August 15, 2011

Letter From The Teacher #14: Belaboring The Obvious

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mr. Steven Nunsense
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Belaboring The Obvious

Dear Mr. Nunsense:

It was good to hear from you again. I really enjoyed having Hannah as my student two years ago, and I'm looking forward to having Steven Jr. this year. You asked many good questions, and I hope that I did them justice in my last e-mail. But as I noted then, it would not be possible to do your final question justice just then. I have enough time to do that now, so I'll explain why teachers so dislike in-service classes and how that effects education.

It's worthwhile to understand that there are essentially three major groups involved—to greater and lesser degrees--in the delivery of education: teachers, principals and administrators. There are, of course, school board members, but their primary concerns are getting their names on new buildings and making sure the local football team is properly pampered (I'm kidding—mostly).

Teachers have virtually no power. They don't hire or fire, have little or no input into policies, don't make decisions about discipline, and deal almost exclusively with the daily business of presenting the best educational opportunity possible in the hope that at least some of the kids will take advantage of it. Providing that educational opportunity is the ultimate mission of education and they are the people carrying out that mission.

Principals are almost always former teachers. Sometimes they have substantial experience as teachers, but often, very little. They became principals just as soon as they could. If they are good principals, they understand that they have two jobs: To ensure discipline so it's possible for teachers to teach, and to see that teachers have everything else they need to provide that educational opportunity. If they're not good principals, they can single-handedly derail the educational opportunity train, and teachers and students can lose entire years. Even with the best principals, there is often quite a gap between the daily concerns and reality of teachers and principals. Oh yes, principals commonly make from double to four times a teacher's salary.

Administrators are usually former principals who, once they became principals, began wrangling almost immediately to become administrators, who can make double to four times the salary of principals. Their primary concerns are pleasing and manipulating their school board, getting their names on new buildings, and making sure that everyone under them doesn't do anything to embarrass them.

Lower ranking administrators are always trying to impress their superiors and making a name for themselves that will allow them to get a more powerful and better paying job somewhere else, usually by means of ramrodding—literally and painfully—some grand educational scheme or fad that will dramatically change the face of education and make them look like a rising star. Such fads are virtually always nothing more than some old, dusty fad refurbished with a fresh coat of paint and new terms that make what didn't work the first time sound much more impressive. There are loads of companies selling such products, and they aren't cheap, particularly those designed for sequel after sequel, year after year. The trick is that once a lower ranking administrator has hooked a school district into a fad, it's almost impossible for them to abandon it even if it is clear to everyone that it's a fraud and a waste of money. Admitting that would be admitting that school administrators are fallible, which is, of course, simply not possible. So year after year, teachers are subjected to mind-numbing drivel provided at exorbitant cost.

One of the major problems with such classes is that if you're an experienced teacher, the material is so elementary and so obviously poorly recycled that it's a direct insult to your intelligence. If you're brand new, what you really need to know is all of the details of not only teaching, but of teaching in your particular school and district such as which novels to teach, where bathrooms are located, how to grade, how to discipline, what to wear, and a hundred other things you weren't taught in college and thought you knew when you were a kid in high school, but actually had no clue about.

Allow me to provide several examples from in-service classes years past:

In one soul-wrenching class we were taught that if you did not have scissors, you could adapt by actually tearing paper! In another, we were taught that items such as scissors, staplers, pencils, pens and anything that could be manipulated with the fingers should henceforth be called "manipulables" because the mere act of using that term would somehow magically transform education for teachers and students. My favorite was being told that when dealing with students who do not read, write or speak English, one should speak very slowly and loudly: "WHAAAAAT IS WROOOOOOONG WITH YOOOOOUUUU? WHY DON'T YOU UNDERSTAAAAAAAND MEEEEEE?" These were the highlights of those benighted classes. The rest was worse, much worse.

My favorite was years ago when we were sent to a nearby school district to learn how to teach a miraculous reading program. The lady teaching the class turned out to be a retired elementary school teacher who spent every minute of the allotted day—when we weren't on lengthy breaks (the only thing that prevented massive brain damage)—talking about her children and grandchildren and tossing in the occasional rambling, folksy, disjointed anecdote about past students. One of my colleagues, a bright woman taking up teaching in middle age, kept asking pertinent questions that only annoyed the folksy facilitator, so I took her aside during a break and clued her in. We suffered the rest of the day in silence while nodding and smiling pleasantly. Her fee was, no doubt, thousands of dollars, and we ended the day probably knowing less about the reading program than we did before she spoke her first word.

At the beginning of each school year, teachers are called in for in-service classes usually at least a full week before the first day students arrive. They are commonly excited and anxious to get to work to prepare for the kids. Instead they are subjected to classes usually comprised of about 30 minutes of potentially useful information stretched to cover eight hours. Sometimes, there is no potentially useful information. It's rather hard to stretch nothing, but they always manage, usually by making us engage in discussions about methods or concepts we wouldn't touch with 20-foot poles or by making us do "lessons" no competent teacher would ever inflict on their students, as a means of demonstrating what they want us to inflict on our students.

Such classes usually have handouts that consist of templates for accomplishing the most common things, actions competent people have internalized decades earlier. The promise is that if everyone adopts the magic templates as a model for doing what already works, educational achievement will reach heretofore unheard of heights. Whenever I walk into such a class and notice little Tupperwear boxes filled with markers, stick on notes and a variety of similar items spread around the room, particularly when accompanied by sheets of butcher paper or similar paper, I know I'm in for it. I know that because we're going to have to write touchy-feely things on the stick on notes and stick them on paper around the walls, and then we’ll have a "gallery walk" which means we're going to walk around the room reading what other people wrote on stick on notes and this will transform education.

Last week we had what was the fourth or fifth sequel of what is called "Constant Improvement" or "Continuous Improvement" or "Constipated Improvement" or something like that. Each year it's virtually the same thing but slightly repackaged. It's been no secret at all that these classes make teachers suicidal, but apparently some administrator has bet their career on them, so we get constipatedly improved over and over again.

Let me give you some examples from our debacle last week. The "presenter" (or was it "trainer" or "facilitator?" They really love "facilitator.") was a nice lady who apparently retired after teaching something somewhere for many years. The problem was that she was essentially reading the pre-programmed script/handout, complete with accompanying PowerPoint presentation with additional hard copy and web resources available at extra cost.

The focus on this particular presentation was on teamwork. The greatest irony, of course, was that we were wasting a day talking about working in teams instead of working in teams getting work done. She began with a false assumption: teachers have trouble making transitions from one activity to another in classes. Perhaps some brand new teachers have trouble with this, but competent teachers have no more trouble in this area than with blowing their noses.

Here are some of the gems of educational insight we endured:

* Meetings should have a format and they should have a start time and an end time. What an amazing insight!

* While not all trout are fish, not all fish are trout. Similarly, all teams are groups, but not all groups are teams. Uh, OK…

* If you don't look at the game film after a football game you're missing an opportunity for improvement. Uh, OK…

* We learned the definition of "collaborate." Yeah. I had no idea of that one.

* It's important that kids know the content vocabulary in their classes. Really? We should actually teach kids about things like symbolism, theme, alliteration, grammar, and similar things? Wow! I'd no idea!

* Teachers having meetings should have a purpose. I guess that's why our meetings never accomplished anything before now. Our mandatory test scores in the mid 90s must just be flukes.

* We can have a "Round Robin," which is not a rotund bird, but everyone in a meeting expressing their opinions in turn. I always thought that was called "taking turns expressing your opinion," but I'm just a teacher; what do I know?

* You should be on time for meetings. What? No more being fashionably late for no reason?!

* If a teacher has a really good reason for not attending a meeting, there should be discussion about whether to allow them to be gone, or how to punish them, or something. Uh…what?

* If there is a fire in the building, one person should make the decision to evacuate rather than having a meeting to discuss the issue. Wow! Whoda thunk it?

There were forms for planning meetings, forms for writing meeting agendas, forms for analyzing what people said, forms for documenting what happened in the meeting, forms for evaluating the meeting, forms for scratching your nose, eating lunch, and breathing. OK, I'm exaggerating a bit on the last three, but not by much. The people who wrote the program apparently have no idea that teachers have a device known as a "brain" which is capable of storing and retrieving things called "memories" and "processes," and which can "evaluate" events without the use of expensive forms.

Much of the time spent was discussion time in our department groups, er, teams, er, somethings, so that we could evaluate the aforementioned points and implement their wisdom. Apparently the people selling the product have no idea that competent teachers have been having completely effective meetings long before this money making program was ever conceived. So we sat, joked about what we were being asked to do, conducted whatever business we could at the time, and generally appeared to be busy and participating in the class, for teachers are generally quite polite. However, looking around the room I had the distinct impression that the Russians at the siege of Stalingrad probably looked perkier and happier than the assembled teachers.

Why is this a problem apart from wasting a day of teacher's time? Because it is wasting a day of teacher's time, and every minute of their time is precious. It is, in a very real sense, time for which the public is paying and time affecting each student's educational opportunity. The public is also paying the hefty expenses for these all but useless programs. How much? That's hard to tell. Administrators are not the least bit interested in revealing such things to mere teachers, and anyone asking might very well wind up on double secret probation. In the current economic climate, that's not a good idea. My guess is easily tens of thousands of dollars a year. In the current economic climate, that's not a good idea either.

Some people might be tempted to say: "Well at least they're trying to provide some continuing education, and that's better than nothing." No, I'm afraid it is not. Wasting a teacher's preparation time at great financial cost to the public is not better than nothing because nothing in this case is a teacher doing what they're paid to do: preparing well and effectively for their students.

In any case, I hope that this gives you a little insight into what we often have to endure. Thanks again for your concerns and questions, and please let me know if I can be of help in the future.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at August 15, 2011 10:08 PM

Now that was funny. In a "hold your head and stifle a scream at the beauracratic stupidity" sense.
It reminded me of my stint in the 4th grade, when they introduced "New Math". In New Math one was supposed to understand what one was doing. Well, that very night my Grandfather Griesmer revealed that he had been taught math using the same methods the "new" techniques were teaching, with the addition that he had to get the problems right. So under his tutelage I learned how to understand the problems presented, but to get them right as well.

Unfortunately I didn't pay much attention to my mom's experiences in teaching, except to note that she once promised to deck a college football player if he didn't start following instructions. This a woman who stood 5'6 and weight about 135 pounds.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at August 16, 2011 11:53 AM

Pretty much the same in the corporation I work for. You did make me feel sane though. I thought the MBAs from the business schools were the only nitwits, so it was just me.

Posted by: Robert17 at August 16, 2011 10:12 PM