Monday, April 8, 2024

Too Much For Mere Mortals

When I was ploughing through the Pew Center survey of teachers, I thought of Robert Pondiscio.

Specifically, it was the part about the work itself. 84% of teachers report that there's not enough time in the day to get their work done, and among those, 81% said that a major reason was they just have too much work (another 17% said this was a minor reason, meaning that virtually no overstretched teachers thought it wasn't part of the problem at all). The other reasons, like non-teaching duties, didn't even come close.

Meanwhile, in another part of the world this weekend, Pondiscio was presenting on something that has been a consistent theme in his work-- Teaching is too hard for mere mortals, and we need a system that allows teachers to focus on teaching. 

Pondiscio has long argued that some aspects of teaching need to be taken off teachers' plates so that they can put more of their energy into actual classroom instruction. I've always pushed back, but maybe I need to re-examine the issue a bit. 

Plugging 47 Extension Cords Into One Power Strip

Certainly every teacher learns that there's never enough. One of my earliest viral hits was this piece about how nobody warns teachers that they will have to compromise and cut corners somewhere. It touched many, many nerves. We all have stories. My first year of teaching I worked from 7 AM to 11 PM pretty much every day. I had a gifted colleague who couldn't bring herself to compromise on workload, so once every nine weeks grading period, she took a personal day just to sit at home and grade and enter papers. And let's be honest--being the teacher who walks out the door as the bell rings, and who carries nothing out the door with them--that does not win you the admiration of your colleagues.

Being overworked is part of the gig, and some of us wear our ability to manage that workload as a badge of honor, like folks who are proud of surviving an initiation hazing and insist that the new recruits should suck it up and run the same gauntlet. On reflection, I must admit this may not be entirely healthy, especially considering the number of young teachers who blame themselves because they can't simply gut their way past having overloaded circuits. 

There's also resistance because the "let's give teachers a break" argument is used by 1) vendors with "teacher-assisting" junk to sell and 2) folks who want to deprofessionalize teaching. That second group likes the notion of "teacher-proof" programs, curriculum in a box that can be delivered by any dope ("any dope" constitutes a large and therefor inexpensive labor pool).

We could lighten the teacher load, the argument goes, by reducing their agency and autonomy. Not in those exact words, of course. That would make it obvious why that approach isn't popular.

Lightening the Load

So what are the ways that the burden of teaching could be reduced to a size suitable for actual mortals. 

Some of the helps are obvious. Reduce the number of non-teaching duties that get laid on teachers. Study halls. Cafeteria duty. Minute-by-minute surveillance and supervision of students. 

Some of the helps are obvious to teachers, yet difficult to implement. Most schools has a variety of policies and procedures surrounding clerical tasks that are set up to make life easier for people in the front office, not teachers in the classroom (e.g. collecting students excuses for absence, managing lunch money, etc). Then there's the tendency to see new programs adopted at the state or district level with a cavalier, "We'll just have teachers do that" as if there are infinite minutes in the teacher day and adding one more thing won't be a big deal. Imagine a world in which preserving teacher time was a major sacred priority. 

Some of the helps would be hard to sell because they would cost real money. Quickest way to reduce teacher workload? Smaller classes. Or more non-teaching hours in the day for teachers to use for prep and paperwork (hard sell because so many boards believe that a teacher is only working when she's in front of students). These are both tough because they require hiring more staff which 1) costs a bunch of money and 2) requires finding more of the qualified teachers that we already don't have enough of.

So what are we left with?

Hiring aids to do strictly clerical stuff like scoring objective tests and putting grades into the gradebook. There are also plenty of folks trying to sell the idea of suing AI to grade the non-objective stuff like essays; this is a terrible idea for many reasons. I will admit that I was always resistant to the idea of even letting someone record grades for me, because recording grades was part of how I got a sense of how students were doing. Essentially it was a way to go over every single piece of graded work. But that would be a way to reclaim some time.

But after all that, we've come down the biggie, and the thing that Pondiscio has always argued is a huge lift for mere mortals--

Curriculum and instructional planning.

The Main Event

As a classroom teacher, the mere suggestion of being required to use canned curriculum made my hackles climb right up on my high dudgeon pony. For me, designing the lessons was part of any important loop. Teach the material. Take the temperature of the students and measure success. Develop the next lesson based on that feedback. That's for daily instruction. A larger, longer, slower loop tied into larger scale feedback plus a constant check on what we'd like to include in the program. 

I like to think that I was pretty good at instructional design. But I must also admit that not everyone is, and that teachers who aren't can create a host of issues. I will also fly my old fart flag to say that the last twenty years have produced way too many neo-teachers who were taught that if you design your instruction about the Big Standardized Test (maybe using select pieces of the state standards as a guide) you're doing the job. I don't want to wander down this rabbit, but I disagree, strenuously. 

So is there a place for some sort of high-quality instructional design and curriculum support for mere mortal teachers. Yes. Well, yes, but.

While I think a school should have a consistent culture and set of values, I think a building full of teachers who work in a wide variety of styles and approaches and techniques is by far the best way to go. Students will grow up to encounter a wide variety of styles and approaches in the world; why should they not find that in school (and with that variety, a better chance of finding a teacher with whom they click)?

The point of hiring trained and eventually experienced professionals for the work is so that they can exercise professional judgment as they deal directly with students. A system that requires each teacher to teach the same lesson in the same way using the same language on the day at the same time is a system that erases most teacher autonomy and agency and eliminates their ability to exercise professional judgment. Sorry kids-- You're having trouble with this concept, and I know some ways to further get it across, but the script says we have to move on. Show me a school that says it's using this kind of curriculum with success, and I'll show you a school that is selecting students for whom it works and getting rid of the ones for which it does not (belief in a perfect system is terrible for students, because the unavoidable reasoning is that if my program is perfect, that failing student must be defective somehow). 

That said, the other extreme, in which individuals live in the land of Do As You Please is not a workable choice either. Autonomy and agency cannot be a license for educational malpractice. Lesson planning by googling the topic is a lousy way to do the job (and getting an AI lesson plan is just asking someone to google the topic and then summarize some of what they find). 

No Child Left Behind and the Common Core introduced the notion that good curriculum and instruction could be mandated by legislators, and unfortunately the idea has stuck with us (witness the states trying to mandate the Science of Reading). This is a terrible idea, and I would still say so even if the government were mandating my favorite instructional ideas. There are so many reasons why, but I'll just note Rick Hess's observation that you can require people to do X, but you can't make them do it well.

Right. Sure. Have We Ruled Out Everything?

Districts need scope and sequence that is coordinated, but not set in lockstep-required stone. Districts need a curriculum that is coherent, but not a straightjacket. Teachers need a library of instructional materials that provides a wealth of solid choices and flexibility. Most teachers develop such a library of their own over the course of their career, but few schools have any sort of mechanism for sharing those libraries (worth noting: having teachers compete for performance pay would actively discourage such sharing). 

Nor are there any real sources for high-quality materials. The government's attempt to create such a resource (the What Works Clearinghouse) is not particularly useful for a variety of reasons, and in general, the pipeline from the world of education research is--well, I wouldn't call it broken because it has never really existed. Researchers don't really understand what teachers do, and teachers don't really understand what researchers do, and neither has the time to figure it out, and nobody has ever emerged to effectively bridge the gap. Meanwhile, the water is muddied by every education publishing outfit which is intent on marketing its materials, and manufactures pseudo-research to do so. On top of that, toss in not-really-research-at-all stuff like TNTP's unserious Opportunity Myth.

The most effective pipeline for teaching materials remains teacher-to-teacher contact, the teacher who pops next door to ask, "Hey, have you got any good materials for teaching quadratic equations?" Some of the best program development is done in house in districts willing to spend the money and time to get their people to do the work. But both of these mechanisms, like the mentoring of fledgling teachers, depends on the luck of the draw. 

Evaluating, screening, collecting, promoting and uplifting effective high-quality materials is, unfortunately, not a job that actually exists. Thinky tanks and publishers employ people to pitch their particular stuff, and state and federal bureaucracies are too close to politics and too far from classrooms to be help. 

So, What To Do?

The task most sensibly falls to school districts themselves, or perhaps in the case of smaller districts, consortiums. A couple of thoughts about how to make that work.

The curriculum and instruction honcho should spend a full half of their time in the classroom. Maybe their own, maybe everyone else's. The notion that a program's effectiveness can be measured by checking the scores from the Big Standardized Test is bunk. Teachers evaluate instruction based on how it works in the classroom, which is a big complicated metric that is best measured with eyeballs. 

The curriculum and instruction honcho needs to be able to have difficult conversations with teachers on the subject of "That Doesn't Seem To Be Working. Why Are You Sticking With It?"

The curriculum and instruction honcho needs the time and resources to look regularly at What's Out There and do the kind of sifting through materials that allows libraries to be built. They need some research and stats background. They need to sift, and they need to field test, either themselves or via a trusted colleague. 

It's not a very sexy solution, and it doesn't scale up all that well, requiring district by district implementation. But it could work. Districts could also move to a teaching hospital model, where more experienced teachers manage their younger colleagues, a model frequently mentioned but rarely implemented. 

But somehow, someone has to manage the bottleneck that now exists between a huge ocean of instructional materials, research, and educational stuff (an ocean that is only going to get huger as the field is further flooded with AI crap) classroom teachers. Sorting through all that for the usable viable bits is, in fact, more than can be done by mere mortals who already have a day job teaching classes. 

Hang on. I'm Almost Done.

Yes, teaching as it has been conceived, with one person serving as clerk, instructional designer, curriculum developer, assessment manager, and classroom teacher (plus, in many cases, social worker and mental health worker), is to much for a mere mortal. It is a job for a couple of people. 

However, the two people have to be very closely coordinated, because all of the pieces of the job are closely tied together, and if they don't fit perfectly, the process of reconciling the bad fit just creates more work. And unfortunately, most of the people showing interest in the other half of the work are not so much interested in being part of a team as they are in pushing particular wares or agenda.

Part of the solution requires a shift in public opinion about what a teacher's job is. Everyone has seen teachers doing the classroom piece of the job; few have seen all the rest, and so as a culture we have a tendency to think of all the rest--the paperwork, the planning, the designing--as just something that gets thrown in for free. 

Teachers need support, the backing of a team, a system that provides them with access to high quality materials that suit the students they have in front of them. They definitely need more support than administrations (and old farts like me) telling them, "Just get in there and do all that stuff." They don't need lawmakers fearmongering with mis-interpreted NAEP scores in order to legislate curriculum and instruction. You get mere mortals to carry gigantic loads by connecting them to other mere mortals, by giving them real tools that empower them without binding them hand and feet, and by recognizing their humanity when considering plugging in one more cord.


  1. Love this! I think I’d add to the lightening of the load: giving us enough time with students to actually teach the things we’re expected to teach. The hardest part of my planning process is cutting stuff out; that is HARDER with the canned curriculum, because there’s more to cut (like you said, those people are outside the feedback loop and don’t have constraints like bell schedules holding them back!)

  2. I think you're giving short shrift to the notion of lowering class size as a solution. Of course, smaller classes and a smaller teaching load would significant lessen the burdens on teachers and at the same time allow them to be more effective. And the notion that this would necessarily lower the quality of teachers is completely unproven by the research. In California, when class sizes were reduced, researchers found “little or no support for the hypotheses that the
    need to hire large numbers of teachers following the adoption of CSR [class-size reduction] led to a lasting reduction in
    the quality of instruction.” An analysis of New York schools outside the city revealed that when class sizes were
    lowered, teacher turnover rates fell, meaning smaller classes would be likely to lead to a more experienced and effective teachers over time.

  3. The only way to lighten the load and be more effective is to have smaller classes and fewer teaching hours, more prep time. A business would never expect anyone to spend so much time "presenting" with so little prep time. You need to have a good basic program to start with that you can add to and customize, but there's no way you can have a "head honcho" directing curriculum for all the different subjects. No one has that much knowledge. So until education becomes a budget priority, there's not much to be done, and I, unfortunately, no longer recommend it as a desirable career.
    Rebecca deCoca