It’s About Time – Part II

In my last post, I attempted to make a case that teachers are given too little time to do all their jobs well.

It’s one thing to say that. But one glance at the state of education will reveal that finding that time is going to take more than a smile. But there’s a difference between difficult and impossible. I’ve said before that teachers would likely do a better job if they only taught half the school day, but even I’ll admit that we are a long way from something like that being possible.However, if we are going to find this kind of time, we need think about changing structures and systems surrounding instruction and assessment and in that, I think there are some fairly reasonable opportunities.

1. For starters, we can stop reforming the reform efforts. Let an equilibrium set it. The confusion about retirement, evaluation, testing, professional development will naturally relieve itself if we just stop changing the game. (And when it comes to the state testing, well, I hate to put it this way, but all standardized tests are really, really flawed. So pick one, stick with it and move on.)

2. We can also start getting creative with our incentives. How about a contractual addendum that states that any teacher who mentors and chairs a committee or a department gets an extra time during the school day without students? Stipends are nice, but we need to talk about time. This starts to change the conversation. There is a lot to like about putting teachers in charge of curriculum committees, data committees, school improvement teams, and mentorships, but we have to respect that we are altering their job descriptions when we do that. They are no longer “teacher”. They are “teacher/district-level consultant.” and time should be built into the work day to complete the work of each of those roles. That is, if we really want them done well. The rise of instructional coaches should make this transition a little bit easier.

3. How about hiring a part-time, quality, substitute teacher to work 3 full days per week? (How about a retired teacher?) This teacher could get “signed out” like the media center or the COW cart, by any teacher who needs an hour to do school work. Maybe a couple teachers need to sit together and do data analysis. Have coverage available for those teachers, if the work is important. If that option isn’t there, the choice falls to either doing after hours (leading to exhausted teachers), doing it poorly (which diminishes the potential positive impact) or not doing it at all (which leads to authoritarian decision-making by school leaders).

This work can get done. I will agree that teachers have the ability to really influence an improvement in education. Whether or not we see that influence realized will depend on if we want our teachers to do a lot of work, or if we want our teachers to do great work.

My Hopes for Education in 2015 – It’s about time.

2014 will be known to me as the year that I left the classroom. I left it for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is that teaching is exhausting. It is tiring in every way that work can be tiring.

It’s physically tiring. The days are long. Teachers are on their feet a lot. They are always in a hurry. The breaks are famously short. My new boss asked “How long a lunch do you think you’ll take every day? Half-hour? hour?” I responded “I’m still on the teacher lunch pattern,” to which a listening co-worker chuckled in response, “Ah… the 12-minute scarf.”

It’s emotionally tiring. Teachers are constant fighting for goals that aren’t attainable. Even the most idealistic, optimistic, and resourceful teacher in the country will admit that expecting 100% of your students to reach their top learning potential is ridiculous. But that’s the goal. And it’s the perfect goal to have. The problem is that it isn’t ever going to be reached on a large scale. Which means that teachers are going to constantly be faced with failure, with students who aren’t going to make it. They are going to craft lessons that flop. They are going to hear students reject their favorite ideas. This happens regularly.

It’s mentally tiring. The targets are so often changing. The data doesn’t mean what the data says. Michigan went through a reform of it’s “cut scores” for it’s state test proficiency categories recently. It’s press release included this statement that is just… well… here you go: “The metrics are obvious: with the improved cut scores, for example, it most likely will show that our 3rd graders are not really 90 percent proficient statewide – but only 39 percent proficient.”

When 100% is your goal, 90% will work. It’s not perfect, but it’s darn close, but what happens when that 90% is actually 39%. Like, it’s not that your students got worse. They didn’t. They are what they’ve always been. You were just always told 90% were proficient and that was totally false because only 39% of them actually were. How on earth is someone supposed to cope with that reality?

At the risk of sounding long-winded, I’ll spare you the recent law changes to retirement, certifications, professional development, and other parts of the teaching profession that are frightfully confusing. (Ask any #MichEd teacher about the transition from CEUs to SB-CEUs to SCECHS… and ask them to explain how a 3-credit college course plays into that. It is terribly difficult to keep up with.)

This is tiring, tiring work for practically everyone who does it. And the incentives for excellence are purely internal for each teacher. There isn’t a lot of upward mobility. If you are a great teacher, you’ll be asked you do more, like chair committees and departments, mentor younger teachers, lead professional development sessions, these are good things. But they take time and they are hardly compensated appropriately based on the time commitments. Besides, there comes a time when money isn’t really what’s needed.

What teachers need is time.

Time.

Time to rest from the exhaustion. (And please think really long and hard before you allow yourselves to think “That’s what July and August are for”.)

Time for research. Teachers are smart people. They can understand all of the confusing (and ever-changing) requirements for retirement, PD, certification. It just gets a little tricky when they are doing all of this research after supper. When they should get a chance to turn their brains off.

Time for development. Good lessons and assessments are getting a little bit easier to come by with the increasing use of social media to share good stuff, but not every good idea fits in every classroom. It takes time to develop good resources, good curriculum, especially when one doesn’t exists. Fawn Nguyen and I agree on this point, and she says it better, “Let’s not follow that textbook that we hate — so what if the school had adopted it. Just because we inadvertently bought spoiled food does not mean we should consume it.” I made that decision when we ditched our geometry book in favor of something better. Something that took HOURS to find, write, and battle-test (and a lot of help from collaboratively-minded colleagues like Cresta Wright (@wrightc2) and Jennifer McCreight (@RealJMcCreight))

Time to analyze. Reading adolescent body language is tricky, tricky business. Using data to tell if your lessons work is a lot more reliable. But it takes time, because lessons rarely 100% work or 100% don’t work. Completely scrapping a lesson is a fairly quick process. Tweaking a fairly effective lesson is where real effort and energy are involved. Looking at the data to figure out where the lesson worked, where it didn’t and then updating it effectively can be a time-consuming exercise. It should be a time-consuming exercise, because there should be time to do this necessary work. But there isn’t.

And yet, as we move forward with reforms, we are still asking our teachers to do more and more and more and giving them less and less time to do it. One district laid off all their elementary art and music teachers and asked the classroom teachers to provide art and music education. Classroom teachers, already pressed for time, are being asked to spend larger amounts of time with students in their classrooms AND develop and deliver new lesson plans. While taking away time, they are being asked to do more.

What does success look like in a situation like that?

In 2015, I hope to see this tide start to turn. To understand that teachers NEED this time. They need it. They can’t do their jobs well without it and for us, as a community of motivated, highly-qualified educators need to start helping drive the creative processes that will help create time for the people who need it.

I have some ideas, in my next post I will throw out a couple of ideas. Please share your ideas. We need all the good ideas we can get.

What 2012 Has Taught Me #1 – Public Opinion

I teach in Michigan where “right-to-work” is brand new. It hasn’t even taken effect yet, that’s how new it is. Before that, the public education sector has undergone many changes to the retirement system, laws capping benefits, curriculum overhauls complete with new standardized tests, etc. The transitions are swift and seem to be ongoing.

The opinions on this are as diverse as they are extreme. From the left, it’s called “attack.” From the right, it’s called “reform.” Whatever you call it, it seems like everyone and their mother has an idea of how I should do my job, what my students ought to look like when I’m done, and how I should get compensated for the time I take to do it.

It also seems like an awful lot of educators are getting very caught up on all that attention. The fact that so much is being made of what is wrong with public education is distracting to many. At times, it is distracting to me. But 2012 has taught me this:

The job of a teacher is not to sway public opinion. In fact, it is time we stop being surprised how the public views us. It isn’t new. It isn’t even a problem just here in America. Shoot… scrutinizing society’s educators isn’t even new in this millennium.

Sometime in the 6th decade after the birth of Christ, a Jerusalem man who came to be called “James the Just” wrote a treatise after the stoning of his friend, a Christian deacon named Stephen. In his treatise, James the Just writes:

My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.

Translation: Be cautious in becoming a teacher. You will be held to a higher standard. You will be scrutinized for more of your actions. If you can’t handle that, teaching isn’t your calling.

(By the way, that quote was taken from the opening of chapter 3 from The New Testament Book of James. You can read about his friend Stephen in the 7th and 8th chapters of the New Testament Book of Acts, if you’d like.)

I can remember during my undergraduate studies in the college of education being told about the nobility of teaching, the challenge of teaching, the skill of teaching, and so forth. No one was preparing the students for scrutiny of teaching. A scrutiny that isn’t new. A scrutiny that shouldn’t be surprising. This is the way of it.

I do not believe that people simply do not like teachers. But we have all been taught. We all have experience in this field. Everyone can tell you with the utmost conviction a favorite teacher and a teacher who wasn’t fit to park in the parking lot. In reality, the favorite teacher might have been a dreadful educator and the hated teacher may have been very skilled and successful.

When the entire society has the means to form an opinion, the scrutiny will be intense.

2012 has taught me that there is no sense fretting over it. The more I fret over it, the more energy I am devoting to worry that won’t make me better at my work. Because if I am trying to stop something that was being commented on matter-of-factly almost two millennia ago, it doesn’t seem like I’m going to have much luck in changing it.