I heard Ted Kolderie speak once (I think it was him) where he provided this metaphor for the public school system: it is an engine running at maximum RPMs. In our efforts to improve education we have simply stepped on the gas—more testing, more standards, more, more, more. But the engine is already running at maximum RPMs. He asked if we could get any more speed out of this particular engine.
I spent 20 years stepping on the accelerator of that engine as a K-12 teacher. Most public school teachers have this kind of schedule: teach five classes, have one period of supervision, and one period for prep in a school day that consisted of seven 50-minute class periods. Spread across those five classes I had anywhere from 120 – 180 students.
I have now been a college professor for a few months, teaching two classes on Monday and Wednesday, two on Tuesday and Thursday, and one on Friday. Spread across those four classes I work with about 100 students. When my wife saw my schedule this year (in comparison to my past workday schedule) she made a comment about making it to the top and having a cushy schedule. The reality is that I am working harder and longer hours than I have in a long time. Part of that can be attributed to adjusting to a new job, but as I look at my colleagues with similar schedule I see the same amount of effort and hours. But yet I love it, because there is a significant difference in the over-arching culture of the two types of institutions.
Teaching well at the K-12 is an absolute grind—both physically and emotionally. The summers may have been free, but for me anyway, without that time to get a break from that grind, either by spending that time going back to school myself, reading and researching, or doing something completely different like building a deck or roofing a house I would not have been able to do that grind for 20 years. Teaching at the K-12 level is structured like a blue-collar factory job—maybe because the model of the traditional public school was invented about the same time as the internal-combustion engine and factories of the industrial revolution.
I may be actually working longer hours now, but it isn’t a grind like K-12. The expectations may be more varied and higher, what with advising students, committee meetings, research and writing expectations, but the intellectual stimulation and culture that surrounds me supports these efforts. I may spend less time actually “teaching” my students, but I spend a great deal more time planning how and what I teach. I can now take a few minutes before class to properly prepare for my lesson and take a few minutes on my lesson to actually reflect on how the lesson went and makes some notes on what to do differently the next time. When your day is such a grind that your body has adapted to executing bodily functions at specific 5 minute passing (pun intended) periods between classes it’s tough to do the necessary reflection, researching, and collaboration to improve the craft of teaching. When in that grind can a K-12 teacher really take time to be creative, innovative and apply the most current education research? So it’s a grind, and because it is a grind, the only real change in education that appears to be happening is we are just speeding up the engine. Vroom vroom!
What if we changed the “engine” and the typical K-12 teacher had a schedule like I mine at the college level? Could they maybe step off the accelerator enough to really improve their craft—not just test scores?