Monday, October 3, 2022

Management By A Thousand Paper Cuts

This is a strictly local story, but I'm going to talk about it because A) many other folks from other districts are going to recognize it and B) because it typifies the kind of crap that teachers wrestle with that goes on far below the level of big policy discussions (and therefor can demand more teacher attention than big policy discussions). 

Once upon a time, there was a copier in the office, and whenever teachers needed to make copies they would just go make copies. This was, admittedly, not a great system. As a teacher, you had to hope that you weren't running to the copier at the same time as everyone else. If you were an administrator, you had to wonder how much of the gazillions of dollars you were spending on the machine were actually funding teacher mistakes and personal copies (answer: probably not millions of dollars, but probably not zero, either).

Copiers represent one of the great technological advances in education. Ask your great-grandparents what it was like to use mimeographs, the distinctive chunk-ka-chunk-ka-chunk, the distinctive and, for some, seductive aroma, the suspense of waiting to see if the page would print properly. The advent of a quick, reliable means of copying anything printed opened up whole new possibilities for what materials you could use in your classroom, and the advent of computers and internet connections multiplied those possibilities by millions. 

But copiers cost money. Paper costs money. And district management has to find ways to deal with that. 

A copy aid was added to staff, which helped everyone. Teachers could drop off copy work and not have to spend valuable minutes riding the machine (instead they could do other things like, say, pee). Swing by, drop off your stuff, then swing by later and pick the stuff up. And the district had a gatekeeper so that staff wasn't copying their entire library of cross-stitch designs on the taxpayer's dime. 

But copier paper is getting way more expensive. And leasing copiers has always been expensive. So management has come up with a way to make copying more centralized and "efficient." Create a central "print shop" and everyone can just submit their copying needs through a central form and then await the appearance of your copies through inter-office mail.

Why would this cut copier costs? According to the district, by "reducing unnecessary use of paper." Also, "We can get more longevity out of the machines if only one person is running them." Also, "streamlining the process," because nothing streamlines a process like adding extra steps to it.

It's management technique known as "If we make this thing more inconvenient and more annoying to do, maybe staff will do it less." 

Look, we're just talking about making copies, so this, and procedures like it in districts all over the country, is not the end of the world nor an insurmountable obstacle to getting the work done. But it speaks to a certain mindset, a part of the thousand-cut death that drains some teachers.

This move takes a management problem (It's hard to pay for all this copying) and prioritizes it over a teacher problem (How do I reproduce all the materials needed to do the work in my classroom). It takes a management problem and shifts the weight of the problem onto staff (I don't have to deal with this any more; now they can deal with it). 

And while that problem is not huge or weighty (I don't imagine any teachers wailing, "Oh no! How will I ever get my job done NOW!!??"), it sends a message about whose problems matter more to management, about whose work is prioritized. It is wearing for teachers to work in a district in which even one administrator projects the attitude that teachers are minor functionaries whose work is not the most important thing going on in the district.

Life will go on. Teachers find a way to adapt and makes these sorts of policies work. But damn--isn't it great when an administrator says those seven powerful words-- "what can I do to help you?" It's powerful when that phrase is part of the whole district culture, when the whole district is aimed at giving people what they need to do the work. And, yes, it works in all directions; if you want a good relationship with your administration, it helps to give them what they need to do their job. Ditto for how you treat your own students. 

Far healthier than a culture built on, "This may make your job harder, but it makes my job easier, so tough luck." 


  1. Here is a prediction- the teachers will order in advance way more copies than they will need and store them- because the only way to be ready is to prep in advance.
    Instead of running 20 copies during prep they will order 220 for the entire year plus extras "just in case".
    Instead of savings this will result in a cost increase.

  2. Our district as a central print shop. The departments in my building are moving away from it, because it is cheaper to purchase a printer suitable for a small business, maintain it, and but paper from our central store, which is a contracted private business which resells items from Staples for much of its supplies. My department saves thousands of dollars a year doing this, and teachers do not have to have their items ready several days in advance in order to send them to the print shop.

    Also, most of my supervisors have repeatedly asked, "What can I do to help you?" They all write what I say down then do nothing about it. I think that they have been taught they need to ask the question, but they do not realize they should actually help.