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5 Factors Compromising the Meaning and Sustainability of Teachers’ Work

There’s weight to those “tired teacher” memes.

As growing demands of documentation, data tracking, and professional development occupy increasing amounts of teacher time, buzzwords like “self-care” and “work-life balance” are in high circulation among teacher communities. Rightfully so, as teacher burnout has been a factor in decreasing teacher retention, and a growing number of teachers are deciding to leave the profession altogether due to unrealistic expectations. Blogs with teacher time-saving hacks, online coursework bundles, and special teacher planner templates are just some of the resources teachers turn to when symptoms of burnout arise. These go-to materials are beneficial but are only a temporary fix to a larger problem that seems to be stagnant in the modern education world.

One of the daily struggles teachers joke about is having to choose between eating, using the restroom, or catching up on work during their lunchtime. They’re notorious for being able to persevere through rough workloads, and online teacher humor has softened the blow of their daily routine. But the larger issue is a serious and significant one. Teacher lounges have become increasingly vacant as, in an attempt to maintain a work-life balance, teachers work in their classrooms through lunch. It’s common for them to pull 10-hour days, or even take work home with them. These scenarios have become the norm, and so has cutting corners out of desperation.

Realizing that completing tasks with quality isn’t physically possible in an 8-hour workday, new teachers are often reassured that it “gets easier”, which rings true to the majority. But educators, in the name of meaningful work, must ask themselves what exactly is getting easier: completing the tasks on time, finding ways to maneuver through tasks in a manner that creates a completed look, or something in-between.


Factor #1: The Traditional Grading System

Due to the incompatibility between the rise of data prioritization in schools and bell-to-bell teaching, traditional grading doesn’t fit into the classroom the way it used to. Prior to modern classroom teaching models, it wasn’t only common but expected that teachers use class time to grade. Since modern classroom teaching models have evolved, teachers now instruct “from bell to bell”, with heavy circulation, heavy monitorization, and constant hands-on teaching. Which, if we’re talking student needs, is a critical improvement, but a hindrance on realistic teacher task time in terms of maintaining traditional grade books and handling student data. In addition, returning student work has lessened, simply due to the lack of time to traditionally grade alongside student data analysis. The rise of the use of data, for not only campus and district purposes but for classroom culture as well, should act as some form of replacement and substitute for traditional grading, given its growing prioritization. Daily, real-time interaction with their own data, and real-time, live feedback could be the precedent for a new innovation of how we approach student progress that better serves how Generation Alpha operates. Until this incompatibility between traditional grading and modern teacher practices is addressed, teachers are likely to continue either unhealthily bringing work home or cutting corners, which counteracts the idea of meaningful work.


Factor #2: Communicating About the Traditional Grading System

Communication is critical, and the triangle of the teacher-student-guardian teamwork is essential for a productive, motivating, student-led education experience. Online platforms serve this purpose by making student progress available to students and families. But teachers often lose momentum in the communication piece, simply because of procedural inefficiencies, and the documentation required for accountability reasons. Due to outdated systems, low teacher energy, and desperation, teachers are often imbalanced in how they use their time for communication, usually only addressing necessary student concerns, and leaving student praise deprioritized. With student rosters at high averages, the reliance on old systems paired with impractical documentation methods has developed a style of work that is not only tedious, but inefficient, and most would argue, unsustainable.


Factor #3: Prescribed Curriculum Selections

Teachers love resources. They need resources. Collaboration is helpful, and schools are successful because of it. It’s when resources and collaboration turn into complete, required, merciless, accountability-driven alignment, that the work of teachers loses meaning and stifles skill, professional growth, and passion. Alignment is important for basic logistics (classroom culture, scope and sequence calendars, skills taught, etc.), but when teachers start to be handed reading selections and materials, the eager ones will usually lose some drive. No teacher is the same, and thus, should be given the autonomy to innovate the space they’re going to teach in, and how they’re going to teach given skills. Teacher trust is critical, but prescribed lesson materials should be carefully considered as the dominant representation of teacher abidance. To withhold this basic right is to deny passionate teachers of the craft they’ve chosen to grow in. It doesn’t do students any good, either.


Factor #4: An Abundance of Professional Development Meetings

The mission of professional development has merit, but experienced teachers often feel that the modern increase in the amount of these meetings jeopardizes valuable time for meaningful work. In fact, teachers are notorious for attempting to multitask while in professional development sessions. This is telling of the current status of teacher sustainability and reiterates the desperation teachers have for a simple resource: time. The general consensus among teachers is that at least one teacher workday of uninterrupted, personally planned out, fully autonomous time to do their job is what would keep them afloat during difficult months throughout the school year. Instead, these teacher workdays usually become full of professional development sessions that, although do offer a quality reflection on teacher practices, don’t realistically foster a sense of meaningful work. This notion can also, unfortunately, be applied to what is known as Professional Learning Community (PLC) meetings. They’re a controversial topic, with some teachers in full appreciation for their PLC time, and others who dread it. The dissonance in teacher feelings towards it generally comes down to the fact that teachers have different needs, some thriving with prescribed agendas and lots of discussions, others craving quiet spaces to complete tasks independently. For more introverted workers, these meetings can feel overstimulating, which once again, works against the idea of meaningful work and teacher sustainability.


Factor #5: Standardized Testing

Fortunately, schools have shifted into what is known as “student-centered learning”, where classroom instruction focuses solely on student needs instead of teachers’ preference. Tracking student progress has taken precedence, and using student assessment data has become a baseline for lesson planning. One component of fostering a student-centered learning environment is knowing academic student needs, which requires data, reflection, and action steps. Standardized tests do yield data that can be useful to districts in terms of student progress, but the high stakes that come with these tests, and the actual test content itself can interfere with keeping teachers’ (and students’) work meaningful. Most of these tests are multiple-choice, and they’re taken after weeks of test prep and studying, which includes multiple-choice question strategies. Unfortunately, teachers tend to skim over or completely skip end-of-year units that demand these higher levels of learning and innovation the most, because they’re urged to focus mostly on standardized test prep.

Additionally, author and poet, Sara Holbrook, recently spoke out about her experience trying to answer standardized test questions about her own poems.¹ She couldn’t correctly answer STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) questions that were released by TEA (Texas Education Agency). In her 2017 Huffington Post article, I Can’t Answer These Texas Standardized Test Questions About My Own Poems, she states,

“…kids’ futures and the evaluations of their teachers will be based on their ability to guess the so-called correct answer to made up questions. How, under this circumstance, are teachers supposed to morally, meaningfully, and sustainably continue preparing students for standardized tests?”

This, alone, should demand investigation and reform of standardized test composition approaches.

Data can reflect student needs, and student needs should be the focus. However, for the sake of quality student-centered learning, educators and stakeholders must ask themselves: What skills are we actually testing students on? Are they logically assessed? Are they actually relevant and beneficial to the lives of students? What do we mean when we talk about student “performance”? This, to many conscious teachers, is the area of teaching that challenges their idea of meaningful work the most, along with inhibiting their long-term sustainability.

Overall, education systems have been developed, improved, and continuously modified with student success in mind. That being said, a closer look at how student “success” is defined in our school systems, and what this means for the work of teachers is beyond overdue. We must closely examine expectations we hold for teachers, and how these expectations affect their professional capacity for what they can be for students. With this, teachers (and students) are more likely to feel fulfilled in their work.


References

1. Holbrook, Sara. “I Can't Answer These Texas Standardized Test Questions about My Own Poems.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 5 Jan. 2017, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/standardized-tests-are-so-bad-i-cant-answer-these_b_586d5517e4b0c3539e80c341.

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