When people talk about education today most of the conversation seems to revolve around three things: standards (Common Core), evaluation (testing) and money. One item usually left out of the mix is working conditions – the working conditions of teachers.
Teachers, at least here in California, have college degrees and state certification, i.e., credentials. A college degree should show that you have subject matter knowledge and a credential that you know how to teach. Of course, nothing beats experience; it takes time and experience to make a good teacher.
How do you keep a good teacher? A good salary and benefits are part of the mix but they are not the total story. I have known good teachers who have left education after only a few years and some who have taught for decades; they have left not because their salaries were too low or their health benefits weren’t adequate but because they could no longer deal with the conditions under which they were supposed to teach.
I don’t speak of the sweatshop conditions of the Industrial Age or Third World classrooms; I speak of things like “potty duty”, student-teacher ratios (overcrowded classrooms), homework and the like.
In my school district junior high/middle schools have seven teaching periods; teachers teach six periods with one planning/conference period each day. There is a ten-minute nutrition period following the second period class and lunch follows either fourth or fifth period (at least at my last school). Classes are forty-five minutes in length with four minutes between classes. (It was changed to three minutes this year.)
If a teacher has Nutrition Duty and an after lunch conference period, he or she has only three or four minute breaks between classes to use the restroom. You cannot leave your classroom with thirty-five to forty twelve to fourteen year old students unattended while you take a break. Yet, this is how we treat college graduates with advanced degrees and certifications in our schools. This is how we keep good, experienced people in our classrooms?
When I began teaching in the 1970s, my woodshop and metal shop classes had load limits of twenty-six. (We had twenty-four work-stations.) When my friend Paul retired with me last June he had classes of up to forty students in his woodshop – six classes a day. (I subbed for him one afternoon when he had to go the doctor. Forty eighth graders with sharp hand tools and a dozen woodworking machines going at the same time. Never again – I did not understand how he could do it day after day.) My computer classes maxed out at thirty-nine students – thirty-nine working student computers. History, Science, Math, English and Foreign Language teachers also had classes of up to forty students. Music and Physical Education classes were much larger.
Times these class sizes by six and you get student contacts for every full-time teacher on campus, except for Special Education teachers, of over two hundred, and for PE teachers of three hundred, every single day. How long does it take to learn the names and faces of two hundred plus students, not to mention the needs and learning styles of each and every student? Yet, we expect our teachers to do this almost immediately.
As an aside to the above, a couple of years ago we were told to begin color-coding our seating charts. A GATE (Gifted and Talented) student was one color, a Special Education student another color, a 504 student another color, a CELDT student another color, and a fifth category, I forget which, still another color. These categories overlapped and a student could have two or three colors; I don’t remember any having four. This was when I began to think of retirement.
Above, I mentioned homework. I did not mean the homework given to our students; I meant the homework we expect our teachers to do. You cannot plan for six classes, especially if you are teaching different subjects and levels, and grade student work in just a forty-five minute planning/conference period. Back in the days when I taught six History classes, I did six to eight hours of grading/planning at home every week. This equates to an entire extra workday every week.
I shudder to think of the work done by English teachers. They teach writing. The only way you can teach writing is by having the students write. The teacher must grade their writing. Grade the writing of two hundred plus students during a conference period? RIGHT! If it takes one minute to grade a student’s writing, it takes five to six hours to grade all of your classes. Can writing be taught to a student who gets only the equivalent of one minute of feedback once a week? And, think of the time a teacher spends reading student work and grading if more work is assigned.
My wife is an eighth grade English teacher. She is grading papers in our living room right now, during her Thanksgiving Week holiday. She seldom has a day or night during the school term when she is not grading/planning; the same is true for most English teachers.
It takes time to train a teacher and time for that teacher to gain experience and become a good or great teacher. We cannot keep all of the good teachers we need without the wages which reflect the actual work that they do and working conditions which allow them to do it and keep on doing it.
I taught junior high/middle school for forty years. I did not retire because of salary and benefits. I did not retire because of the students – I still enjoyed the kids and teaching. I retired because I was no longer willing to put up with all of the other things with which I had to deal.
Do I miss it? I miss the kids; I miss teaching; I miss my friends and colleagues. I miss nothing else.
Those who can’t – criticize.
Those who understand – teach.