7/31/2009

Making Straw Into Gold #1


Classes-preps-student load

When I first started teaching, almost 30 years ago, I taught 4 class periods out of 6 in the school day, and two different subjects (what teachers call “preps” i.e. different subjects you need to “prepare” for.) I had a total of about 15-25 students per class, about 60-100 essays to grade for each assignment. This was a slightly lighter load for English teachers than the norm, bc we had so much grading to do. Other subject teachers at the time taught 5 out of 6. Clubs, sports and extra-curriculars, even teacher meetings, were held before or after the school day ended.

This was pretty much the same level of work load / schedule that I had while growing up. As a high school student in the late 1970’s, little had changed a decade later.

For a long time, until just a few years ago, high schools where I taught had moved to a “double block” schedule : what is called “A” days and “B” days. High schools had four 90 minute long classes, called A1, A2,A3,A4 on one day, and four different classes B1,B2,B3,B4 on the next day. This A/B schedule repeated throughout the year, with students taking 8 classes. Many teachers, especially those who taught arts, science, sports, ag, tech, theater - anything with a lab or where you had to get out equipment and do something, then put it all back, loved the long blocks, bc once you got used to the extra time, you could really dig in and get a lot accomplished.  Less time was wasted on setting up and taking down. Math and foreign language teachers weren’t quite as enthusiastic about the block schedule, bc students forgot a great deal of material from having class only every other day. Athletics coaches loved this schedule, and filled their 1st and 4th block every day with their sports teams, with spill-over before and after school. Teachers, required by law to have at least one conference period a day, loved having the extra time to do paperwork, lesson planning, grading, call parents, etc. During this period I had about 25-30 students per class, graded 150-180 essays. In the early years, English teachers had only 5 out of the 8 blocks to teach, and a study hall the remaining block, so they could grade papers. That was phased out after a while though.

Then someone, somewhere, probably one of those “efficiency experts” who specialize in these sorts of things, took a look at the A/B long block school schedule, and decided that teachers had too much free time on their hands during the school day. So we went to a “modified block”, a sort of pea shell con game, now with 5 periods in a school day: 1st and 5th were an hour long each, and 2nd, 3rd, and 4th were the usual 90 minutes.  The school day was expanded 30 minutes and lunch was cut to 20 minutes to accommodate this (with no resulting increase in wages). Administrators tried to sell this idea with the explanation that it was really the same as before, it’s just that we now saw some of our students every day, and some of our students every other day. No one believed them, however, because the simple fact is we had gone from teaching 3 out 4 periods a day to teaching 4 out of 5. This new schedule created the added challenge of now your 1st and 5th periods had 5 teaching hours a week, and the 3rd, 4th, and 5th periods had either 3 hours or 4 and a half. It was hard to keep classes in sync with each other.  Teachers started cramming and skipping the material taught in the less frequent long blocks, and slowing down and fluffing with movies, make-up days, homework days, and other things to stretch the curriculum in the more frequent short blocks.  Staff meetings were moved from before and after school into the school day to accommodate the extended school hours, so teachers lost even more planning time due to meetings and conferences.  If your conference period fell on a short block, you were really screwed.  Talk is we are going to teaching 7 out of 8 next year, with a planning period only every other day.

Class size expanded as well, often reaching 35-40 students all sitting squashed together in classrooms designed to hold 20-25. No room in the aisles for teachers to walk around and monitor students; some teachers put desks in pairs or quads to fit them all in, regardless of whether all the kids could see the board. The year I had 38 students, I just divided them up into groups and took half of them into the hallway to work. I could not fit them all in my classroom.  I graded 188 papers at a time that year.

Did I mention that during these increases in workload, I taught 4 different subjects? The other teachers in my department taught 1 or 2. No one else taught 3 or 4. Just me. Apparently I am invaluable that way.

Here's the thing : Do you want teachers that have time to pay attention to your child? Do you want classrooms that are not over-crowded? All this increase in "productivity" exhausts not only teachers, but students as well. If a teacher does not have time to go to the restroom or eat lunch, her health will suffer. If a teacher is tired, worn out, and cranky from too many students, too many meetings, too much grading in too little time, her patience with her students will suffer. If a teacher has to teach too much material to too many students in less and less time - she will simply teach less.

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