The Real Life of a Teacher
Allison Webb of Woodstock is a 15 year veteran teacher at Sequoyah High School in Canton.
If those of you in power really cared about teacher retention, quality of instruction, and increasing student achievement, you might want to consider the following points. I have prepared for you a detailed description of why and how my suggestions could have real impact and also let you in on why many beginning teachers don’t last, why many excellent teachers quit, and why nothing else that you do to improve education will make any difference in terms of the quality of teaching. I am going to show why despite the fact that I live my job more hours than my husband and 3 daughters would like, I will never get ahead, and find myself with 15 years invested in the dead end job that I love—teaching.
I teach 5 classes a day and prepare three different lesson plans (Spanish 1, Spanish 3 Honors and AP Spanish Language and Culture). My planning period (55 minutes long) is supposed to be sufficient for me to prepare engaging and creative, differentiated lessons for 3 different groups of kids. Let’s see—does that mean I am saying that 19 minutes per class is sufficient? And I need to subdivide those 19 minutes to account for the different needs of students in each of those classes (those who need assignments to accelerate their learning as well as those who need support to remediate their lack of learning or mastery)? And I’ll have time for grading, responding to parent emails and attending meetings, making copies and doing various duties? Actually, I think it’s pretty clear that it is nowhere near sufficient. The grading goes into a big black bag, to be ever present at the side of my recliner, gone through as the kids are asking me questions about their homework, lying across my chest as I fall asleep with it in the recliner. The grading is rolled up and stuck in my purse so that during half-time at my kids’ basketball games, I might be able to grade a few tests, quizzes, or compositions. The grading is quickly stacked up and put away as my husband sighs, “Can’t you ever quit working?” What happens is that my average school day is extended many hours past the 8 to 4 day that non-teachers seem to covet. Perhaps when you are finished reading this essay, you can tell me if you still envy my hours, vacations, and carefree living.
I have a lunch period between two bells. Leaving campus for lunch is frowned upon, and I must have express permission from my administrator to do so. So my lunch is “Michelle Obama’s” fare or a frozen meal or leftovers, eaten hurriedly over a student desk with a few other colleagues who wish to feel like normal adults for a few minutes each day. Once we’ve scarfed down our food, we hope to run copies, but often find ourselves running from one end of the school to another, trying to find a copier that is not jamming or out of toner. On the weeks that we have duty, we walk around our designated area, telling kids to please pick up and throw away trays that are never theirs, pick up carrots that nobody threw and catch dress code violators that never had anything said to them before. We watch out for fights that nobody starts and count down the days of that unfortunate week. We receive no compensation for this lunch duty—it is included under the various sundry duties we may be arbitrarily assigned, which are not limited to lunch duty. As a Spanish teacher, I have to serve translation duty, which means that for 1 month each semester, I have to make myself available to call and/or email Spanish-speaking parents, interpret at IEP meetings or translate documents. Others have hall duty, morning duty, or afternoon duty monitoring parts of the building, trying to keep teenagers from meeting up in corners and dark spaces and from skipping class. We all have to share school events, like Prom duty, begging our spouses to dress up and make us feel even a little bit elegant as we monitor the girls coming out of the bathroom for signs of alcohol consumption and hit the dance floor trying to keep the dancing PG. We are asked to volunteer for the county events and to chaperone weekend field trips. Coaches spend the season of their sports living on campus. Our band and choral directors live on the field and in the concert halls.
And I’d like to talk grading, which varies in volume by area, but I think it will be hard for anyone truly to get this reality without some illustration. Right now I teach 33 students in AP Spanish Language, 28 students in Pre-AP Spanish 3 and 39 students in Spanish 1—100 in all. I have a light load in terms of class numbers. Most teachers deal with 30-35 students per class, with 150-175 students total. My faculty handbook requires me to put in grades weekly, which usually involves 1-3 small assignments like homework or compositions and 1-2 larger assignments like quizzes, tests or essays per week, per class. So let’s say that I start with 2 homework assignments and 1 quiz for Pre-AP Spanish 3. Each homework takes between 30 seconds and a minute (I’ll estimate 45 seconds to be fair) to grade and then at the end of the week, it takes about 5 minutes per class to put those grades into the online gradebook. So that would mean 45 seconds times 2 assignments times 28 students equals 2520 seconds, or 42 minutes. Not bad! But they also had a quiz, which does take a little longer to grade (about 2 and half minutes each). Now we’re at 1 hour and 10 minutes for the quiz, plus the 5 minutes to put grades in. I’m now at approximately 2 hours for Pre-AP Spanish. I’ll spare you the detailed calculations from here on, but AP Spanish Language is more intense, because I regularly have to grade their essays, recordings and projects, which are definitely more complex. So after a paragraph and an essay I’d calculate about 4 hours to complete all their grading and enter it. But there’s still Spanish 1, which does take a lot of small assignments to make sure they are studying. These freshmen are not convinced that they should take anything seriously unless it’s for a grade, so 3 homework assignments and a quiz should be good. Two and a half hours later, I’m done with them. Grand total for a typical weeks grading—from 8 to 10 additional hours.
Teaching feels like a 24 hour a day job. After 15 years and many incredible mentors, including both my mom and dad, I have quite a few tools when it comes to coming up with an effective activity quickly; however, most beginning teachers’ preparation focuses more of their attention on the hows and whys of learning instead of the whats, as in what do I do to get them to learn this concept and not be totally bored, off task or worse, causing classroom disruption? What do I do when the activity I planned in such detail bombs? I did not build these strategies overnight and I did not acquire these skills by working an 8 to 4 job. In my first years as a teacher, I remember staying up to 1 and 2 am on a routine basis, sitting at our desktop computer coming up with handouts, tests and quizzes. It took me back to the days when I was in elementary school and my mom was working on the Apple IIC, and our noisy printer woke me up at 2 am while choking out a biology test. There were years of my husband asking me why I couldn’t get all this work done during my planning period, convinced that there had to be something I was doing wrong. Those same years, I swore I would divorce him unless he took a day off work to be my shadow and see what it was like, which normally quieted him down until the next time his frustration with my job boiled over. There were years of my asking the family to please hold off on the family Christmas party until after finals because I had to write mine up from scratch. The time spent out of school on this job has a real impact on a teacher’s ability to enjoy life and to spend time with her family. My kids learned to answer when other moms wondered where I was at their school day events “My mom’s a teacher and she can’t leave her class.” My husband was often the caretaker on days when they were sick because he didn’t have to find a sub and put together a lesson plan in order to stay home. This is what teaching is like because there is no way to get it all done, ever.
Some of the most competitive school systems in the world understand this truth about time and teaching. These countries have built a system that recognizes that effective teaching requires significant time devoted to planning and preparing feedback for students. According to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on teaching hours, “at the upper secondary general level, teachers in Denmark, Finland, Greece, Israel, Japan, Korea, Norway, Poland and the Russian Federation teach for three hours or less per day, on average, compared to more than five hours in Argentina, Chile and the United States” (OEDC 2011). When teachers have more hours to prepare, they are able to tailor their lessons, get grading done in order to provide timely feedback to students. They are able to live a life outside the school and they are able to feel like 30 years in this profession is not a life sentence. They are able to deliver quality instruction. Is it any wonder that those systems where teachers have more time to plan are leading the world in quality of education? There are so many research-based strategies that we would like to use better, but we simply do not have enough hours in the day to do so, so the system in essence ties our hands.
The school day gives us few opportunities to work together. We have department meetings once a month after school, so the already long day is extended by another hour. In addition, working together before or after school is often limited by additional commitments we have as teachers. For example, my department head and Spanish colleague has morning duty from 7:45 to 8:30 every day and I tutor Spanish 1 students most Mondays after school, teach an APEX recovery class on Tuesday, have Model UN club meetings on Wednesday afternoons (until 5 pm), and try to make myself available for a student who needs help applying for college and another one who wants to brush up on her Spanish for her job at Zaxby’s. On Fridays, I stay for the games, and let the kids know that I am proud of what they do on the field and on the court too. So it’s hard to choose a day and time for collaborative planning outside of the school day.
We do have one week of pre-planning and one week of post-planning, of which the pre-planning is probably the most fruitful. I should clarify—it is fruitful when we are allowed to use it for planning and collaboration, not when we are forced to attend workshops for our professional development that every year roll the latest set of acronyms that an education bureaucrat has invented. During the year on several days each semester we huddle in someone’s classroom after school and work until 6-7 pm planning common assessments and unit activities. Those long days contribute to the fatigue and often (not to be too dramatic) hopelessness we feel about our careers. We work so hard and never seem to get ahead. Yet, it is in those late afternoon meetings that we get our frustrations off our chest, have moments of creative energy, get excited about the latest project and rubric we have designed, and find the strength to keep going. We rely on each other so much and sometimes we are the only ones who can talk each other down from the cliff when things go poorly.
We are assumed by the system to be incompetent and must constantly prove that we are not. Testing is a prime example. In fact, the current system seems to say that only a test can prove that a teacher is competent. Testing takes time, does not contribute to learning, costs who knows how much money and is often redundant. I sometimes wonder why the state doesn’t just cut the testing budget instead of our insurance, raises, professional learning–if they really care about quality of instruction. Let me give you an example. I have been teaching AP Spanish Language and Culture since 2005. I have attended 3 different week-long trainings and 1 refresher training. Every summer I spend 7 days, 8 am to 5 pm, grading the AP Spanish Language exam with colleagues from colleges and high schools from all over the United States. You can look up the scores that my students have received on the exam from every one of those years. But now, I have to administer an “SLO” exam twice a year as a pretest and posttest. It is a poor substitute for the full AP exam, including only reading questions (50 total) and takes one class period. The College Board assessment evaluates a student’s ability to speak, write and understand written language, spoken language and culture and lasts for 4 hours. My students take their actual AP exam in May and we receive those scores in June. Now it is true that not all students can afford to pay for the exam or choose to take it. But the students’ growth from pre to post test on the SLO is what is used in my evaluation, and not their AP scores. We are over-testing our students because the system places no trust in the teachers’ ability to instruct.
I know that I am a great teacher. I am not a perfect one, but I am a highly effective, master teacher who is sought out for advice, has mentored new teachers, has hosted a student teacher, has been recognized as the STAR teacher, multiple Salutatorians’ and Valedictorians’ influential teacher, has watched former students go on to minor in Spanish and even major in it, following a love for language that was first fostered in my classroom. I have been involved in my professional organizations, competed for and won scholarships, written grants, written curriculum, selected textbooks, given presentations and speeches and even received the Outstanding Graduate Student Award as I completed my masters last year (while I was teaching). So is mine the type of teaching you wish to replicate? Do you really think that most teachers are as passionate, crazy, type-A, driven as I am to do all those hours of work outside of the 8 to 4 school day? You guessed it – probably not. But you might have a better chance of making this happen, and thus improve the state of teaching, if you designed the school day to make the following items a priority: time for planning quality instruction, time for collaboration, cutting back on testing and giving teachers a voice and a means to impact their schools and professions.
These are my recommendations:
- Establish more planning days during each semester or grading period and don’t fill it up with workshops; let us work together, share best practices and use our resources to enrich our own curriculum.
- Reduce the number of hours teaching and increase the number of hours used for planning and collaboration. Yes this would mean hiring more teachers to cover the classes, but you could pay for it with my #3.
- Stop the redundant testing. When you know how to read test data, you realize how wasteful it is to administer an ITBS every year, a COGAT every year, an SLO. You realize that the indicators of great teaching are easily observable in the classroom and in the quality of activities a teacher plans. There is no need to take instructional time for testing. Assessment is part of effective teaching already.
- Hire administrators that foment an esprit de corps, who give us opportunities to socialize, to get to know members of other departments and to make us feel a sense of community instead of isolation. Hire administrators who see us as a team to be coached up.
- Stop bombarding new teachers with extracurricular commitments. Give them the time they deserve to learn and be mentored by others so that they don’t run away from their teaching career before 3 years have passed.
- Listen to us. Ask for our opinion. Engage us in this fight for a better education for all students.
- Stop vilifying teachers and balancing your budgets at our expense. Stop begrudging us a yearly step raise, which in my case amounts to about two grand every two years. Stop saying that a teacher with her master’s in her subject area has not earned a raise that will not even cover the cost of her student loan. Stop plotting ways to shortchange us in health insurance and to raid our retirement.
- Stop appointing to educational reform commissions those who have never taught but who seek to profit monetarily from the reforms they support.