The work we bring home: Drowning in it

My first year teaching I was astounded by the fact that we had only one prep period per day and at least four teaching periods each day. I was trained at Bank Street to plan thoughtful engaging lessons and did so meticulously. One period just wasn’t enough. And then I realized something even more startling…there was NO time built into the schedule to assess and grade student work. I mean, not even one period, ever. I asked my union-savvy colleague about time for grading. She had gladly lamented with me the injustice of our one inadequate period to prepare lessons, maintain a classroom, and make copies; but she answered matter-of-factly, “Oh, grading? You’re on your own with that. Teachers have always done grading on their own time.” Of course! I thought sarcastically. What was I thinking? I guess it’s just our fate to work overtime for no pay. Even the union thinks so.

I recently noticed that the New York City School Quality Review process—one of the many “high stakes” evaluations that schools now undergo—emphasizes evidence of differentiated instruction in the classroom. I know that differentiation is one of the things that teachers across the city are struggling to understand and implement, and it’s something I’ve been taking some “extra” time to read up on. The most important thing I’ve learned about successfully differentiating instruction is that it must be done hand in hand with careful assessment of student work. Teachers need to assess work at many points throughout a study in order to determine what directions to take with the whole class, small groups within the class, and individual students.

Differentiation is not just some meaningless jargon sent down to teachers by the department of education. It is, in the words of expert Rick Wormeli, “…what works. It’s highly effective teaching.” So…front and center on my mind is, where is the time for this essential work?

Right now, I have a teacher-bag full of my eighth grade students’ ten page first drafts of original fiction stories. They are very proud of them, and so am I. But I know they need work, and they don’t all need the same thing. Maybe in the old days I could have just quickly checked each student off in a grade book as having completed the assignment. But not today, in the age of data-driven instruction, differentiation, and curriculum as conversation. I know what happens if I don’t read these stories carefully. My class becomes a one-sided conversation. My students have spoken and I don’t respond, or I respond with empty catch-phrases, which they spot like detectives. The next thing I know, I say something I think is important in the classroom, and…they don’t listen! This is the particular brand of justice early adolescents dole out to the adults in their lives.

If I rush, each story will take me about twenty minutes. I have 55 stories, which adds up to 18 hours of grading and responding to stories. I know there are some tricks to cut down on this time; I’ve already employed students as peer editors, and done many relevant lessons throughout the writing process. At some point, though, the teacher needs to weigh in and guide students toward their next steps. That time is now and I’m totally drowning.

I know lawyers and investment bankers, doctors and scientists, who at times work outrageously long hours just to get an important job done. However, these professionals start with six figure salaries and get raises in the hundreds of thousands for their hard work. I, on the other hand, make barely enough money to go on a proper vacation or pay for cable television. And my salary with its slow raises will be identical, whether I engage in true conversation with my students through their work, or simply check them off for completing the task.

If the city wants to review schools and teachers for quality and counts differentiation as an essential element of this quality, we ought to be asking for real time in our schedules to do it right. Otherwise the city is just having a conversation with itself.

[Graphic found at http://content.answers.com/main/content/wp/en/d/df/Roy_Li