You CAN Do More with Less. But Only for So Long.

Yesterday, Colorado’s new governor made some announcements regarding his budget proposal to the state. Specifically, he announced about half a billion in proposed budget cuts for next year, which wasn’t a huge surprise. What was a surprise, at least to me, although I should’ve seen it coming, was that he directed most of those cuts at K12 education.

That’s disappointing, but almost understandable1. What kills me, though, is that the budget scenario will probably be good political cover for an unfortunate move being made in the school district where I live, my children go (or will go) to school, and my wife is a teacher.

Basically, they’re going to ask2 high school teachers at three of the city’s schools to teach another class per semester. It’s a kind of peer pressure move. 3

I’ve been following this story for a while – it first surfaced last fall, and I traded email with a district assistant superintendant on the plan before Christmas. But I didn’t think I’d need to say anything. I had thought, perhaps naively, that the plan wouldn’t come to pass. The move is based on faulty logic and poor math4. Surely, I thought, the human filters would be thoughtful and wise. I mean, come on. This was a school district that understood the importance of teachers having meaningful time in their school day for professional development. For collaboration. For individual and small group student contact time outside of class.

Or so I thought.

As this plan has emerged, and opposition from the high school teachers who, rightly, believe this will harm the quality of their instruction as well as their ability to meaningfully build relationships with students, I’ve heard, quietly, from elementary and middle school teachers in the school district. They’ve not had the same time without classes to interact with students and each other. These middle and elementary school teachers, or at least the vocal ones5, aren’t willing to advocate for something that they don’t have themselves.

The whole thing’s a mess. All teachers should have time to be meaningfully thoughtful and human to their students. Every day. 6

Perhaps my biggest concern with the entire deal is that it’s easy to hide behind big words like “efficiency.” While I’m a fan of efficiency when it makes sense7, I’m thinking that some of the most important work that teachers do, and do quite well, isn’t about being efficient. It’s about being available. It’s about being human. Patient. Kind. Thoughtful. Reflective.

Those are hard things to be when every minute of your work day is full of teaching and you’ve now got an additional class to look after during your grading time at home.8 We should be looking to have our teachers, all of them, “teaching” less and learning more9.

My friend Zac wrote a while back about a scary kind of school: The kind that are breaking teachers. Those are the kinds of schools that look good on a balance sheet or a collection of test scores. They’re probably, at least on paper, very, very efficient.

They’re the ones where on the outside, everything looks great. But then you open the place up, and you see that stuff’s pretty rotten. And will only last so long.

In this time of tightening budgets and scary realizations, I hope that central administrators, classroom teachers, parents, students, politicians and everyone else realize this:

We can do more with less. And good folks, if asked to, will do so. But, if the “more” isn’t very good, then maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe our leaders should say “let’s do fewer things better rather than so many things poorly.”

As next year starts to take shape for educators and legislators, let’s hope at least a few folks are considering that position.

You probably know of stories about folks being asked to do more with less. This is one of ours. One I can’t quite wrap my head around. These stories are complex and difficult.

I’d look forward to hearing yours, and how you think we can work to make things better in a difficult time.

  1. The Governor did acknowledge that K12 is a huge line item – and one that has flexibility, compared to say, giving prison guards a month of furloughs. Of course, this is Colorado, where we amended our state constitution to provide additional monies for education, and the legislature used some creative math to circumvent that constitutional requirement as the economy worsened. So funding’s never been pretty. []
  2. No. They pretty much told. []
  3. Hey. C’mon. The other high school in town is doing it. I’m sure it’s good. []
  4. It seems that, according to one district source, asking a teacher to teach one additional course would only mean twenty minutes more of teaching per day. I don’t get that. Do you? []
  5. And there aren’t many. This is a divisive issue. Unfortunately. []
  6. I wish that the teachers in the district where I work had more time to be thoughtful. I spend a great deal of my time seeking ways to carve out that time. It’s hard to do. But worth doing. []
  7. And it does make sense. But at what greater cost? []
  8. The fact that teachers are spending so much of their time grading at home is of larger concern. But no one seems to want to talk about that much. []
  9. I know. The Finland comparisons are tired. But, at least in the area of professional development and how teachers spend their time, I think they’re worth making. Finland does teaching and learning differently. And it’s worth exploring. []

13 thoughts on “You CAN Do More with Less. But Only for So Long.

  1. Due to budget cuts, my fellow teachers and I are now teaching 7 out of 8 periods a day and most have more students in each section (previously we taught 6 sections, had a study hall and a prep). One teacher sees 173 students a day. There is no way to connect with students and be an effective teacher with those numbers. Hours are spent at home correcting assignments, planning lessons because there isn’t enough time in a normal school day. Burn out is high. There seems to be more teacher sick days.

    I read over what I have written and feel like a whiner–something I abhor–but the fact is, I feel like I failed my students this year and that is not acceptable.

  2. It’s coming to Wisconsin too. We are being hammered now (http://goo.gl/CdVyF), which will completely impact the teacher work day and we will be hammered even more when the budget comes out next week.

    It’s unfortunate that people are looking at the almighty dollar and making drastic cuts, without looking at the long term impact of those cuts.

  3. Sadly, this has been the reality in Michigan for some time now. Granted, our economy tanked far earlier than did everyone else’s (thank you monolithic auto industry), but in both the district where I work and the district where my daughter attends Kindergarten the norm at the elementary level is 25-27 students per class, and at the secondary level we’ve been seeing classrooms north of 30 students. We still have decent negotiated planning time (a little more than 300 minutes a week), but that will soon come under attack as well from our new Governor, who is also shielded behind his heavy use of the word “efficiency”.

    In the end, it’s really easy to make us look like whiners, but the truth is far from it. After the huge protests in Wisconsin yesterday, perhaps we’ll see some more action from teachers in the near future.

  4. Deb- I don’t think you are being a whiner. What I hear you saying is that you are a caring teacher who is feeling ineffective because of a situation that is out of your control. That is a completely valid sentiment and argument. I taught in CA for 18 years before I moved to NC. My last semester in CA, my class sizes were 22 (a 9th grade intervention class) and two senior classes of 36 and 43. I taught previously at a middle school where I had a class load of 150-180 students. I get what you are saying. We are constantly compared to other countries, charter schools, private schools- but very few people understand exactly what a public school teacher’s day looks like and how that is different from all those places we are being compared to.

    I wish I had an easy answer for you, but I don’t. Don’t lose heart and don’t beat yourself up for not being the perfect teacher you expect of yourself. The fact that you care tells me that you are going in each day and doing the best that you can for those babies in your room. That is all any of us can ask of ourselves.
    Teresa Bunner´s last blog post ..If You Build IT- They Will Write

  5. Deb,

    You’re not whining. But you can’t blame yourself for the effects of a situation you didn’t cause. Maybe the only solution is to talk openly about the entire situation with the kids and see whether they have any ideas for how you can cope with this together, as a team. I have a lot of faith in kids.

  6. Dividing the primary & secondary teachers is a classic move.

    If they add an extra teaching period, teachers should refuse to do homework a win-win for all.

    This is all a way of sacking or not replacing teachers.

    I’d frankly prefer larger class-sizes.

    Less is NOT more in this case!!

    if management wants concessions, teachers should trade for more curricular autonomy – but they won’t because they’re weak and have no self-preservation quantities.
    Gary Stager´s last blog post ..What I’m Currently Reading

  7. I’m in my second year of furloughs and frozen salaries in SC. Our stipends for National Board have been eliminated at the district level, and the state stipends have been furloughed as well. We have had no teacher work days this year, except for the one in which the district made us sit in an auditorium all day to hear a guest speaker tell us how to teach with more energy and to build more rapport with our students.

    I understand the economy is bad – and in some cases, having fewer employees works. In the end, though, public schools have the same number (or more, if families can’t afford to send students to private school) of students as we did before the recession – our custodial staff (furlough days and hiring freezes) have the same number of hallways to clean – our media specialist (furloughs and loss of clerical support) has the same number of teacher teams with which to collaborate. We are not being asked to cut back a little; we are asked to do far more with far less. And, in the end, I think we might band together and handle this, except we have been made villains by so many legislators. We have heard about Superman, been discussed by educational geniuses (like Joe Scarborough) as part of Education Nation, and even been given the blame for the AZ shooting by the owner of USA Today.

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