Nov 5, 2010

The Best Job in the World: "Working Hard or Hardly Working?"

The Second in a Four Part Series

When my desk looks like this at the end (or beginning) of a day, it's a sure sign, I've got too much to do. It looks this most of the time. Parent-teacher conference forms, field trip permission slips, various types of bureaucratic paperwork that must be completed, stacks of ungraded assignments, stacks of graded work that needs to be returned all demand my attention.

As another Sabbath begins, I'm pleased to report that at long last I have a complete set of lesson plans for next week. If I can put in a good solid five hours on Sunday, I believe I can get my science unit plans finished, prepare a rubric for my students' social studies project, get caught up with my grading, and write e-mail updates to all the parents in grades 5-8. Okay, well maybe that's a little ambitious, but at least the grading and unit plans anyway. Right now, it seems that I'm just that little bit closer to that holy grail of teachers everywhere: being Caught Up.

In case you hadn't guessed where I'm going with all of this, let me spell it out: Perhaps the greatest impediment to teaching being one of the top jobs in America is that teachers are terribly overworked.

“Wait a second! Overworked?” you chortle, “Don’t you get off work at 3 and get summers off?”

Okay, let’s talk about that. Let’s set the record straight on this common fallacy. First off, a teacher that “gets off work” at 3 usually has to be in the classroom by seven. That’s right--an eight hour day. Where’s all the mockery for those who work a 9-to-5 job? In some cases those teachers may not even get a lunch break. So even if a teacher did get off work at 3, you can be pretty sure they worked an eight hour day just like you did. (In my case we are required to be on the job by 8:15 until 4:15). However, any teacher worth his or her salt is working considerably longer hours than the minimum eight that are required. On a typical day, I’m lucky if I’m home by 6:00 P.M. Usually it’s 6:15 or 6:30. And of course, many days there’s at least another hour of work in the evening at home. So for me it’s more like an 11 hour work day. I work through lunch every day, and often put in a couple hours on the weekend as well. And the worst part is, I—like most teachers--feel perpetually behind. The work is never, ever done. Far from feeling like we’ve got a short work day, we usually feel there aren’t enough hours in the day to do all we need to do. We often feel like failures because the bulletin boards aren’t changed, and the grading is piling up and new unit plans need to be written and we’d really like to spend an hour every day tutoring little Johnnie in math or he simply is not going to pass.

Of course many teachers have additional school commitments beyond the classroom. They coach school sports teams, sponsor academic and extracurricular clubs, do fundraising for class trips, and tutor struggling students after school. These activities contribute to many more hours of work each week. It’s not unheard of for some deeply driven teachers to work a 60 or 70 hour week, just like a hard-driving attorney (only a teacher’s hours aren’t billable!)

These drama posters indicate another busy segment of my life as a teacher. I'm a codirector of Shadow, the CAA drama ministry, so drama takes a lot of my time as well. It always has, ever since I was with REAL in Saipan

This cluttered countertop is where we store extra cases of the snacks and drinks that my 8th grade students sell daily at lunch. As class sponsor, I buy and/or cook virutally every item of food we sell, whether on the daily snack cart or for the weekly hot lunch.

As for summers off—I’m not going to kid you—that is a very nice bonus, though even then I, and most of the teachers I know, spend a good amount of time during the summer doing the kind of long term planning the hustle and bustle of the school year doesn’t afford. And did I mention that, at least in our school system, teachers are ten-month employees? Granted we can opt to have the conference stretch our salary over 12 months if we like, but officially we get paid for ten months out of the year. Suddenly, two months off doesn’t sound so appealing, does it? Oh, and did I mention that many teachers spend the summer working a second job?

I’ll grant you that not all teachers work long hours like those I’ve described. There are some less-than-stellar teachers who do just the minimum to get by. They do leave at three every day and never take work home. But though every job has it’s share of slackers, I’m proud to say that none of the teachers I know take the easy road. And when we do leave work unfinished and go home, it’s often a painful decision, an attempt to keep our lives in balance and our sanity intact, a determination to not let our families become a casualty of our dedication to our jobs. At moments like that, I dream of what it would be like if I had just a little help—or even a lot.

I invite you for a moment to join me in a flight of fantasy—a visit to a teacher’s dreamworld, a Neverland that doesn’t exist and perhaps never will. If you’re not a teacher you may read this and shrug, not really getting what’s the “big deal” about the scenario I’m about to describe. If you are a teacher, I bet you’d love to teach under these conditions:

Wouldn’t it be great if teachers could function like doctors, surrounded by a staff of trained professionals that would assist them in their work? The greatest need teachers have is time to work directly on the vital issues—preparing lessons that reach and teach every student and the actual work of teaching. If we could be freed of the countless other important but more peripheral duties and focus on these core tasks—oh man, what a difference we could make! So, imagine if every classroom contained a teacher supported by at least one assistant teacher that would handle grading, setting up labs and art activities, put up agenda; the assistant would help put it into action. For students with learning disabilities, behavioral challenges, or other issues, the teacher could call in a consult—a specialist who could work with that student in the classroom, and in collaboration with the teacher. Together, teacher, assistants, and specialists as needed would work to reach every student in the class.

So who would these teacher assistants be? Why they’d be future teachers themselves. In my dream world, teachers wouldn’t just get the support the doctors get, they’d also have to go through the rigorous training and intensive education that is required of doctors. After earning their education degree, the teacher would spend four years in “residency” working in the classroom with a master teacher as an assistant. They’d do the grunt work and spend a lot of time observing and learning from the master teacher, as well as getting their feet wet doing actual teaching under supervision. At the end of four years, the assistant would become a master teacher themselves. Or they might decide to specialize. By the second year of their residency assistant teachers that want to specialize would start shadowing the specialists. They also might return to school for more advanced training. Like a neurosurgeon as opposed to family practitioner, the level of specialized expertise and training would be far more extensive. There also might be some assistant teachers who find that being a master teacher or a specialist isn’t for them. They might decide to continue as assistants as a career. While these folks might not be cut out for leading a classroom, they’d instead come to be unparalleled experts in their roles as support staff in the classroom. Teachers would fight to get the best of these assistants. “Have you heard about Jill? You tell her you want a theme on the Newton’s Laws and the room is like a theme park when she’s done.” Or “Bob is hands down the best researcher I’ve ever seen. If you’re wanting the latest ideas on teaching social studies you want him on your team.”

In the absence of my dream-team, I find the students can be help in getting things done. One great way to save time--have the kids create the materials for your bulletin boards and displays. I'm especially proud of these: Above, is the gallery of art created by my 7th and 8th grade students for painting class last quarter. Below is the vertebrates bulletin board my 5th and 6th science students made (They also created the fish above the bulletin board for their unit on fish).

The only downside to using student work as your decorations is that you usually have to put up the decorations up yourself, to ensure that they are neatly posted and organized. In the case of the mural above though, the students did virtually everything. All I did was tack the mural paper to the wall.

The latest thinking in education is moving teachers away from their traditional isolation towards increased collaboration through team teaching, mentoring, and other forms cooperative teaching. So perhaps my dream will come true in some form in the years to come. Even if it does, I’m convinced that good teachers will work as hard as they always have, but with one important difference—they’ll actually feel like they’re making progress. After all, I don’t mind working hard or being busy. There is great value and great reward in working hard in a demanding job. I don’t want or need my job to easy. I do want enough time to do my job well.

Coming Up Next: "Teacher Appreciation Should Be More than A Day"

1 comment:

Mai said...

Yep, my desk currently looks like that. I try to get to the bottom of it but it just seems to pile higher! I feel like I'm on the verge of insanity!

On another note, I LOVE your idea about having assistants and specialists in the classroom! and having a "residency" program. I think it would create a greater challenge to becoming a teacher adding value to what it means to be a teacher. I think it's a great idea!