Almost two months ago now, in the throes and excitement and the optimism of a new school year, I found myself writing with my students and posting the results as blog entries here on the Michael Jarmer blog page. I was a happy camper then. Those were truly salad days in September. Fast forward to November 11, two days ago, I make the following post on the social media network I fondly call Face Plant:
On this Veteran’s Day holiday I put in 6 hours toward grading papers and I’m nowhere close to being done. The only relief today was the time I spent uncontrollably laughing at a student’s use of the word “ballstastically” in her otherwise lovely paper about the joys of reading. Ballstastic, indeed.
This to point out, yes, the wonderful discovery of a new inappropriate word, but also to illustrate how impossible it has become to do my job in the time allotted me to do it in the context of the work week. I haven’t posted this on Face Plant, but let’s just pretend, shall we:
On this Thursday, November 13, I called in sick in order to grade papers. It turned out to be a snow day. No school. No snow, either, but that’s no matter; somewhere in our district, up in the hills, perhaps, it was dangerous to drive a school bus or a car, and they closed down the district. At any rate, I spent another 6 hours grading papers today and I’m nowhere close to being done. This is not ballstastic. Not at all. I have decided that something has to be good to be ballstastic. Not good. Or, as Orwell put it in 1984, doubleplusungood.
The good news is that I only have about 90 papers yet to read, papers that I’ve been sitting on for weeks. Listen, I tried to stagger the work. One set of the reading journals I call “logs” came in, and then another, and then another, and then three more other sets of logs, all staggered, by the way. But by the time I got to the bottom of the log jam, the papers started to roll in. One set, then another set, and then four more sets, all staggered, but all coming in before I am able to vanquish the logs. Meanwhile, during my preparation period in the context of the work day, there’s this thing called planning to be done: what am I going to do with kids for 87 minutes in six total sections of three different classes? So, when and where will all of this grading get done, Mr. Smarty-pants? Why, at home, of course, on my own time.
But here’s a thing you should probably know about me, and maybe you do if you’ve been hanging around the blog for any length of time. I am one of those teachers who has become, out of necessity and survival, unwilling to work a 60 hour work week. I am often unwilling to work a 50 hour work week. This means I have made certain compromises over the years as my class sizes and other responsibilities kept growing. I never stopped assigning work because the work, I’ve always believed, is good work. But I stopped giving detailed responses. I stopped reading student writing closely. I dipped in and out. I checked for a few choice things to give them feedback on, such as, this thesis is unclear, or wow, I don’t see any text evidence, or boy, you need to work on your spelling, or, hey, you can’t do that with a comma. And sometimes I did what I am only slightly ashamed to call “fake grading.” In essence, I’d say to a student, “you’ve done this thing. It appears that you have followed the instructions. Doing the work, in and of itself, was a good, instructive experience for you. 100%.” I became aggressively protective of my time at home as a husband, a dad, a writer, and a musician. Teaching is not my life. It is a significant part of my life that I don’t think I would trade for any other career, but it is not the only thing I live for.
Still, I resent the compromises I’ve had to make and have sort of bitterly come to the conclusion that the job a teacher absolutely should be doing, the job that I would really love to be doing, is next to impossible in the current climate–with massive class sizes and common core, with data-driven, student-growth teacher goals and site councils, with standardized tests and the consistent and obscenely absurd underfunding of schools–impossible.
So why am I now spending 12 extra hours over two days away from the school house with a promise of another 6 or 8 tomorrow? That’s a really good question. What’s changed? I’m teaching freshmen for the first time in many years and many of them can’t write. That’s part of it. I want them all to be capable of entering IB English as juniors if they want to, and even if they don’t, I want them to have the skills. That’s part of it. I’m trying proficiency grading with freshmen. This means that if a student’s work doesn’t meet standards, rather than slapping a D on it, end of story, instead the teacher asks the student to do it again. And again. And again. This takes longer. A lot longer. This is also part of the story.
But this might be the chief inspiration toward this madness. I’m partnering with a couple of professionals who are much more hard core than I am–and I both love them and hate them for this. Both, earlier in their profession than I am, both, idealistic and compassionate, both, stupendously positive forces for young people, but both suffering tremendously under this same load. It’s stupid and it’s my problem, but I can’t NOT do what they’re doing. I’m going to say the first part of this sentence over again: it’s stupid and it’s my problem. It’s both the blessing and the curse of refusing to teach in isolation like some of my colleagues continue to do. It’s good work we’re doing and we’re proud of it, but it is absolutely, positively unsustainable.
People of Earth, citizens of Oregon and of these United States of America. Stop pretending that simply raising the bar will achieve great results. Stop comparing apples to oranges by pretending the United States is remotely like Finland. Stop beating up on educators and walk instead a mile in their shoes. Please sit down with 200 pieces of writing from 200 different teenagers and in less than 5 or 10 minutes per student try to give each of them meaningful feedback in writing as opposed to circling numbers on a rubric. And don’t say you’re serious about or that you support education until you have figured out a way to create a work environment for educators that either provides the resources and time on the job to do that job, or that pays teachers for a 60 hour work week. Otherwise School House Rock becomes School House Rock ‘n’ Sock–which is nowhere close to ballstastic, but rather, doubleplusungood.