Friday, January 25, 2008

Communication is wonderful, but............

A number of years ago, I read The Death of Common Sense by Philip K. Howard. The book made more sense than any other book I've ever read. One of Howard's points in the book was that in government and education we should hire good people and allow them to make decisions. But instead of that, we end up micromanaging by making all kinds of rules and policies for them, and frequently those rules and policies, although well intended, end up doing more harm than good by tying the hands of those who have to carry them out. I know from experience that that has often been the case in public education, and our school recently had a sterling example of it.

Our entire high school faculty received an email from our administration last Friday that showed micromanaging at its worst. I know that there are some teachers who are knee-jerk anti-administration types, but I have never been one of them. The email we got, however, left me furious. I'm furious because of the lack of respect it showed for those of us who take our jobs very seriously, but I'm also furious because of its stupidity.

The email directed that all faculty members were immediately to begin posting lesson plans for all of our classes each day on our school's website. No questions, no discussion, nothing. This item was pushed through by a parent on our school board who decided we should do this because a neighboring school district does.

It's not that I'm unwilling to use technology to improve communication with parents. Beginning last year, I began inviting parents, especially those with kids who weren't doing well, to join my American History address group so I could send them schedules of upcoming assignments each week via email. This would be targeted to the parents who wanted them, and they would receive them each week, so there would be no need for them to go searching for them on our school's website. No one ordered me to do this. In fact no one even suggested it to me. I just thought it was a good idea, so I did it because I take pride in the job I do. I felt like a professional.

I am not going to feel that way about following our administration's order. Yes, I guess our school board does have the authority to issue such an edict, but a lack of respect for teachers was literally oozing from this directive. I know that there are those in the public who believe that teachers have a cake-job and that we are all lazy, and the email we received seemed to reflect that opinion. Teachers are really all looking to collect a paycheck while doing as little work as possible, we aren't really interested in doing a good job, so we must be ordered to do things that are good for the students.

As I indicated earlier, I also found this directive so infuriating because it so obviously came from someone who has no idea what we do. Due to cuts our school system has been making for the last several years, many of us feel completely maxed out on our workloads. Throughout my career I have always enjoyed tinkering with my curriculum and trying to find better ways to teach things. This often means adding something to what I've been doing. But those cuts our school has been making have meant more classes for some of us and larger class sizes for all of us, and I've gotten to the point where I just can't add any more. For example, the gentleman who had the AP American Government class before I took it had three other classes to teach besides the AP Government class, and two preparation periods and one study hall. I now have the AP Government class, five other classes, and one preparation period. Besides that, I have larger American History classes than I ever had before. I'm sorry, but I can't give any more time and effort to my teaching than I already am--not without getting to the point where burn-out becomes a real possibility, and that is something I am determined to avoid. I am not the only teacher in our school who feels this way. I talked to one teacher the other day who gets to school every day at 4AM to prepare. She asked, "Do they want me to come at 3?"

Speaking for myself, I need to use my teaching time as efficiently as I possibly can. I began my system of emailing my weekly schedule to American History parents because it made sense for those parents in that class. I regularly give homework in that class, and there are a number of kids who are very disorganized, immature, or lazy, and having parents aware of what is expected and when could be helpful. On the other hand, it makes no sense for me to do the same thing for my Basic American History class because all the work is done in class. There is no need for parents to be reminding kids to do their homework. And my AP Government class is a college class, and I am supposed to be giving them a college type experience. Should I have to count on the mommies and daddies of so-called college students to hound them to do their homework?

Now I am going to have to do exactly that. The problem is that, since I feel like I'm doing as much as I can, if extra duties are going to be added to my workload, then something will have to go. And that something will have to be in the area of instruction. I will have to quit doing something that I've been doing because I believed it would help students learn more or better. Maybe I'll have one of my classes do less writing, or maybe I'll have to cut back on evaluating assignments which, of course, means that more students will decide not to do those assignments. It will also definitely mean that the next time I get an idea for something extra I can do that I think might make me a more effective teacher, I won't be able to do it.

I am all for communicating with parents, but I am already spending a ridiculous amount of time and energy on that--weekly progress reports for every student I have with an IEP, a minimum of two progress per quarter to parents of any students getting C- or below, progress reports to parents of any students who fall into failing territory during any week during the quarter, weekly lists of failing students to the high school office, and of course, my schedule of upcoming American History assignments to parents on my email address group.

Yes, communication with parents is a wonderful thing, but you know what? The amount of time and effort I'm able to put into instruction matters, too. I want to be the best teacher I can, but in order to do that I need be given some latitude regarding the use of my time. I just wish citizens on school boards understood that.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Dennis,

Bummer. This does sound to me like another example of adding "good" stuff without ever asking what has to get pushed out.

You had a post back in July where you were talking about the sheer number of items to cover to hit the state standards:

It looked to me then like this was a political compromise, with no actual thought put into "how can we implement this successfully?"

Your current situation looks like the same to me. In the abstract, on-line lesson plans sound good. Maybe no parent would look at them, but it isn't like they cause any harm.

But they *do* come with a cost (the point of your post). Any time spent putting these things on-line is time spent not doing something else (teaching, prepping, grading, whatever).

I *very* rarely see normal people think in terms of opportunity costs, so I'm not surprised at stuff like this. Have you considered e-mailing back your administration (and, if you feel lucky, cc the rest of the teaching staff) and ask what category of work they want you to cut back on to get the time to do this? Give them some choices:
*) Class prep
*) Grading
*) ...

The idea here would be to force them to realize that they have made a time-resource tradeoff and to force them to face up to that. Not that I expect that they will do so, of course :-(

[Plus, yes, the presentation from the administration was very rude and unprofessional.]

-Good Luck,
Mark Roulo

1/25/2008 12:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It just goes to show you, it's always something. I am a bureaucrat--ironically in education. We have to do what the legislature tells us. And I guess they have to do what the voters tell them.

It's really hard for me to know if this is just the typical knee-jerk teacher whine that I see too much of on blogs about how nobody knows the trouble they've seen. I will give you credit--you are doing roughly five times as much communicating to parents as I receive from my kids' teachers.

But I don't know what they other side looks like--seems there's a lot of stuff read into the directive you received--oozing with condescension and all. There is a very great (and largely unrecognized) need for schools and teachers to communicate with parents--and to do so in some cohesive manner. Of the teachers at my kid's school who choose to provide online anything, it is clearly at individual discretion, with as many different places and amounts as there are teachers. Makes it hard to keep up--can't they all agree on doing it the same way?

I do believe that we have a need to really try to understand each other--and it doesn't begin by badmouthing your board member as a know-nothing who has dictated that you do something because somebody else does. Questions to ask might be: how's that working out for them?

1/25/2008 2:38 PM  
Anonymous zeke said...

Yee Gods and little fishes!!! What a stupid waste of time, to say nothing of the communication method.By the time a kid is in high school, he/she needs to take responsibility for some things and I think being aware of homework is one. There are certainly individual cases where this could be a good idea but wholesale -no way. Just another manifestation of the Lake Woebegon effect - say, are is Warroad just your cover for Garrison's home town?

1/25/2008 3:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It's really hard for me to know if this is just the typical knee-jerk teacher whine that I see too much of on blogs about how nobody knows the trouble they've seen."

I don't think it is, partially because Dennis has one very quantifiable objection: this will take a non-trivial amount of time. This time is going to *have* to come from some other activities he is currently doing. The administration should be required to tell him which of these activities should be cut back (and this should then be forwarded to the school board: "Hey, we've done what you asked, but the time is going to come out of our class preparation time budget. Okay?").

-Mark Roulo

1/25/2008 4:04 PM  
Blogger TeachMoore said...

If I thought even a significant minority of my students' parents would actually read my lesson plans daily, the request would at least make sense. What gets me is that the people who were paid to read my lesson plans, rarely did, and NEVER gave any meaningful feedback on them. What would happen if the parents know more about what's going on in the classroom than the administrators?

1/25/2008 9:18 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Anonymous, I have to admit that I feel a little defensive when you wonder if this is just another knee-jerk teacher whine. It makes me defensive because I felt like I was whining when I wrote it, and that isn't a good feeling. And if I hadn't edited it, it would have REALLY sounded like whining. I can only say, as I said in the post, that I really am not one of those knee-jerk anti-administration teachers. In fact, those who are tend to bore me. I can also say that I personally like the school board member that pushed this through. But once again, this action galls me so much because I really did find it insulting, and I really do feel like it's going to make it more difficult for me to do my job as well as I want to.

Mark, I do like your idea!

And Zeke, nope! There's only one Warroad, and we're it!

1/26/2008 5:21 AM  
Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

Dennis, feel free to have a knee jerk reaction to the obvious stupidity and pointlessness of posting your daily lesson plans for every class.
Maybe the "suits" of the administration should post their schedules, meeting objectives, budget preparations, and all of their other requirements online.

1/26/2008 7:44 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Hello, Mr. McNamar!

In fairness, I should say that at first I was not very happy with our principal and superintendent. After all, the email came from our principal. But a few days after the board meeting, I found out from someone who was there that neither our principal or superintendent expressed any enthusiasm for this idea at all. In fact, they both defended why teachers weren't doing it on their own already. They are in the building, so they have a pretty good idea what we do. But, of course, the citizens on our school board know better.

1/27/2008 3:53 AM  
Blogger Lorne said...

Dennis, the situation you describe sounds to me like a contract issue, since your workng conditions have been unilaterally altered. What is your union's position on this?

1/28/2008 7:03 AM  
Blogger mybellringers said...

I don't blame you for your anger. I personally don't believe lesson plans are very helpful to anyone other than the person who wrote them. I view them as more guidelines, mate. Oftentimes,depending upon whether the kids get something or not, the lesson plan for the day may (gasp!) change.

There are much better ways to communicate than through lesson plans, and from what you wrote, it sounds like you're doing a bunch of things that are more useful and helpful.

Keep up the good work!

1/28/2008 8:03 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Lorne, the same thought crossed my mind, but I haven't heard anyone in our school talking about that. I've been pretty busy with the combination of my teaching and hockey duties, though, and I work in my room during my lunch break, so there could be something going on that I'm not aware of. I tend to miss out on a lot of the scuttlebut during the winter.

Mybellringers, I'm with you!

1/29/2008 2:06 PM  
Blogger adrienne said...

Absolutely, check if you are actually, truly required to do this. And if you do have to, require that someone on the board actually keep records to see if parents are really using this. You may find evidence that this is a waste of (your) time. AP

2/05/2008 9:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Snow day, the second this week. Thought I'd catch up on some education blogs, starting with you. I read through the comments, and while I didn't disagree with the drift of them, for balance I would like to go against the grain. I did not become a public school teacher until I was in my fifties. I had a career in health care before that. So I always see how teachers are as professionals against that context and background. There was a lot of bureaucracy but it worked more effectively, perhaps because it was about saving lives and souls. We believed in its necessity, and rarely complained about it. Taking work home was routine, as was staying late to catch up on it. So we believed in it, we thought it part of our professional responsibilities to do it no matter how long or where, and since the job we were doing felt important, it was just one of those things that came with the job. From this perspective, it does sound to me like whining. But then agains we were well compensated, and could move up the ladder if we were ambitious. So I think the whining is a symptom, a displacement from the real issues, that teachers lack real status in our society, and so many that stick with it in spite of that, end up having to kvetch and cathart for their mental health.

2/06/2008 7:28 AM  

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