Call off the sharks

I am a high school math teacher in Nova Scotia, a little more than a decade into my career. Teaching wasn’t my plan, but I had a few jobs as a lab or teaching assistant during my BSc to help make ends meet, and I fell in love with teaching. Or maybe I should say that I became addicted. It is a joy, it is a heady rush, it is a parasite on my time and health.

Last month, I compared my job – teaching university preparatory level mathematics in high school – to being a life guard expected to be personally responsible for multiple beaches simultaneously. No matter how hard I try, I cannot meet the expectations that are heaped onto my shoulders. I have been systematically set up to fail. But teaching is a very personal lifestyle so I cannot help but take it personally each time I fall short of what I *want* to do to safeguard and nurture the education of the young people entrusted to me.
I love to teach and I love my students. I love seeing the moment when it clicks for a kid in a course that they used to feel lost in. I love the relationships that I have built in my classroom and continue to enjoy now. I am hooked on the teachable moments that go beyond mathematics, when I share with my students portions of the big picture that I can see and help them to grow as people.
I am internally cringing at not updating my website because I know how it helps students. I dread the delays in feedback that would be caused if I only did marking between 8:30 and 3:20 and not on my break or lunch. I can’t bring myself to think of that worried student (or parent) who emails at 9 or 10pm and just needs two quick lines of what to do next or re-assurance that everything is going well but will have to wait perhaps days until I can work through the dozens of messages I get in a day in the perhaps 20min I have to do so.
But I have hit my breaking point. I am the one who is now drowning and in need of a saving. I already have to pick and choose which parts of my teaching practice I let go of in light of all the new things that have been downloaded onto classroom teachers – and there is more to come if Stephen McNeil, Karen Casey and their merry band are to be believed. Instead of tritely de-valuing the opinions of teachers at every turn, here’s what I wish they would do:
Ask me why I am so flat-out-exhausted, all the time, through the school year. Ask why so many of my colleagues are, too. Ask what we, the front-line of education, need to help us find the balance in our lives again.
Ask me how many new initiatives I have been asked to implement in my classroom over the eleven years of my career so far. Ask how these initiatives have taken my time away from face-to-face interactions with students, and how they have (or haven’t) improved the experience of students.
Ask me how often someone tells me that I am doing a good job, how often I feel valued and appreciated for all that I do. Ask me how often another new initiative makes me feel as though I am hopelessly inadequate.
Ask me about my class sizes and composition – how many students I teach who are too anxious to stay in my room, how many different mental health issues I am juggling within a single class, how many developmental disorders. Ask how many of my students are coming to school hungry or hurting, how many are not reading at grade level but expected to do word problems in Math, how many have never written a full test under “normal” circumstances but will be required to write a provincial exam with very little in the way of special supports. The list goes on.
Ask me how my school climate has changed in ten years – how the language and attitudes in the halls have changed. Ask me if I think all of my students and colleagues feel safe when they walk into our building. Ask me about the herculean task of trying to battle back against cyber-bullying and peer-pressure and hyper-sexualization, when I’m not, you know, teaching / marking / planning / contacting home.
Ask me how many students in crisis I have had this month – better still, ask me what training I have been given to help students in crisis. Ask how this affects me in my “off hours”.
Ask me how much unpaid overtime I log in a typical week as I sit at home after my daughter goes to bed and mark, plan, document, and send emails trying to deal with all the things I just couldn’t get to during the actual school day. Ask me why I choose to invest this time, as opposed to sticking to the 8:30-3:20 that I am paid for.
Ask me how the constant obsession with data and results and live updates has twisted and crippled motivation and perceptions of success and how this might actually be DECREASING achievement.
And here’s the most heart-breaking: ask me about the students who are slipping through the cracks because I simply cannot give them what they need with the time and resources and energy that I have left. Ask me how all of this impacts the average kid.
So yes, I feel like a lifeguard who has to simultaneously watch four separate beaches at once and I can’t do it all and I know that kids are drowning on my watch.  I need to feel valued, and I need help to do this job.
I don’t just need a life preserver; I need the sharks in the water to stop making it worse.
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18 thoughts on “Call off the sharks

  1. The scary thing about these shark Liberals is that they have secured their gold plated pension plan for just 2 years of public service and really don’t care about democracy, collective bargaining, and the will of the people.

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  2. We, parents, are behind you. Teachers deserve to be heard. Students deserve a better learning climate.

    (small editing note:last paragraph “yes, I feel life I lifeguard who has to simultaneously “)

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  3. Well said! The “crippling” assessment/data entry demands are so unnecessary – never had this when I started teaching. I feel like if the powers that be want all that data they can go collect it themselves – just let me teach!

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  4. This is certainly not just a NS problem, but a problem with education across North America, and much of the world. Ironically, at the same time they undercut our ed system, they remind us how much better education in Finland is, not realizing how they ensure we will never achieve that style of education on this current path.

    I recently commented to a less experienced colleague that the biggest challenge facing us is the amount of tasks that continuously are being pushed to the already full plates of classroom teachers. My day begins each day deciding what I can keep on my plate and what I have to allow to slip off. Each day we are told of something else that is “just part of our job” as if that knowledge would somehow give me the time I need to do everything that needs to be done.

    Right now the current trend in ON, where I teach, is cuts to support staff (special education and guidance) so of course more responsibilities are being pushed to classroom teachers to plan accommodations and write education plans for our legions of learning disabled students. I’ve also been told lately that it happens to be my job to guide grade 8 students in selecting high school courses for next year since we only have 0.3 allocation for a guidance counsellor at my school. So on Friday, instead of spending my planning time marking a writing assessment I’ve been trying to get to for two weeks I was assisting my students in registering with the website for course selection and writing recommendations for each of them about which courses they should take next year. On Monday there will likely be something else that pulls me away from marking again, so I’ll have to take it home, and that will happen for just about every other assessment I have to mark for the 4 subjects, 3 classes, 90 students I teach.

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  5. Omg go work in an environment where you get paid for selling and if you don’t sell you and your family don’t eat and possibly loose your job if you don’t sell live in the real world for awhile it’s like this ns can’t afford teachers increases without either tax increase which No one wants or they take it from health care or another government agency or maybe you want to give up the stupid long time service award who else gets this bonus not I or anyone else I know

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    1. I don’t see anyone in here talking about salary. We could make $1 000 000 a year and it wouldn’t change the fact that we don’t have time to do all the responsibilities placed on us. But thank you for illustrating what the sharks speak like; invalidate our concerns by changing the conversation to be about salary.

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    2. I don’t think the author is talking about pay increases. The issue is the load of top-down programming and bureacracy imposed on teachers, which prevents them from doing the job they want to do to the best of their abilities. Imagine being told that your main job in sales is to sell as much as possible, and that your value as a person and as an employee depends on your ability to sell. Now imagine that your boss starts adding other tasks (i.e. attending hours and hours of meetings, doing pointless paperwork and reporting, mentoring other salespeople, sitting on committees, leading the company’s softball team) – all of which take time and energy away from your actual job of selling. Would you feel frustrated? Teachers want to teach, and they want to be given some credit for knowing how best to do that in their classrooms and communities.

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    3. You are absolutely entitled to your opinion. That is one of the great things about living in a democratic and educated society. And by the way, another group who gets this ‘bonus’ are the politicians – only they call it a “transition award” and it’s worth a lot more than the average teacher’s service award, and thanks to their ability to write the rules for their own benefits, politicians only have to serve for two (2) years in the government and get this handsome award along with a very substantial pension upon retirement. The only politicians who currently would not receive the “transition award” are ones who can retire right away and claim that big pension. Most workers in Nova Scotia (including those who sell stuff) earn vacation pay on every pay cheque, get paid for statutory holidays, get paid overtime and I would hazard a guess that few workers in Nova Scotia who sell things take their work home with them and continue to sell for several hours every night because they couldn’t get it all done during their work day because their employer required them to write extra reports and generate data about how much they did sell, how much they could sell, how much they would sell, how much they sold last year compared to this year, last week compared to this week, yesterday compared to today … the grass frequently seems greener and less full of weeds and patchy on the other side of your own fence.

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  6. Great aticle! Thank you! Things are so backwards now as a teacher I don’t know if I am coming or going! And the fact that so many people think we get the summers off with pay and march break, etc is soo frustrating. We are paid for the 195 days we work PERIOD!

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  7. I don’t understand why the teaching crisis is being blamed on the Liberals by the author of this piece when it has clearly been trending this way for a long time.

    I have a step son who is in grade 7 and never seems to get homework (After reading this article, I now assume that this is because teachers don’t have time to mark homework). He has a French teacher who doesn’t pronounce common French words correctly. There is a computer lab in his school that he has gotten to use once. The parking lot outside his school looks like it was hit by a meteor shower. I am happy I didn’t get my education in this province, because I wouldn’t have developed into the professional I am today if I didn’t get an AMAZING education in Ontario in the 90s.

    In short, education in NS today is not ideal, or even what it should be, but please don’t point at the Liberals (they have their share of stuff they have actually dismantled and destroyed, but I don’t believe this is one of those things.

    Also, this article sounds like grade “A” propaganda.

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  8. I was not a student. Of the 18 or so teachers in my Regional school, only 3 were teachers, 6 were hired because they excelled in hockey in university, and agreed to play on the town team. A couple should never have been allowed near a school of any kind, and one of them had been fired from a previous school. Too many of us came from rural one or two room schools with no preparation for the type of schooling found at the regional one. I found an outlet in activities such as sports and cadets, and being an avid reader, did become a successful adult, with little credit to the school.
    There needs to be more teachers with training and patience for students like i was. I agree that some academics do not understand this, and some others that have no experience are in the same boat.
    I wish the Teachers would publicize their wishes, and the Government state their requirements, get a moderator in the middle and let everybody talk to a point of agreement.

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