Sometimes I feel like a textile mill worker, circa 1910

Difficult work: a fabric mill

…like a laborer in the deafeningly loud, particulate air-filled factory in the photo at right: I am trying to do an impossible job at high efficiency, and losing hope in the process.

In the last ten years, every teacher in my typical English department has had five classes a day assigned to him/her. With class sizes ranging from 20-30, a teacher’s  aggregate load was on average 125 student papers to grade several times a semester.

Figuring that each paper demands ten minutes of attention, and that an average semester curriculum has six papers per, we get:

 125 x 6 =  750 papers/semester = 7500 minutes / 1440  = 5.2 days

So each English teacher devotes 7,500 minutes to cultivating the important one-to-one, audience-writer/mentor-student relationship each semester. That comes out to  5.2 days of labor, performed perhaps half the time at school. It’s not unreasonable, then, to surmise that there are approximately 3 days each semester that an English teacher gives up of his “homelife.”

But, OK–he loves doing it:  child-centric as he is, he knows the best-practice, best hope of successful literacy instruction is a skillful teacher giving timely and formative feedback (ask Robert Marzano if you don’t believe me).  The teacher is taking for the US Education team (maybe sacrificing for religious reasons, who knows?)  But he never complains, since this is the service he chose. For his efforts he is as badly paid as every other high school teacher under the labor contract. But being a high school English teacher is a job you can get used to, with its own rhythms and seasons. It is on occasion extremely gratifying, too and, if your social life is not too complicated, feasible.

Yet how many high school English departments, threatened by NCLB and scolded by successive Secretaries of Education that they need to do better, have stepped up the pace now? Instead of six papers per student per semester, perhaps each teacher will assign and grade (formatively, mostly, and so requiring the same loving attention) twelve written assignments. Or instead of putting 20-30 students in each class, let’s pack 25-35 in there. Doubling up the activity and/or increasing the clients served helps us “race to the top” quicker.

There is the belief, on the part of some administrators, that we now have the methods and assessment tools to do effective learning. Teachers are to some extent evaluated, fired and rewarded for student test scores.  Marzano says x works. We got that, it worked. What is needed is more x :  if some of x produces greater results now, then more of x will mean more student learning and test growth, so increase the inputs, and let’s get results quicker.

So let us say that under current pressures, each English teacher will need to sacrifice up to 10.5 days of his semester above and beyond  regular school days.

The load crosses a tipping point:  it occludes and complicates the teacher’s  social life, forcing him to sacrifice more of his precious “down time.” But worst for the kids, the extra productivity pressure results in poorer relationships established with each child. “Best-practice” may be to get to know each student-writer  well enough to offer helpful feedback. Over 6 intense writing experiences per semester, this is doable. But doubling of the quantity, or  increasing class-load, kills the very effect the activity should enhance.

But wait, there’s more.

Now requirements for high-stakes tests are changing the quality of the assignments, too. Formulaic writing methodologies geared toward the argumentative tasks encountered on ACT and SAT essays have narrowed the scope, lost the imagination. Student voice in writing has little value in standardized  writing assignments. The prompts are more circumscribed, in my opinion, and the writing (no surprise) less inventive. Additionally,  the role of multi-media communications in its composition is almost nil–after all, technological literacy won’t be measured on the high-stakes tests. What value could  it have?

So excuse this rare venting of frustration and anger at the technocrats who treat education like a business, and turn teachers into factory workers. I am angry at this situation, anguished at my limits to adapt and still give students what they need. The technocrats driving the educational-industrial-testing complex are the ones speeding up the pace of production and diminishing the higher purposes of literacy. It is they who are overwhelming the English teacher with a job that felt–more than it does lately–like a calling.

An ironic contextual reality is that Internet-based tools are evolving that make it possible for most students to become self-directed, life-long learners. But they may not access them at school, or the curriculum is simply unable to incorporate them, in its urgent “race to the top.”

Mr. President, Arne Duncan: have pity on the English teacher, please. Tell the techo-crats to turn down the speed of the production line. Relax the amount of relationships teachers must nurture. Children learning to write are not spools of thread, they are delicate tendrils that gain competence and confidence, slowly, through patient, one-to-one attention.

As it should be with medicine, so education should be delivered in humane and humanizing ways. Otherwise it cannot very well carry out its ends:   helping people individually and society generally.

image courtesy the Library of Congress

One response to “Sometimes I feel like a textile mill worker, circa 1910”

  1. Thank you for sharing a peak into your life as a teacher. And I hope Mr. President and Arne Duncan are listening –


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