We Have to Stop Doing This to Teachers

I been out of the classroom just long enough (7 years) to forget what’s it’s like. Not what it’s like to teach because I’ve been teaching, albeit at the college level but the I believe there are more similarities than differences. What I forget is all the "stuff" they deal with everyday. Some of this stuff has been there all the time. Dealing with parents who wonder why their kid got a bad grade, trying to come up with a new way to help your students learn long division, settling an argument that took place during a break or trying to figure out why your room smells. Those things will always be there. The stuff I’m talking may have been around for a while but it’s escalated over the past few years since I’ve been in the classroom.

Our division, specifically, is only 4 years old. Like all the divisions in Saskatchewan we forced to combine with smaller divisions to make larger ones. Ours is made up of 7 small districts. I would argue that we’ve done a pretty decent job of transitioning and building culture given the circumstances. But in addition to that our teachers are dealing with new curriculum, decreased PD time, new grading system, high expectations around differientated instruction, larger class sizes and increased accountability. These changes represent major changes for many teachers and the overall theme here is to insure the highest quality of learning opportunity for all students.

I’m fortunate to be able to work with great teachers who genuinely want to get better. They recognize that while the may be skilled teachers, they don’t have the time or resources to implement all the necessary changes that are being placed upon them. We have very little argument about the shifts to student involved assessment, student led conferences or brand new curriculum.Good teaching, while based on many tried and true principles always considers how it needs to improve. In general, they appreciate the work that the consultants in our division do. I believe that the vast majority of our teachers fit into this category. No one goes into teaching to be lousy. We have bad teachers, but I don’t that we have very many.

I also get to spend a great deal of time with our superintendents and other leaders in our division and to a person, they all want to create a division where students succeed, teachers are great and everyone loves their job. They aren’t interested in making people nuts. As a province and division, our curriculum and beliefs around teaching and learning is recognizing the shift in role of expert to learner. This is all good but simply telling people they need to change isn’t a great formula for success. Not that that has been the case but when I talk to teachers I’m hearing the same message.

"It’s too much"
"It seems the only things that are valued are Reading and Math"
"I feel like everything I’m doing is wrong"
"I’m not sleeping well"
"I need time to implement"

Something’s very wrong when a whole bunch of good people all trying to do what’s best for kids feel like this. Is this just about a bad system or are we trying to do too much too quickly? I’m not sure but if we don’t figure this out soon, we’re going to have problems finding great teachers to fill our schools. Maybe we’ve always have been saying these things, it just seems to me things are escalating. I don’t think the things I suggest here are unique to our situation. But maybe I’m wrong. We could just, "stop the train, slow down" and not rock the boat. But if we believe that change is envitable and necessary, how do we do that and not drive teachers nuts?

So please help me understand. Does the scenario I write about resonate with you? If so what are your thoughts about the root causes and solutions? If you feel differently about education, by all means share what has made the difference.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by Maria & Michal Parzuchowski



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  • I was in grad school at Regina in the early 1990’s so of course my understanding of contemporary educational research is positively antediluvian. Reading your comments prompted me to pull my journal off the shelf and remind myself of what Lawrence Stenhouse wrote back in 1976. Regardless of the merits of our objectives and our best intentions we will always be confronted with the complexities of change.

    The division I share with Dean has worked mightily to restructure the culture of the organization and achieve some sort of clarity about the outcomes desired in this shift to standardized assessments for learning and student involvement in that assessment. Organizational arrangements shift and communication happens. The skills and knowledge needed to carry out change is being developed. All this is encouraging. Serious barriers remain and these foster the frustrations Dean eluded to.

    There is a problem of distance between the resource people with the expertise and the classroom teacher. The materials required to bring about the change are not always available. Assessments and the benchmarks underpinning them are incomplete or in a state of flux as action research leads to false starts and repetition. This is redesign as the vehicle is hurtling down the road and professionals have worked their entire careers under such conditions. It is the norm but frustrating non-the-less.

    There are other gaps to deal with. I am less sanguine about the consensus for change. Competing philosophies of education still hold teacher’s attention. The teacher’s priorities also act as a barrier. Dean mentioned concerns that the focus is to narrowed on Math and Reading (add writing to this). Sure there are marginal teachers, or sound teachers in a slump; however, as Dean remarked, most teachers are innovators. We all have private action research projects we have committed ourselves to and these compete with the division’s primary curricular goals.

    As teachers accept these changes and integrate them into their practice, they become the advocates for change. It lies with them to sell the change to pupils and families. Again I think frustrations are generated by this process. The current reporting process in the division is as traditional as they come: percentages and a four-point scale. Understanding the data generated from our new assessments challenges students and parents. Further, I feel current post-secondary expectations present another gap. The percentage continues to hold more merit than benchmarks.

    Finally the climate of education is not always ideal. As I said earlier, there continue to be competing values in education. There are practical conflicts generated by incomplete (or incompatible) curriculums. There is an undercurrent of conflicting power here because these innovations call for power redistribution. Student involvement in assessment and conferencing shifts ownership. New measures of accountability seem to challenge long standing beliefs about professional autonomy in the classroom. Part of the challenge presented by change is to argue convincingly that there has been no degradation in trust or confidence.

    I share in the frustrations and stresses of change. It will come and I will eventually be an effective change agent advocating differentiated learning and student led conferencing to students and families. Interesting times, and somewhat cyclical in nature I am afraid. Fortunately change has been a salient feature of my entire career.
    .-= Alan Stange´s last blog ..Grading practices for 2009-2010 =-.

  • (Alan shakes a tiny fist at his inability to edit simple errors out of his previously posted comments.)
    .-= Alan Stange´s last blog ..Grading practices for 2009-2010 =-.

  • Hi Dean,

    I’m a lecturer in Educational Sciences at the University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg, Europe and I want to share my humble and preliminary thoughts about “imposed changes”. We are having a major reform of our school law (the last real update was in 1912!) partially due to what has been called the PISA-Shock in Germany (one of our neighbor countries), partially due to the fact that finally somebody got the balls and wisdom to see that our school system and it’s laws and regulations were actually well suited for a society of the beginning of the 20th century but did no longer fit with our changed demographics and the major changes in our economy and cultures (from an agricultural/industrial society to a knowledge/information society). We have namely had major immigration waves to Luxembourg from mainly Italy and Portugal during the last decades, so that the proportion of “foreigners” now takes 40% of the people living in Luxembourg. And we do have a lot of transnational commuters coming to work in Luxembourg everyday (about the size of 30% of our resident population).

    Let me be clear at this point: I do think that the changes in laws and regulations were needed and would have been needed earlier.

    However, I do feel, like you describe you do, that all the new requirements that teachers in K-12 schools have to handle everyday may be too much for them. I still hope that the new legal framework (away from an input-oriented/teacher-centered/instruction-based teaching system towards an output-oriented/learner-centered/competencies-oriented system) will allow teachers to free themselves from all the time-pressures they had to cope with before and allow them to creatively adapt their teaching practices. We’ve heard all the time from teachers that, given the strict and highly-demanding instruction programs they had to deliver, they never had time to do things at a pace suited to ALL children, that some kids were necessarily left behind, but that they didn’t really have the choice, because they had to rush through the school manuals and the instruction program as fast as possible to be sure that parents (mainly of the “good-grades” kids) wouldn’t come knocking on their doors and ask them why the neighboring classes were ahead of them in terms of this linear, progressive and predefined input program. That has certainly been quite a drain on their mental and physical resources over the last decades.

    However, the reform we are living through now may put them under even more pressure, partially because they are not necessarily well prepared for the new requirements and challenges: working in teams, creating enriched learning environments for kids, doing on-going portfolio evaluation, giving each child the chances to learn at their pace, etc.

    I hope to do my small and humble contributions to this enterprise by trying to empower my future teacher students to be better prepared for changes in the future by helping them to develop life-long-learning attitudes and behaviors.

    However, there are considerable risks that the multiple new pressures that teachers have to cope with will make some of them even more conservative and rigid in their attitudes and believes… “I’ll stick to what I’ve been good at for decades.”

    Structural changes need to be supported and scaffolded by those responsible for the change, when it comes from the top to the bottom… changes from the bottom are always more self-supporting, but sometimes a change in laws and regulations become inevitable to allow these bottom-up changes to happen and to be legal and acceptable…

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  • SKing

    Dean, I think you’ve been lurking in my staffroom. You nailed the feelings of many of my colleagues in Northern Saskatchewan. Many of us want to see our results improve and like you said,”No one goes into teaching to be lousy.” Yet we often feel like we are not moving quickly enough or that the changes that we all want are not happening as quickly as expected.

    I guess for me the most troubling aspect of accountability is that right now it is primarily focused on the teacher and the delivery of programs. There is little dialogue about the relevance of curricula in our times; there are some great minds (like yours and Couros) who are advocating for 21st century learning skills, but the reality is that many classrooms do not look that different than when I was in high school in the late 70’s. Is the problem that the current push for change in education is missing the fact that how people learn and the skills people need in the 21st century are changing? While I agree that literacy and numeracy are important, I do question the organization of school by grades, I question how we evaluate students, and I wonder how valid some of these assessments are in regards to improving learning. Are we moving back to teaching to tests?

    I also wonder when does accountability include the learner? Don’t get me wrong, I will never blame a student who is trying; but what do you do with “learners” who refuse to engage in the learning process. And I don’t mean just sitting in class bored; I’m talking about those who attend school, but treat classes as optional. My dad always told me, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” I’ve seen exceptionally good teachers struggling with students that will not engage in what is asked of them. Is that a failure of the teacher? In these times, that’s what were being lead to believe.

  • dave

    I’ll try not to write an essay, but I do agree with you that it seems like teachers are being given a lot of time-consuming tasks without consideration to their schedule.

    That said, I’ve never seen a detailed breakdown of teachers’ time. If a group of teachers voluntarily started keeping these notes, and if administrators and support staff paid attention and gathered the data, we’d have a much better picture of the problem, could work towards some solutions, and make actual progress because we’d have data to show the decision-makers.

    It’d be important to keep it voluntary on the teacher end — mandatory time-cards aren’t going to do anyone any favors.

  • Grant Taylor

    SKing makes two points I want to support. First, that we are behind in teaching for the 21st century. Secondly, I think that the organization of students by grades (which is really by age) is antiquated. I also heard a variation on the old saw. “You can lead a man to knowledge but you can’t make him think.” (Sorry for the gender-exclusive language.:) )

  • Writing from a teacher’s perspective (but currently a graduate student in an educational leadership program at Columbia)…

    When I think about the way in which schools are organized for professional growth and learning, I see major flaws. Although teachers are often the kings (and queens) of their domains in the classroom, I don’t feel as though they are empowered in way which enables them to take charge of their own learning to improve the quality of their craft. Closed doors and busy schedules do not lend themselves to collaboration among teachers.

    When I envision a school (or district or system) that truly empowers and engages teachers, I am convinced that it can only happen when teachers are taught about the power of the personal learning network. By reading and writing and reflecting, teachers can not only connect with those down the hall but also with others from around the world. Through these networks, teachers can begin to grow professionally in their own ways and on their own time line. Of course, this takes great leadership (and possibly PLCs which teach and foster a 21st century mentality), but I think it’s a way to make transformative changes in schools and in teacher-attitudes from the bottom-up.
    .-= Megan Howard´s last blog ..A New Beginning =-.

  • patricia cone

    Well written. What you say sums up my thoughts pretty well.

    What I keep asking myself is, “I love my job. Why am I so exhausted.”

    I’ve taught 28 years and it is the fatigue factor that is doing me in not the drive to keep on learning.

  • Gord Taylor

    Thanks Dean and others for being honest about the demands and stress of teaching in today’s changing learning environment. As an in-school administrator I see the anxiety and frustration in faces of my teachers when I return with more chnage. There is no disagreement among teachers, administrators, or senior administrators that the changes we are discussing/implementing are positive and promising for improving student learning. In fact many of the changes we have been wanting for years are coming to fruition. The challenge of course is not in the believing or understanding of the change, but rather the complexity of the implementation. Teachers need time and training to successfully implement the transformation. Just as we do with our students, chunking, scaffolding, and mastery of outcomes come one at a time and build on one another. What we are doing right now is serving a buffet of change and asking teachers to taste a little bit of everything, without really having time to digest anything. Thus, as the instructional leader in our school, I find it my responsibility to filter out some of the myriad of choices and present them one at a time rather than force feeding everything and causing a mass case of indigestion. Change is good and will be a constant for all, but how we manage change and take others with us in the journey is critical to a true transformation.

  • Sue King

    The scenario absolutely resonates – and I am in a district with great resources, small class sizes – but a growing population of students with varying needs – more ELL, more kids on the spectrum, kids with emotional/social issues, kids whose parents want them prepared for Ivy League schools. On top of that, we are trying to introduce 21st century learning tools, move to 1-1, and have an unbelievable narrow view from the state of accountability – test, test, test. I have wonderfully committed and dedicated teachers who are also feeling overwhelmed. I am beginning to wonder if we are not at the breaking point of what the traditionally structured educational system can handle. To me, one of the biggest issues is that deep level change is needed – significant change – and that is not possible to do incrementally while school is in session in the manner we currently do things. I think a very different approach is needed – but the state leaders in education seem hell-bent on staying on the course of accountability via low-level standardized assessments given to all in order to “hold teachers and schools accountable for student learning.” Though the “student learning” being measured is not, to me, genuine learning. I am ready for a change – just do not know how or with whom to join to create something different – something that can start small but be brought to a larger scale in a reasonable amount of time!

  • Many of the comments are eloquently stated and everyone is seeing the problem. What Sue says resonates with what is occurring in my corner of the world. The focus on testing is a problem that does not show any real student learning. I am not sure what the answer is, but how can a system with a variety of needs of parents/students meet them all? Differentiation itself cannot do that. I am not sure society can answer what they really need from education at this point. As a result, schools and teachers are asked to do much with very little time. I can understand why some teachers would stick to old methods. There is too much pull and we are asked to do much. It also seems that society and the establishment need to ask and answer some tough questions about what we really value.
    .-= Louise Maine´s last blog ..Can you help with a student project? =-.

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  • Hey Dean,

    As a full-time practicing classroom teacher, I can tell you that your observations are spot on—-and sadly, you’re right to think that we’ll struggle to staff classrooms with good teachers if we continue down the same road.

    I’m a prime example: I’ve never wanted to be anything but a classroom teacher–and have turned down many, many high paying opportunities to work beyond the classroom to stay true to that commitment. But I’m actively looking for a way out….and I’ll do almost anything: consultant, college professor, instructional resource teacher etc.

    What I’ve seen happen in my work is that I still have all of the traditional teaching tasks to manage—grading papers, planning lessons, communicating with parents—-AND I’ve got to wrestle through countless planning sessions to redesign teaching at the same time. Nothing has been taken away.

    And I resent people working beyond the classroom, because they don’t seem to remember the amount of time that it takes to do what we do. Instead, they roll in with new ideas every few months and expect us to implement them. Any pushback from teachers is seen as resistance, and those of us who push back the hardest get speeches about the importance of being “a team player.”

    Leaving the classroom looks like the best option because I’d rid myself of the traditional teaching tasks. That’s got to reduce my workload, I’d think.

    My thoughts aren’t clear here…I’m rambling. But I’m thankful that you’ve written about this and plan to follow up on my own blog.

    Rock on,
    .-= Bill Ferriter´s last blog ..Part One: Teacher Tips for Blogging Projects =-.

  • I’m a sixth grade teacher in Tucson, and I feel much of the pressure you describe. It feels like trying to rebuild the engine of a car while the car is still cruising down the highway.

    I don’t think it’s fair to paint teachers as victims or martyrs. Professionals in many fields take responsibility for the product and the process of their work, and it seems that teachers may finally need to step up to the plate on both of these fronts.

    I’m always amazed by teachers who think that education is some kind of ultra-noble exercise that is unaffected by the laws of organizational dynamics. It seems we’ve largely neglected our professional responsibilities for quality control, productivity, corporate culture and innovation. We’ve handed the reigns of our profession to administrators, staff development experts, teacher’s unions, and local and federal policy makers.

    What did we expect? Did we really not see this kind of reform coming?
    .-= Joel Zehring´s last blog ..What’s Not To Love About Video Games? =-.

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  • SKing makes two points I want to support. First, that we are behind in teaching for the 21st century. Secondly, I think that the organization of students by grades (which is really by age) is antiquated. I also heard a variation on the old saw. “You can lead a man to knowledge but you can’t make him think.” (Sorry for the gender-exclusive language.:) )
    .-= barkod´s last blog ..ETIKET =-.

  • Mary Mitchell

    As many of the other posts have agreed with your thoughts I do as well, but you ask about what thoughts we have about the causes and solutions.  I have a professional development position in my school district in Cincinnati, OH so I have a unique perspective.  I look at myself as a "tweener" – I see both sides of the fence – administrative and teacher.  First, causes:  I think that we continue to administrate in traditional ways.  We are constantly asking teachers to change their teaching to meet the needs of the 21st Century Learner and use best practices, but we don't administrate that way.  Meetings often are formatted to the "sit and get" method, when we don't want teachers teaching that way.  We want teachers to be part of "professional learning communities", but we don't act as if we are part of a professional learning community.  A school should be a learning community at all levels.  I don't have a lot of solutions.  If the problem was easy to fix, it wouldn't be a problem to begin with, but I can share some ideas.  For example, we need to start thinking about ways to use available technologies to build learning communities at all levels.  Not just talking about what learning communities are and trying to force their creation, but creating an environment that allows them to grow organically.  Another way to think about the tools is to think about what communications, messages, and work needs to be done with our staff.  We need to really sort out what the messages or tasks are and use the appropriate and MOST time efficient ways of accomplishing the delivery of those messages and accomplishment of those tasks.  When planning a staff meeting think about what needs to get accomplished.  Almost every single time there's more to get done than there is time.  Plan:  What during that meeting could be done in other ways.  Let me give an example to make my point.  You want to show a video and have a discussion about a teaching practice.  You also need to meet face to face with teachers to hash out the schedule of an upcoming event.  Rather than run out of time or rush around trying to do both and being ineffective with both, why not post the video online where teachers can view it at their convenience and have them post their comments.  Leaving more time to get the other task done that can't be accomplished any other way.  Just as we want our teachers to be intentional and thoughtful about their planning, we need to do this as well.  Until we do everyone is going to continue to feel like they are running on a treadmill and getting no where.