January 18, 2012
It’s cold out now, but my thoughts have lately taken me to last summer, when I lounged in Madison Square Park with my class’s first-trimester novel and thought big about the upcoming year. Summer-Hilary organized with Grassroots Education Movement and the New Teacher Underground to remind herself of the political reasons she’s in education. She slept and ate well. She spent plenty of time with the family and friends who keep her well-fed emotionally. Fueled by all that self-care, I was able to imagine the highest possible expectations for my students and use those expectations as my only compass and my only ceiling.
The unit plan I made last summer was far from perfect, but it was a beautiful reflection of the perceptions of Kurt Hahn students—subtle and profound — that I have assimilated over the last two years, of what I’ve come to love about them as individuals and as a collective. It’s a reflection, too, of my best self: the teacher I dream myself to be when I am fully energized and fully focused on my students’ literary and literacy progress.
When I return to it now — halfway through the school year — that airy summer musing already feels light-years away. I have had to adjust the pace and the sheer multitude of work I assign, not because of my students’ capacity but because of my own. The rigorous assignments I came up with require twice the rigor from me: I have to complete models and rubrics of each so that I can demonstrate to students what I’m looking for. I have to be ready to grade and hand back drafts at a rapid pace. Meanwhile, I have to keep up with the not-technically-contractual-but-crucial-for-everything-else-to-work responsibilities of my small school: an 11th-grade advisory who are starting to think about what they’ll need to graduate on time, collaboration with a first-year global studies teacher, the small writing workshop I launched to help students meet the Common Core standards.
I could do all of this if I were, you know, one of those teachers: the kind I always envision making the cut for Teach for America or one of the leading charters, who can pull full days of teaching and full nights of work, who don’t need much sleep or can function without it until a free weekend comes along. I can give maybe one-week of high intensity, dawn-to-dusk work, and then I crash.
I need to pace myself, to work a solid day and then go home and remember who I am for a few hours. That, I’ve been telling my mother since day one, is simply not possible for a new teacher trying to respond to student data (i.e. often recreate her curriculum) as she goes. If all that work I did during the summer is really going to help me, it shouldn’t be long term but detailed to the day. And frankly, even my geekdom has its limits. As a 28-year-old bachelorette, I refuse to pay rent in this city just to hang out with my cat and plan lessons. (I actually don’t even have a cat, which makes that image all the more depressing.)
It’s interesting to note that policymakers concoct teacher certification requirements in a space similar to that in which my ambitious unit plan materialized this past July: free of the mental cacophony and exhaustion of a typical school day, with the highest expectations of students and teachers as the only limit to their ambition. Why does our field engage in this collective amnesia about what teachers can actually accomplish day after day after day?
Colleagues and I have fantasized about a school calendar that spreads the summer recess over the course of the year. Time to regroup between terms, when one already knows one’s students, would make for more personalized units and more careful grading. I could assign the kind of deep research projects that the Common Core Standards prepare kids to complete without wondering where I’ll find the time to teach their processes or grade them once they’re finished. I could conceive of a poster presentation and not have to exchange it last minute for a written project simply because I lack the time and energy to make a quality model of what I’m looking for from my students. I could enjoy more relaxed and in-depth discussions with my principal and beloved mentors. I have colleagues who would do the same. Maybe we, with our bright eyes and bushy tails, are the odd geeks out; maybe other teachers would skip town during these weeks or drink them all away. But to assume so is to assume the worst and encourage the rest of us to sink to their level. Treat my planning time as professional time and my performance — not to mention my profession — will improve.
We’ve heard plenty of times that testing doesn’t make better teachers. Reformed hiring, firing, and tenure procedures don’t make better teachers. Teacher improvement leads to better teachers. And what leads to teacher improvement is time to think about what we’re doing when we aren’t teaching: how we’re planning, how we’re working with others, and how our more experienced colleagues solve the problems we are facing. Just as our students can only progress if we give them time to absorb what they learn, we can only improve that if we’re given enough time and space between teaching experiences to reflect, regroup, and revise. It’s time we started compensating teachers for the work that really matters in the classroom: all the work we do outside of it.