I found the characterization of teaching shared by Charlotte Danielson during Chalkboard’s recent webinar on evaluating educator effectiveness enlightening–and timely. Borrowing from educational psychologist Lee Shulman, she pointed out that teaching as an occupation is on par in complexity and stress levels with an ER doctor following a major disaster:
“He noted that teachers have classrooms of 25–35 students, whereas doctors treat only a single patient at a time. Even when working with a reading group of six to eight students, teachers are overseeing the decoding skills, comprehension, word attack, performance, and engagement of those students while simultaneously keeping tabs on the learning of the other two dozen students in the room. ‘The only time a physician could possibly encounter a situation of comparable complexity,’ Shulman pointed out, ‘would be in the emergency room of a hospital during or after a natural disaster.’ He concluded that classroom teaching ‘is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented.’” (From “A Framework for Learning to Teach,” by Charlotte Danielson, Educational Leadership, Online June 2009 | Volume 66)
I’d add the fact that teachers also have hundreds of “bosses” (parents), changing every year, some of them (ahem) not so reluctant to weigh in on what’s happening in their classrooms.
And layer this on top of the “productivity gains” that economists are so eager to tout. Given that the U.S. economy has seen layoff after layoff for going on five years, my opinion is this term is really code for, “we’ve let go as many people as we can and we are squeezing those left behind for all they’re worth.” (Check out the most recent U.S. Department of Labor stats to see how “outputs” are up, while wages are down.)
This is particularly true in education, since by its very nature people/salaries (the “fat” critics like to say needs trimming in our schools) comprise 80% or so of school budgets.
There are limits to what people will endure in the workplace. Unremitting, unrealistic work loads take a toll on students, organizations and personal lives. School systems are left to cope with a costly problem: burnout.
I’ve heard from administrators and teachers at multiple Oregon high schools about the impacts repeated budget cuts are having on education professionals. Many educators are tasked with instructing literally hundreds of students a day, and are responsible for multiple subject areas, translating into two to five different preps. In their words:
“The grading is brutal. My prep is used to return e-mail, update attendance, make parent phone calls, and straighten up the room. Grading is happening at home. With 200 students, even taking one minute per paper involves over three hours of time outside my school day. My ability to teach writing is suffering.”
“I don’t have enough time to visit with students who are struggling or who need enrichment. It’s survival.”
“I constantly have students in my room before school, at lunch, and after school making up tests, wanting extra help, discussing their grades, wanting their homework for the next week because they are going to be gone, etc. There is not enough of me to go around, so I go home and cry.”
“I feel frustrated for students who need more help and guidance and there just isn’t time.”
“The students are overwhelmed with large classes and find it difficult to get help.”
“We are required to notify any parent whose child is failing. This is a huge task with 200+ students. Hours and hours of phone calls and emails.”
“We have five minutes passing time to get forty students out and forty students in. There is no time to answer questions after class or for someone to get help the few minutes before class. Don’t even think of using the restroom or doing any type of prep for the next class.”
Workloads at the administrative level are “insane. I’m working ten hours a day and I’m still behind. But I guess I’m just glad to have a job.”
“You change your approach from teaching students to teaching content. It’s just not possible to teach to individuals with these numbers.”
“Love my students. Wish I had more time to help them. They are getting smart in figuring out we don’t have time to look at everything.”
“How much can we ask of teachers? They have to have a life [outside their professional commitments.]”
Predictably, such working conditions have consequences. Some teachers take leaves of absence to recover. Some leave the profession entirely. Then schools have to recruit/orient/integrate new teachers, which costs time and money.
Those wringing your hands about Oregon’s economy and American’s competitiveness in the global marketplace, are you listening? The business of educating tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and skilled laborers is resting on shaky scaffolding that has been weakened by years of declining investment. Without well-compensated teachers and support staff–and enough of them—improvements in our country’s economic fortunes will be elusive.