Monday, November 5, 2012

The Way it Is

I consider myself a normal teacher. I'm not teacher of the year, but I'm not a slug. I do my job and I take it seriously. One of my friends and a great educator once told me, "Everybody has been to school so everyone thinks they're an expert in education." Unfortunately, going to school doesn't mean anyone is an expert in education. Going to school and doing the work of a teacher are not at all the same things. I'd love to give you a glimpse into what my job is like. This promises to be a long post, but I challenge you to read it through to the end.

I currently teach junior high kids. My English classes are gifted 7th graders; my computers classes are heterogeneously grouped 8th graders. My school district is in a middle to upper-middle class community that is not terribly diverse ethnically. Our test scores have always been the top or near the top in the county we are in. We consistently earn an award presented to schools for having high standardized test scores while having a low per pupil expenditure. Our school district is financially stable and fiscally responsible. We really are considered a good school district, and I feel that way, too.

My first class is a 90 minute block of time; my second class is also a 90 minute block of time. These are my gifted English classes. My class sizes this year are quite reasonable -- 22 and 21. In the past, I have had as many as 34 in a class; there are consistently teachers (in my building, at least) who have classes in excess of 30 students. This year, I am lucky. In my English classes, I have to plan very carefully how to use that large block of time. I strive to have an activity change every 15-20 minutes as well as one activity where kids can get up and move -- their seats are not terribly comfortable :-) I cover reading of literature, spelling, vocabulary, analogies, grammar/writing, and speaking/presenting in some way nearly every day within that 90 minute block of time. When students have projects to do, including their book talks, essays, and speeches, I provide class time for those to be completed. We have a district-wide policy that covers what types of projects students are allowed to work on at home and what kinds of projects need to be completed using class time. In order to teach this 90 minute block of time, I have to create lesson plans, and I have to be able to make some predictions as to how long each activity is going to take yet be ready to adjust plans on the fly depending on how students respond to the material. It is common to have my plans look one way on Monday and have them completely re-adjusted by the time Wednesday rolls around and re-adjusted again as I head into Friday. Teaching is fluid because it needs to be responsive to the learners. I do all the same work the kids do, for the most part. I read the same things they read; I do the same homework assignments they do. I do this because I need to understand the tasks I am presenting them with so I can anticipate any questions or problems that might pop up when the kids begin their work. Also, as any teacher knows, relying on answer keys is a bad idea -- they are NEVER accurate! Beside that, I tend not to rely on pre-made materials for what I teach. I often use them as a jumping off point, but since my students are not standardized, I can't use canned activities; they need to be customized to the learners. So I tend to create a lot of my own materials. For instance, all of my literature tests and vocabulary assessments are created by me; I do not use assessments that come with the materials. They are all pretty uninformative to me as a teacher -- all multiple choice, matching, true/false kinds of things, only asking lower level thinking questions. Of course, I have to grade all the work I assign. Sometimes I have the kids grade their own work during class because I can get some quick, immediate feedback about how they did so I can figure out if it is safe to move on. However, even if kids grade something in class, I still collect their work and review it because I clearly get more meaningful insight into their individual work if I see it. I can look for commonly made mistakes and holes in their learning to figure out where I need to go back and re-teach. I can't get an idea of how the kids do individually if I don't look at their work personally. A grade really doesn't tell me much. I also need to work on incorporating technology into my lessons and into the work the kids do for my class. Sometimes I have to adjust and re-arrange things I plan to do in order to gain access to a computer lab. We have about 110 computers available almost every period of the day for kids to have access to, which sounds like a lot. But they are broken up into two labs, one portable lab, and a little over a dozen machines in the library. If a science class uses the portable lab, another English class has one lab, a health class has another lab, and another English class has the computers in the library for research, I can't get my kids on a computer. This is a common occurrence. In our district, we are not set up for students or teachers to bring in any of their own personal technology devices to use at school. I also use flexible grouping when structuring activities for my students. I use the most current testing data as well as student interest and strength data to create groups and differentiate their work accordingly. It's sometimes tough to do since my English classes are homogeneously grouped; they all tend to perform at a similar level. This makes it more challenging to find ways to differentiate according to their strengths and weaknesses. It is not uncommon to have to work around student absences and students who do not complete the homework they were assigned, which tends to be minimal; our school district tries to lessen the burden on kids and parents by setting guidelines about types of homework and amount of homework. This will also hopefully mean that we get a more accurate picture of what the kids truly know since more independent work is done at school and less at home where the work may be corrected by a parent, or work done on the bus, copied from a friend.

After those two morning classes, I have a 30 minute lunch period. I admit it -- I use my lunch period for lunch; many of my colleagues use it to work or meet with students. Not me. I eat. However, by the time I get things squared away in my classroom, get down to the staff lunch room and finally sit down to eat, I tend to have 15-20 minutes left, so I wolf my food down (a habit which I tend to have at every meal; my husband often gently reminds me to relax if we go out for dinner somewhere). I try to get into the stairwell near my classroom before the kids get out of lunch to keep an eye on the jostling that happens in the stairs. In fact, I try to be in the hallways during all passing periods, just to keep an eye out to make sure everyone is getting to class on time and with little issues. Sometimes I am not in the hallway. My time to use the bathroom is during the 3 minute passing period, so at those times, I don't monitor the hallway. I will also admit that sometimes I am not back in my classroom when the bell rings. I cannot always navigate a hallway full of kids, use the bathroom, and get back to my classroom in 3 minutes. It is during those times I have to hope and pray (yes, in a public school -- haha!) that there are no issues in my classroom because I will be in huge trouble if something happens to a student in my classroom and I am not there.

After lunch, I spend 30 minutes monitoring the computer lab during study hall for any students who need computer access to work on something for school. Sometimes I have only a couple of kids; sometimes I have nearly all 30 machines being used. I make sure they are working and not playing on the computers; I also help them with login issues, saving their work to the right location, and finding and using programs such as Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and cloud-based apps like Prezi and Google Docs. I need to make sure they are printing to the right printer and troubleshoot URLs (often overheard: "Mrs. Bogacz, this website isn't working." After I look at the URL that was typed, "You spelled this wrong," pointing to the screen.). It tends to be pretty busy in the lab during that 30 minute study hall period!

After study hall, my next two classes are 42 minutes each -- 8th grade computers. I do very similar tasks for my computer classes as I would for my English classes in terms of lesson planning, preparation, grading, etc. But I have the added element of technology, which can make my life easier or worse! I need to be prepared for what to do if our network crashes and kids can't go online or save to the network, or if a website is down. I have to learn things on the fly, like discovering that Google Docs doesn't play well with Internet Explorer, so I have to make sure I remind kids to use Chrome when working with Google Docs then inevitably help a kid who gets into a jam when he or she doesn't her me or doesn't remember to use Chrome and is now dealing with some mess because Internet Explorer got used; or I discover Prezi updated their interface and now I have to re-learn how to use it in order to teach the kids how to use it. Sometimes it is only one kid who needs me at a time; sometimes I look up from helping one kid to discover 5 more hands are up. Fortunately, my computers classes tend to be small -- less than 20 -- so I am not as overwhelmed as I would be if I had 25 or 30 kids or more in the lab. This course is a 9 week course, so I get a new batch of students every quarter. Also, since these students are heterogeneously grouped, I tend to have a wider variety of students to interact with. I often have kids with IEPs so I will have to make sure I am familiar with those IEPs and make the necessary accommodations. I have had students with IEPs in my gifted English classes before, but the fact of the matter is there tend to be more IEP students in the general population than in the gifted classes. Teaching kids with IEPs isn't a problem; it just requires a different level of understanding that student in order to help him or her be successful. But it does add an extra layer of responsibility on the teacher.

My last period of the day is a 42 minute plan period. I tend to use this time to put together homework for students who have been absent or get materials ready for the next day -- make copies, staple papers, do filing, etc. This is also the time I would normally use to contact parents when I need to do that. I might have miscellaneous work to do -- fill out a student of the month nominee form, send a couple of emails, check my mailbox, sign out a computer lab, things like that. If I am lucky, I can get a set of papers graded and enter grades into my online grade book. This is a blessing and a curse. I can access my grade book anytime, anywhere, but so can parents who sometimes are upset about grades not being updated as often as they would like or concerned about a single homework grade. It is a great tool to keep parents up-to-date, but like anything, it can also have a bad side.

After school, sometimes I have time to myself to work; sometimes I have meetings. Once a week, I have a grade level team meeting. Once a month, I have a department meeting, a faculty meeting, a school improvement team meeting, and a building leadership team meeting. In addition, I am on my building's technology committee and my school district's technology committee, handbook committee, insurance committee, and evaluation committee. On top of that, I am our union's vice president. Some of these roles have been assigned to me; some of them have fallen on me by default; some of them I have volunteered for. Almost all of these meetings take place after school when they are held. Of course, there is work that needs to be done for each of these meetings and committees. I try to use my plan period at the end of the day to work on those responsibilities.

My contracted work day is 7:50 AM - 3:20 PM, which makes for a 7 1/2 hour work day. I tend to arrive at school at 7:30; the first bell for kids to go to class rings at 7:45; kids are in our classrooms by 7:53. Meetings I have routinely run beyond 3:20; I rarely, if ever, get up and leave a meeting at 3:20 because my contracted day is over. If I don't have a meeting, I tend to leave school between 3:30 and 4:00. I try to get as much work done as possible at school because everything I need is there in my classroom; I may not have everything I need at home. It is a more efficient use of my time to work at school.

There are other things I need to do as a teacher that fall under my job description that also need to be done. For instance, we have a form that needs to be completed and turned in to the office if we see any instance of bullying. We have forms to fill out for kids who we believe are in need of RtI services. We have forms to fill out for kids who need a disciplinary measure like a working lunch, lunch detention, or after school detention. This year, we are starting a new evaluation process due to new laws enacted in Illinois, so we have been going through a number of training meetings after school to be fully prepared for the new evaluation process. (Read more about the new laws implemented in Illinois here.) In addition, we are still working on aligning our curriculum to the newly adopted Common Core State Standards, so this year we are working on that. We are developing units of instruction and aligning our assessments with all the English Language Arts standards. Feel free to read about the Common Core standards here.

I hope after reading this, you can see that all the work I need to do cannot be accomplished in my 7 1/2 hour contracted work day. When does all the work need to be done? Well, I need to do it at home. Outside of my contracted day. Some days, I have only an hour or so of extra work to do. Sometimes, especially if I am evaluating student writing, I might have a few hours of work to do. What would happen if I only worked within the constraints of my contracted work day? My work would not get done, my lessons would be terrible, my kids' education would suffer, I would receive poor evaluations, and I'd lose my job. I have no choice but to work beyond my contracted hours. I am not whining. I'm a teacher; I know what I signed up for when I took this job (this is a common remark spat at teachers by people who look down their noses at educators; they also tend to be the ones who think I am overpaid because I only work 180 days a year and can treat me how they like because their taxpayer dollars pay my salary). I take my job seriously so I willingly do my work outside of the contracted day.

This is what it is like to be an educator on a typical day. I didn't even touch on things like classroom discipline, student truancy, and workplace politics -- all of which impact my job and make it ever more challenging. I didn't even talk about what it is like to be a teacher in a school where poverty is rampant or the school has elements of danger -- all of which create an ever bigger challenge for the teachers in those kinds of schools. Going to school -- which everyone has done -- does not make anyone an expert in education, at least no more than going to the doctor or being in a hospital makes one a doctor or a nurse; filling out tax forms makes one an accountant; watching CSI makes one a detective; or watching the debates and voting makes one a politician. I end with a challenge I offer to people who are critical of teachers all the time: If my job is so easy, cushy, and simple; if I am underworked and overpaid, why aren't YOU a teacher? There must be a reason why such a simplistic task that you are so expert in wasn't your chosen profession. What is that reason?

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