I’ve been teaching for just over 10 years and have a precarious relationship with the profession. Precarious, because I feel I am skilled and have knowledge to offer but often find myself frustrated and feeling incompetent as I try to fit into a system that doesn’t work.
I do not see myself staying in the education system until my retirement. I love working with young people and I love education, but I truly do not like the system. I’m glad to see the general public asking questions and trying to learn what the issues are, because for a long time I’ve been shaking my head and wondering when people were going to notice the issues in our public education system. One of the problems I’ve noticed is less and less voice and autonomy for teachers. So much of the system is a top-down approach from school boards and the Department of Education. Despite my years of training in the field of education, I often feel I do not have a voice.
With the current situation in the province, friends and neighbours have been asking me what the teachers want and what the problems are. I’ve created a list and I’ve tried to keep it brief, but this is what I have seen and experienced as some of the frustrations over the years. The frustration and stress placed on teachers due to the following issues has taken its toll. Teachers who are close to the end of their careers have said the job is very different from when they started, when they had more autonomy and a true sense of community with their students and staff. I’ve seen many teachers retire hating the profession they loved and were truly gifted in, and it’s sad to see how stress takes a toll on capable and intelligent citizens.
Prep time & work load:
Tell me which meal sounds more wholesome for you and your family: a drive-through meal from a fast food restaurant, or a made-from-scratch, wholesome, handmade meal? I choose the made-from-scratch meal. I use an analogy of the lack of prep time in a teacher’s day leading to teachers being forced to “serve” fast food lessons to their students. When you don’t have time to cook from scratch (take the time to properly plan and create thoughtful lessons) you grab or use what’s available, and the lessons are not to the high quality that we were once able to with more time. I understand the province feels they are creating efficiencies by cutting prep time but it’s the absolute opposite- restore prep time to teachers and you WILL see academic standards increase in this province. There is so much waste in the system spent on consultants and technology – constantly tossing ideas at teachers and hoping they’ll use it, when in reality all we need is TIME to think, plan, create and collaborate with our colleagues who, truth be told, we don’t even see in the same building now due to lack of time to talk to one another. Teachers are often asked to give up prep time to cover for each other. At one point in my career I was asked by the principal to cover someone else’s class 12 TIMES- this is almost 3 days of work I was not compensated for! The public may think that teachers have preparation time each day but we do not.
Solution: Give teachers the time to teach and the time in their schedule at work to do the tasks required. Now that we are easily connected to the Internet we are expected to take more and more work home to complete on our own time. There are very few professions that are expected to take so much work home without compensation.
Lack of seniority and teaching what you know within a school:
In some cases teachers have a say in their teaching assignment and in some cases they don’t; this is up to administration. There could be a teacher in a building with a direct background in specific courses and due to scheduling, they are not assigned to teach those courses. Or, a teacher could teach a course one year and not the next- the next year the course is given to a different teacher (who has to sometimes then create/ learn/ gather material) instead of going to the teacher who has already taught the course. The idea of seniority within a building rarely exists now it seems. Teachers who are at the end of their career with a year or two left can be assigned brand new courses and material they have never taught, and spend their time gathering, prepping and learning new material rather than teaching what they know best. Teaching new courses from scratch and knowing someone down the hall is also teaching a new course from scratch (but it’s one you know well) is frustrating and stressful for teachers.
Lack of accountability on the part of students and “credit recovery”:
As I’ve discussed teacher issues and demands with neighbours and friends, the thing they found most shocking is the change in accountability for students. This also refers back to teacher autonomy that I mentioned above. Students are not required to meet deadlines for assignments now. If I assign a paper or project and set a due date, I like to gather the assignment and sit to mark them and return them in a timely fashion so we can discuss and move on and build on this knowledge. One issue now though, is that students do not have to meet set deadlines. I am required to accept student work up until the last day of the course. This means someone can bring me their assignments on the day before marks are due, and I am required to assess and mark their material. This is a logistical nightmare for teachers and also a stressful situation when marks are due. I do understand that students have situations at home that cause them to miss deadlines and that we need to assess their demonstrated learning, but the fact that deadlines don’t seem to matter is very difficult to justify.
If students fail a course they are sometimes given the option of “credit recovery” which is meant to give them a chance to submit work after the course has ended and to gain the credit. This is frustrating for teachers when it is offered to students who did not attempt to do the work during the class, when we prepared so much and taught every single day, and they chose not to do the work. To see them offered a piddly little assignment in exchange for the credit (I’ve seen this happen) is a slap in the face to my morals, values and profession. The fact that administrators use this more often for students with challenging behaviour problems to get them out of the building is even more of a slap in the face.
Solution: let teachers teach and assess on a manageable schedule, and if students can’t do the work, support them as much as we can but let them try again if they fail.
Demands of volunteering and coaching:
Teachers who volunteer to coach a team do double duty, staying after school to practice and travelling to games, often during school hours and weekends. Teachers have a lot of paperwork to complete to travel with a sports team, whether it be booking hotels or arranging rides with parents. We often have to decide whether to use our prep time to prep for our classes or use it to organize the sports trip and the photocopying of myriad permission slips. This is not something done by administrative assistants, because their time has been cut back to a minimum as well. If you miss class time because you are away at a game or tournament, you also have to spend time asking your colleagues to give up a prep hour to cover your class. So even though we may have only 4 prep periods in eight days, we ask someone to give one of those precious prep periods up to cover our classes so we can go and coach (volunteer) the school team. The weekends away and evenings on the road are absolutely not compensated; we do it because we love sport and our students being active in sports or academic teams.
Some schools and staff take on the role of supervision during recess and lunch, and sometimes this can be well organized and democratic, and sometimes it is not. Supervision is also extra work in a teacher’s day. Good leadership within the building by admin will set up a fair and simplified schedule so teachers do not feel overburdened. Poor leadership by admin means supervision is a very stressful addition to a teacher’s workload. At one point I was assigned to do supervision every day at lunch for more than half the lunch block (25 minutes of the 35 minute lunch). On a day without any prep time in your schedule, giving up your lunch break is very difficult. In a working day in a unionized workplace, having a lunch break should be a given, but this is not so for many teachers who often miss sitting down to eat lunch. I recall a time when we had entire semesters without any prep time, and some teachers were still given supervision duty despite their lunch being their only break in their immensely busy day. When I had supervision every day, I had about 10 minutes for lunch. Most days I had to decide whether to: eat quickly, go to the washroom, OR make a quick photocopy or get organized for my classes after lunch. How healthy is it to skip lunch? It’s not something I would want my students to do, so why is it okay for so many teachers to skip lunch due to supervision time or lack of prep? What really grinds my gears is that we are told we can eat our lunch on our prep if our supervision is at lunch- PREP time is PREP time, not lunch time.
Solution: ensure teachers have a healthy amount of time to take a quiet break in their day. A 30-minute lunch break without supervision and without missing their prep time should be a minimum expectation for a healthy workforce.
Administration and school board accountability:
The issue of coverage and prep time being taken away has to do with some issues at the board level and administration. There is a lot of great leadership in our schools but there’s also a lot of bad leadership and bad leadership can do a lot of damage to a school community in both the short and long term. Often it seems the admin is trying to jump through hoops created by school board or Department of Education policies and this leads to stress on teachers. Many of the expectations relate to data, reporting and also liability issues such as new travel and chaperone policies that have made class trips even more time-consuming and stressful to organize. Some administrators do not uphold strong standards for discipline and behaviour, and classrooms become difficult places for teaching and learning because teachers are not supported when they ask that a student be disciplined. Administrators and teachers are equal in the union but not in the day-to-day running of some schools, and when this is not done well, it leads to A LOT of stress on teachers. I have already described issues of teacher schedules, prep time and autonomy, and this does relate to board-level decisions and administration. There is no information or transparency on how administrators are evaluated, but teachers do not seem to have a say or a voice in many cases.
Accreditation and other fake “accountability” methods:
The general public should really know how much money and time has been poured into schools’ process of “accreditation” in the past 10 years. Binders upon binders upon binders of photocopied information done by teachers and administration have not resulted in improvements in schools. Don’t get me wrong, setting goals and collaborating to improve schools is an excellent idea and good use of time, but the process of accreditation has not been a good use of time or human resources within a school building. Using teachers’ inservice days for data collection and goal setting only to see the goals reversed, overturned or changed by Boards or the Department of Education has been frustrating for teachers. Setting goals of collaboration only to realize there is no preparation time to collaborate within a building is also frustrating. The need for accreditation is also a bit unclear because we have provincially mandated standards to begin with. If schools are following provincially mandated standards and Board policies, and teachers come from accredited universities and are given the time and the space to do good work, why do schools also need to then become “accredited?” This goes to the heart of the issue of money spent on bureaucracy and meeting fake goals. It is incredibly frustrating to be mandated to complete certain types of reporting, knowing that it will not be used, implemented or effective. If a school or board sets a goal of improving technology use, one way they “meet” this goal is by spending money to put technology into the classroom. A lot of money has been spent on iPads and Mimios and making sure every single classroom has one- so the box that states “technology goal met” can be checked. It doesn’t matter whether teachers are using the technology or using it well; it also doesn’t matter if teachers do not have proper training to use the technology; the goal is reached if every classroom has the technology installed. In other words, don’t ask teachers what they need in the classroom- tell them what they are getting, install it and pat yourself on the back for meeting your technology goal. A sad, sad state of affairs- the emperor has no clothes – but they have iPads and Mimios!!!
Assessment and report card deadlines:
Recently I took a look at some of my own report cards my siblings and I received in high school and I noticed that in the past, report cards did not take a long time to complete. Calculating marks and averages would have taken teachers a significant amount of time but the report cards themselves were not onerous. In the past, a report card was one page with the cumulative marks and little or no comments from teachers. There were a few brief comments if teachers chose to include a comment- one said “More effort required” and one said “A pleasure to have in class.” The comment section for teachers was OPTIONAL. Compare that to report cards now, teachers are REQUIRED to write a lengthy comment with details about strengths and what students can improve on for every student they teach. Along with comments on each and every student in each and every class, teachers also have to fill in a ‘student profile’ section as well. Teachers in elementary or junior high sometimes have two different formats of report cards to fill in if they teach in both grade levels. Report cards are now 4 to 6 pages in length when printed. Filling in the mandatory report card comments takes hours and hours (one veteran teacher estimated it takes them between 20 to 30 hours to complete the report card process, and in my experience 20+ hours is very accurate.) Now that we are using an online program to report more often and in more detail, and are mandated to provide comments, you would assume we would be given time for this additional work, but NO, this is not the case. Are there any other professions where 20 hours of additional work requirements would be added without extra time given to complete this work? There is no additional time given to complete report cards- we do it at home in the evenings and weekends and since it’s available online, we are simply expected to do it at home on our own time. Since report cards have switched to online, the administrative days at the end of term often do not line up with deadlines for reporting, so we do not have admin or “marking days” prior to report card deadlines. Reporting periods are some of the most stressful times for teachers.
Solution: Set teachers up with marking days prior to report card reporting periods. Do not require mandatory paragraphs of information by every teacher for every student and DO NOT introduce “new” reporting formats and throw out the old report formats every three years.
Reviewing this summary I notice that I haven’t actually discussed the day-to-day or hour-by-hour activity of the classroom. I haven’t discussed class composition, class size, or learning needs. I think the reason for this is my list of issues often takes up a large balance of the stress experienced by teachers before or while they teach. So much is spent on all of this other bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo that the classroom goal is to “get through it” each day. Take the work home to try to get through on the evenings and weekends in order to cope in the classroom. There has been so much money poured into initiatives that don’t last and don’t work- the public should be outraged. As I mentioned above, many, but not all classrooms are relying on a fast food model rather than the wholesome goodness that teachers want to provide and were trained to carry out through their professional training. Let the professionals be professionals, focus on letting teachers teach and be prepared to teach, focus on education, not on creating a system of data collection or goals for the sake of goals, technology for the sake of technology. More community- driven voices and teacher voices being heard and less top- down bureaucracy and trusting short term fixes being “sold” to us can go a long way to fixing some of the problems within our current system. Teachers in this province are AMAZING, so trust them and let them do their jobs.