There are things that should infuriate public school teachers about our jobs. Here’s just one:
- It is an impossible gig; to wit, there is not enough time in the work day to do the job we have been asked to do, or rather, the job that we would like to do, the job that we know is best for our students and our schools.
Exhibit A: I have a student intern who has, at this point in the school year, taken over one of my six classes. So that means to me, while I am not inside the classroom observing and my intern flies solo, that every other day I have an extra 87 minutes to plan and grade in addition to my daily 87 minute preparation period. The extra time afforded by having an intern should allow me to get out from the perpetual work load hole. So I sit down first period today with a stack of response journals to grade–just one stack out of four stacks that await my attention. But I realize, even though I know exactly what I’ll be doing with my seniors next period, that before I can begin grading journals, I must figure out what I’m doing today with my freshmen the period after that. This should take a few minutes. Okay, do I have the poem of the day? Yes. Do I have copies? Yes. But before I give them the excerpt from The House on Mango Street, I need to deliver that mini-lesson about symbol. Okay, let’s look at that power point slide. No, I don’t like this. I don’t like the examples here. The examples need to be more clear, closer to something students will recognize. So I take 10 minutes to revise that slide. Okay, what’s next, after the mini-lesson and the warm-up, I wanted to do that exercise where the students look at one of Cisneros’s vignettes and make a claim, provide evidence for the claim, and craft an explanation about why their evidence supports the claim. Okay, do I have a handout for that? Yes. But I don’t have copies and I don’t want to give them three handouts today, so what if I just put the instructions on the next slide in that power point? Good idea, let’s do that. This takes another 15 minutes. Okay, we’re about half way through the plan. What’s next? Oh, students need a prompt for the original vignettes they’ll be drafting today. Do I have that? Yes. Let’s look. I don’t like it. These prompts are boring; I’d like to give students more choices. Oh shit, I have not yet reread the pages I assigned students for today. Well, I can’t write this vignette prompt until I’ve done that reading. That takes 20 minutes. As I’m reading I am writing prompts inspired by Cisneros’s vignettes in Mango Street. This is much better, but I don’t have copies. 15 minutes making copies, three copies of the assignment on one sheet, and then the work with the paper cutter to make a handout for 110 freshmen. Okay. Good. Back to my workspace only to realize I’ve got paperwork to do and emails to send and there’s an incidental but important conversation with a colleague about the site council meeting yesterday and suddenly I have five minutes left before the bell rings to start grading that stack of response journals. That’s not happening.
Exhibit B: My intern is teaching while I’m in the staff lounge alone with Exhibit A. There’s a seven minute passing period in which restrooms are used and a.v. equipment is made ready for my second period senior class. The bell rings. My second period students in an astounding display of commitment to unpacking the reading for today from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, discuss the novel, with me directing traffic and trying to ask good questions, for an entire period. It is exhilarating and exhausting. Before I know it, it is time for lunch, a duty free 30 minutes to eat and chat it up with colleagues. And yet, because I want to know, and because I enjoy the interaction, I ask my intern how first period went. He’s on his way out the door to get to a class at Lewis and Clark College, but my question and his highlights from his morning turn into a 10 minute conversation. Then there’s the logistical preparation for my freshmen coming in after lunch. Consequently, I have 15 minutes to eat. Oh, I have to go the restroom again. I have 12 minutes to eat. Off to spend an 87 minute period with my freshmen and my new slides and my new vignette prompts and a plan that’s far better than it was the last time I taught it.
Exhibit C: When my prep finally arrives fourth and last period (the worst), I am toast. It takes me about 20 minutes to muster up the energy to face that original stack of response journals. I face them. I sit down with them. I proceed to grade. In an hour, give or take, I finish grading half of one class set of response journals out of the four sets that await my attention. The day is done. Tomorrow I will be just a little bit less behind than I was today, despite my extra and luxurious and bountiful 87 minutes to plan and grade.
These first three exhibits are only about one day in one teacher’s classroom. If the teacher above were to get out of this perpetual grading and planning hole and stay there, he would have to do one of three things: 1. work hour upon hour outside the work day and on the weekend, at home during his own time, 2. call in sick often enough in order to get caught up, or 3. make compromises to the quality of the work he does. The alternative to these three options seems to be a perpetual grading and planning hole that comes to a close only twice a year: at the end of the first semester and again at the end of the school year.
And then there’s the work that somehow the staff, as a collective, must do together.
Exhibit D: As a staff, we are trying to be an IB School, to be an AVID school, to have effective Professional Learning Communities, to have effective and cohesive departments, to implement brand new science and social studies curriculum, to attend district wide staff development, to have meetings regularly in which a large group of teachers, counselors, administrators, and support staff talk about single kids who are struggling, to get through the accreditation process, to do the ever important work of reflecting about why we do what we do, what we do, and how we do it. We have 40 minutes or so in a 40 hour work week, and perhaps 8 to 16 hours spread out over the entire school year to do all these things well. And that doesn’t happen. As individual teachers in an academic classroom, we don’t have enough time in the work day to do our jobs, and as a staff, while the possibilities of what we could accomplish given the time to really dive deep are mind-bogglingly profound, we find ourselves constantly scratching the surface of a half a dozen things, all equally important and relevant to the work, but always infuriatingly out of our reach.
I said this to a colleague today almost as if it were the first time it had ever occurred to me: Given these parameters, it seems like we should just be walking around angry all the time! I have an impossible job! But lo, I have been at this for 30 years. Am I angry? Yes. All the time? Sure. Do I have high blood pressure? Yes, I do. Does it physically hurt me inside to realize that I will likely work an entire career without ever having the experience of the work AS IT COULD BE IN A PERFECT WORLD, or even in a slightly less imperfect world? Yes it does.
And yet, do I love this work? Do I think there are very few things in the world that I would rather do for a living than teach? For some reason, the answer to both of these questions, for me and for many of my colleagues who have been at this game for a long time, seems to be a definitive YES. Go figure.