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Voices: Teachers, time and common sense

Peter Huidekoper, Jr., veteran educator turned consultant, says longer school days and years probably make sense for kids – but can teachers really handle more time added to their schedules? 

No teacher will read this. Not now, just before Christmas.

A teacher has no time this week

By Christmas week, as a teacher, I was wiped out. Then it got worse. When I taught English, in most cases, this was the end of the semester, so first I had to make my way through those final papers and tests. Then semester grades were due.  The academic dean’s secretary was reminding me, again, that grades had to be in before I went on vacation.

In the two private schools where I taught, we wrote – by hand – comments as well. In addition there were the extensive comments for our seven to nine advisees, whose parents expected much more than generalities about is making good progress and could be working harder and did well on the soccer team/in the play/writing for the school paper.

All the while it kept hitting me: when will I ever get to the Christmas cards and presents? Family and friends grew accustomed to those cards arriving, Dec. 27.

“More school time coming for some students,” read the headline in EdNewsColorado on Dec. 3.

My concern: is this more school time for teachers too?  Will we make an already exhausting job overwhelming?

Longer school days/years in Colorado

Nine Colorado schools will receive funds from the Ford Foundation and the National Center on Time and Learning to support their efforts to extend the school day and/or year, including Godsman Elementary and Kepner Middle in Denver.  EdNews Colorado wrote: “Districts in the program have agreed to expand the school year by 300 hours a year, for a total of 1,440 hours in Colorado. (State law requires districts to offer a minimum 1,080 school hours a year.)”

It is a trend.

Longer days and more days are one of the key features of many DPS charters and innovation schools, and this year seven district schools are piloting a longer school day.

Gov. John Hickenlooper joined Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan for the announcement of this grant at a Washington press conference.  Our governor said: “We need more time for kids … that extra time means all the world” for students.

In my life as a teacher, time was the number one enemy. Never enough TIME.

So my (early!) Christmas gift is a simple reminder to all these worthy efforts. Yes, absolutely, let’s do what is best for kids. Yes, the school day and school year should be longer. But don’t ask the impossible of teachers. We have our limits.

I left my first teaching job after two years. That boys’ boarding school was a great place to learn to teach, but after two years of a 24/7 job (we’d wake them up, eat three meals a day with them, teach, coach, oversee evening study hall in the dorm and put them to bed ),  I couldn’t breathe.

So when I hear of dedicated young teachers leaving early, I am sympathetic. But that old Massachusetts school could afford to lose a few rookies like me. Some of our new charters here are losing a high percentage of their faculty. We stress the 3 R’s in school reform: rigor, relevance and relationships. When turnover is huge, we cannot foster the relationships essential to a strong school community.

I am thrilled for Denver kids that they now have a number of charter schools using control over their day and their calendar to add more learning time in the building. But a few current teachers (or their parents), as well as other teachers who recently resigned from these new schools, will tell you of their frustration. A 23-year old can sustain 15-hour work days for a while, but not forever.  I fear we will lose too many exceptional educators if we set unrealistic expectations.

Realities facing today’s teachers

I am thrilled for Colorado students who have so many outstanding young men and women committing two years of their lives in Teach for America. When TFA’s founder, Wendy Kopp, spoke to a packed house at Denver’s Tattered Cover two years ago, she didn’t shy away from the issue: “We tell candidates if they are looking for a balanced life (pause, anticipating the knowing laughter from the 100 or so TFA folks in the room)…  this is not for them.”

The laughter followed.

But a tired laugh.

I have read dozens of charter applications as part of a review process with the Colorado League of Charter Schools. Some proposals, in my opinion, forget that teachers are human too.  One schedule had teachers there from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. My comments on such applications can be less than kind: e.g., “I can’t imagine anyone applying for a 10-hour -a-day job, to then go home to grade papers and prepare another three hours!”

The last solution I would suggest is to turn to the union for protection; the best remedy I can offer is to use good judgment.  Ask what is doable. Design what is sustainable.

So it was great to read Generation Schools’ charter application two years ago – a model adding time – 200 school days of eight hours each, but with staggered vacations for teachers and extended time for professional development. West Generation Academy is now one of the two new models offered inside Denver’s West High School. It is possible to be realistic about what an individual teacher can manage, while doing more for our students.

Trend goes beyond charters

Of course it’s a bigger issue than what we see in a few charters. In his classic study of high schools, Horace’s Compromise, Ted Sizer’s title character survives as an English teacher in part by lowering his expectations – of himself and his students.  A few snap comments on each paper.  “Well done!”  “Pretty good – needs more evidence.” Otherwise you go crazy. We meet high school English teachers with six classes and 130 students, and we can pretty well bet that Horace’s “compromise” is alive and well. I continue to believe that Sizer’s notion that secondary teachers have no more than 80 students is one of the wisest proposals for public education in the last 30 years.

I imagine the young teachers too tired to stay after two or three years are not eager to compromise, and I say: good for them.

Much of what is necessary to improve public education will take enormous sacrifice and devotion. I think especially of the time and effort needed to turn around 50 to 100 of the state’s failing schools. More and more I meet committed young educators here in the metro area who give me hope. As a friend said yesterday, Denver doesn’t realize how lucky we are to have so many talented teachers and would-be school leaders in our midst. Folks who may well have the qualities that will lead to a much improved system of schools over the next decade. How I’d like to think so.

At the Washington press conference on Dec. 3, Arne Duncan said of extending the school day and school year, “This is obviously an extraordinary idea whose time has come. … This is the kernel of a national movement. … We haven’t taken this step for a long time because of adult intransigence.”

I do not want to be intransigent. I just want to say: teachers are people too. With enough common sense, we can offer our students something better – without breaking the backs of our teachers.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.