Tuesday, December 14, 2010

If Only We Had Fewer Resources

My small school is a little strapped for resources, to say the least.  While the 11th-grade class sizes are somewhere between 14 and 18 (which I really appreciate) and the 9/10 class sizes are in the low 20s, the sacrifices the administration has made in paying for those class sizes (i.e. hiring more instructional staff and spending less money on deans, systems, and other resources) often causes teachers to spend hours on small tasks that, in other schools, might only take seconds or minutes to complete.  Here are some examples.

Example 1: There are no computers in any of the classrooms.  No computers for teachers and no computers for students.  If a teacher does have a laptop, like me, s/he has to carry it around with him/her all day because nobody has their own classroom, and anything worth more than a dollar is not a wise thing to leave anywhere.  Additionally, even though I do have a laptop, I get wireless internet maybe 20% of the time.  As a result, things like taking attendance, keeping up with emails, and entering grades during school hours is an enormous hassle.  If I need to get an important message to any other staff member at any given moment of the day, there is no standard way for me to do it. If it's a really important message, this can often turn into a fifteen to thirty minute hunt for the individual.  Furthermore, entering attendance means having office staff collect attendance twice a day for ARIS (at the beginning and end) from every teacher.  Not all teachers teach during every period, however.  So the person who collects attendance sometimes spends far more time than she should looking for attendance.

Example 2: We barely have enough classrooms for the number of classes we have to hold during any given period.  This often means teachers plan in other teachers' rooms while instruction is occurring.  This is a huge hassle when a teacher is trying to concentrate and so much noise might be going on around him/her.  Or, on the other hand, a teacher planning might need a desk or two to lay out a chart they're making or assignments they're evaluating.  This, for obvious reasons, can impede the lesson of the teaching teacher.  Furthermore, today, some suits from the DOE told us that they'd like to provide us with fewer rooms next year than this year.  Next year we're supposed to add another grade.  They'd essentially be forcing us to double our class sizes.  One of my administrators said to me quietly that if they did that, they may as well just close the school at the end of this year.

Example 3: I have tons of history textbooks, but because none of them have been numbered and registered with the school, I can't very well hand them out to students.  Sure - I could do the work, but I already spend an additional 3-4 hours after school on any given day tutoring, running meetings, or teaching English literacy.  So, by the time five or six o'clock rolls around, there's not much left in me when I know I need to go home and spend another hour grading papers.

Example 4: We have one VERY small room (barely big enough for a single office desk and chair) designated as our SAVE room.  In it, on a bad day, there might be as many as eleven students with one teacher (these are the kinds of students with whom no teacher should have to deal with more than one or two at any given time).  Teachers in general education classrooms will often dismiss students with student-removal forms to go to the counselor's office for defiance.  The single counselor that we currently employ will often have four or five other students waiting to be talked to for behavioral issues.  Rather than doing the work he's assigned (attendance monitoring, ensuring kids are on track to graduate, preparing college-readiness materials), he's forced to deal with all of our biggest behavioral problems.  And when he chooses to send them to the SAVE room, he can't exactly escort them down there himself.  He has four other kids to be working with.  As there are rarely other staff free to escort them, he simply has to trust that they'll find their own way to the little room.  If they actually do go to the SAVE room, they will often not tell the poor teacher assigned to it their name.  Students in the SAVE room then treat the teacher in a manner that would cause me to become a shell of my former self in a matter of days (e.g. exposing themselves to him, farting, kicking things, throwing things, sitting on each other).  They sometimes leave without permission.  Because the SAVE room only recently got a phone in it, there was little the teacher in the SAVE room could do except for to yell to security (who is often non-attentive, not available, or simply not present) to get the attention of the administration about potential concerns.  Even if they do get someones attention, there's a good chance everyone else in the school is dealing with more important problems.

Example 5: We have a big problem with tardiness.  We run a small school, and because the classrooms are all so close together, students are only given three minutes to get to class (also, this is the only way we can legally provide the necessary amount of yearly instructional time).  Also, most of our kids (all of them foreigners) are not familiar with the concept of bells and tardiness.  Many truly do not understand that if they are in the hall when the bell rings, they are late.  Furthermore, with seven schools in the building, we have seven sets of bells that ring throughout the day.  They're pretty meaningless.  A bell rings just about every five or ten minutes.  Depending on what floor you're on, you might also hear fire alarms randomly going off without purpose or bells that last thirty seconds to a minute in length.  Because we have so many problems with tardiness, we've begun doing tardy sweeps and assigning lunch detention.  But we really don't have the resources to provide students with consequences.  Lunch detentions and tardy sweeps have to be done by teachers willing to give up their lunches and prep periods (without pay), as the administration is busy doing observations and having conferences with Gates Foundation reps, DOE reps, and the amazing load of other BS things they have to take care of.  I've done tardy sweeps and lunch detentions.  I've given up my prep and lunch every day this week to do them.  I think they can be useful, but I don't know if they're worth my sanity.  We don't have money for a dean to do this kind of thing.

Example 6: Every Tuesday and Wednesday, community arts people come to teach the students arts stuff in the afternoon while teachers work in grade-level teams or toward professional development.  The arts people are paid $10 per hour and are not prepared to be working with our kids.  It is very difficult to get our kids in class on time, especially when they're working with people who aren't really qualified to teach.  It's nearly impossible to ensure they're not cutting class and that they behave appropriately in class when the arts people are in the rooms.  In my room, the arts guy teaches karate.  Half the kids sit and watch, and the other half participate.  The 'teacher' is so caught up keeping the participating kids involved that he rarely watches the rest of the room.  I regularly come back to the place where I keep my stuff to find it missing, thrown around, broken, or destroyed.  There is no place for me to lock my stuff up in that room (where I hold 80% of my classes).  My only option would be to lock it up in a locker upstairs, but that would entail moving it three or four times a day, every day.  Any motivation I might have had for securing donations for useful technology in my room essentially disappeared as soon as I realized this would be the case.  So instead of a projector, a television, or a smart board, the best thing I can provide is a white board and color copies every now and then.  The same disrespect for property and adults manifests itself when students are with substitutes.  We suspended two kids today for fighting like animals over an apple with a substitute today (6 teachers were absent today - which is a nightmare in a small school).  The kids each had half of the apple in their mouths and were growling at each other.  The substitute was passing out papers while this was happening.

There are probably twenty more examples I could share.  But it's been a long day (which is why this post is so poorly written).  Systems, discipline, money, and resources make a difference.  Many of the problems might sound like they have solutions, but the more you wade into trying to solve them, the more you realize the solutions usually lead to more problems.  Systems need to be created from the top down (and our admin is so desperate to keep their heads above water, most of their systems are incredibly imperfect).  Additionally, two systems might work great on their own but fail their purpose when combined.  (Anyone out there with MBA/Organizational/Systems training want to offer me some advice?)  Creating a school under such constraints is about the most difficult task I've ever seen anyone attempt.  Want to tell me resources don't matter?  Want to tell me good teachers are the only thing that matter?  Come to my school for a day.

9 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing this. We need to hear it.

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  2. Meanwhile, the Children First Network -- the new school "support" networks -- are growing every day, along with "innovation specialists" and the like; and the DOE wants to spend an extra billion dollars on technology to expand credit recovery and implement their new online testing regime. What a sadness.

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  3. All I can say is "Wow." If corporate ed policy makers could just spend a day in your shoes, I'd bet they'd think twice before continuing to endorse the "It's all the fault of the teacher" platform.

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  4. And then, if despite all of that, you do a good job, it will be held against you, as evidence that all those other things are luxuries rather than necessities. Having worked in schools with very different norms in resources and teacher support, I concur that working conditions are a crucial factor not getting enough attention.

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  5. Hey, I found your blog from my friend Aaron (here in Ann Arbor, MI). I am a teacher in Detroit Public Schools, which is our state's largest school district. Except for the SAVE room, I can completely relate to what you have said here. I am a special education teacher, so my experiences are probably a little different but so so much is the same.

    Here in MI, the "solution" for the problems are the for-profit charter schools that cherry pick students (or take them until Count Day and then kick them to the curb) and line the pockets of private CEOs and boards of directors. Those schools won't take the kids who were born addicted to crack (1/2 my caseload), the kids who can't read in the 6th grade, etc. Yet they have the resources, the computers, the nice buildings...agh! I better stop before I just start ranting.
    Great blog!!!!!

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  6. This is one of the frustrations with the press for closing schools and creating new small schools. The time it takes to reconstitue a school with effective practices is longer than those who don't work in schools realize. I used to encourage my preservice teachers not to seek a position in a new small school until the hiring freeze forced them into those schools. That teaching population needs to go where structures and systems are in place, not being created along the way. They should not have to worry about trying to build school systems while trying to create their own teaching practice. Just my opinion, but supported by what I have seen from my new teachers over the past five years in NY.

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