14.4.11

Teaching English on 40 hours a week

Teaching as work

When I was single and in my twenties, teaching was a lifestyle rather than a job. I would stay at school for hours after the students left and still take home work, marking student work on the bus and planning while watching tv. I coached, I worked with the drama department, I met students for lunch and coffee, I served on development committees, mostly without getting paid for it.

Two events changed my attitude. The first was moving to Finland and dating my now-wife. Finns have a very different attitude toward work compared to Americans. My wife was a designer for a prestigious interior design firm, and she never brought work home or worked overtime. They don't do that here. She thought it was very odd that I didn't distinguish my work time from my personal time. Realizing my attitude toward teaching was cultural helped me see the opportunity to change it.

A more significant event was the birth of my first sons. Having twins made my home-time precious. I didn't have the time to mark work at home or spend extra hours at school. I needed to streamline my process, be smart about how I spent my time and basically work my contract. Some six years later, now with four boys, those needs have not changed. I can say without equivocation that I can offer an excellent English program to my students on forty hours a week.

Before I get into the details, let me do some rebuttal:

'How can you limit your efforts in helping your students learn? Isn't learning more than a 40 hour a week process?' etc.

Yes it is, and I hope my students will learn beyond the classroom, and I can structure my class to encourage them to do so. However, I need to learn independently of my students. Too many teachers only learn about what they teach, not expanding or broadening out. I want and need the time to explore the margins of my own subject and other subjects altogether.

More importantly, my children have learning to do. One of my six year-olds is currently fascinated by the planets, so I want to spend an hour with him constructing his own guide to the planets. My other six year-old is working on a comic book about his toy dog, and I want to help him work that out. None of this is homework: it's their own curiosity. My three year-old wants to read and read and read with me, and that is crucial. That's how I will spend my afternoons and evenings, not putting in ten hour work days.

'If everybody just worked their contract, would the students get what they need?'

I think they would: my students like my classes, and they leave prepared for whatever they are doing next. I regularly get emails from university students telling how well prepared they are for college-level writing, and many correspond with me about their interests in literature, culture and language more generally.

But let's suppose they are missing out on something. That means that the school system is failing to provide the resources necessary for students to learn effectively and demands that the teachers to make up the difference. I think this is a primary model of education in America, and most teachers enable the system by working for free. It undermines the professional status of the teacher, and it maintains the under-resourced system. If we keep working beyond our contract, it will never change. If we work beyond our contracts, we are our own scabs.

What do I do?

Planning ahead is crucial, and I do a lot of planning in the summer holidays, laying out the school year by units and identifying how I will assess what with each unit. I change that as I go, but having a plan up front allows me to be flexible in a meaningful way.

The biggest use of time for an English teacher is the assessment of student work, and so the biggest issue has to be streamlining and reducing the amount of work I assess outside of class. The homework I give consists almost entirely of reading and finishing summative assessment tasks, like essays or other text productions. For the reading, I can do quick in-class quizzes that take me five minutes to check, not for a grade, but to help students (and parents) see the connection between doing the reading and completing the assignments.

Of the formative assessment my students do, very little of it is assessed outside of class. Instead, that work, mostly done in class, builds skills necessary to the summative assessment task and usually involves part of the process of that assessment task. Because the work is being done in class, I can do over-the-shoulder assessments. Usually, though, I am looking at self and peer assessments of that formative work, still in class. Students don't always see that this formative work is necessary, but they quickly learn that they need to apply themselves on the in-class 'unit work' to be able to succeed with the 'end of unit work'.

Over the years, I have built up a range of in-class activities that involve  sharing and recording ideas about a text (usually read at home), and those ideas end up in their notebooks or, now that we all have laptops, in a Moodle forum or on a G-doc. Again, the point is for them to create resources for the summative assessment done at the end of the unit rather than for me to create work for its own sake. So, for instance, if I do journaling (and I rarely do), the point is not for me to mark every entry, but for them to create 'rough drafts' of ideas they might polish into a publishable form. The students have an idea of what the assessment will be from the beginning, so they can see the connections themselves.

For the actual summative assessments, whether they be essays or creative pieces or some other sort of performance, we work on the process together in class, and I only assess the final, published version outside of class. I am assessing the product, not the process: we can assess the process and understand how the process led to the product separately and together. We have class time for peer and self assessment of drafts and even one-on-one conferences with me, usually targeting on specific issues that either I or they identify.

When I am assessing that work, the use of specific rubrics that identify key concepts helps me target those skills I want them to learn. The MYP criteria are very helpful for me as there are only three criteria and I need not use all three (although I usually do). I do not use editing marks for language errors, merely identifying some examples of those errors. My goal is not to correct their work -- it is published and it is their work, after all -- but to help them learn how to edit their own work. Using Moodle to collect and return work helps me as well, and I annotate student work using MS Word comments. (Comments on Google Docs aren't good enough.)

Disclaimer

Yes, I have smaller classes than most of you; the smaller classes give me time to produce models of work for students and work with them individually more often. Yes, I teach highly motivated students keen to do well for the most part, but the ease of classroom management is met by the demands of their ambition. Yes, I do sometimes work overtime, especially writing comments for reporting periods, parent conferences and whatnot. But I think I have found a way to be a full-time classroom teacher for the full span of my career. Every year I am offered chances to leave the classroom either part-time or full-time, but I love being with the students rather than administrating or facilitating or supervising. If I can manage the workload, I can do what I really love to do and what I'm really good at: teaching.

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