A Teacher’s Bowl Runneth Over

Some years ago, a brilliant television advertisement for a well-known breakfast food featured two older siblings – both dubious about their mother’s choice of cereal – attempting to foist her latest selection upon their little brother saying “Give it to Mikey! He’ll eat anything!”

While the advertisement was clever and memorable as a marketing ploy, the strategy seems to have been adopted nationwide in formulating job descriptions for educators.

For all professional educators, the phrase “other duties as assigned” has evolved into the bane of their professional lives. No task is too intrusive on the contractual day, too mind-numbingly menial, or too irrelevant to instructional priorities, to prevent its inclusion on the long list of mandatory duties that have nothing to do with improving the cognition of students.

Give to the teachers; they’ll do anything.

The acquisition of a teaching credential does not require a three-credit course in “bus counting” prior to certification. Yet, each morning and afternoon, a teacher is likely to be found in front of the school building, clipboard in hand, charting the arrival of those yellow behemoths. 

Nothing in teacher formation programs prepares teachers for their future in lunchroom crowd-control or supervision of the hallways. Ninety minutes of delivering instruction for a large class and, without a break, supervise the 300 youngsters in the hall. 

At least those duties do not directly interfere with instructional time.

However, for eight weeks during the school year, the added task of proctoring standardized tests (Benchmarks, PSAT’s, HSA’s, PARCC, etc.) curtails the ability of teachers to deliver coherent instruction.

For those not directly involved in proctoring, the challenge becomes keeping entire classes “on standard” when a different 30-40% of the class is pulled out for testing for 45 days during the year. Teach an elective where multiple grade levels attend each class and it becomes impossible to “advance the class” as a unit through the curriculum for multiple weeks at a time. 

PROCTORING EXAMS IS NOT TEACHING!

Furthermore, teachers spend weeks reteaching concepts to children returning from the testing hiatus. No matter how you cut it, the current protocols for standardized testing disrupt instructional programs for everyone despite the errant claims otherwise by bureaucrats. 

The workday for teachers should be mostly, dare one suggest “entirely”, devoted to diagnosing the needs of students, organizing lessons, delivering instruction and evaluating formative assessments. The inevitable collision with “other duties” too frequently results in a profound misuse of teacher expertise and, hence, the taxpayers’ dollars.

We can ill afford to fill the teacher’s contractual day with extraneous, non-instructional tasks while pushing to the periphery all the essential tasks required to improve academic outcomes.

 

[The original version of this  Commentary appeared originally in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on November 20, 2014. It has been revised for readability. ] 

Expectations of heroic proportions are killing the teaching profession

In most instances, heroism should be reflected by isolated events and not the requirements of a job description.

Most acts of heroism occur in extraordinary circumstances when an individual overcomes normal fears and acts, usually involving considerable risk to self, to extract another soul from imminent peril.

Jumping into frigid waters to save someone from drowning, pulling someone from a vehicle fully engulfed in flames, falling on a grenade to save the rest of the unit from certain extinction, these are all most certainly heroic acts. In recent years, too many teachers have furnished that “last full measure of devotion” while saving children from demented gunmen or crumbling walls during a tornado. Each of these isolated instances reflects human pathos, not “other duties as assigned“.

Herein resides the dilemma for educators in the Age of Accountability. The only path to excellence and professional acclaim is tied, apparently irrevocably, to what has become known as the “Heroic Model” which demands total devotion of self to the profession. Selflessness has become the standard for assessing teacher effectiveness, and anything less has nearly become cause for disciplinary action. The altruism reflected in the résumés of most Teachers of the Year usually represents an unsustainable comittment across the span of a career.

Almost invariably, educators enter the profession expressing the idealistic ambition of influencing, in a positive way, the lives of children. The community’s failure to furnish sufficient human and material resources has, however, a deadly  effect on those generous tendencies. Entry level educators saddled by student loan debt, and at a time when they should be devoting all their efforts to the perfection of their craft and addressing the needs of children, find themselves instead taking on a second job out of dire necessity.

Disillusion sets in quickly, and that can be measured by the nearly six out of 10 that decline to endure a sixth year in the classroom.

When a relatively inexperienced teacher recently complained to a colleague about feeling burned out, a colleague replied, “You haven’t been around long enough to be burned out, dear, you are just tired.” Perception, however, is often reality.

To the degree that the effort required to teach effectively is associated with feelings of exhaustion and despair, the children of any community will be disadvantaged. Demanding decades of heroic, superhuman effort, and adding ever more responsibilities to the job description for educators,  are no longer sustainable practices for the public schools.

Further Reading: Those Weren’t the Days, My Friend

[This is an expanded version of a  Commentary that originally appeared in the Prince George’s Gazette on October 24, 2013.]

More tasks, little time for teachers…

It is all about “time”.

For educators surviving the pseudo-accountability of the post-No-Child-Left-Behind world, “time” has devolved into just another four-letter word.

Former Maryland State Education Association (MSEA) President, Jane Stern, has inserted as her electronic tagline, “Every task takes time.” 

For as long as any perennially overworked educator can remember, all proposed methods for improving schools are remarkably consistent in their approach: Assign More Tasks to Teachers. Of late, policymakers might as well add, “…Without Regard to the Limits of Human Endurance.”

Bureaucrats labor mistakenly under the misconception that only time spent “on stage” with an audience constitutes “teaching” even though two of the four Domains in Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching are described as “off stage“, half of the teaching effort occurs when children are not in the room.  Still, most of the contractual day is devoted to the direct supervision of children. This is how all the “other-duties-as-assigned” systematize the inevitable intrusion of our chosen vocation into our personal time. When did sleep and leisure become optional? How did 12 hours of work for 7 1/2 hours of pay become a reasonable expectation?

Once upon a time, that intrusion was merely “inconvenient“; today, the encroachment on personal time is closing in on “intolerable“.

Why do more than half of all teachers leave the profession in five years? Could it be the desire for “family life” to evoke more than “Mommy’s grading papers.”? Eventually, a priority other than work arises that should not receive short shrift, a health concern for self, spouse, or parents, for example, and the workplace must become a secondary consideration. Disillusion sets in in direct proportion to the duration or frequency of such events and the propensity of supervisors to roll their eyes at any request for consideration of the circumstances.

Our communities provide some of the material resources needed for instruction, but it is left to teachers to find the time to plan lessons and correct assessments of learning because little-to-none will be forthcoming in their place of employment.

For newcomers to the profession, the time required simply to plan a lesson may exceed the time it actually takes to deliver it to students. Several well-organized lessons a day is a killing pace for even the most gifted educator.

Even experienced educators must continue to revise and update their lessons daily to remain current.

The minuscule amount of time allotted from the contractual day for actual lesson-planning is all too often usurped by the non-instructional vagaries of the school day. Filling in for a colleague; contacting a parent; a call to an unscheduled meeting ; workarounds for the broken down photocopier; data entry; an urgent letter of recommendation; any one of these events will far too regularly consume, in entirety, the so-called “planning period.”

The number of tasks assigned to teachers have increased relentlessly in recent years while untold instructional hours are lost to test prep and test proctoring. Teach more effectively and accomplish more with children in fewer instructional hours? Does that really sound possible to you? It is well past time to return to the old labor motto: “Eight hours for work; eight hours for sleep; eight hours for what you will!”

Our popular folk wisdom suggests that “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”.  The endless hours contributed by this nation’s educators are probably not the sole cause of dull instruction; however, we know that excessive workload creates far too many “former educators”.

Further Reading: The Prince George’s Sentinel

[This Commentary originally appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on September 18, 2014. Photo found at:  May Day]

Letters from the front

Dear Parents,

On the grandest of scales, everything I ever needed to know about Public Education, I learned watching a situation comedy that frequently explored the angst of our human condition.

“M*A*S*H” introduced me to the concept of triage in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Derived from the French verb trier (to sort), triage is a medical protocol designed to cope with the prospect of too few doctors caring for too many casualties on the battlefield. Different from what we currently experience as triage in a modern Emergency Room, trained army medics make life-or-death decisions about which patients might be saved with the resources at hand. Occasionally, the most severely injured are left to die if the heroic measures required to save them might ultimately cost more lives among the less-seriously-injured casualties forced to wait too long for their care. Multiple acute arterial bleeds from numerous shrapnel wounds to internal organs? Sorry, soldier…even attempting to save you will cost the lives of these three less-severe trauma cases over here.

Welcome to life reduced to the existential absurdity of intolerable working conditions adversely affecting the desirable outcome of a maximal effort to save every wounded soldier. Imagine yourself simply administering analgesics and condemning one broken body to death in order to facilitate saving others. How can medical professionals function under such conditions and maintain their sanity? Regrettably, however, this heart-wrenching process has become a metaphor for the modern system of public education.

Today, if teachers are to survive a career in the classroom they must become adept at Educational Triage. Never furnished adequate resources, time or circumstances to reach every student, teachers must all too often cut their losses by occasionally giving up, albeit reluctantly, on students who do not exhibit sufficient resilience to thrive in the classroom. Not enough of a self-starter to crack your book and get your assignments done? Sorry, student, the hours spent arriving at minimal participation will negatively impact the many classmates ready and willing to perform.

Much like the doctor in a battlefield hospital, teachers confront a long roster of  students that is, at best, daunting. Not only is the caseload overwhelming, but far too many of the students on their rolls present perhaps insurmountable challenges. Hence, teachers are frequently forced to choose the interests of the many over the interest of the one. These decisions are not the result of malice, sloth or incompetence. They derive from judicial duress. In the state of Maryland, a judge ruled -and was upheld- that class size “is not a working condition” and therefore “non-negotiable” in the collective bargaining process. Specious legal reasoning may stand up as a narrow interpretation of the law, but it certainly withers under the scrutiny of reason and experience for classroom practitioners.

But surely,” you might exclaim, “our children are far better off than someone lying wounded in a field hospital!”

Truthfully, too many of our children can be tallied among the walking wounded, because the community to which they belong does not currently exhibit the will to lift them from their circumstance and prepare them adequately for the information age.

Neither the county nor the state has demonstrated sufficient resolve to furnish the resources that might transform schools into the one safe place where at-risk children can feel connected in this age of rampant alienation and dissociation. Children are the disenfranchised victims of societal indifference to their plight.

Were your child in legal trouble, would you hire a law clerk who had yet to pass the bar exam? Were your child ill, would you even consider a visit to an unlicensed practitioner? No, you would be looking for the most qualified professional you could find. How has it become acceptable anywhere in America that children can spend more than 1,100 hours each year with inexperienced or marginally-qualified educators?

The demographics suggest that it has become tolerable because it is most consistently the problem of poor children of color and poor children of recent immigrants. We see schools with 100 percent participation in the free/reduced lunch program; coincidentally, those schools also have higher percentages of inexperienced educators. For some reason we have not sufficiently pressured our political leaders to institute the changes necessary to achieve real equity in those schools.

Like it or not, the issue is funding. Affluent jurisdictions almost always manage to fund their schools; they grease the political wheels; they buy influence. Jurisdictions with soci0-economic challenges are seldom able to accomplish that feat.

If a community aspires to no more than the educational equivalent of meatball surgery, then our mission has been nearly accomplished. However, if teachers are to do more than sort those who choose to learn from those who appear unwilling, then we must find an effective and equitable manner by which to fund completely our most challenged schools.

Perhaps you’ve heard the old inspirational saw often trotted out to encourage educators. Two children are walking on the beach. They find hundreds of starfish washed up on the shore. The first child throws one back in the ocean. His companion wonders what possible difference saving one starfish could make. The erstwhile triage specialist responds, “It made a difference to that one.”

A poignant parable… unless your child is among those left as detritus on the beach.

Sincerely,

A beleaguered teacher

 

[Updated from an early Commentary 5/6/99 in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal. Despite enacting the Bridge to Excellence Act in Maryland inspired by the Thornton Commission’s findings, staffing ratios remain approximately 20% lower than our neighbors.]

“Underfunded schools: Push rock up hill; start over”

After having the temerity to outwit the gods and deny them their vengeance, upon his death Sisyphus was condemned in the afterlife to an eternity of rolling a boulder up a mountainside. In his landmark essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus claimed that Sisyphus was superior to his fate in the moments of respite after the boulder crossed the summit and rolled back to the base of the mountain. Camus further suggested that, in those moments of rest before the next bout with his eternal labor, we must imagine Sisyphus as joyful.

The logic of that last proposition can prove elusive, but the fate of Sisyphus effectively demonstrates the existential conundrum of each individual forging meaning out of the perceived absurdity of meaninglessness. As Sisyphus purchases a few moments of repose by his grueling labor, he becomes the ultimate existential hero. He conquers the absurd by finding a purpose in a situation that appears hopelessly futile.

The Sisyphus myth is an apt metaphor, albeit an imperfect one, for the fate of teachers today. It is imperfect because Sisyphus discovers purpose in a futile task while teachers often discover futility in work most meaningful.

The latter seems infinitely more cruel.

Teachers, at least those committed to optimizing educational opportunities for children, are the spiritual stepchildren of Sisyphus. Their mountain takes three decades to climb and the boulder seems to grow inexorably by accretion. The constants in the professional life of teachers are requests, directives, and even longings, to do ever more for their students, accompanied by the illogical corollaries that fewer resources will be allocated and less time will be allotted.

At least Sisyphus knew how he had offended Zeus to arrive at his fate.

Teachers scratch their heads and wonder how their neighbors can stand by and silently witness what is happening to those charged with awakening young minds. Teachers also wonder how their neighbors can acquiesce to a community bent on funding conditions in our schools that promote little more than intellectual Darwinism for our children.

At least teachers do not labor for all eternity. Teachers can exercise free choice and walk away from this sublime torture called teaching at any time. Most do just that within six years. But for many, that act of surrender is a worse fate than pushing the boulder could ever be.

To no avail my parents always advised me to be careful when I wished for something. Like many children I did not heed them. All I ever really wanted to do was teach.

Now, it seems that teaching is just about all I do. My participation in outside interests has declined precipitously across my years in the classroom.

The martial arts are out. Lobbying elected representatives and fighting for school funding takes precedence.

Music is out. Once a constant companion, that old guitar in the corner has not been touched in years while my computer keyboard has nearly become an added appendage.

Sustained Silent Reading for pleasure is out. That never-ending pile of papers always beckons for correction.

Astronomy is out. Stargazing on distant mountaintops unfortunately involves remaining awake well past sunset after somewhere between eleven and fourteen hours have been devoted to my livelihood.

How has it come to this? That is a simple question. Teaching is a to-do list that grows by twelve items a day with only sufficient time to eliminate five, and three of those five items have nothing to do with organizing instruction or assessing its effectiveness.

According to Camus, the gods “…quite reasonably thought that there is no more terrible punishment than futile and hopeless labor.” Sisyphus, however, still has some small chance at hope. He can accomplish his assigned task and earn a momentary reprieve from his punishment. Sisyphus can still put his shoulder to the boulder, acquire purchase, and achieve the summit. It would be a far worse punishment if the boulder never moved.

Compare that to the lot of teachers. Ideally, our goal is to make a scholar of every child. Failing that, the teacher’s mission is to inspire children to make maximum use of their talents. Not having the means to accomplish these noble goals leads to feelings of frustration and futility.

A normal day for a typical teacher comprises more than 9,000 teacher/student minutes. Nearly three-dozen children arrive periodically for a daily total of 270 minutes of instruction. If the instruction is to be dynamic, tack on 4 ½ hours of planning time. If teachers are to hold students accountable for their learning, marathon sessions of correcting papers must occur. The daily grind is interminable.

The non-instructional time of the contracted day is largely consumed by other-duties-as-assigned. Do not forget to be at your door before the school day begins and between classes. Do not neglect to be at your duty station. Prepare to stand in a long line at the photocopier as colleagues deforest the planet to cope with textbook shortages and obsolete materials. Watch those “quick” phone calls to parents become 45 minute planning-period-killers. During lunch, students come with résumés in search of letters of recommendation, or to make-up a quiz, or to seek help. It never ends.

Teachers are systematically denied the necessary time, resources and circumstances to achieve the desired goal of preparing children for this new century.

To paraphrase some homespun southern wisdom: sorry, but that rock just don’t roll.


[This is a slightly revised reposting of a 2001 Commentary in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal.  Things have changed for the worse in the intervening years thanks to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top. ]