There is little doubt that American public school teachers are, as a whole, underpaid, under-appreciated, over-stressed, and above all prevented from using their own good judgment in the pursuit of effective teaching and learning. They persevere through a stubborn refusal to give up that I believe in most cases is born of a true passion for helping children.
But sometimes I wonder if teachers, as a group, really hold themselves to the standard of being lifelong learners. We are all, teachers included, products of a system that declares us to be “done” with varying “degrees” of doneness after we pop out of the factory school oven. So I suppose a certain amount of resting on one’s laurels goes with the territory. But, when I recently heard some teachers complain of having to use their planning time to “babysit” a class because their “specials” teacher was out, I started to get a little worked up.
For those of you who don’t speak public educationese, “planning time” is usually a teacher’s only break during a long and jam-packed day at school. Nominally, the teacher is to use that time to tend to assessing students and to prepare lessons, and many do use it for that purpose. Human nature being what it is, however, this also tends to be a time to return voice mails, set up appointments, update the Facebook page…
Where are the students while this is going on? Why, with another teacher, often a “specials” teacher in art, music, physical education, or media skills (library and computers). When a regular classroom teacher is absent due to illness or personal leave, someone from the school’s list of substitute teachers usually fills in, with the cost taken from the substitute teaching budget. When a “specials” teacher is gone, there is usually no qualified substitute to take their place, so the classroom teacher must keep the students during that period.
If you sat in on lunchroom gab sessions and staff meetings during the year, you would think the single biggest obstacle standing in the way of greater student achievement was the lack of time during the day to “cover” all the material. The early spring deadline to administer the state’s standardized tests looms large even as school begins in late summer.
Once testing is over for the year, though, everyone seems to shift into “coasting” gear. Suddenly, having an extra 40 or so minutes with the students seems like a chore. And so you hear talk about “babysitting” classes. As if any serious attempt at discovery or invention is now over for the year. This “rebound” from the testing is almost worse than the frantic attempts to prepare for the tests in the first place.
The true teaching professionals, the ones who treat every day and every moment as a precious and potentially joyful learning opportunity, never take part in that talk. They quietly go about the business of teaching and learning without engaging in workroom sniping at their less rigorous colleagues. They spend hours of time at home doing the planning for the next day, turning out assessment reports, and thinking about how to reach each and every student in their classrooms.
Some teachers, though, treat the profession like the factory “job” that politicians have tried to make it be, and when the day is over they punch out without another thought, until they punch back in the following day.
So it seems to me that when I hear teachers complain of being “burned out,” they need to think long and hard about which causes of burnout are generated by the school environment, and which are their personal and professional responsibility.
One responsibility that teachers have is to, in Stephen Covey’s terms, “sharpen the saw.” They need to seek refreshment and renewal outside the school. If they are so consumed by public education and the needs of their students that they don’t take time for literal recreation, then they are ultimately doing themselves and those same students a disservice. Teachers need to be whole people, both for their own sake as well as to model that for children. But on the other hand, if teaching is just an interruption in their lives, then maybe for those folks another job would be just as lucrative and a lot less damaging to children.
Another personal responsibility that those who would be teachers have is to seek out the very best teachers of all kinds, and to learn from them. That means not being content with talking-head “professional development” sessions put on by their schools and districts. It means reading widely among current educational thinkers, attending professional conferences in distant cities, and joining online groups that can help stimulate and support professional growth.
Success breeds confidence, which breeds wider success. That is true for children, and it is equally true for adults. We are all learners who want to do well, but those of us who treat “failure” as simply a step toward eventual success find much more pleasure in the act of learning than those who have been taught to feel shame, fear, and anger in our traditional, factory education schools.
One hallmark of using creative dance in the classroom is that anyone stepping into the room can sense that this is a risk-taking learning environment. That can only happen with a teacher who models that behavior and who helps create a culture in which children feel safe enough to take risks.
Children who are creating something that has meaning and value to them, and who can each contribute according to her or his own talents, skills, and preferences, are engaged and happy children. And a classroom of children who are all pulling in the same direction, pooling and amplifying their abilities as a team, is one of the most joyful places to be on the planet.
Who could be burned out in such a place? So, c’mon, teachers, step back into your rightful place at the center of the discussion about how we approach teaching and learning at the most basic level: one child at a time, in caring and stimulating learning communities called classrooms. Take a chance on allowing students to create their own learning opportunities, stop worrying about how they will do on meaningless tests, and start having fun.
Or, just do more of what hasn’t worked yet in all these years. Your choice.