The Treadmill

Why am I awake right now?

It is 7:00 AM on Saturday morning. Yesterday was a 12-hour day at school, plus two hours of commuting for good measure. I got home a little before 10pm after being pulled over by the Sherriff for speeding. He took pity on me and let me off with a fix-it ticket for the outdated address on my license. After eating the reheated dinner my wife had prepared hours before, I fell asleep in front of the TV, leaving her to watch the second half of the movie by herself. She is used to watching movies this way by now. She managed to get me up to brush my teeth and get to bed around 1:00. Six hours later I woke up thinking about math curriculum. What is wrong with me?

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my mother has been teaching for almost as long as I can remember. When I told her about my first full-time teaching job, she sighed and said, “So you’re getting on the treadmill, huh?” Even then, I knew exactly what she meant. I was used to seeing her work late nights at home preparing curriculum, working weekends grading papers, and going into school over the summer to work on her classroom. She knew what I was getting myself into, and though I’m sure she was proud of my decision, there was also some worry in her voice.

Teaching is a monumental task. If we believe our own rhetoric, education is about nothing less than preparing our students for success in life, not to mention making sure that the next generation is prepared to take over the reigns of our democracy. The psychological burden of taking responsibility for the future health, welfare, and happiness of 20 or 30 children in particular (and the nation in general) is pretty staggering. Because most teachers really do think of their role in these terms, we put tremendous pressure on ourselves to do everything we can to prepare our classes during the ten months of the year that we have them. Add to that the external pressures of site, district, county, state and federal mandates, and it’s not hard to understand why teachers end up working 11 and 12-hour days, coming in on Saturdays to plan, and still feeling like their short-changing their students, not to mention their families.

So, what keeps us so busy? Shouldn’t someone like me, whose been doing this for over fifteen years have it figured out by now? Why is it so much work? I know that a lot people outside the profession wonder about this, so I’ll do my best to break it down.

First of all, it’s important to understand that our whole system of education is based on the assumption that students more or less can be homogonously separated out by age. In other words, a fifth grader is a fifth grader is a fifth grader. It’s also important to understand that this fundamental underpinning of our educational approach is completely ridiculous. Every child is an individual, and in my experience the range of intellectual ability and prior knowledge in a class of fifth graders can range from two grade levels to upwards of seven grade levels. It is not unusual at all to have a fifth grader who reads at a first grade level next to one who reads at an eighth grade level, and of course, you’re going to see everything in between. Yet, at the beginning of the year they are all presented with the same textbooks, and often the teacher is presented with pacing guides to dictate the rate at which the teacher is supposed to move all students through the curriculum, while still “meeting the needs” of each child. Often, the official curriculum is appropriate for about a third of the class, and so many conscientious teachers feel the need to create or cobble together materials that will work with the kids who don’t fall into the middle of the bell curve. So instead of one curriculum, they end up teaching two or three parallel curricula at once. Planning this way takes a tremendous amount of time, and though teachers who’ve taught the same grade for several years will have more resources at the ready, each class is different and always seems to present new needs.

Right, so how do we know where students fall on that bell curve? Ah yes, assessment. This is one of the most critical parts of a teacher’s job, and also one of the most time consuming. There are reading assessments that need to be administered one at a time, writing assessments that generate reams of papers to be scored, pre-tests (now called formative assessments) and post-tests (summative), as well as right-in-the-middle-of-the-unit tests (also formative) for all core subjects. All of these assessments help the teacher figure out where the students are in the learning process, so that the teacher can then plan or adjust the curriculum (or parallel curricula) so that kids are not left hopelessly behind or hopelessly bored. These teacher-driven assessments happen throughout the year, and they are a huge time drain. It would be great if all the standardized tests and the district-driven practice tests that lead up to them could provide some of this information, but as I’ve described in other posts, they are so hopelessly misaligned with the needs of most students and so limited by the multiple-choice format that they are rarely useful for planning.

Then there is the social work of teaching. Any educational psychologist can tell you that a child cannot learn effectively unless their social and emotional needs are being met, and meeting those needs becomes our job as well. Poverty, divorce, violence, mental illness and general dysfunction at home are part of the reality for some of the students in almost every classroom. The social and emotional scars from that trauma manifest themselves in disruptive behaviors in the class, in the lunchroom and at recess, and it is our job to address those behaviors. Though we are not trained as counselors, we are thrust into that role every day. We spend prep periods and lunch periods talking through problems with students, and our afternoons on the phone or in meetings with parents, public health nurses, psychologists and actual social workers. We spend time trying to talk to parents who think we treat their child unfairly, and more time trying to track down parents who don’t want to talk at all.

Next we have professional development. At it’s best, this is a welcome breather to reflect on how we teach, and learn new ways to improve our practice. These days though, the trend in teacher training is essentially to tell teachers, “You are doing it wrong. You must all teach like this.” Often these trainers have less experience than the teachers they’re training, or they have decided that it’s easier and more lucrative to talk about teaching children than to actually do it. Now, I’m very fortunate to teach in a district where professional development looks very different, but I’ve heard enough stories from teachers across the country to know that in the current reform craze many teachers see professional development as a waste of their time at best, and as an insult to their professionalism and a threat to their job at worst. Either way, weekly or monthly meetings take time, as do the inevitable hoops that teachers are expected to jump through as a part of the latest district initiative. “Make sure your word walls are up by the 19th, your college wall by the 25th and your power standards by the 1st!” If the meetings take place on a school day, you have to prepare for a substitute, which any teacher will tell you is more work than teaching the class yourself. If it doesn’t happen during the school day, then you’re staying late after school or going in for a class on the weekend.

There’s more of course, like report cards, conferences, school events, fundraisers, etcetera, but you get the idea. We are busy people, trying to do right by our kids and keep the parents and district overseers happy, or at least off our backs. We are on the treadmill, trying to stay ahead of planning, assessing and jumping through the hoops that are put in front of us. We see each other in the halls, sigh or roll our eyes and make jokes about making it to the weekend, or at least to the end of the day. This is maybe the most ironic aspect of the whole situation. The people who are best qualified to really help us become better teachers, who are in the best position to do meaningful collaborative work, are the teachers right across the hall or around the corner. But none of us has enough time to sit down and discuss instructional materials or classroom management techniques, much less to look at how well our curriculum fits together from grade to grade. We barely have time to keep up with the recent events of one another’s lives. We are surrounded by peers, yet it feels like everyone shoulders their own load in isolation.

This overloaded professional life is a problem, not just for the teachers themselves, but for the country as a whole. New teachers are hard to recruit, and harder to hold onto, as they feel the weight even more than us veterans. Burnout is inevitable for many, as the job puts such a strain on personal and family relationships, and on mental health in general. There are no easy fixes to the problem, but I can think of a few ways that we could help our teachers to use their time and energy more efficiently, to feel appreciated for the work they do, and to maybe even have some time left over for a life outside of school.

First, we need to recognize the diversity in our students, and move beyond the one-size-fits-all approach to state and national standards, as well as commercial textbooks that align with those standards. Curriculum writers and credential programs should work together to develop pedagogical approaches that will allow teachers to go into their first year expecting a range of learners in their class, and having the tools to mold the curriculum to fit the needs of the group.

Next, we need to return to a culture of respect for professional educators, which starts with an admission that there may be more than one effective way to teach. The top-down reform efforts of the past few decades have demoralized and insulted our teachers long enough. A quick survey of educational practices around the globe shows how vastly different approaches can be effective. In fact, a quick survey of most schools can do the same. When I worked in independent schools, it was generally accepted that each teacher should teach in the manner in which they were most effective, even if the styles varied from class to class. We don’t all have to be Jaime Escalante or Erin Gruwell. We need to be free to work in an environment where we are encouraged to build on our own personal strengths and develop an instructional approach that suits our unique personality and educational philosophy. By extension, methods of teacher evaluation have to move beyond checklists of teacher behaviors and focus more on how well the students are actually progressing in their understanding of the curriculum.

Oh yeah, and it wouldn’t hurt to have fewer kids crammed into the classroom and fewer hours in front of them every day. Like most things in this country, the problem eventually boils down, at least in part, to money. Class sizes continue to rise, and the subjects that used to create prep time for teachers are getting squeezed out of the budget more and more each year. In independent schools I spent between three to four hours actually in front of the class each day, and my average class size was probably around 17. (I still managed to work through every lunch period and stay until 5:00 or 6:00 most days.) Now I teach closer to five hours a day, and I feel lucky to have classes in the mid-twenties. I know plenty of teachers (including kindergarten teachers) who routinely have 30+ kids in their class, without one minute of help from a teacher’s aide. More kids to teach means more assessments and other assignments to grade, more report cards, more conferences, more everything. Furthermore, you just can’t teach the same way when you have twice the number of students. Lessons that work great with 20 kids can be impossible to manage with 34, and prepping science experiments or any other hands-on activity can just take too much time and money when class sizes get out of hand.

We are a dedicated bunch, but I don’t think this country will be able to keep this going on indefinitely. With the hostility towards teachers that is being played out on the national stage, and the every day wear and tear of the job, it will be increasingly difficult to find talented teachers who are interested in entering the profession, much less willing and able to stick with it once they try it on for size. It’s time for us to recognize the complexity of the challenge our teachers face, and start listening to their expertise as much as we spout expertise to them. We need to allocate the resources necessary to ensure that our teachers can do their job without burning out prematurely, and give new teachers the tools and support they need to succeed without completely sacrificing their personal lives. Until then, those of us left on our feet will keep running to stand still for as long as we can.

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About maestromitch

I have been teaching in California schools, both public and private, for the last 15 years. I started to blog as an attempt to further the conversation about the state of our public school system, and to make the case for a more balanced and rational approach to educating our children.
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5 Responses to The Treadmill

  1. Jennifer Goodheart says:

    excellent post, mitch! i’m feeling the burn right now and daydreaming of careers that involve sitting in a cubicle by myself with headphones on. the social work aspect, which is one of my favorite parts of my job, is kicking my ass this year. get some sleep!

  2. nelliedorn says:

    You should get this in the Chronicle Sunday “Insight ” section…. Have you looked into publishing an editorial? I remember Dianna suggesting this a while ago…
    Great writing! I hope you write a book someday.

  3. Sean Sullivan says:

    Amen, brother. It’s difficult to explain why we’re so busy all the time and still feel like we’re falling behind. A coworker at Leadership Public School from Spain couldn’t believe our schedule there: 6 periods on, one off, 150 contacts a day, day after day. She said that they typically have 3 hours in front of a class to 3-4 of prep a day. Can you imagine finishing your work WHILE you were at work?!

  4. janet lowy says:

    I totally agree with you. You write so well, and I have read your blog to my daughter who is just now entering the teaching profession. I have another daughter who has been teaching now for five years and is seriously talking about looking for a different profession because she is tired of being tired. Who do we look to for the needed changes. Certainly someone who can convince Washington that local schools don’t need their interference. Who would that be? By the way, I am good friends with your mother and I highly respect her as a fellow educational professional. She and I have been fighting against the “one size fits all” philosophy for years. We have it a little easier because in Special Education we are allowed to individualize our instruction.

    • maestromitch says:

      Thanks Janet. I think there may be momentum building for a slightly more balanced approach. From what I’ve seen of the common core standards, they seem like a move in the right direction. There is more emphasis on process and understanding, and less on cramming maximum content into the school year. We’ll have to see what happens, and to keep adding our voices to the national discussion.

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