Chapter 10 – Live in the Tension

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Having just completed your credential program, you are full to the brim with plans for teaching conceptual math, inquiry-driven science, and literature-based reading. Your plans for a single lesson can run up to four pages once you finish getting all of the differentiation and extension activities added to it. You can’t wait to get your students out of the classroom and into the local museums, waterways, and zoos. Then you read job descriptions that ask for teachers who are willing to teach specific, branded reading programs, writing from another well-known name, and math from a text book. You even see a few listings that want applicants comfortable teaching from scripts. Desperate for a job, you apply.

Welcome to the context that every teacher must live within, the tension created by being pulled away from what you know your students need and pulled toward what your country, state, province, district, or principal demands of you. These demands may take up some or all of your teaching time, and some or all of your prep time. When I talk to ex-teachers, it is nearly always this tension that drove them out of teaching. They still love the kids, no matter how difficult they were, but could no longer stand the unending demands placed upon them by outside agencies.

For example, as I write this chapter, I am at the end of a school year. I have worked at school for the last twenty-seven days straight, except for one day sick with a migraine. I have spent every weekend at school trying to grade papers and prep lessons, but mostly completing end-of-year reports. Here is the paperwork I have not yet completed…

  • Report cards
  • Reading, writing, math, spelling test scores into the Title I spreadsheet
  • Reading, writing, spelling test scores into the district web site
  • Class math and reading rankings into the district web site
  • Lists of students who haven’t finished end of year district testing
  • Lists of students who missed a state testing session
  • Awards certificates for the end of year assembly
  • Discipline referral forms & parent contacts about them
  • Cumulative folder notes
  • Book club attendance report
  • Book club end of year survey forms
  • Summer school recommendations
  • Science/Social Studies final purchases to use up budget
  • Book club purchases to use up budget
  • Proposed graphic for next year’s discipline plan
  • E-mails to special education teacher to get their test scores
  • List of room repairs for summer
  • Evaluation form for my substitute teacher
  • Evaluations for my volunteer tutors
  • Evaluation for my practicum student
  • Survey from the district diversity department
  • Survey from the district nutrition department
  • Survey from the district technology department
  • Survey from the district literacy department
  • Survey from the district building & facilities department
  • Survey from the school about discipline

And I still have to create meaningful lessons for seven more days of school, teach those lessons, and attend all the end-of-year meetings. Most of my 8th grade daughter’s teachers have already given up and resorted to showing videos. As a teacher, I keep thinking that this is a complete waste of learning time. As a parent, this ticks me off. I know state testing is complete, but I do not battle to get her up at 6:00 a.m. every morning to watch Wreck It Ralph, Wall-E, and countless other popular movies completely unconnected to anything she has learned this year. She can stay home and do that. Couldn’t just one of her teachers actually teach her something during these last two weeks of school?

As a teacher yourself, you will constantly make this decision. Do you put in a video to get that report done or do you work until you keel over from exhaustion again? Do you give the writing assignment that your students need or do you shorten it because you can’t pull another all-nighter to write comments on a hundred persuasive essays? Do you volunteer to coach a team, run a club or do you pick your kids up from day care on time? Do you haul home twenty hours of work on the weekend or do you visit your mom? Really, these are the easy decisions. These decisions only take a toll on you and your family. Tension that comes from your boss or mentors can be much harder to handle.

Some of my least favorite e-mails come from assistant principals and teaching coaches. I do feel for them. They are in positions of authority with little power. This structure seems to force them to write e-mails that sound like this, “It’s that time of year again. I need everyone’s reading level report. I know you love these so I am giving you plenty of notice. Reports are due by April 10th. No later. Please put them on the server by April 10th. If you are new or forgot how to do these, instructions are attached. If you need help, call me before April 10th.” These notes are usually following by increasingly strident reminders that the date is approaching and finally has passed.

Notice three significant things. First the date gets repeated so often that even a novice can tell that very few people made the deadline last year. Second, the tone of the note makes it clear that no one thinks the report is important. So we all let it drop to the dead zone in our e-mail boxes and return to our normal overwhelmed lives. Third, someone is going to be peeved at us when that date slides by.

We had plenty of notice. We had clear instructions. So what was the problem? The tension again. Every time we walk into our classroom, we have to choose among too many jobs (see chapter 23, Manage Your PR), and choosing to do a report will never win over preparing a lesson or grading papers. The latter have a direct and immediate impact on the quality of our day in the classroom. If the report sucks up enough time, it can actually make our day worse because it keeps us from preparing to teach. It’s a no-win situation. We’re either frustrated with the person who demanded the report because it forced us to choose between a) muddling unprepared through a lesson and dealing with all of the concomitant discipline issues that creates or b) getting grief from the person who demanded the report because we didn’t do it despite having ample notice and clear instructions.

It gets worse. Demands from principals can cause even more tension. One will ask you to come in an hour early one morning a week for WFSG (Whole Faculty Study Group) with a book chapter read, marked, and analyzed no matter how late you worked the night before. Another will send you to a conference, but ask you to give up your stipend for attending so she can use the money to send a colleague as well. This will leave you with insufficient money to cover your meals because conferences are always in expensive cities and district expense account policies never allow for that. Another principal may ask you if you really want to file that discipline report for bullying or if you might reconsider this time and let it slide so the school’s behavior incident numbers don’t look so bad.  A third principal may want a week’s set of lesson plans on file every Friday afternoon before you leave for the weekend meaning that you don’t get off work until midnight. A fourth principal will fall asleep while observing you, then write about how much he hated the lesson that you worked so hard on. You’ll also have to cancel a week of lessons throughout the year so students can go to assemblies about school fundraisers.

Parents will demand study guides for tests you aren’t ready to give yet as well as state test practice packets that you know do little good. Districts will demand lessons for Constitution Day, Earth Day, Presidents’ Day, and Black History Month and take as much as a month of learning time throughout the year to give assessments “to see where your students are.”  And everyone has a survey.

I hate surveys. They always make me feel inadequate. There are two kinds of surveys, the “how are we doing” surveys from district service departments, and the “evaluate your work” surveys from the various curriculum departments. The former are easy and fun because I can compliment all of the service staff who have repaired my air conditioning, toilets, and computers multiple times. The latter make me cringe. They inevitably come with a 5-point rubric and at least thirty questions to rate myself and my colleagues. By the third question, I am failing.

It always reads something like this. “How many days a week do you teach ________?” Whatever the subject, be in Science, Math, Guided Reading, Writers Workshop, or Social Studies, I know the answer should be “5.” But it’s not. Part of it is not my fault. The district and my principal require more minutes per subject than are scheduled into the week. I start school half an hour early and still can’t make up all of the missing minutes. And that’s on weeks when there are no shortened days, assemblies, or fire drills. This has apparently gone on for at least half a century. My mother experienced the very same conflict when she was teaching in the ‘60’s. Her school boards never could resolve the issue so teachers were instructed to double up reading and writing time with other subjects.

The time issue is just the beginning. As I move through the surveys, I find out that I haven’t done weekly written reflections on my instructional practices, that I haven’t had weekly goal-setting meetings with my literacy coach, that I haven’t checked the curriculum guides often enough, that my students don’t experience inquiry-based instruction in math often enough, that I haven’t observed and been observed by other teachers often enough, etc. It’s endless and demoralizing. Just once, I’d like a survey to ask what great, new innovative idea I tried this year, but it never does. By the end of these surveys, I wonder why I still try. Then I shake myself and decide once again that it’s the survey’s problem, not mine. Maybe there are teachers out there who hit every point on every one of those perfectionist rubrics, but it apparently will never be me. I know of no rubric that measures teaching a love of learning, caring for students, and creating moral citizens. Maybe I’ll do better on that one. Hopefully, you will, too.

Your struggle will be that while all of this is swirling around you, while every day something else pulls you away from your students, while you can’t believe what people think up for you to do, while you are feeling nothing but inadequate, all you will want to do is something simple like pick up the pencils all over your floor, clean off your desk, catch up on your grading, answer a couple of e-mails, and sleep. Oh, and teach your regular lessons because in the middle of this tidal wave of work, your students still show up every day.

To be a teacher is to be stuck in the middle, to have far more demands placed upon you than you have time or energy for, to feel stretched so far that you are sure you will snap. The good news is that college is excellent practice, particularly if you also had a family or were involved in extra-curricular activities. To cope, you need to do the same things you did in school. First, prioritize, but remember that some low-priority items still have deadlines attached. Second, don’t spend too much time avoiding. Breaks are good for your psyche, but procrastinating will not help you in the long run. Third, make sure you are working on the right things. Cleaning out every student desk might make you feel more in control, but it will soak up all of the hours that would be better spent planning the week’s lessons. Fourth, ask a veteran if something really needs to get done or can be done more easily. A surprising number of district reports are repeats of other reports if you know where to look for the information. Some assessments that sound mandatory in your email are actually optional in real life. Finally, get help.

I cannot believe how many teachers need help, but discourage it, either accidentally or deliberately. A colleague of mine, always embarrassed by the state of her room, doesn’t want to let anyone see it until she can clean it up. Of course, like my house, it never gets cleaned up well enough for her to invite company. The mess is not entirely her fault. Every couple of years, we have to change rooms or upend our existing rooms for summer school, painters, or construction crews. It’s nearly impossible to stay organized. Still, imagine how a good volunteer could help her.

Other schools don’t ask enough of their volunteers. My mom wanted to volunteer in her granddaughter’s classroom and was given pages to put in notebooks. No one asked her what she was capable of. She has been teaching groups in my classroom for six years now. She has also invented a class favorite, Graphic Wednesday, where we read and analyze graphic novels. Her hundreds of hours were a sad loss for my daughter’s school, but a life-changing gain for my students. Last year, another former parent joined my classroom when her daughter’s middle school gave her a list of what parents were allowed to do as volunteers. She chucked it, called me, and has spent countless hours grading papers and helping students who needed individual attention. She even meets me over the summer to get ready for next year.

So how do you get volunteers? Sneeze your love for your work on anyone who will listen. Invite anyone who seems interested at least three times. Many years ago, a European woman explained to me that in her country, no one believed an invitation to coffee was real unless it was extended three times. So I make sure everyone knows my invitations are real. Also, when notices come around that tutors are available, reply immediately and ask for twelve. You will probably get one, but you might get lucky and get two. Finally, reach out to your parents early and often. Most parents cannot commit to a weekly schedule, but can make time for a few hours across two weeks to help with a big writing project. Don’t be afraid to give them a couple of challenging children. Those parents have the energy and time to be relentlessly warm and encouraging. They can get great work from children that you have been struggling with. Allow yourself to be surprised.

Help can also come from afar. My sister, who had some pretty awful school experiences, seems determined to make my classroom fun. Every once in a while, she sends finger puppets, crazy pencils, wacky erasers, and other items from Oriental Trading Company. After posting suggestions for filling schoolchildren’s needs in a Yahoo group for The Box Project, I connected online with an amazing woman who has sponsored my classroom for the last six years. She sends boxes of clothes, coats, food, toys, supplies, gifts, and even holiday projects. The students spontaneously write letters to her full of love, thanks, pictures, little gifts, and requests. Parents have a hard time believing that someone so far away can care so much, but she does, and so does her family.

Help will make the tension easier to live within, but that tension will always pull at you. Recognize that tension for what it is – a tug of war between what you know is best for your students and what you have to do to keep your job. Do what you have to do to keep your job. When you get older, tenured, and/or frustrated, you can start taking more risks and standing up more strongly for what your students need. In the meantime, you will observe many things that are ridiculous about our educational system. Do your best to deal with them or kick them out of the way and get back to what is most important, helping your students learn.


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