Changing the Climate and Culture of Teaching

Since the first Unrealized Maine Classroom entry over three months ago, I have been especially preoccupied with the theme of non-instructional professional time for public school educators.  The unofficial UMC philosophy is that while there are many elements of public education in Maine and America that hinder its mission to thrust the most prepared and inspired young people out into the world upon graduation of high school, the most important of these is time.  Time has become the enemy of a great many dedicated and talented professional public educators, not because it goes by so fast, but because there simply isn’t enough of it built into the workday. Since this post is to be published on Memorial Day, let’s consider a military analogy.

The United States of America would never, ever send its troops into harm’s way without a carefully planned out strategy to achieve victory.  Likewise, I would never ask a student to take a math test without first providing several opportunities to discover, develop and utilize strategies to solve problems like those in the math test. Likewise, we should never ask teachers to teach a lesson they have not had adequate time to plan and prepare for.  Doing so would put our promising future generation at risk of entering the ever-changing and challenging workforce unprepared for success and achievement.

Yet we ask teachers to do just that, every day of the week, and every week of the school year.

With The Unrealized Maine Classroom, I am trying to build a case that if we address this one simple inadequacy, if we end the drought of professional planning and preparation time that is defeating public schools and their accomplishments everywhere, we can achieve greatness.  The world’s richest nation could actually offer the world’s richest academic experiences to its treasured young people.  

Here in Maine, we may not boast the nation’s greatest wealth, in fact we continue to harbor one of the worst business climates of all states, but one can’t argue we still possess tremendous resources for educating our youth.  We have among the best available technology for our schools, thanks to Governor Angus King’s laptop program, which put us on the cutting edge of technology long enough ago that we now are well versed in the possibilities and challenges that come with placing technology in the hands of children, both within and outside the confines of the classroom.  Our state is blessed with small school districts and for the most part, manageable class sizes and teacher to student ratios.  We have a mere one million people in our state, so we can try out new ideas and implement new programs quickly.  We have a diversity of environs; our seashores, forests, mountains and even cities make for wonderful laboratories for learning.  Maine is primed to be at the forefront of educational innovation, and there is no reason it shouldn’t be there already.  Maine could be the very first state to tackle the time drought, and lead the way for others to follow.

Before that happens, a few questions ought to be answered to make sure there really is a time drought.  Denial of the existence of climatic conditions is a hot trend in our part of the world right now, and this particular drought is definitely prone to similar skepticism in the face of blatantly vivid evidence.  The best we can do is provide more of that evidence.  

So let’s look at two factors we haven’t looked at yet.  First, where else in the world is there a time drought similar to ours in public education?  Do the nations that outperform us on international assessments provide more planning and preparation time to teachers relative to their classroom teaching time?  And second, how long has this time drought existed?  Hasn’t it always been like this in America?  If there really is, and has always been, a professional time drought in public schools, why is it suddenly a problem now?

Speaking of time droughts, a weekly blogger with a full time job and a large garden only has so much time to devote to research in springtime, so I would love to have had an opportunity to go into much greater detail regarding the answers to the above questions.  I did what any blogger might do, which is to say I Googled a bunch of stuff and I scratched my head a lot.  I know that Stanford is doing some international research ( relating to the first question, which should be published soon.  I’ll write about it when that happens.  But in the meantime, there is some information we can work with.

Looking at what it’s like to teach in other countries, it is best to pay attention to those nations that outperform the United States.  Most of the results I was able to acquire point to something not entirely surprising.  Teachers in almost every nation outperforming the United States on international assessments spend considerably less time during the school year actually teaching lessons.  Countries like Finland, South Korea, Germany and even Canada all fall into this category, devoting less teaching time during the year, yet yielding better academic results.  How could this be?

This statistic does not represent the ratio of teaching time to total on-the-clock work time, though other studies seem to indicate the United States is among the very highest in that category too, spending between 85 and 95 percent of the contractual work day teaching lessons.  Some of the countries in the above category, like Finland, actually have a shorter school day and a shorter school year as well.  And Japan, in my research, presents some contradictions.  It looks like teachers in some Japanese schools teach a lot, as they do in American schools, but then two additional factors must be considered.  First, in Japan, private tutors are far more common among even average students to ensure passage of high stakes exams. And second, teachers in many Asian nations receive a much more demanding and rigorous training before they become certified to teach.  In fact, this is true of many nations around the world that outperform the United States.  But then other accounts of time teachers spend teaching lessons over the course of the year in Japan claim it is considerably less than in America.  I should point out that nowhere could I find any country where teachers spend more time in the classroom during the day or the year than in the United States.  In the case of Japan, the contradiction was whether or not teachers spend slightly less time teaching lessons than their American counterparts, or significantly less time.  

In Germany it is said teachers have the about the same amount of planning and preparation time built into their school day as we do in the U.S., but then the school day in Germany is considerably shorter (most students go home before 1:00 PM), and there is an “expectation that they will plan and prepare at home for approximately the same amount of time that they teach.”  That said, the percentage of the day devoted to teaching lessons is listed as “about 70%,” which as we have pointed out earlier, is actually less than what we often see here in our public schools. 

From looking at the teaching expectations and requirements in countries that outperform the United States on international tests, two conclusions stand out.  In these countries, on the whole, teachers send more time preparing for lessons than they do in the United States.  They also have more intensive teacher training requirements, mostly regarding academic rigor at the post-graduate level.  I talked about this in a previous blog entry, referring to conversations I had with teachers from Vietnam and New Zealand, countries where students tend to outperform Americans. Both of these conversations focused on the fact that it is much harder to become a teacher in those countries than it is in the United States.  In particular, the post-graduate academic requirements of three years of rigorous full-time study for New Zealand teacher candidates sticks out in my memory.  This is in addition to classroom internship experiences.  

My personal experience here in Maine was that the post graduate academic coursework required for initial certification was minimal, not particularly challenging, and resulted in my first ever 4.0 GPA.

So teachers in higher performing countries have more rigorous academic training, and have more planning and preparation time than we do here in the USA.  How can we learn from that?  My cutting-edge, innovative, forward-thinking, educational mindset suggests we can learn from that by perhaps providing more rigorous academic teacher training and more planning and prep time for our professional public school educators.

Now that we’ve got that settled, I promised to address the history of the time drought in our American schools.   Why is it so important that teachers have more planning and preparation time in their work day now, when teachers have followed the old teach-lessons-all-day-plan-eat-pee-breathe-after format for decades?  Didn’t our system work once upon a time?  

I started elementary school in 1978, at the age of six.  I don’t recall my first or second grade teachers ever complaining about their lack of planning time, but I suspect the teachers that really put their heart and soul into teaching back then, like my first grade teacher, probably pulled their hair out just as much as today’s teachers do trying to plan and prep lessons for each day and attend to the rest of their lives.  

My second grade teacher gave us a lot of worksheets.  At least that’s what I remember.  We had worksheets for spelling, worksheets for math, worksheets for grammar, worksheets for social studies, worksheets for science and worksheets for fun.  Except second grade wasn’t fun.  It was that year that I learned why it is some kids hated school.  Second grade was my introduction to extended periods of boredom.  

And therein lies part of the answer to our question.  Elementary teachers, in order to make their lessons come alive for their students, have always had to put in extra effort, and work magic with time management.  Some people make their occupation their lives, and for at least part of their careers, are willing to sacrifice nights and weekends to make their output at work special.  When it comes to teaching, I sincerely believe one has to be that kind of person to be especially good at it, to take risks, to make reading, writing, math, science and social studies come to life in the classroom.  And so it was back in the seventies, you either had these magnificent superhuman types who were wonderful, energetic teachers, or you had the kind that pulled the day’s lessons out of a filing cabinet and headed for the mimeograph.  That last example is what second grade was like for me.  On a good day, we got a film strip.  

Since the seventies, two things have happened that have disrupted that dichotomy. One is technology happened, and the other is the culture of accountability.  With technology, suddenly every teacher and every student had the world at his or her fingertips.  The Sesame Street generation, which consists of gen-X’ers like me and our older siblings, introduced the concept of “edutainment,” which meant school tended to be a drag when there weren’t muppets involved.  Kids like me got completely addicted to television, both the educational kind and the mindless cartoon kind, and school became almost unbearable when there wasn’t some form of entertainment happening.  

If hauling the VCR into the classroom was easy enough, the internet changed the ballgame for real.  Nowadays a kid can give him or herself an up-to-date, not half-bad education in just about any subject from the comfort of his or her couch.  Now see how effective those worksheets are.  Now see how engaging that textbook is.  

With the culture of accountability, there came a mandate that worksheets are not good enough (a good thing), and technology is a must (mostly a good thing). Nowadays, it’s not just the superhuman, workaholic teachers that make their classes come alive; everyone has to.  And not just with muppets and film strips.  Today’s students have a lot more than Sesame Street to put their school lessons to shame.  

Planning and prepping lessons on nights and weekends has always been a way to go above and beyond the call of duty to inspire and engage students in their lessons, but now it is the expectation, and a necessity, just to stay afloat.  If you teach, and you are not putting in those extra hours, chances are you are currently sinking, or coasting on the current toward retirement.

So that is the difference between yesterday and today.  The time drought has always been there, it just didn’t manifest itself as profoundly as it does today.  Our industrial age education system, and the daily schedule that comes with it, has been outdated for years, but now it is most vividly inappropriate and dysfunctional.  Nobody can get away with a worksheet-based curriculum anymore, and for those who have always gone the extra mile-plus to bring those lessons to life, it has become a nearly impossible task in the current drought-stricken professional climate of public education.  

We cannot mandate a culture of accountability without creating the climate to allow for excellence and innovation in teaching and learning.  And the most blatantly inadequate aspect of today’s professional climate in our public schools is a teacher’s schedule.  If we want to see excellence and innovation in our classroom lessons every day, in all subjects, we have to give teachers time to plan and prepare for every lesson, every day.   

I think Maine is the perfect place to experiment with such a concept.

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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.