flickeringbrad-need-humanitiesTeaching Is Harder–And More Rewarding–Than Ever

by Nellie Mitchell

Nostalgia comes pretty effortlessly as we get older, doesn’t it?

It is fun to look back with fondness at the things that used to be so cool in school, like the Oregon Trail game, laser disks, and typewriters. Were they effective instruction tools? Maybe not, but they were cool. On the other hand, it’s also fun to daydream about the future, ‘Someday, we will all have hover boards!” Everyone will have microchips and virtual reality and 3-D everything.

But in the here and now, the reality is less romantic, and as we head towards the 2015-2016 school year, it’s just might be that teaching is more difficult than it’s ever been before. Everything is scripted, planned, pushed, and monitored. Nothing is easy, everyone’s an expert, making it too easy for the joy of teaching and learning to disappear.

If you’re old enough, you might remember schools in the 1980s and 1990s:

  • Teachers used textbooks and workbooks. Curriculum came directly from the book.
  • Substitute plans consisted of movies.
  • It was okay to spend instructional time doing a craft or an art project, especially seasonal and holiday stuff.
  • Students practiced spelling and cursive writing.
  • Flash cards and drills promoted memorization and were valuable learning activities.
  • Schools made time for Weekly Readers and Channel One news.
  • Class materials were stored in cubbies and desks.
  • Teachers used those red hard-cover grade books to keep track of missing assignments and grades.
  • Computers were in labs, separated from regular instruction, used for fun activities.

Let’s contrast that with popular visions of near-future learning:

  • Teachers will use Internet videos, eBooks, and online streaming services to access content anywhere, anytime. Curriculum will be fluid and ever changing as resources evolve with new technology.
  • Substitute plans will consist of movies—-created by teachers, as if they are not even gone, instruction will carry on as planned.
  • It will be okay to spend instructional time creating a multimedia project, especially if it is collaborative and innovative.
  • Students will practice typing, word processing skills and coding.
  • Research-based activities will meet the needs of diverse learners.
  • Schools will make time for eReaders and Web-based news.
  • Class materials will be stored in the cloud or in digital libraries.
  • Teachers will use online gradebooks seamlessly to share information and projects with parents in a way that feels more like social media and less like grading. It will be more interactive and customizable.
  • Computers will be in the hands of every student, replacing paper and pencil—essential learning tools with occasional opportunities for fun.

The Reality of Teaching Today

Educators today are under intense pressure to innovate, reinvent, flip, somersault and dive into new methodology. We are criticized for not using technology effectively or innovating our teaching strategies to meet the needs of an evolving educational climate.

We are experts in our own content, and we are passionate about it. At the same time, we are told that ‘lecturing’ is boring and it is not an effective way to deliver content to the short-attention-span modern student. Our own students tell us we are boring. Sure we have more technology than ever, but implementing it effectively is hard work and takes a lot of time.

Teachers have to be willing to try something they have never done before—in front of an audience. It has to increase student motivation, achievement, test scores, and it has to be fun. But it might not work. That new thing—it might waste a ton of instructional time to implement effectively. And we have to have a back up plan in case it fails. The Internet goes down and kaboom! The entire plan is shot.

Teachers today are doing double the work of any teacher that has ever existed or will ever teach in the future. Teachers must double plan every single move they make. Teachers have to have a backup plan in case the technology fails—and it fails often.

nasagoddard-things-teachers-saveTeachers Lacl Enough Time For True Innovation

Many American teachers end up spending 10-11 hours a day at school, with only 3-4 hours per week of scheduled time allotted for planning. (Source) In other nations, teachers get 40% of their time to plan. Many school districts have adopted the practice of writing their own curriculum in order to align with Common Core. Curriculum is not created in a vacuum, generally curriculum directors, principals, and content expert teachers work together to make decisions about what should be taught, and when.

For some, curriculum writing is fun. Right? Let’s throw out the books and decide what we want to teach, and when we want to teach it. A pretty good theory, but the amount of available information on a given topic is expanding so rapidly, how can we approach true “mastery” of even a fixed set of standards? We can’t.

It is not enough to write the objective, make sure it aligns with Common Core, state grade level expectations, that it is grade-level appropriate, meets individual personalized learning needs, and it will help students succeed on standardized tests. Teachers today also have to fill in the gaps, innovate, and create their own resources to align with objectives. No more reliance on workbooks anymore. Online resources must be vetted; teachers must painstakingly sift through all the available materials and decide if the source is reliable and appropriate.

Since curriculum is drafted by school districts, there are no pre-written quizzes and tests, nor are there suggested activities or guiding questions. Teachers have to figure out how to formatively and summatively assess students by writing quizzes, tests, and assessments to assess higher order thinking skills and demonstrate student ability on each objective.

The curriculum-writing teachers of today have to design project-based learning activities that are rigorous, fun, tech-based, content rich, and absolutely never boring. By customizing curriculum, creating a scope and sequence, and adopting their own objectives schools in the same district are able to stay on the same page, even without a textbook. Schools haven’t completely abandoned the textbook, but many districts are allocating textbook funds into digital resources and technology, leaving fewer texts in the hands of students. This means more opportunity for teachers, but also more work, new thinking, and new resources.

The modern teacher generation is the saddled with adhering to and/or writing the curriculum, trying all the new software, technology, updating classroom practices, being experts in our content, surviving on a shoestring budget, and it’s a tremendous challenge. Teachers with good attendance rates are frequently gone from the classroom for curriculum planning, collaboration, testing, and professional development. Instead of rolling in a TV cart, allowing a substitute to show a video, teachers must create intensely detailed plans and write out a script for the day.

Absolutely no instructional time can be wasted (except in the honor of innovation or technology, then we can afford to lose half a day, as long as we are using it in an innovative and creative way). Teachers must also be active in their professional organization, have an impressive PLN, spend their own time participating in Twitter chats and book studies, and stay late for tutoring and parent events.

Yeesh.

To the Teachers and Students of the Future: You Are Welcome

Maybe future teachers and students will look back with fondness about the first time they ever held an iPad to look up their house on Google Earth. Maybe Google Earth is the Oregon Trail of the modern generation. With all the pressure being placed on teachers today to implement the new methods, and throw out all the old, outdated, boring stuff from the past, education is bound to look different in the future.

It just might be that the ground work is being laid, the documents are being drafted, new learning models are being designed, and teachers today are simply the guinea pigs. If so, it is up to the current generation of educators to figure out what works, blog it, tweet it, implement it and spread the good word that the future is, while sometimes blinding, overwhelmingly bright.

Teaching Is Harder Than It’s Ever Been; image attribution flickr users flickeringbrad and nasagoddard