Work. A conversation.

Wasting time in every class makes no sense.

No one goes out for football, but doesn’t like football, and therefore goofs off in every practice and game.

But that’s different, Mr. Huhn. No one is required to go out for football. I am required to go to class. Even if I don’t like it.

Fine. Let’s use another example. You probably do not like going to the dentist, yet you must. And when you go to the dentist, you do not waste time and goof off and make everything take longer for everyone else.

But that’s different, too, Mr. Huhn. I only go to the dentist twice a year, but I have to come to school every weekday. And this is the 13th year of it!

First, I hear ya. Thirteen years of sitting is a tough sell.

Second, aha. Now we have arrived at the heart of the matter. You have a decision to make: either don’t come to class, and instead follow your bliss. Or be positive and productive during class. Any other decision is as absurd as the two scenarios I mentioned above.

What is it like to teach?

Note: This is actually about The Challenges of Teaching. This particular essay does not cover the joys and rewards of teaching. But I liked the title “What is it like to teach” more than “The Challenges of Teaching”. My hope is that these points will be useful in conversations about changes in education.

Here are the challenges of teaching, in order of difficulty (for me):

1) The sustained mental exertion
2) The natural, staggering diversity of motivation, manners, and maturity.
3) The number of students
4) Cultural evolution

Let’s examine each:

1) The sustained mental exertion.

In one of my early years of teaching, I came across a study about stressful jobs. The study concluded that jobs deemed stressful required a critical decision every two minutes. Some jobs require few, if any, critical decisions. Some jobs involve doing the same task over and over or maintaining operations.

The study continued by saying that teaching required a critical decision every twenty seconds.

Is this lesson accomplishing the desired goal for these students? How do I engage that quiet student? How do I defuse that tension? How should I steer this discussion? Should I allow students to chase that “rabbit-trail”? Should I correct mispronunciations? When? How? How can I differentiate this lesson for the seven levels, for each concept, in this class? What question can I ask that will lead this student to discovery? How can I help that student identify their strengths? How can I use this moment to help that student move toward maturity? How can I challenge the students who are far ahead of others? What do I do with the students who have serious, immediate personal/family issues on their mind? That student’s unhealthy diet is dramatically affecting his ability; how, and when, can I help? How soon will I need to revisit this concept or skill and how can I fit that in? When will I have time to re-visit this concept with those 10 students who don’t yet have it?

It reminds me of a story: A couple of years ago, I was attending the appointing of a new minister at a church in town. During the ceremony, the minister took the stage (to applause), and in his remarks, he asked the people for extra prayer as the church would be holding a Saturday evening service in addition to the two Sunday morning services.

“Please pray for your pastors and worship leaders as they are going to be pretty wiped out on Monday.” he said.

There was much fervent nodding of heads.

I like and respect this man, but the first thought through my head was, “Shut. Up.”

He is going to deliver the same 45-minute message three times a week. And he will need extra support to do that.

That same week, I will deliver eight, unique 1 1/2-hour lessons. I will present each of them twice; sixteen total lessons. Each one must be highly interactive. Each one must rely on sound pedagogical theory. Each one must connect to a standard. Each one must ask for student product and be assessable. I must assess the product of each one. And, preferably, I will give individual instruction to 180 people during the week.

Back to the study. A summary could be: jobs are considered highly stressful when they require a critical decision every two minutes. But teaching is in its own category, twelve times as demanding as any job found to be “highly stressful”.

Additionally, one of the difficulties of the sustained mental exertion that teaching requires is that it extends into all 24 hours of the day. Some other jobs have easy days or easy weeks. Teachers get the summer, I suppose.

One Saturday years ago, before I became a teacher, I ran into a friend (who was a teacher) at the local mall. She was heading into a craft store. After greeting her, I gestured toward the store and  said, “So, do you have a project you’re working on?”

“Oh, no.” she said. “Just picking up some supplies for my class.”

Then she added, “Teachers are always in the classroom. Even when they’re not.”

I didn’t understand what she meant until years later when I became a teacher. During the school year, there is always something immediate to do. It is like building your own business. Except without any tangible personal payoff. There is no upward mobility or overtime pay. All the effort and sacrifice is for other people’s children.

Finally, one fact that has come from all of our exploration into the mind is that mental exhaustion takes longer to recover from than physical or emotional exhaustion. A lot of teachers are running their brains at red line. Perhaps that is one reason the attrition rate is so high.

2) The natural, staggering diversity of motivation, manners, and maturity.

The statement needs no explanation. Even those who have never taught can imagine the diversity in backgrounds, experiences, maturity, physiology, home-life, habits among even 30 children or adolescents.

I am not teaching 180 identical learners. Or even similar learners. I am teaching 180 individual learners. I liken teaching to parenting 180 children.

If a parent finds themselves in conflict with their one to three children, how is a teacher supposed to get 30+ children to work? By magic?

My wife related this story to me: She was with a group of medical doctors at an event. They were talking about their children (as parents do) and the topic of school came up. (Ken Robinson, in his brilliant TED talk, points out that people have strong emotional reactions to the mention of school.) At some point in the conversation, one doctor said, “I feel for teachers: having to deal with all those students.”

Another doctor snorted, “I don’t feel sorry for them. That’s what they’re trained to do.”

Ah, yes. That top-secret, magical training—kept from everyone but teachers—that enables any person to get large groups of children to engage in challenging work and focus on the task at hand.

3) The number of students

There is a raft of research that concludes that 150 people is the maximum that any one person can connect with. 150 is the maximum limit to any “tribe”. Not the ideal. Not the maximum for most people. Not a guideline. Not a limit that overachievers should exceed. It is the limit.

What this means, of course, is that teachers will not—cannot—connect with any students past 150. Not because they don’t want to or don’t know how to connect with all kinds of students, but because it is impossible and no one has ever done it. What it also means is that many teachers will try. Their heart will compel them to try, and they will go home each day frustrated, exhausted, or depressed.

Parenting 180 kids is not hyperbole. Also, it is not difficult; it is impossible.

Some people argue that there are large classes in college, so there are ways to make it work. However, we dare not compare grade school or high school to college for many reasons; chief among them is that the college drop-out rate would be unacceptable.

The number of students, at all levels (especially high school) has moved past “challenging” into “impossible”.

4) Cultural evolution

Evolution of culture is inescapable (and perhaps is, as some have proposed, simply the Cycle of Civilization), but like all evolution, the changes are incompatible with the previous culture. The incompatibility often manifests as apathy. Which, unsurprisingly, is one of the great challenges in the high school classroom.

As technology, economies, attitudes, and culture change, I fear that compulsory education is being left behind. And worse, becoming irrelevant.

Another interconnected factor is the public attitude toward education. Diane Ravitch, Historian of Education at NYU and author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Said this in a recent interview:

I’ve been traveling this past year, since my book came out, I’ve gone to about 80 or 90 different places across the country, and the one thing I’ve learned is that teachers across America are demoralized… The whole public monologue for the last few years has been: blame the teachers for everything.


The challenges teachers face, by the minute, are as old as humanity. In 300 BC, Plato said that students will resist education, not because they are bad or dumb, but because we all are deep in Plato’s Cave. Plato said that a person only escapes the cave with great effort and pain, and when a person tries to help others out of the cave, that person will meet scorn, rejection, and violence.  In 1979, Dunning and Kruger said the less a person knows about something, the more they think they know. Finally, if we were to pick one phrase to sum-up human history, that phrase would be: “Nobody tells me what to do.” In addition to the myriad of personal obstacles and distractions, at some point students resist education.

Teachers face some daunting challenges.

A Teacher’s Reply

On Monday, a superintendent from the school district came and spoke with the teachers at West Salem.

Here is my full reply:

In any other industry, when an organization needs money, they can:

  • cut staff
  • liquidate assets
  • sell properties
  • negotiate with suppliers or find new suppliers
  • cancel product lines
  • enter new markets
  • increase sales through advertising
  • form partnerships that alleviate costs

And if it’s any other government agency, they can also raise taxes, ask for federal aid, trim fat, get in bed with gambling.

But in education, when they need more money, they:

  • cut staff or cut staff pay

[District superintendent], you said “I hear you” when teachers spoke. But you don’t. If you did, we wouldn’t need to say it, you would have said it. But you said the opposite. Your repeated message was “The school board will not cut programs. We will maintain the current level of services.” There is not a person on the planet who believes you can magically maintain all programs and services and cut $25 million from the budget. Every person immediately understands the unspoken conclusion: there will be another bloodbath of teachers.

I have written before about the demands of teaching, which, in every way, are unlike the demands of any other job. The details are too long to include here, but a summary will suffice: I liken teaching to sprinting a marathon or single-handedly parenting 200 children. No teacher resents hard work. No teacher minds professional-level effort. No teacher wants to coast. But no one can do what teachers have been asked to do.

For years I have suspected that the district, the school board, everyone close enough to the situation knows full well that the engine has red-lined for too long. That the burden placed on teachers has been impossible for years. The generals know they have sent the soldiers on an impossible mission from which they cannot return… but since you’re already out there it doesn’t matter what more we ask you to do. Defeat is certain; it does not matter what else we pile on you.

I also suspect that Departments and Boards know that cookie-cutter education, every-one-will-master-the-same-skills mandates are absurd, but turning the Titanic now would be too disruptive, so they race at redline and blame teachers when it doesn’t work. Rather than fix what doesn’t work, they push harder. If we go faster, the ship will stay afloat a little longer.

No Child Left Behind can be seen as implied acknowledgement: “By 2014, every child must meet the standards. We understand what we have asked of you. We acknowledge it is impossible. We know how the battle ends.”

Just yesterday, a classified staff member said to me, “But you don’t see it from the other side, I would not vote to increase taxes for schools.”

As if the schools did anything. When people say “schools” or “education” they always mean “teachers”. The building does not instruct, assess, care, connect, correct, encourage, celebrate achievement, point out strengths. Neither do the desks or buses. (And yet, when the district gets Federal or private money, none of it ($0.00) goes to teachers or easing the teacher’s load.)

But my friend missed two points. The two points that matter.

First, have teachers ever asked for more pay? Teachers ask for Respect. Teachers ask that they be able to do what they are asked to do.

I think my teacher salary is fair. Until you compare it to the task. Then it is grossly out of balance.

I don’t mind giving up a raise. Obviously. Teachers have voted in favor of that many times. But it is literally insane (and degrading) to ask teachers to give up their raise, reduce the number of paid workdays, increase class size, reduce prep time, increase student achievement, manage more mandates and paperwork, and raise the quality of our work. It is no different than asking LeBron James to score more points per game while wearing weights, facing more defenders, and playing in shorter games (and don’t forget the pay cut). It is literally insane.

Second, teachers are on the other side. Teachers are the only ones on both sides: soldiers and tax-payers. Inexplicably, teachers are the only ones on their side. The district does not fight for teachers, the school board does not, the public does not, I do not know what the union does, but in its 150 year history it has yet to make things better for teachers. And, like the citizens in Orwell’s 1984, teachers are kept too busy to advocate for themselves.

I have often felt like the district and school board view teachers as sweat-shop laborers: a nameless, faceless human machine; easily expendable, easily replaceable.

To me school is not a game, directed by the district or federal government. They chase test scores. They engage in endless, pointless comparisons between schools, states, countries. As though students were a commodity or a widget to be manufactured. As though students all (or any two!) come in the same (even day by day) and can be expected to leave the same.

Ask us to do what is possible, or give us enough funding/help to do the impossible. Stop asking us to do more than can be done and giving us less. Stop requiring us to sprint the marathon, naked and alone.

Education Manifesto #2 – Activities

I teach at a public high school. And I have a concern that I would like to share with everyone who is involved in, or cares about, education:The number of extracurricular activities, and the importance we give them, undermines the education we attempt to impart and claim to value.

I attend more student activities than most other teachers. I go to music events, sporting events, drama events. I send cards through the attendance office congratulating students, I recognize them in class and in the hallways. I am a fan of the students and their activities. But the importance we give to activities has too high of a cost.

Each day when I look out over a half-empty class, or watch half my class get up and leave for some activity, or cringe as class is interrupted/derailed by a loudspeaker announcement about a baseball game schedule change, I think:

“I don’t interrupt your activity, what gives you the right to interrupt my activity? Every class. Every day.”

Worse, even, than just missing the class is the mutation we are causing to education. Every excused absence de-values my class. If you can get out of class for football, baseball, cooking, horses, service, other classes, then why come to class at all? It has brought us to the place we find ourselves: an absolute crisis of absenteeism and apathy.

Teachers feel a silent, embarrassed confusion and fear. I have overheard four different teachers talk about how this year has been the hardest they have ever had for attendance and behavior. I have caught passing comments by others as they are shocked by the staggering amount of missing work. By encouraging absences, we have sent a constant, clear message that class is simply not important. One result is that teachers are going home each day frustrated, exhausted, and, worse yet, feeling like failures: “What did I do wrong that so few students care about my class?”

We are doing just as gross an injustice to the students. We are telling them that their education does not matter; that they do not matter. “Don’t worry about learning. Don’t worry about being competitive in a global market. Just play.”

Are we running schools, or are we running giant, expensive activity clubs?

The argument that activities engage students is, frankly, insane. Of course students like activities. That is the nature of activities. If we added more activities, more students would participate in activities. For every student that football has “saved” there are dozens–hundreds–of students that cartooning, jewelry making, video game design, kayaking could have saved. I have had students who hated school, and performed poorly, but were obsessed with those things. But are activities the saviour students need? Do students need to be “saved” from school. The final challenge to the argument defending activities is the question: why is America near the bottom of high school graduation rates when we offer the most activities?

Some people argue that that is how college operates–with tons of official activities that require tons of excused absences–so what’s the big deal?

The deal is very big. We dare not compare high school to college for several reasons. Chief among those reasons is this: the college graduation rate, which various sources put at 25%, is unacceptable for high school. Maybe college is not a suitable standard by which to measure high school.

Another argument in defense of activities is that activities teach the students valuable things. This is also insane. And we all know it. If sports built character (as we claim), then our professional athletes–those people who have been most dedicated, have put in the most time and sacrifice, who have had the best coaches–would have the strongest character of us all. But we find their character to be no better than the rest of us. If music class taught discipline, then why are my music students missing so many assignments?

The answer to these question is that elevating activities has had precisely the effect we should have expected. It has marginalized academics.

Teachers are the public’s scape-goat. Everyone knows this. From the local coffee shop to the New York Times, people criticize teachers and recognize that people criticize teachers. Teachers feel a great deal of pressure to magically create world-class education. We repeatedly hear, “America has fallen behind the rest of the world in education!” And it is true. The latest stats show that out of 34 wealthy, developed countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science, 25th in math, 13th in college graduation, and 22nd in high school graduation (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/40544897/ns/us_news-life/). Here is the explanation: outside of the US, activities are after-school clubs. When students in other countries are at school, they are working on academics. It really is that basic. What you value will be valued.

Our academic achievements, at my school and across the US, now pale in comparison to our extracurricular achievements. Our priorities are clear. Indeed, there are numerous state-sponsored competitions, tournaments, and awards for extracurricular activities. For reading, writing, or thinking there are none. Zero.

Perhaps America is on to something, though. Perhaps the other countries are operating from an un-enlightened perspective. Perhaps cultivating individual interests, of all kinds, is a better way to educate. But we don’t say that. Maybe we should. That certainly is the model from which we operate. It is not inherently wrong. “Know thyself” was the message of half of history’s philosophers and most of history’s literature. An individual, follow-your-bliss approach to educating has value and is very appealing to me. One could make a strong case that it is better way to educate. It certainly would relieve the tremendous pressure that teachers feel to leave no child behind academically, while the entire system focuses on activities instead.

But we talk as though we’re playing the same game as the rest of the world; as though we’re serious about academics.

If we are serious about making education better, as our incessant talk and meetings would indicate, then we need to be serious about making education better. Otherwise we are lying. Otherwise we need to continue making activities more important than school and stop talking as though we are serious about strong, and stronger, education; we must stop talking as though we are measuring our education the same way as the rest of the world.

Whatever we do (which will likely be to Stay the Course), we need to cut official absences. There is no way to gain anything from a class if you are regularly required to NOT be there.

Let’s get our words and actions aligned… by moving either one.

(Originally written May 28, 2011)