Many non educators believe the school day for teachers and students should be longer, but ignorance is no excuse for bad policy. Let us first examine an educators’ day, since so many underestimate the hours a teacher puts in.
By contract an elementary school teacher in Philadelphia arrives by 8:20 and must stay until 3:09. Rational people will allow that the majority of teachers arrive by 8:00 and stay until a minimum of 3:30. It takes that long just to store and collect the tools of the trade. It makes for a 7½ hour day. But teachers give assignments and assignments must be reviewed. It requires a minimum of 45 minutes to assess an assignment. If a teacher gives two assignments per day, which is unlikely as most teachers see at least four classes a day, that turns a 7½ day into a 9 hour day. But still there is more. Assignments must be planned and prepared, copied, cut out, drawn, whatever, but each preparation takes another 45 minutes beyond what the school day accommodates. Thus a school teacher in Philadelphia already puts in a minimum of 10 hours per day. This writer generally put in a minimum of 4 hours over the weekend, usually 6-8. So the average teacher in Philadelphia puts in a minimum 50-60 hours per week as it is.
To make the school day longer means teachers will have less time to review student work and give feedback on it. Does anyone really want an educational system where children are unable to get feedback on their work?
To lengthen the day will only result in putting the law of diminishing returns into effect. Appropriate school behavior and the ability to focus deteriorate significantly after lunch and continue to worsen until the school day ends. It would perhaps be more effective to have the recreation department in conjunction with the schools step in to provide health and nutrition classes as well as exercise, before our children succumb to the corner store mentality and become junk food addicts.
There are valid educational reasons why the school day should not be lengthened, while the overall time children spend in the safety of the school building can actually be increased. Let us hope administrators have the wisdom to enact good policy based on knowledge, instead of bad policy based on ignorance.
For the three years I was an academic coach at two of our district’s lowest-performing high schools I had the opportunity to visit lots of classes. Lots. I estimate having observed close to 700 – 800 math classes. In this time, I saw some exemplary teaching and I have shared many of the best strategies and activities that I observed with other districts when I consult throughout the southeast. But I also saw some very ineffective teaching; in fact, the reason I was assigned to these schools was because they were low-performing and because classroom instruction was most often lacking.
What I noticed with the ineffective teachers was they seem to have one thing in common: they didn’t expect much of their students. It was as if somewhere in their careers they decided that kids in these high-needs schools weren’t capable of producing quality work or high-level thinking. With this self-fulfilling prophecy as the backdrop, they lowered their expectations of their students and of themselves to pathetically low levels. It was as if they sold out, growing complacent with shoddy work and being satisfied with any work their students produced. That the same quality of work (or lack thereof) would never be accepted in the more affluent, “whiter” schools did not seem to phase them or even enter their minds.
Was it that they – the teachers themselves – had little idea what quality work was, or that they simply stopped battling kids to do good work? I don’t know. What I do know is that every time a teacher accepts shoddy work and tells kids it’s good, or good enough, we are increasing the achievement gap. And when we do, we contribute to the educational inequity that plagues our public schools. We become part of the problem, perpetuators of the problem, and not part of the solution.
Love to hear what you think…. dven.
<To invite Mr. Venables to your school or district, contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org>
I have come to believe that America has no real idea of what is happening in her metropolitan public schools. Americans have heard of the Achievement Gap between the rich and the poor, minority and white students and they know, at least intellectually, that there are significant opportunity differences for many kids in inner-city schools than for those kids attending suburban schools. They know that they prefer (insist, in some cases) that their kids go to the “good” schools and not the “tough” schools. But do they have any idea, for the most part, that the situation is as bad as it is, that the Opportunity Gap is widening, not closing, and that this profoundly affects all Americans? I don’t think so. I suspect those Americans who are fortunate enough to have their children go to good schools tacitly believe that their ticket to admittance to those good schools somehow gives them the right to turn a blind eye to what goes on in the tough schools. It’s not until the local news reports increased crime in their neighborhoods or that increased gang activity has spilled out into the suburbs that they pay attention. And even then, my guess is that they rarely see the Opportunity Gap as being in large measure the impetus behind the crime. Instead they blame the perpetrators – who no doubt need to be held responsible – but never acknowledge that there is more culpability to go around. We all need to ask Where did these criminals come from? or What can we do as a society to produce fewer criminals?
I’m in a large district with many urban schools. We can’t get good teachers who teach in the good schools to transfer to the tough schools even when we offer them many thousands of dollars extra to do so. What does that say? What implications does that have for the prospect of improvement? Don’t get me wrong: There are good teachers and good schools in inner-city America. They should be commended for the incredible work they are doing. But there aren’t enough and, sadly, they are undeniably the exception.
When will we as a whole society realize that we’re only as good as our poorest schools, our toughest schools? When will we see that, like it or not, we are all in this together? When will we see that there is one America and that the Opportunity Gap affects us all?
This may be the most important presidential election of our lifetime. And I won’t use the forum of this blog to endorse my personal candidate of choice. But in an election where both parties speak of change, we ought to think hard before we pull that lever and choose the one who we believe will really make important changes so that we the people can be, in time, the America we all want and desperately need. dven.
This is the fourth of five essays over the past few weeks. The first three, Release Your Personality, Tap Their Spirits and Engage Their Minds have been posted previously and can still be viewed on this blog. Collectively, the five essays in A Teacher’s Compass were born of my attempt to conceptualize in plain language the essential elements of exceptional teaching. They comprise my credo of teaching, my best advice to the novice and veteran teacher alike. (Each element is discussed more fully in a book I am writing; these essays here are short summaries of the elements.) As always, I encourage replies.
#4 Navigate Their Limits. This element may well be the hardest one of all, but one that makes a tremendous difference in the amount and quality of learning we glean from our students. The good news is that it is easier to do if the other four elements are in place and practiced consistently. (We’ll talk about the final element #5, Prove You Care, next week.) Most teachers know the oft-spoken adage that it’s better to overestimate the abilities of our kids than to underestimate them. To be sure, it is always easier to suddenly back off than to suddenly become more challenging. That’s pretty good advice. But the idea here is to strike that space between, where kids are pushed to point of giving up without actually doing so. It is within this space that the greatest amount of quality learning occurs. The single most common gripe I hear during interviews with students is that their teacher is too easy and ‘treats us like we’re babies’. And the interesting thing is that this common criticism comes with equal frequency from high and low-ability kids. We sometimes go so slow – particularly with low-achieving kids – in our attempt to keep them from giving up and shutting down that we actually cause those behaviors to occur. Kids of all ability levels do not like being talked down to and they generally rise to amazingly high levels of expectation time and again if those expectations are clear, reasonable and supported by hard work and caring from their teacher. To assume they are capable is be right nearly always. To assume they are incapable is to be right nearly always as well. When expectations are low, students spot that quickly and respond in kind, becoming lazy and uninvolved as they sit back and let their teachers do all the work. I suppose this is human nature; teachers react similarly to administrators whose expectations of teachers are low. Worse still, teachers of low-achieving kids who underestimate what their students are capable of achieving serve to widen the achievement gap though all the while they believe they are giving these kids a chance. In actuality, they are inadvertently ripping them off.
I choose the word navigate very deliberately. It implies continually adjusting. It connotes the inherent obstacles and difficulties, and alludes to the care with which we must steer the level of our instruction in this space between too hard and too easy. There is a continuum between too easy and too hard; the goal is not to strike the middle, but to shoot for that place just shy of too hard. It’s important to realize that this continuum is not static, but dynamic, and must be carefully accessed for each topic, each unit, each lesson, each project; indeed, for each student.
too easy shoot for this too hard
In my 20-something year teaching career, I have been blessed to have taught Algebra 1 to a class of high school seniors populated with 19 year olds (several of whom were convicted felons) as well as having taught high-achieving juniors in AP Calculus. I have learned that the continuum holds true for both. And while the endpoints of too easy and too hard may be defined differently, the notion is the same: Decide their limits by shooting high and assuming they can, assess their progress constantly, support them at every turn and be amazed at their accomplishments. And yours too. Navigate Their Limits. dven.
(to be continued…)