Teachers and Workload

Teaching is a tough job, but we can make it harder than necessary. Hopefully your school is actively working to reduce your workload by reducing the amount of data drops and by reviewing its marking policies. However, even if you are stuck in a school with many data drops and onerous marking policies, you can work to reduce your own workload.

One way is to simply grade less! It sounds too good to be true, but it is. Grading student work is not a particularly valuable form of feedback. Instead, you can look into whole class marking. This will drastically cut down the time you spend grading, and, as an added bonus you will be giving actionable feedback to your students.

If you are saying you cannot do this because your school’s policy, you likely still have work arounds. Grade formative assessments on completion. Have more in class assignments. If you have book scrutinies and every student needs to have correct answers, don’t include your harder more summative assessments in it. Instead, choose easy ones that will look good to your school so you can get the paperwork done quickly and spend more time focusing on what matters.

If the school policies and enforcement are so strict that these work arounds will not work, I’d suggest looking for another job elsewhere. It is not worth the stress.

Another way to reduce your workload is to set a firm leaving time. I will leave work at X o’clock and be home for dinner. Setting this as a firm personal deadline can be immensely powerful. It will also help you realize that the work can wait, it will be there tomorrow. And generally, even if it doesn’t get done, you and your students will be ok.

Teaching is a profoundly important job. We change students’ lives. And we should celebrate that. However, it is important that we do not burn ourselves out in our drive to be good teachers and help students succeed. Remember, if we quit teaching, we will no longer have the same impact. Find ways to reduce your workload to increase your sanity.

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Social Justice and Education Standards

There has been a relatively recent shift within American education to using standards based curriculum. I think that this shift is largely positive because standards should provide specificity and specificity provides clarity. Before schools utilized these standards there was too much flexibility. One school may create their own standards, while another requires teachers to cover the book, while still another lets the teachers decide what the standards are.

This creates a huge range not only of student outcomes, but of expectations. If we, as a country can agree on the same education standards, then, on paper at least, we have agreed to expect that all students should achieve at least “this” (whatever this is). From a scientific perspective, this approach improves the quality of the available data. The data quality is improved because every school has the same goal. All our students will achieve “this”.

For teachers, the advantage also lies in the specificity of the standard. If the standard is not specific, then it is a waste of time (Vague standards can be vaguely met). For example, in using standards, a math teacher can know that student A struggles with dividing fractions but is fine with multiplying them. From this data, a teacher is able to adjust their teaching and tailor it to the needs of their students. A teacher does not necessarily need this data in a small class, but many teachers have over 200 students and cannot possibly keep all that information stored in their head. Putting it explicitly on paper helps the teacher help the students. 

When the educational goals between schools are more specifically aligned, we can better assess the reasons for different outcomes. Why is this high poverty school in district A succeeding while this low poverty school in district B is only experiencing middling success? Having access to better data is an integral component of improving our children’s education.

Standards do not just give administrators, policy wonks, and teachers better data, they can (should) also help increase student achievement, particularly mobile students. This is the key point, because helping students (however you define it) should be the purpose of education. I am going to use an extended quote from Dr. Ed Hirsch’s book The Knowledge Deficit because he explains the cost of mobility on student education clearly.

“One study has analyzed those effects (of mobility) on 9,915 children. With this large group, the researchers were able to factor out the influences of poverty, race, single-parent status, and lack of parental education in order to isolate just the effects of changing schools. Even with other adverse influences factored out, children who changed schools often were much more likely than those who did not to exhibit behavioral problems and to fail a grade.”

-Dr. Ed Hirsch, The Knowledge Deficit, p109-110, data from Deborah Cohen, “Frequent Moves Said to Boost Risk of School Problems”

Hirsch claims that while the findings show that mobile students tend to be from low income families, their low scores are not related to poverty. He quotes Herbert Walberg to show how the effects of student mobility can be mitigated,

“common learning goals, curriculum, and assessment within states (or within an entire nation). . . alleviate the grave learning disabilities faced by children, especially poorly achieving children, who move from one district to another with different curricula, assessment, and goals.”

Research has found that each time a student moves to a new school in the school year the student suffers around a 3 month loss in both reading and math (Russell W. Rumberger and Katherine A. Larson). Mobile students are also more likely to be both a minority and poor than their peers from more stable households (Edweek).

mobility-graph-2-1

This brings us to the “Achievement Gap“. This gap is describing the differences in achievement between minority and or low income students with white non low-income students. The chart below shows the gap between students who are not eligible for free or reduced lunch (not in poverty) and those who are are eligible (in poverty and thus, likely to have higher mobility).

achievement gap money

The chart below shows that scores for white students have been higher than scores for other minorities for as long as the NAEP has been gathering data.

acheivement gap scores

In looking at the 2 charts, it becomes clear that there are social justice issues to resolve in education. Based on Ed Hirsch’s book, The Knowledge Gap, I think that there is some good evidence for using standards to improve America’s education system. Robert J. Marzano has said, “Standards hold the greatest hope for significantly improving student achievement.”

Do to the ethnic and socioeconomic makeup of the achievment gap, I think it would be beneficial for educators and social justice proponents to work together to promote the use of standards as a way to improve the quality of education students all students receive while reducing the achievement gap to create a more just society along the way.

It is important to note that I am not saying the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards are a perfect bed of roses. I am saying that standards can bring tangible benefits to administrators, teachers, and most importantly students. And by promoting standards we are working to make the curriculum known to the public. This makes the age-old debate over what schools should be teaching explicit and allows for this important debate to be had in the open, hopefully making it easier for us to move in the right direction.

 

What are standards? How can you make standards work for you?

Standards are useful for teachers because they give us explicit goals.

They help provide consistency between schools in each state. Or now with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English and math and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for science, there will be more alignment and consistency across the entire nation as many schools are picking them up by choice or for financial incentives. Social Studies appears to be more complicated. National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) has released curriculum standards in order to standardize the approach, but not the content. Whether this type of standardization is good/bad/misunderstood, or even unconstitutional is beyond the scope of this article.

This article’s purpose is to explain how to utilize standards to make your life as a teacher easier while helping your students learn more. To start, we must define what a standard is.

Standards: learning goals specified by class and grade level that students should be able to both know and do 

Now that we have defined standards we can dig into applying them. The application of standards ought to be the same, no matter which ones you are using.

A useful way to think of standards is a grade for a specific aspect of the taught subject. For example, in traditional grading a student may receive an 75% at the end of the semester. As a teacher this shows you that the student understood most of the content, but likely has room to improve both the breadth and depth of their understanding. However, the information quickly becomes fuzzy after this point as the teacher would need to look at individual assignments/quizzes/tests in order to ascertain what content/concepts the student didn’t understand. This cumbersome procedure is impossibly time consuming to do for one student, let alone when there are multiple classes of students.

In standards based grading, the student’s overall grade may be a 1 (Below Standard), 2 (Approaching Standard), 3 (Meets Standard), or 4 (Exceeds Standard). If your school requires traditional grades, you can assign numerical values to the standard points.

Assume the same student received a 3/4 average of all assessed standards in English in a standards based grading system, giving you the same information as above. Yet the component parts come broken up and averaged by standard. Let’s use 5th grade English as an example. If said student received a 3/4 for their semester grade, the teacher can easily pull up their gradebook to see what specific content/concepts the student struggled with.

Look at student #2, Anna Fitzgerald in the image below. Her English score for the semester is 2.49 out of 4 for what would be about a D average in traditional grading. However, by using a standards based gradebook, her teacher will be able to quickly pinpoint Anna’s struggles. For standard ELA.5.R1, Anna received mostly 1’s, meaning that she was not meeting the standard. However, for standard ELA.5.R2 she received all 2’s or 3’s showing that while she has not mastered this standard, she is understanding it at a passable level.

**note: Standard grades do not allow for fluff/participation points. The grade should only be assessing how the student performed on the standard. While it can be good to assess student attitude/preparedness/participation (particularly in elementary school) these should not be in a standards based assessment. You can put those points elsewhere in your gradebook.

a standard approach_ enhancing your curriculum

This image is from https://www.teacherease.com/ they have an interesting looking gradebook for teachers who use a standards based grading system.

Another benefit of standards is it allows you to more accurately assess both your teaching and your students’ progress. If you look at the class average scores (circled in red) you can see that they are increasing over time. As a teacher, you would want to see this because it means that your teaching is helping students perform better over time. If the scores remain low/not increasing, then that is a good cue for you to reassess how you are teaching the particular standard.

**note: Good teachers will do this regardless of whether they explicitly teach with standards or not. The advantage to using standards is that they make it easier and give more exact information as to what students are struggling with.

Teachers have plenty to do, so using standards shouldn’t add to your workload after you adjust to them (There is an adjustment phase that is more work, but that’s the same as with any new system/approach). In general you can design assignments to assess one or two standards at a time. Then you can enter the grades as normal (If you have two standards on one assignment, just enter 2 grades, one for each standard).

A drawback to this approach is that it seemingly limits opportunities to review old material while also assessing current coursework. However, this difficulty can be avoided by making a general “assignments/assessments” category. You can put anything that doesn’t easily/naturally fit into one/two standards here (breaking one assignment into more than 2 standards generally causes the grading to become too time consuming to be worthwhile).

So far we have gone over how standards can help teachers improve their instruction by giving them exact data that they can use to adapt their teaching to the needs of the class. Students can use this data in similar ways. When teachers pass out progress reports (ideally students and parents will have anytime access to an online version of their report card), students and parents are able to see both how the student is doing overall, but also how the student is performing on each standard.

Let’s look at Anna Fitzgerald again. When she gets her progress report it will tell her that while she did alright in English class with a 2.49/4 she received a 1.91/4 on the ELA.5.R1 standard. This is in essence giving students and their families the same helpful information a standards based approach gives teachers. Students and their parents will know exactly what content the child struggled with.

In order increase the helpfulness of this information (feedback) teachers can require students to reflect/complete a supplementary assessment for practice with their weakest standard. It should just be one at a time, otherwise you will overwhelm students and the additional practice will likely just turn into additional work with no benefits. Essentially, standards increase the specificity of feedback to both teachers and students. Use the specificity to your advantage to give actionable feedback.

Battling Burnout: Leadership Styles

Laissez-Faire Leadership

This form of leadership has been called passive or absent leadership by some. The hands-off approach by administration gives more decision making power to teachers because that power has been abdicated by administration. A study by Eeden, Cilliers, and Deventer in 2000 found that the laissez-faire leader, “leaves responsibility for the work to the followers and avoids setting goals and clarifying expectations, organizing priorities, becoming involved when important issues arise, taking a stand on issues and making decisions.”

A result is that teachers will self-regulate and make independent decisions. This, then often leads to low levels of achievement and increased levels of conflict within the organization because there is not a cohesive vision and therefore staff does not move forward with consistent directions or priorities. In the study I read, this style of leadership was found to have a Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient (PPMCC) of .36 in relation to teacher stress and burnout. Meaning that this leadership style increases the rate of burnout.

My thoughts are that this type of leadership is most harmful to new, and weak teachers. These teachers need more structure and support than teachers who are both experienced and effective. If you are a new or struggling teacher in this environment, find a community of educators that want to improve and join with them. This will likely either be among fellow employees who work hard to improve their craft in spite of the harmful environment this administration creates. The other place you are likely to find a good community is online. I have had good luck in joining the edutwitter community. Reading their posts and blogs have proven to be both emotionally encouraging and practically helpful. It has helped me to gain a direction in my teaching so that I am constantly working to improve, instead of staying complacent.

Transactional Leadership

Another name for this form of leadership is Contingent Reward Leadership. The leader will give feedback and advice from a recognition and rewards tradeoff perspective. These administrators evaluate, train, and correct their employees by using three behavioral approaches: contingent rewards and punishments, passive management by exception and active management by exception.

Transactional leadership can take on a clinical feel, and as such, its authority is based upon bureaucracy and the legitimacy of the organization (Emery & Barker, 2007). This can lead to unbalanced leadership when the leader uses either passive or active management by exception. Passive management by exception involves the leader overlooking various small infractions because the employee has reached a favored status for one reason or another. Whereas active management by exception involves the leader seeking for problems in the employees work to correct. In the study I read, this style of leadership was found to have a PPMCC of -.31 in relation to teacher stress and burnout. Meaning that this leadership style tends to reduce teacher stress and burnout.

My thoughts on this type of leadership are negative, to say the least (but according to the data I have seen, this can be a positive leadership style). I have found this approach to leadership to be a cold one that does not treat teachers as individuals. It treats them as cogs in a machine. The active/passive management by exception can, in practice, be based simply on whether or not administration likes you. When this is the case, a toxic work environment will follow. When a teacher who is liked by admin turns in decent work, they are fine. But when a teacher who is not liked by admin turns in the same quality of work, admin can find problems and make sure that every jot and tittle is corrected.

Transformational Leadership (Most Effective)

This is seen as the most effective leadership model. The transformational leader fosters an environment of trust and respect. As a result of the respectful and trusting environment, leaders and teachers are able to challenge and learn from each other, allowing both to improve. A transformational leader will be sensitive to the individual teacher’s needs and work to develop them into a future leader.

This type of leader motivates employees to be more efficient by effectively addressing goals, visions, and project/task outcomes in light of the “big” picture. In order to accomplish employee motivation, a transformational leader will draw from their charisma, inspiration, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration (Bass, 1998; Yukl, 1998). When done effectively, the admin’s passion and vision are adopted by the teacher. When admin and teachers share a common goal, communication becomes more straightforward.

All schools have goals and tasks for teachers to accomplish. A transformational administration will ensure that teachers are aware of the task/goal’s significance. They do not give out busywork or work where only admin knows the purpose. This admin will also provide strategies for teachers to efficiently and effectively accomplish the task/goal. In the study I read, this leadership style was found to have a PPMCC of -.59 in relation to teacher stress and burnout. Meaning that transformational leadership is associated with reduced levels of teacher stress and burnout.

My thoughts on this type of leadership are largely hypothetical because I have not encountered this. (To be clear, it is upper management. I have had some wonderful department heads though.) I can imagine that this type of work environment is one where teachers feel respected and safe, and as a result are free to focus on teaching and its related tasks.

 

Sources

I used the Ph.D. dissertation “TEACHER STRESS AND BURNOUT AND PRINCIPALS’ LEADERSHIP STYLES: A RELATIONAL STUDY” by CARLA MCKINNEY-THOMPSON

 

School Climate, Classroom Weather

Every school has its own atmosphere and those at the top set the climate. The administration set the tone for the school and when they create an unstable atmosphere, staff do not know what to expect from one day to the next. This causes a lot of unnecessary stress and the school climate deteriorates.

When there are good headteachers or department heads, they will work to shield their teachers from unnecessary chaos and stress. Often this will involve making unclear or contradictory directives (from admin) clear and consistent. Doing this is difficult.

When busy work and other frustrating (educationally empty) tasks are sent down from above that must be done, good department leaders can clearly communicate where the directives are coming from, “The office says..Administration wants….I am just relaying this message as accurately as I can…” Then, after communicating the message the leader works with teachers to accomplish the task in the most time effective manner possible (because they understand that teaching is important and the whims of administrators are something that must be dealt with). Doing this helps create an environment of trust and respect between the teachers and their immediate superiors.

The chain continues with good teachers. Good teachers will work to shield their students from the chaos sowed by administration. This is done by maintaining a positive approach in the classroom and by focusing on academics, not bringing school politics into the classroom. Students should focus on learning and applying the course content. They don’t need to know how upset the teacher is with certain school policies.

The issue and this is what makes good administration so valuable, is that even with good department heads and good teachers, there is only so much they can do to combat the climate set by administration. Frustrations and stress will show themselves, it is inevitable. And the more perceptive students will pick this up. And then the climate’s atmosphere seeps into the students and their interactions.

However, just like our Earth’s climate, our school’s climate can change! Changing climate is difficult and it takes time. The quickest way would be for administration to have a change of heart, gain competence, or be replaced. But all of this is out of a teacher’s control. We need to focus on what we can control while keeping perspective. We need to keep perspective because we need to be grounded in reality as opposed to idealism or pessimism.

Teachers do not have control over the school climate, but we do have control over our classroom’s weather. We first need to choose to and put in the work to be consistent, positive, and academically focused. Then we can work with other teachers to help them develop the same traits. If enough teachers buy in, the weather will consistently be better, and, with time, the climate may change.

However, fighting the climate is an uphill battle, and there are people who do not like climate change (those who have found success in the system and administration). Be prepared for pushback (“Why would we change this? We have always done it this way.”) and blowback (You could lose your bonus or job if you push too hard. It is very important to be calm and tactful.), two steps forward then three back. Change is messy, but it can often be better than more of the same.

My department head has been invaluable. Hopefully yours is too.

Drop Dead, Data Drops

When you have three data drops a semester, the term is always ending. Data drops are always painful without fail because of the sheer amount of work they require. At the end of each section, we need to enter the students’ daily grades and section test scores into the school system.

Grading the tests takes the equivalent of a full workday. Then, entering all the grades into the school’s system takes another hour or so. This is all done while teaching a normal load, meaning the time is split over the course of the week and or the work is taken home. All the teachers become stressed during this time, and often fight through small colds that crop up from overwork. And then, just as teachers are recovering and getting into the swing of things again, they need to prepare for the next data drop, because the term is always ending.

However, this is arguably not the biggest problem. I would argue that the primary problem is that it takes away from student learning. As the grading sections are all less than two months, we design the rhythms of the curriculum around the testing schedule instead of designing around the content. Also, with such short grading terms, student grades suffer. If they did not understand the content in one or two weeks, they do not have enough time to improve their grade, because the term is always ending.

Another negative to this is that the testing schedule discourages good teaching practice. Teachers are unable to stretch students with various research and application projects because by the time the content has been covered and students are prepared to apply/research on their own, they need to prepare for the next test because the term is always ending.

I firmly believe that fewer data drops will lead to more useful data, happier teachers, and better-educated students. However, it takes time to change a system. But, I can’t simply sit by and quietly go about my work because it’s not helpful for my students. I need to work to change my school’s system for me and my students’ good. I want the data drops to drop dead, not me.

The Plan

  1. Talk with other teachers
  2. Talk with the headteacher
  3. Organize a plan (including research)
  4. Talk with administration (Principal & Dean)
    • Get their rationale for the current system
    • Communicate teacher concerns
    • Propose alternate plan
  5. Hope for the best
    • Work to continue the dialogue

Source/Inspiration

https://teacherhead.com/2018/01/28/data-drops-get-some-perspective/

School Policy: Pass/Fail

Administrators should be fine with failing students. What I mean by this is, if the student has earned an ‘F’ then they get an ‘F’. Teachers should give students every chance to succeed. Including providing extra copies of missing assignments and allowing work to be turned in late (with a deduction). Teachers should not be expected to do more than this, their focus should be on teaching, not making students do homework. So, from an administrator’s perspective, if the teachers are giving students every chance to pass and they still don’t (and there is documentation), administration should not have a problem with giving the students a failing grade.

Administrators who think that every student should get a high grade or are against failing students are causing problems because teachers are forced to essentially make up grades. This muddies the waters of feedback as the student and the parents are essentially being lied to about their ability and progress level. The clear truth (grades reflecting achievement) is better than muddy truth (grades reflecting achievement plus fluff).

While I believe schools should fail students who earn it, I also believe that schools should have an explicit policy in place for this. Not merely a verbal, or inferred one. By being explicit, teachers will know what to do. I think that a good policy in regard to this would include giving the student and parents multiple notices of their grades before the grades are due. Students should be able to make up missing work within a reasonable timeframe with a reasonable deduction for being late. And that’s it.

As a policy, this might look something like,

  1. Teachers will send progress reports home during the middle of the term and at the end of the term that will be returned with a guardian’s signature.
    1. Progress reports will include the student’s overall grade and individual assignment grades.
  2. Students will have one week from the date the progress reports are sent home to turn in any missing/late work for partial credit.
    1. Work that is done/turned in after this point will not be accepted for any credit.

I believe that it is important for the progress reports to include the individual assignment grades because some students and most parents will want to know what specifically was not turned in. Making this clear helps parents to see exactly what their child needs to do in order to improve, which should reduce unnecessary meetings with frustrated parents.

Giving a “short” deadline is important because students need a final deadline. Otherwise, they will keep on not turning in assignments (As they have had the entire term before the notice was home to make up the work and have not). Another reason for the “short” deadline is to not overload the teacher with student work to grade.

Putting these policies in place, and following them can reduce headaches teachers face from upset parents because parents will be informed ahead of time. This type of policy also encourages accountability. Students are responsible for their learning. Teachers are responsible to help students learn and to remove barriers (that are within the teacher’s control) to learning.

By not having some sort of clear policy in place for failing students, your school is setting itself up to fail.

Does your school pass or fail?