For All You Do.

We want students in our public schools to strive for innovation and excellence in their learning.  This means they need opportunities to explore, create, discover, experiment, take risks, make revisions, and feel confident in a final product, solution, or conclusion.  In order for students to learn that way, their teachers need to have the flexibility to create, discover, experiment, take risks, make revisions and feel confident themselves.  They have to teach the lessons that engage students, and that takes careful planning and real innovating.  

A few years ago, I had the privilege of joining a dear friend of mine on a tour of his workplace, the Googleplex in Mountain View, California.  I had heard a lot about what it is like to work at Google, and I was excited to see up close what it was all about. My friend took me all over the campus, from the cubicles to lab rooms to the outside courtyards and the famous kitchens where Google employees are served some fantastic foods.  

I was there in mid-morning, which many would consider to be peak production time at any workplace.  While walking through the open concept floor loaded with cubicles, I saw many things.  There was a couch with an employee napping on it.  I saw a ping-pong table, employees playing foosball, fitness stations, and… lots of food.  

The food is what struck me the most.  In every corner, there seemed to be a table with a bowl of fruit, a shelf full of granola bars, a freezer stocked with frozen treats, and other items.  Right then and there it occurred to me the kind of message that sends to every employee performing any kind of work at the organization.  Of course I thought, how often are classroom teachers teaching their lessons while hungry, or having to go to the bathroom, or dead tired?  It would be nice if teachers had fitness rooms and pinball machines, or a couch we could nap on, but food… food is not all that difficult to provide.  

I have worked in many different school settings, and on some special occasions there is food available for the taking in the teacher’s room.  Most of the time it is provided by a PTA group or a teacher who volunteers his or her efforts.  While visiting the Googleplex, it occurred to me that teacher’s rooms– I refuse to use the word “lounge,” as the idea of teachers actually lounging during the work day is long extinct if not ridiculous; it conjures up images of a bunch of adults clad in fat neckties and unhip blouses smoking cigarettes around a table.  There is no such thing as a teacher’s lounge anymore, and there hasn’t been in a really long time– really ought to have a never-ending supply of ready-made healthy snacks, be it fruit or granola or yogurt or crackers and cheese available at all times of the day.  

My readers-who-are-teachers are laughing.  Free food for teachers is a pipe dream. But on those rare days when I have actually seen communal food on the table in the teachers’ room, my eyes bulge, and I rejoice and grab it immediately.  The problem for me is it is often in the form of a donut, and donuts at work make me feel instant joy, followed by something more like driving over a corduroyed dirt road in a vehicle with no struts.  A sugar crash in the middle of the day is most unwelcoming and leaves me annoyed at everything.  It is not a good state of mind for a teacher at any time of the day.  A healthy pick-me-up, however, or just a snack to keep me going between breakfast and lunch, can make a huge difference in anyone’s attitude. Teachers can pack those things on their own, and stuff their faces in front of their students, but wouldn’t it be nice to go make a few copies and grab a granola bar while out of the room for a few moments between classes?

Why don’t we put food on the table in our teacher’s rooms on a regular basis?  Well, food costs money, and many schools are strapped for cash.  Things like food are non-essential items, and these are the first to get slashed off budgets during times when funding is limited and district administrators are doing everything they can to avoid cutting teaching positions.  Teachers know these times well, when anxiety is high and morale is low, and the supply closets don’t get replenished, and schools put spending moratoriums on things like pencils and paper.  This really happens.  How can we justify a bowl of bananas and apples when we can’t even afford to buy paper?

It is time to come clean about this edition of The Unrealized Maine Classroom; it isn’t about snacks.  All our schools’ problems will not wither away once every principal devotes a portion of his or her budget toward providing a bowl of fruit and a cupboard of granola bars in every copy room.  The big take-away from my visit to Mountain View, CA, was that the company makes it blatantly clear that it deeply values its highly innovative and startlingly happy employees.  Google does everything it can to make sure its employees have the resources they need to do exceptional work, and that they love their jobs, love being in the workplace, and love going the extra mile. The food is just a small fraction of what the wealthy corporation Google does, and spends, to encourage their employees to be highly productive and innovative while they are at work.

Incentives in public education are of a distinctly different flavor.  In previous school districts where I have worked, administrators did try to show their appreciation of their teachers.  If I had a dollar for every pen I received on Teacher Appreciation Day with “Thank you for all you do!” engraved in the side, I’d… well, I’d have a handful of extra dollars in my pocket.  That day only comes once a year.  In some districts, teachers are also recognized for how many years they have remained in the system, typically with a duffle bag, or a medallion, or a mug.  

If those things aren’t incentive enough, the hot trend in recent years is to ask teachers to write goals and acquire evidence, along with student test scores, to prove their “effectiveness,” and thus earn the reward of being able to keep their jobs.  

The recognition teachers get for the work they do is generally less than adequate, but what is equally inadequate are the incentives for excellence.  Some districts have experimented with incentive pay offered to teachers who reach their goals, but when combined with student test scores, it doesn’t become an incentive for excellence and innovation, it becomes an incentive for passing test scores, and the two should never be confused.

The first thing we must do is end the emphasis on accountability in favor of an emphasis on excellence and innovation.   Providing the platform for excellence and innovation means building a professional environment for teachers that includes adequate planning and preparation time for every lesson, and an evaluation system that supports teacher growth without adding more work to a teacher’s plate..  These things will go a long way toward showing genuine appreciation for the work teachers do.  

A few apples, bananas and granola bars wouldn’t hurt, either, but therein lies the rub. If teaching public school happened in a way that allowed teachers to maximize their creative and productive potential, such measures wouldn’t be necessary.  I wouldn’t be writing a blog, and the idea of food provided by an employer would seem entirely unnecessary.  Employers don’t provide welders with snacks, or bank tellers, or real estate agents, because their work days are designed already for maximum productivity.  I’m not saying those are not difficult, stressful jobs also, but it is up to employers to design employees’ work days to maximize the productivity and effectiveness of each employee.  Hopefully those employers are doing what they can to make their employees feel valued in some way.  They may not have the resources Google has, but there ought to be perks to any job.

Teaching public school has become a complicated occupation that way.  Teacher retention is suddenly becoming a concern nationwide (see note below and this article from the Huffington Post).  My hope is that the more we talk about it and share our stories, the more likely we can change the professional culture of public education to value innovation and excellence in teaching and learning.

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AUTHOR’S NOTE: This week I became aware of an upcoming publication based on a series of Stanford comparative studies that will explore nearly every aspect of the teaching profession that impacts the professional culture of teaching in countries around the world.  This is exciting news, and might have the potential to impact public education in a very positive way.  When these studies are published, we will have a comparative perspective of how teachers are trained, how teachers teach, and how teachers are retained in countries small and large from Scandinavia to Southeast Asia to Australia and beyond.  It is my hope that any errant American practices that become evident from this comparison are carefully examined with the big picture in mind before hastily adjusted, reversed or abandoned.  Nevertheless I am delighted that such research has occurred.  It might have been appropriate 35 years ago when America came unbound over the release of ‘A Nation At Risk,’ and got all reform-happy, or even 15 years ago when the ‘No Child Left Behind’ initiative was enacted as a result of our nation still clearly being at risk two decades later.  The reform movements of the past 35 years have done little, if anything at all, to yield any results that leave one feeling better about what is happening in our schools.  Some would say they have made things worse.  An international comparative study of the public education culture in other countries is overdue, but most welcome.  I’ll be sure to access the publications of these studies, and you’ll be reading about it here and hopefully elsewhere.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.