DeFrates column: What if we truly put teachers first?
January 8, 2019
Almost 600,000 teachers in LA plan to strike tomorrow for a variety of reasons unrelated to pay. With class sizes ballooning, support staff evaporating, and expectations piling up, educators (and parents) across the country are starting to wonder when it will be their turn.
Over the last year of teacher protests and Red for Ed, one thing has become clear: Our current model isn't working. With approximately 3,000 teaching positions throughout Colorado lacking a licensed teacher at the start of this year, and a 45 percent annual attrition and turnover rate nationwide, some drastic changes are needed.
But today's column is not about money.
Every teacher will tell you how much they love their students. In fact, despite the astonishing turnover rate and open positions, almost 90 percent of teachers in Colorado identified their school as "a good place to work" in the 2018 statewide Teaching and Learning Conditions survey.
Teachers love their jobs, but they are still leaving.
Of course, these professionals deserve a raise, but the money just isn't there. Voters in Colorado made that abundantly clear by shooting down Amendment 73 this November.
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In the plus column locally, Roaring Fork School District made a much-appreciated show of support by providing a $1,200 bonus to every classroom teacher last December. Yet, that amount is hardly enough to halt the ebbing tide of qualified and gifted teachers leaving our district, state and country. Without financial incentives, we find ourselves back at the drawing board, searching for other means of attracting and retaining the best of the best for our students.
The only thing left, after we sweep away meaningless, superficial perks, is the workload.
Teachers spend four or five hours working most weekends, unless grades are due, and then it's more like 10 or 12 hours. In fact, when I left teaching after five years in a middle school classroom, I found myself trying not to laugh out loud when people in the private sector complain about how much extra work their bosses required. Most professionals, even salaried, are apparently horrified if a few weekend tasks are assigned to them outside of paid time.
Classroom teachers do so much more than just plan lessons, prep materials, teach, grade and communicate with parents. They put massive amounts of hours into the logistics of every authentic, real-world experience and trip. Secondary level teachers have between two and four different classes to prep, while elementary school teachers have to prep every content area every day.
There are professional assessments, team meetings, self-reflections, IEP meetings, as well as learning new health curriculum, crew activities or reading intervention strategies, which they are expected to implement.
Most teachers are required to work shifts monitoring lunch, recess and bus lanes. They serve on volunteer committees, drive bus routes, sponsor clubs and organize school plays. They all engage in huge amounts of professional development hours every year.
Spoiler: Those "teacher workdays" on the school calendar are almost never days that let teachers just work. In fact, the vast majority of classroom professionals I've spoken with admit that even their "planning" period is almost never dedicated to planning or grading.
How have we convinced ourselves and them that 60-hour work weeks are reasonable?
In the unhealthy relationship between public education and the classroom teacher, teachers are both the abuser and the abused. Along with building and district leadership, they are the ones gaslighting each other and themselves that it is somehow all OK. They see their peers giving and giving, and because of their own self-sacrificing nature, they quiet the little voice inside them saying, "Too much!" and dig a little deeper.
They give their time, money, emotional resources and, quite often, their physical health to anything which they are told may help their students.
The radical solution to all of this falls heavily on the shoulders of the administrators and leadership of buildings and districts throughout the state.
It comes down to the fact that principals, instructional facilitators and superintendents need to stop making students their top priority. In fact, school leadership's new job, their singular purpose in life, needs to be putting teachers first.
Students will always be first in the classroom. Teachers will see to that. But there needs to be a new operating mandate at the highest level of every district.
Instead of welcoming every new mandate, meta-study and Marzano practice with open arms because it might benefit one student somewhere, ask, "Will this benefit teachers?" Or, will it be the proverbial straw on the back of one teacher somewhere, hurting the 30-odd students relying on him or her?
I know that this solution is uncomfortable to think about for many. At first glance, it seems selfish and counter to everything we love about education. It flies in the face of slogans like "Every student, every day," yet the benefits are clear.
Imagine a passionate teacher entering the classroom well-rested, respected and supported? How much more could they do for the kids in front of them? A parent who is healthy and happy can provide a better home for their child, even if that means the occasional "me time" babysitter.
In the same way, teachers who are not buried under an endless pile of changing expectations will be able to connect and engage more fully with the young humans in their classroom.
These changes need to happen fast from the top down, or the reality of the LA school districts will be on our front door step.
No more extra-curricular responsibilities without pay. Stop adding new preps without calling them preps. Stop saying yes to every possible enrichment activity. Start saying no to shiny-new "best practices" in pedagogy and assessment. If it's required by the state, then the district should act like a benevolent umbrella, shielding those below from an endless barrage of bureaucratic nonsense drafted by men who never spent a day in the classroom.
It sounds like this kind of interference would be a full-time job, and it will be, especially while breaking habits created over decades. Leadership must take responsibility for the inhospitable climate and inhuman expectations to which our teachers are subjected. Teachers — no, it's not all in your head.
Put teachers first and our classrooms will fill. Put teachers first and our students will learn from an energetic role model who is happy to see them every day. Put teachers first and they will stay and grow, providing expert instructional experiences to every student, every day.
Lindsay DeFrates is a freelance writer living in Glenwood Springs. She can be reached at http://www.roaringforkwriter.com.