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 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.