What does “falling behind” mean in teaching?

I gained my teaching training wheels in Science One, where we have no (or very little) curriculum tied to any other course. I spent well over a decade teaching almost exclusively in this program. Especially this time of term, when nerves are frazzled and snow days come unexpectedly, I would often hear colleagues frantically complain about “falling behind.” I honestly had no idea what this meant. Behind what?

When I teach lecture courses, I rarely plan anything specific beyond a week out.

How am I supposed to know in advance what student prior knowledge is? What they want to learn more about? What will interest them?

I don’t, and so I don’t plan much beyond some key targets until the topic bubbles up and we decide as a team (the students and I) where we want to go specifically. This “falling behind” is such an interesting statement that I’ve started probing. What do you mean by that, exactly? I’ve decided that “falling behind” falls into 2 camps:

1. The Story Tellers. Some folks have a clear epic novel to tell. (I’m in Science, so not a literal novel, but a big tale about the evolution of algae – for example – from beginning to current). I respect these story tellers. I want to sit in their classes and hear the tales. (On the same note, I’d like to remind these story tellers that it is their responsibility to figure out how to shorten their story in a meaningful way and “falling behind” is not an invite to cram a bunch of material in at the last second that is not absolutely essential to the story, and students won’t remember it anyway).

2. The “What is Everyone Else Doing” Teachers. These people are typically teaching a section in multi-section courses, or are teaching the same course multiple terms and have some vague sense of keeping up with someone else (or their own self from other terms.) To these folks, I would ask… why? Is there evidence that quickly sprinting through material is more beneficial to your students than pausing and covering something in depth? (This is a real question and a real discussion in teaching circles.) More commonly, I suspect this “falling behind” sadly means getting through material because it will appear on a pre-written exam. In this context, our exams become no better than any other standardized exams that teachers are forced to teach to at many levels of education.

I challenge us to do better.


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