Who Said Learning Was Easy? Part 2

Teaching is not an easy job.  No teacher I’ve met would refute this, regardless of their situation.  Tony Danza lasted one school year, with significant trouble, and he only had one class and a bigger paycheck than most teachers.  First year teachers constantly report being overwhelmed, underprepared, and roughly a third of all teachers leave the profession within three years.

“But you get all that time off!”  Yes.  I do get substantial breaks for the holidays and summers, but these breaks are unpaid time off.  On top of that a very significant number of teachers spend time on these unpaid breaks planning their next lessons or catching up on grading.  Add to that the fact the not a single teacher I know works only their contracted time (40hours a week) and you have teachers doing considerably more work than they are paid for.  Personally I work in the neighborhood of 65 hours a week and never fewer than 50. (50 would assume I do zero work at home, which simply does not happen.)

Growing class size, cuts in special education budgets, reduced English Language Learning (ELL) support, and the ever rising stakes of standardized testing all serve to exacerbate the already difficult job.  When I assign an essay in my AP World History class I can expect to grade 133 of them.  At 6 minutes per essay (a reasonable estimate) I can expect over 13 hours of grading for this one assignment.  If I want to get essays returned in anything resembling a prompt timeframe I can expect to grade in the evening and on weekends.

OK.  So teaching is tough.  It’s in the newspaper all the time.  The point has been made.  So what?

The difficulty of teaching is not sufficient reason for teachers to abdicate their responsibility to their students.  The students did not create the difficult situation.  The students did not vote down taxes that help provide funding for reduced class size and arts education.  The students are the ones for whom the stakes are greatest.  They get a very limited window for their educational opportunity and it is the responsibility of teachers to make sure their pedagogy is not another barrier placed in a student’s path.

I’ve worked with a wide variety of teachers across four schools.  I’ve taught 6th grade, 12th grade, and most levels in between.  Across the board I’ve seen great teachers doing their absolute best for students, and I’ve seen teachers who could be great making excuses for why they’re not great.  The excuses range from “I don’t offer re-writes or revisions on essays because it becomes too much work,” to “there’s no way we can do a research paper, think of how long it would take to grade,” and “the English department teaches writing.”

I’ve heard variations of these multiple times from multiple sources.  My personal favorite is: “Some days you just need a frozen-waffles lesson.”  I get it.  Life gets in the way of perfection, and our lives should not be completely dominated by our jobs.  At the same time though we need to maintain high standards and integrity.  There is substantial data that when properly motivated, students will rise to meet high standards, and when given the opportunity they will also sink to our low standards.  When we bring out the “frozen-waffles lesson” the students realize and they react accordingly.

If (as per part one of this series) we’re going to expect our students to take responsibility for their education, teachers have to take responsibility for making school worth our students’ time.  I don’t believe that every day should be “fun” but every day in class should definitely be worthwhile.

Teachers should always make sure that students understand why they’re doing a particular assignment or task.  It is of the utmost importance that students understand why their work has value beyond their grade.  (Fred Newmann is great on this subject.)  If we can consistently contextualize assignments in terms of their value beyond school we will go a long way to improving instruction, and it’s frankly not that hard.  Just start every lesson imaging a student asking you “so why do I have to learn this?”  If you cannot answer that question with something better than “it will be on the test,” you need to rethink your lesson.  I assure you that your students have other things they think are more important.

As a teacher it is your responsibility to show students the value of the work you do.  Telling is not enough.  You must show.  Students bear great responsibility for their education.  I’ve never seen a student fail as long as they put in their best effort; however students are not the only ones who bear responsibility for their education.  Teachers are equally responsible for creating a safe and effective learning environment while simultaneously delivering lessons that are of the highest quality.

Every time a student struggles to meet the high standards in my class I feel a bit like a jerk, but every time a notoriously difficult student tells me they can’t skip my class because it’s meaningful to them, I know I’m doing something right.

We ask our students to work hard all the time.  We ask them to balance seven classes, sports, music, and being a well-adjusted human being.  We tell them that they should work hard in school so they can work hard in life.  It’s time for teachers to take some of our own medicine and live what we teach, and it’s time for someone to stand up and support this effort.

  1. Hi Gabe, rellay liked your section on value of learning. It should be standard practice that every lesson has a clear learning objective shared with pupils; what we are going to learn. Followed by the big picture which puts the learning into a context and winding up with an indication of what success will look like. You may or may not be surprised at how hard it has been for teachers to work out these three things for lessons that they have taught for ages. My answer is, “If you can’t explain the reasons why you are teaching something then don’t teach it, and if all you are doing is teaching to the test then take a break and rethink what you are doing”. Keep up the good work

    • Thanks for the comment. Hopefully we can get more teachers looking forward to hearing “why do we have to learn this?” As it stands too many teachers feel threatened by that question because they don’t have a good answer.

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