What Maine Can Do

I had conversations with two teachers this week about the great value of professional time embedded in their work day.  One was a public school teacher and the other was a former colleague of mine, currently employed at a private school. While the topics were the same, the conversations were very different.

The first conversation started as a coaching conference.  This particular teacher is one of the blessed sort who reaches out for guidance and collaboration in mathematics instruction on a regular basis.  She is a veteran teacher, admired by colleagues and loved by students, yet she has one of the most impressive “growth mindsets” I have ever witnessed.  When I visit her classes, she observes me just as much as I observe her.  “I noticed how you were drawn to that particular student,” she tells me, “and how you interacted with him.  It makes me think about my own interactions with students who struggle.”  I love that.  I love having conversations with another teacher about her math instruction, hearing her observations and sharing my own.  We both learn a great deal from each other when this happens.  It is a big part of my job as a math strategist.  But every time I have a conversation like this, reflecting on a lesson I witnessed or even helped to teach, I feel a certain amount of guilt.  I am using this teacher’s precious time.  We are always reflecting on practice, what good teaching is, what we can do to improve instruction, but every time I sit down with a teacher after a lesson, I am aware that a great sacrifice is being made for this to happen.  

One time, I was having one of these follow-up discussions with another teacher in a different building.  I had been promised 15 minutes, and our conversation extended a few minutes beyond that.  The young teacher was sharing a lot with me, and we were discussing some important strategies for future lessons, but we were interrupted by one of her colleagues at the door.  “Excuse me, Mr. Gale, but Ms. C needs her lunch.”  It suddenly dawned on me that it was 12:30 and this teacher had sacrificed twenty minutes of her lunch period for me.  I hated myself for that.

I am one of those people who cannot postpone lunch.  Bad things happen when I don’t eat.  I become like The Irritable Hulk.  When I miss lunch, it is best to keep me away from things like photocopiers that have a tendency to jam and children who ask questions.  

Not everyone behaves like I do on an empty stomach, but I hate to put anyone in that position.  The truth is, teachers do this all the time.  They snack on cashews mid-lesson in order to devote themselves to instruction, meetings, or essential planning, among other things, and put off lunch until 3:15.  I see it all the time. Miraculously, I have even pulled it off a few times myself, putting everyone and everything in close proximity at risk for the duration.   This is all beside the point (I promise I am not that obsessed with food; while I did write an entire post earlier this year about snacks in the teacher’s room, it was mostly metaphorical), because this is not really about teachers getting hangry.  It’s about good teaching.  Let’s get back to that.

So I’m having this conversation with a wonderful experienced teacher who is always happy to see me when I visit her classroom.  And I’m starting to feel that guilt for taking too much of her time, and I apologize to her.  She understands, she tells me, and yes, she should get back to her classroom before her students return from specials.  Later in the day, after school, she returns and we talk more about the issue of professional time.  “There ought to be time embedded in the day for us to have conversations like the one we had earlier today.”  

Of course she’s right, and not only is she right, she has touched on what I propose is the number one issue plaguing public schools everywhere.  It’s not how little teachers are paid, and it’s not that teachers are overworked, although, that is a concern for many.  It’s not the Common Core.  It’s not, believe it or not, all the testing.  It’s become a theme in The Unrealized Maine Classroom, the severe lack of professional time allotted to teachers between teaching lessons, and something really needs to be done about it.

I propose we do not dwell on how wrong it is to deny teachers this professional time, but instead emphasize how excellent our schools would truly be if we had that time.  

This brings to mind that second conversation I had, with the former colleague. Here’s a teacher who made a decision to accept a pay cut to teach at a private school that allows her not only adequate planning and preparation time between lessons, but also office hours to meet with her students.  I love catching up with this old friend, because she is nothing short of giddy when she tells me about her work, the wonderful reading assignments she can devise, the powerful connections she is making with her students, and time and energy she is awarded that makes her actually feel good about her teaching.  It is so very refreshing to have a conversation with another teacher about all the great things she does with her students and how much she loves her job.  I think many public school teachers love certain aspects of their job, as did I when I was in the classroom.  But taken as a whole, “I love my job,” just doesn’t paint a complete picture.

Every professional must have effective time management. Every teacher should be responsible to use his or her planning time for planning, prep time for prepping, office hours for office tasks and conferences, their meeting time for meeting with colleagues, and their lunch time for eating lunch.  Every teacher really ought to have planning time, prep time, office hours, and time devoted to meeting with colleagues (in addition to lunch time).  Supposing every teacher were given adequate professional time, it would take getting used to, because it just isn’t the case now, and it hasn’t been for a very long time.  

Change would also need to occur in the rest of the school community.  In order for teachers to have adequate professional time between lessons, there would have to be additional faculty or staff to work with students during that professional time.  Do schools hire twice as many teachers?  Do schools double-up class sizes?  Do schools hire more support staff?  How could a school district in a place like Maine take that one bold step toward empowering teachers to teach to their true potential?

There are probably lots of possibilities, but I won’t pretend each one doesn’t likely involve an impact on the local school budget and ultimately state and federal funding to education.  But wait!  Don’t stop reading!  Here’s where it gets interesting.

In the long run, I am a proponent of keeping class sizes small, but I don’t necessarily think the path toward transitioning schools toward excellence and innovation begins with bulking up on teaching staff.  I do think the answer lies in bringing more support staff to buildings.  

In Maine, teachers’ aides are called educational technicians, or “ed techs” for short. Ed techs work in many capacities; some teach lessons, or work one-on-one with students and in small groups, some provide support to general classrooms in both math and literacy, some cover recess and lunch duties, and some do other things. Ed techs have been an essential group of educators in every school I have ever set foot in.  

I have always felt ed techs are underappreciated and underutilized.  Ed techs are most often not certified teachers, and are paid hourly.  They work hard, and are sometimes given last minute assignments to substitute teach, or cover for another adult out sick.  Most ed techs have a great deal of classroom experience that would put them at an advantage if they were to move into a teaching career.  In my opinion, ed techs really ought to be encouraged to become certified teachers.  

One way to show greater respect for our educational technicians would be to create a path toward certification through stipends or reimbursement for teacher education programs at local colleges and universities.  We do this for teachers who set out to obtain Master’s degrees, so there is no reason we shouldn’t do the same for our ed techs.  This way, ed techs are encouraged to stay on the job and look forward to advancing toward a salaried, professional role as teacher some day.  Schools would benefit because they would be sending more experienced personnel into the teaching profession.  School leaders want to know their young teacher applicants are coming to them with strong classroom experience.

This also might attract more recent college graduates into the teaching field.  If the ed tech role led to a more visible path toward a teaching career, more qualified college graduates would be interested in applying.  Even better, if certain ed tech positions could count toward a teaching internship over a period of time, there would be even more incentive.  A teaching intern could play many of the roles an ed tech plays, gaining experience in the classroom that is just as valuable and meaningful as that of a typical teaching internship.  

While we’re fantasizing, let’s imagine unpaid and/or paid internships in schools for ed techs that both serve as valid experiences toward teacher certification, but also employment fallbacks in the event of failed certification or teaching job acquisition.

As it is now, anyone with a year or more of college experience can apply to be an ed tech, and then that’s it, the career ladder ends.  Sometimes teacher certification program graduates accept ed tech jobs in the interim before landing teaching jobs, but there is no current link to teacher certification for ed techs, or pathway for ed techs to become teachers.  

Educational technicians should be encouraged with real incentives to become teachers, and schools should hire more educational technicians to their staffs.  See where I’m going with this?

Having taught in a handful of school districts in Maine that vary in poverty level and affluence, I have seen how schools with high poverty levels and in less affluent neighborhoods are impacted differently than other schools.  Poorer schools sometimes have larger class sizes and fewer support staff.  And fewer support staff means there are fewer adults to supervise children and support them in their learning.  It also means there is less flexibility for teachers during the day. That translates to fewer bathroom breaks, shorter “prep period,” shorter lunch break, more intense classroom management.  In short, it is harder teaching in schools with school budgets that are disproportionate to their needs.  All schools ought to have the support staff they need to allow teachers to put forth the most meaningful and effective lessons they can produce for their students.  

And therein lies one possible answer to the problem of inadequate professional time for teachers.  

Let’s imagine, for a moment, what it would be like if public schools in Maine were to all acquire enough support staff to allow teachers to teach fewer lessons each day, so that they can have adequate planning and preparation time between lessons, and time to follow up to previous lessons with meaningful feedback, and time to meet with teaching colleagues and math and literacy coaches and school leaders, and time to go to the bathroom, and time to eat a complete lunch before mid-afternoon. What would the outcomes be?

For the first time ever, teachers would have ample time to plan and prepare lessons that did more than simply taught the standards.  Teachers would be able to teach those lessons with a fresh, positive, intentional mindset.  The classroom would be arranged for the lesson, all materials ready, consumables replenished, technology set-up, not just on a good day, but every day.  Student work would be returned with meaningful feedback, and teachers would have a solid grip on who needs special attention with their learning today, because they would have had time to differentiate beforehand.  Students would begin the lesson ready to learn, having had a break from academic thinking.  Prior to the lesson, an ed tech might have led an outdoor group building activity or a physical group problem solving task, or a nature walk, or a group sharing activity.  Rather than having just closed their books from their last subject, students had an activity between academic lessons that got them on their feet, thinking in a different way, interacting with each other, and having fun.  During the lesson, students are engaged, asking questions of each other and their teacher, and on task.  They are less frustrated, less bored, less fidgety, and their teacher is more tolerant, more prepared, more animated, more attentive to their needs.  And the lesson is more interesting, and hardly ever boring.  

Will teachers be working hard in this scenario?  Every bit, yes.  Their efforts will simply yield far greater results.  And when it came time to put together that amazing, innovative, outside-the-box learning adventure, there will be much more energy to make it happen.  Standards-based learning?  With adequate planning and preparation time, this is not nearly as monumental a task as it is otherwise.  Will students be working as hard?  Actually, they will be working harder.  Their brains will be more geared for learning, and their lessons more engaging, which means they will be understanding more, asking more questions, and seeking more solutions to their problems.

There will still be dilemmas.  Do we like the academic standards we teach?  Are teachers paid enough?  Is there too much testing?  These and other issues will remain, but they will simply become smaller problems to solve, and easier to address.  When there is adequate time to put together standards-based lessons, we can determine whether or not the standards are appropriate.  When teachers are empowered to teach to their potential, they are also empowered to demand fair wages.  When excellence and innovation in teaching and learning are our top priorities, the outcomes will put us in a position to yield less time to testing.

Imagine what it would be like if teaching in Maine suddenly became the rewarding and profound experience every aspiring teacher ever hoped it would be.  Imagine the impact if Maine became a destination state for young people going into the teaching profession.  Imagine what would happen if Maine’s schools suddenly rose to the top of the nation in student performance.   

The impact on such a simple adjustment to the way we conduct our school day could be felt far beyond the walls of a classroom.  We need to put a plan into action that can make this a reality.

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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.