When Life Happens: The Extra Burdens Some Teachers Must Take On

We have seen in earlier posts of The Unrealized Maine Classroom that the act of truly engaging students in their everyday classroom lessons is a major undertaking that requires hours of careful preparation and planning, as well as creative innovation and years of training.  The current work day in a typical school makes it extremely challenging for teachers to achieve this kind of excellence, and those that do should be considered superheroes.  Everybody knows life throws extra burdens our way often without warning, and that can impact our work life.  The teaching profession is particularly susceptible to this scenario.  Teachers who are at an extra disadvantage in this regard are those new to the profession, and/or new to modern technology, and… a great many teachers who are also parents.

In the culture of accountability in public education, new teachers are automatically at a disadvantage with this trend, having the least experience and the greatest naivete about the challenges of the profession.  Also at a disadvantage are teachers who have little experience with technology and the transparency that comes with teaching in the age of accountability.  30 years ago, it was a lot easier for teachers to do their own thing in their own classrooms behind closed doors.  As long as parents weren’t complaining, and students were coming out unscathed, teachers were under little pressure to teach any certain way, once they were established in their jobs and protected by a continuing contract.  Today, teachers who began their careers under those conditions must not only follow a more rigid protocol, but must also incorporate sometimes unfamiliar technology into their instruction.  

As a representative of the over 40 demographic, I wholly admit that our brains are not wired the same as someone twenty or more years younger who grew up with the internet and touch-screen technology.  A child who has never held an iPad but has played with his or her parents’ cell phones since toddlerhood will likely find his or her way around the device relatively quickly and start downloading apps before you know it.  Give an iPad to a baby-boomer who has never seen one before, and that person will ask you, “Where’s the instruction manual?”  

In Maine, middle school students use tablets and laptops on a regular basis.  A few years ago, after a technology training, I had participated in a workshop and was eager to share a new educational app with my eighth graders.  My students and I all had iPads, so this seemed like an opportunity to infuse more technology into my lessons.  I directed them to the application, had them download it, and began to show them all the things I learned to do with it.  In minutes, my students were showing me features of the app I had yet to discover.  None of them had seen the application before, but many of them were able to learn how to use all the tools and tricks it had to offer faster than I was.  By the next day, my students had figured out even more options on the application and were running away with it, leaving me asking them for tips.  

I have heard similar stories from other teachers.  My sympathy goes out to both teachers and students who endure this challenge.  Patience has run thin when I have tried to explain to my own mother how to use her email filters, so I can only imagine what it must feel like to students to have to sit through a lesson while their teacher navigates modern technology in an attempt to infuse these modern advances into the classroom.   There exists today a huge generational technology gap, and this makes life difficult for some teachers, and tedious for students.   On top of all that, many classroom technology features don’t always work that well, so now you have a generational learning gap and a conundrum: Is it me, or is this thing not working?

Teaching public school in 2016 presents special challenges for teachers new to the profession and teachers new to technology.  It is difficult to concentrate on excellence and innovation when burdened with learning the languages of these trends.   The demands of teaching are also especially challenging for teachers who are also raising children.  

We’ve all heard how parenting is a “second full-time job.”  Teaching is more than a full time job just in itself, and it involves being responsible for the learning and safety of groups of other people’s children.  Putting in the hours necessary to be just a minimally “effective” teacher is hard enough without also having to turn your energy and attention to being an “effective” parent.  For parents who teach, sometimes the job suffers, and sometimes the parenting suffers, as a result of trying to do it all and do it all well.  

Accountability measures that attempt to measure and determine teacher effectiveness create considerable pressure and anxiety on already overburdened professionals.   New teachers are novices and do not often perform at the level of an experienced veteran.  Some veteran teachers are new to technology and will not be as comfortable using it as someone with a digital upbringing.  Teachers with children at home struggle to find time at home for lesson planning, preparation, grading and providing meaningful feedback.

Everybody makes mistakes, but teachers in these three scenarios are more likely to fumble.  Just as distracted drivers are far more likely to wind up in an accident, professionals distracted with extra burdens are prone to slipping up on the job.  I recently watched a documentary about plastic surgeries gone wrong (I have a compulsion toward books and television programs that depict things turning horribly bad in people’s lives), and couldn’t help but think about the teaching profession when the narrator spoke of the increased likelihood of error when a surgeon takes on too many surgeries in a day.  The same is probably true about any occupation.  Whether it is too many surgeries, too many trials, too many flights, or too many classes, too many tasks over the course of a work day can result in errors in judgment and a reduction in quality of performance.  Most of us would not be comfortable knowing our surgeon, lawyer, or airplane pilot had already taken on an excessive number of surgeries, trials or flights on the day of our particular surgery, trial or flight.  For teachers who teach five or six lessons a day, that scenario happens every afternoon. Now add the unexpected distractions… The Apple TV isn’t working, the internet is down, students are bonkers because it is snowing out, your kid is sick at home, or in trouble at his or her own school.  

These extra burdens don’t let up when the school day ends.  For teachers new or averse to technology, dealing with such issues continues in the after-hours when lessons are planned, online resources are accessed, and grades are entered into online data management programs.  For teachers new to the classroom, inaugural curriculum planning can be massively time consuming.  And for teachers who are parents, naturally, finding a quiet space to work at home can be impossible.  

As in any profession, a teacher’s intended outcomes are negatively impacted by these factors.  Grading is delayed, lessons are compromised, and differentiated instruction is weak.  

When I was a teacher in training years ago, I was appalled when a teacher I was observing actually took a call on her cell phone in the middle of introducing a lesson to her students.  “Hang on a minute,” she told them, “I have to take this.”  Just before she answered the call, she waved her finger over the students’ heads.  “Not a peep while I’m talking!” she said, and opened up her flip-phone.  “Hello?  Oh hey!!… What? No way…”  

The conversation went on for a couple minutes and finally ended with an explanation to the caller, “Hey, listen, I’m in the middle of teaching a class, I gotta go.  I’ll call you later.”

I thought, wow.  How nutty is that?  This teacher, with a teacher-in-training (me) in the room observing, and a full class of students quietly waiting to learn, felt the need to answer her cell phone right then and there!  And it did not appear to be an urgent call.  At the time, I thought it was rude to the students, and just poor judgment.  I still do.  But, in retrospect, I now understand how teachers can have their judgment impaired while on the job, teaching class after class.  And I also understand how teachers who are parents must make difficult decisions on a regular basis… Do I focus on my kid’s needs or my students’ needs?  

It is a distraction that impacts learning in the classroom.  Just being worried about a family member’s well-being can be a distraction at any job.  Most teachers will wait until their prep period or lunch break arrives to check in on a loved one, or to return a missed call.  But keep in mind, the prep period typically comes once a day or less, and the lunch break for teachers often involves completing necessary tasks for upcoming lessons or meetings.  So that call becomes one more burden in a day already stuffed with back-to-back lessons and not nearly enough planning time.  

One can never really alleviate the burdens of parenthood, nor can one eliminate the stresses and challenges of a new career.  And technology will always be evolving faster than some of us can handle.  Taking on a career like teaching involves making some sacrifices, learning new tricks, and exercising careful time management, all for the benefit of student learning.  Those extra challenges are often the tipping point that convinces dedicated educators to leave the field, however.  That is a problem.  If it were just a matter of making a few sacrifices, learning new tricks and honing up on time management, this would not be the case.  Every career involves those things.  People leave their careers early when their expectations are not met.  That means that while some districts pay teachers better than others, the primary issue is not salary.  Compensation may play a role, in that ultimately individuals may be deciding the salary isn’t worth the sacrifice, but there is something about the job itself that turns good people away from teaching public schools.  

We hear the word, overwhelming, all the time in the education field.  “I know this is all overwhelming.”  New teachers hear it more than anyone else.  “Teaching will seem overwhelming at first,” they are told.  That’s because it is overwhelming.  I leave the issue of pay alone because teachers have been offered meager starting salaries for years and only in recent years has enrollment to teacher education programs been dropping.  More teachers leave the profession early now than ever before.  The job we ask teachers to do is indeed overwhelming, and more so for new teachers, teachers new to technology, and teachers who are parents, than anyone else.

Time once again for my positive spin on the situation.  Ready for the good news? It isn’t that complicated.  Every public school’s goal should be to engage and inspire young people, because that is how people learn.  So we need to be encouraging teachers– all teachers, novices and veterans– to teach engaging and inspiring lessons.  In order to do that, we have to ensure that every teacher has the professional time he or she needs to plan and prepare for every lesson taught, during the school day.  Otherwise, teachers who carry the burdens mentioned above are at a distinct disadvantage.  They are set up for failure.  Give all teachers enough time to plan and prepare for every lesson every day on the job, and there will suddenly be breathing room in the day, and a better time to address technical difficulties.  Planning and prep time is a better time to make a quick call home.  Most importantly, planning and prep time is a better time to prepare for the next lesson, as opposed to trying to plan for the next five lessons all at once.  

Going above and beyond the call of duty is always admirable and is sometimes necessary to pull off extra special work.  Going above and beyond should never be required to stay afloat, however.  For new teachers, teachers who are parents, and teachers learning mandated and complex new initiatives, going above and beyond is a necessity, in addition to making sacrifices and taking shortcuts.  A recipe for true excellence and innovation in teaching includes time for teachers to innovate so that they can excel with their students.  New teachers especially need that feeling of success and accomplishment.  So does every teacher.  

Please continue to share your thoughts on this and other related matters here and at The Unrealized Maine Classroom Facebook page.  

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.