Vroom Vroom! Speeding up to change…not much!

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?

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3 Responses to Vroom Vroom! Speeding up to change…not much!

  1. Irritated Parent says:

    Sir,

    As the parent of a BSU student I can only hope that you quit your job soon. I am truly horrified by what you have written here. Seriously? It is my understanding that you are one of the people who is employed to teach my child how to become a good teacher. Explain how that is possible when you apparently possess such a negative view of the profession. My student is working hard to afford the thousands of dollars in tuition it costs to attend college these days in the hopes of having a successful future career. What your blog is telling me is that my student should just apply to Wal Mart and forget about college. Why spend the money, that by the way pays your salary, when you could just skip the middle man and go right to that “blue collar” job?

    I think what you have written here is offensive to the many, many quality teachers that we are lucky to have teaching our kids. My own child was fortunate enough to be taught be a group of high caliber professionals who loved their jobs and the kids they taught. I have to wonder from reading your blog if any of the parents of the children you taught on the K-12 level would be able to say that about you and your teaching skills.

    While I’m sure we would all agree that our public school system needs some reforms you don’t appear to have any useful ideas to offer. If you truly believe that teaching is such a miserable profession why are you now employed teaching kids how to teach? Perhaps you should consider a change in your own profession. Maybe you could try something that truly requires hard work during the course of your day. Perhaps if you apply yourself and work hard you could get a real blue collar job and understand how hard some people work for their money.

    One final question, does your employer know how you feel about teachers and the teaching profession?

  2. I am sorry that you found my ideas offensive.I think very highly of the education profession. I thoroughly enjoyed my time as a K-12 teacher and I worked with many quality teachers. I think you misunderstood my point, which tells me that I did not communicate it effectively. What we ask teachers to do is very hard work. And we seem to be asking them to do more and more with less and less. That is what I was referring to when saying that it was a grind. Teaching is exhausting both physically and emotionally, but also extremely rewarding. As a society we are calling for reform in education, but we also seem unwilling to change the system to truly treat those within the system as the professionals that they are by giving them the time during their work day to conduct meaningful reflection on their craft so that they can become even better.

    By the way, my Dean subscribes to my blog.

  3. K-12 Teacher says:

    I had a very different understanding of your post than “Irritated Parent.” I read it as commentary on the education system, not teachers–a system that is often not kind to teachers. K-12 education demands a lot of the people involved in it, and as (at least in some places) it constantly demands more, it becomes impossible for a teacher to meet the demands of the system and still be a healthy, balanced human being.

    As a K-12 teacher, who admittedly has not found a perfect balance, one of the big challenges is planning the time that I am given with my students to make the best use of it. Unfortunately, I have very little time to plan (and still eat, sleep, see my family…). I have to churn out lesson plans like a machine, while trying to negotiate a complex set of variables–How many students are in my class? What style of learning do those students prefer, and how can I help them expand their learning strategy repertoire? What does each individual student need right now? What does the group need? Not to mention the content…how much to “cover”? How will I engage them in the content? And how will I assess my students’ learning? I care a lot about the quality of the education that my students get in my classroom, and I think that is what Dr. Goodwin is commenting on here: if I had time to do careful planning that addressed each student’s need (easier with fewer students), spend more time exploring ideas to bring back to my classes, and still get a good night’s sleep, I would be a better K-12 teacher. I would be able to “bring my best” to my students every day.

    As it is, I am passionate about teaching–I wouldn’t want to do any other job. I just wish that I had the luxury of slowing down, reflecting more, and thereby becoming a better teacher.

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