometimes the silliest of things become a huge factor that influences who we are. We find ourselves in January of our freshman year, and we’re playing basketball just because we wanted to impress our cool friend, or we’re wearing headbands because that’s what the cool girls do…
Jenny, a shy girl, now quietly but confidently removes her headband. She believes in herself.
Mr. Taylor: …or we’re matching our math teacher’s low expectation for us because of a disciplinary issue we got into back in October. Well. I don’t have any expectations for you yet.
The inspiring music builds.
Mr. Taylor: Today, you have the chance to make a brand new, calculated first impression.
Students nod at each other, fist-pump, and grin, thrilled at the opportunity. Thrilled to LEARN.
Mr. Taylor: I haven’t seen a single piece of you are, I don’t know your strengths, nor your weaknesses. You can be the student you want to be.
Students start standing up with confidence.
Mr. Taylor: So think of who you want to be, not who you’ve been. AND BE IT.
Raucous, standing ovation. Students carry Mr. Taylor out of the class in their arms.
Sure, some of that piece was a liiiiittle embellished, just a little bit. BUT! The point stands—students have an opportunity to win your favor, and to some struggling students who got off on the wrong foot, that’s huge. And you have the chance to win theirs too.
There’s always that honeymoon period at the start of every school year where students are respectful, calm, attentive and on their A-game. And when your classes are half-year, you get them twice.
Work With More Students
I work with about ninety students each semester. That means, now in my sixth semester, I’ve had the chance to teach over five hundred students. As a young teacher, I feel that has been such an advantage to my development—I have twice the experience with certain learning styles, twice the case studies to apply in new problem-solving and troubleshooting.
Greater Curriculum Variety and Focus
I also think, structurally, a half-year course can be more focused. Take English classes as an example. I’m not sure “Dystopian Literature” can effectively maintain student (and teacher!) attention over the length of nine months. I’m the biggest fan of dystopias, but even I’m not sure I could handle nine months of them.
For a semester though, I think it would work great. And I think that allows our courses to have the narrow focus and attention that gives students the chance to develop a deeper understanding of key topics.
When courses are yearly, I think it’s difficult to give them that same level of focus. You can connect broad themes, but ultimately the courses have to “go wide” rather than “go vertical.” In the new information economy, I feel we have the computers and the internet to allow our students to gain a cursory understanding of a variety of topics. That means “going deep” into topics provides students with the learning that will help them more.
The semesterly courses also allow students to sample more courses. And for teachers, it allows them to experiment more with course structures and content.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
Finally, the beauty of the semesterly courses is that there’s always an end in sight. For students and teachers who just are a bad match for learning and teaching style, the class doesn’t turn into a nine-month slog. Students who realize a month in that they don’t like the subject only have a few months to go. You can always see the finish line, and I think that’s important. It creates a sense of urgency for students to do their best work and to plow through the tough periods.
Of Course, There are Drawbacks
Now, I don’t want to only present one half of this half-year solution. There are certainly some drawbacks to the semesterly curriculum model.
I think the biggest one is not developing the depth of relationships with students. And in this information economy, the relationships are arguably more important than any topic or piece of content that student could learn. Finding a teacher ally, role model and mentor is more impactful to a student’s development than any content. I had two teachers who made a major impact on my life in shaping my worldview. I had them both for two years. I wonder if I had them for one, or had them for half, if they’d have had the same impact.
Of course, part of that is that I sought out their courses. In English, I challenged myself to take an Advanced Placement course primarily because I wanted to be that special teacher’s student again, and I’m so grateful I did. That opportunity still exists with half-year courses. One could argue that it provides students a greater and faster chance to sample more teachers to find the prospective ones they work well with. Then, the students can seek out those potential mentor teachers in future years. I can think of a couple students I’ve taught now for three semesters, and potentially will for a whole lot more, as our styles match well.
The half-year courses also may stunt class cultures. I typically find that right when a class is beginning to click, the personalities are gelling and habits are forming, that’s when the semester ends. I especially felt that frustration in a more advanced filmmaking class. By the end of the semester, the students had all the basics down and had the skills to start making some really great stuff. And then I had to say goodbye.
That’s the other major drawback. A lot more goodbyes.
Course Length is Another Educational Knob
I like to think of Education as an audio mixing board, with tons of different knobs and switches that can be adjusted to produce the perfect sound. I think we forget that course-length is another one of those knobs that can be adjusted.
To sum, I think as schools we may sometimes think of semesterly courses only in terms of convenience (plugging holes in the schedule), rather than in their educational value. I wouldn’t advocate for all courses to become half-year. But I think critically looking at whether a course should be semesterly or yearly is a worthwhile exercise. Course length is another tool in our education-transforming toolbox.
And perhaps we don’t take a look at it enough.