Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Me, Us and Them

Populations are made up of individuals.  The wise teacher figures out quickly each class is full of individual kids.  Likewise schools are composed of individual teachers. When you start treating individual teachers as unimportant, then ultimately schools will become unimportant. I can't escape the reality that such an Orwellian reality has arrived when a parent goes online and looks me up deciding if I am a good teacher before meeting me or talking to anyone who has kids I've taught. Or a reformer looks at data and makes a determination without even speaking to anyone in a school.

For the unlearned out there here's a little wikipedia help: ORWELLIAN-describes the situation, idea, or societal condition that George Orwell identified as being destructive to the welfare of a free society. It connotes an attitude and a policy of control by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation of the past. I can think of a few things I deal with daily that fit that mold. The most immediate is how schools and teachers are being treated across the nation.

Essentially at their root many of the ideas I think are ill conceived seem to erode my ability to operate with autonomy. Should I have a completely free hand to do what I want? Of course not. But one concept that seems to echo with me is that those shaping teaching view it as a science that can be adjusted in such a way to produce a definite outcome. Where decisions are made by those who operate in a data first environment.  Many teaching see the world differently.  We  know teaching is an art.  Imagine a concert where all the solos were scripted.  A museum that only featured paint by number artwork.  A football team where players ran plays from a script based solely on down and distance unconcerned with score or field position.    Those things might be functional and generate predictable outcomes but they would also be very limiting.   As a teacher I need to be able to have freedom and play to my strengths on a daily basis.  One big thing impeding this is the smothering amount of demands being placed on me.

Already this year I have struggled to become quickly familiar with all my students.  I know that a positive relationship is often key to their success.  I am struggling to give and grade rigorous assignments in a timely fashion. While chalking it up to age at first I realized I have 142 kids. That alone is enough to bury me in grading if I let it. (1 essay, 5 mins each x 140 = 11 hours)   Couple it with the push to standardize curriculum and all the other adjustments I've made over the past  3 years and those I make daily and kids could start to slowly slip to just a name and number on a page and simply part of a larger whole. Sure some of that is the compulsory teacher griping.  It is also a red flag.  Nowhere am I hearing this on the news or even in discussions about our division.   These issues are veiled by clips of new computers, talks of budgets and a Newsweek ranking.

Now hard work never killed anyone.  Countless people work hard every day.  I suspect many teachers think they work too hard when they actually don't.  But too much work will in fact kill my ability to teach well.  Some of the most successful and competitive companies in the world recognize this fact and build in "free" time for their employees to innovate.  In that sense the private sector has realized the value of their workers.  I am getting to the point where I literally can't do a good job with my kids. Yet I am being held more accountable.  I am losing the ability to practice my craft...and it is not my fault.  I can cover content, collect data, assign a grade...but in no way can I maintain much of what I do that matters so much. All this stuff we've been talking about on this blog over the past months is starting to prevent me from being as good of a teacher as I am capable.

My concerns about student load and class size would be dismissed by folks who would point to data and studies about successful schools. They say it matters little in terms of affecting student success. They are wrong. Efforts to replicate the famous STAR study on class size from Tennessee are a classic example of wayward policy when people forget the importance of individuals. Probably a result of paying people to sit and analyze data far removed from the people the information represents.  This is in my opinion a useless enterprise.   That is after all what computers are for. 

Claims that changes are needed to standardize curriculum intending to give all students access to quality teaching and instruction who currently do not have it drive a disproportionate number of decisions. The basic premise is to fix the SYSTEM without regard to the impact it has on the people within it.  Thus revealing the absence of any appreciation for the individual teacher and what they accomplish every day.  Big mistake. You can't on one hand claim quality teachers are among the biggest factor in student growth and then ignore what they say and what makes each of them unique.  And yes I feel ignored. 

There are certainly bad teachers. Heck maybe I'm among them by some measures that are used.  But who in their right mind would make efforts to identify bad teachers using methods that adversely affect all those that are not. You cannot simply look at what one teacher does well and finds as effective and then ask other teachers to replicate that same thing. Certain patterns and skills may easily transfer but there are way too many variables to begin to think that it makes any sense whatsoever to just make that idea bigger.

Average Class Size affects the quality of what kids can get from me while they are in the classroom. Total Student Load affects what I the teacher can do. The greatest flaw with any research on teaching is that researchers don't seem to talk to real teachers during their research. The mountains of data keep them from seeing that all those kids I have prevent me from realizing my potential as a teacher, no matter how many methods or techniques I have access to.  The same is true for students who are increasingly being asked to take on a greater academic  load.  Sure the numbers look good from far away but get closer and you'll see what the unintended impact is on individual kids and families.  While all this unfolds the term accountability is thrown about as a buzz word like it has any meaning to anyone making decisions.    Now this is not a developing nation's classroom lacking basic necessities, but I can affect more positive change with fewer kids.  I am drowning in work.

So classes are made up of individual kids and the fact I might now be unaware that one of them was having a bad day matters a lot. The fact I didn't ask how they were doing and engage them in potentially the only real conversation they'll have all day matters.  The fact I now teach 142 separate people matters.  No Child Left Behind actually has meant more kids in my classes making it harder to identify and focus on ones that need more help.  Shame that teachers were and continue to be left out of the loop and simply treated as the group causing the problems and not potential solutions.  No doubt we might offer quite a few good ideas that would affect immediate change for the better.  Because we are plugged into what is happening.  I know these issues are present elsewhere but they never emerge from behind the newest and latest drive for innovation and reform.  Truth is I can hardly tell where we are headed by looking back at the track we are following.  That's scary and might mean all these efforts aren't really getting us anywhere.

As we prepare to tighten our belts once again as our division faces budget shortfalls I cannot help but expect that means my job will again get harder.   That affects me.  I have concerns on what changes and cuts mean to all of us in this building every day.  I can only hope that decision makers will recognize how the easy course is not always the better course and think first of us and not of them as they chart a course and navigate our course.  Be forewarned though that an unappreciative view of the significance and talents of individuals will simply contribute to more ideas not worthy of the term reform.


  1. Your post struck a chord with me tonight...as always. As I spend another night up late, "crafting" a lesson that can impart upon my students the knowledge that they need to know, in a rich and engaging way, containing a deeper level of understanding and with the time constraints that I constantly feel pressure to work under...I again wonder why I am working 11-12 hours a day with the only time for reflection and growth with my PLC partner is through late night and weekend emails.

    I know a lot of this is the pressure I put on myself...and I do not have nearly as many students as you have...and to be honest, I do not mind the expectations that are placed on me. I just need more TIME to "produce" the quality product that I do without feeling like I'm losing my mind. I need TIME to have a complete and deep conversation with my teacher/partner. I need REAL TIME to reflect with her about what worked with our lesson, what did not, and what her kids said and did.

    I am stressed by having to complete so much instruction (and assessment to ensure that learning has taken place) that the pressure to create just the most perfect lesson or task for my students is overwhelming at times. I cannot WASTE time in my classroom. Even handing out progress reports today and having some quick conversations with students created so much stress for me as I kept thinking that I was wasting class time. We need to finish this...we need to finish that...I won't get to my exit slip! When so many of my students needed me to congratulate, to reassure or to just check in with them regarding missing assignment or low test/quiz grades. I MISS being able to have the quality time to do that with my students.

    I have also had FOUR students cry in my class in the past week...FOUR...and they are 6th graders. I feel so much angst knowing that my stress...the pressure that I feel...is possibly overflowing over unto them.

    Well...I suppose that is enough venting for now...my work is done for tomorrow and the midnight hour is approaching. Do I go to bed and get six hours sleep? Or stay up and work on the quiz for the week? Not sure...guess it depends what is recorded on the DVR.

    Thanks again to both of you for your blog...I enjoy it and find it thought provoking and a port in a storm at time.

  2. I agree, time is as precious a resource as money, for children, parents, and teachers. We're in an economy where schools focus so much on money, they've begun to ignore time. I think that everyone in a school system should answer this question: "If you miss a day of work, how much more will you have to work (either before the absence to prepare, or after the absence to catch up) because of that missed day?"

    Teachers know the answer, because our work is as much in the preparation and grading as it is in our presence on the job. I'm sure that administrators often have duties and responsibilities that have to be met. But how many people in a given system can take a day, or even half a day off without having to plan ahead or work extra to make up.

    I think we look there to reclaim some of the lost time we suffer to larger class sizes and student loads.

  3. Thanks for the comments and you make some great points. I should have titled the post "Time"...but I have a draft of one with that title with a slightly different approach. I'd point out to my colleague and co-author to take note that you used the phrase "struck a chord"...pun intended. Time is perhaps top among "the" issues we confront in the changing landscape. How many of us sit down to dinner with our families anymore? We are so stressed that I worry that it does in fact trickle down to the kids as you suggest. What we lack is time to do so many things.

    I guess the next logical questions is what do we do? Short of jumping ship and heading to a private school or moving into admin how can we make things better?

    For us the teachers I think you can drink, laugh, not take it too seriously, steal ideas, find support networks and work smart. For kids the choices are less obvious. I suppose as long as they have caring conscientious teachers they'll be OK. Guess it's gotta stop somewhere or it'll come to an end.