Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Overload Cycle

Example the First:

Tina is a new teacher. She has just started her first year. The principal or assistant principal comes to her and tells her that the cheerleading sponsor has had to drop that activity for personal reasons; s/he follows up by asking Tina if she would be willing to take that assignment. She’s new and untenured, doesn’t want to be seen as not cooperative, so she says yes. A few days later she is asked to help with the prom. She had fun doing that when she was in high school, so she agrees. After all, that’s way in the middle of the second semester. She should know what she is doing by then. Then she is asked to do a third activity and a fourth. Even though she is getting stretched very thin, she keeps agreeing. To paraphrase Ado Annie from Oklahoma!, she’s just a girl who cain’t say no.

Example the Second:

Joe is an experienced teacher. He has put together a remedial course to help students who have not yet passed the graduation exam. The first year these classes were kept to about twenty students each. That way there was a low enough student/teacher ratio that he could work individually with students. The program was very successful. About 90% of the students he taught in that course showed significant improvement on the exam. The administration is so thrilled with that increase, that they put 25 students in each of his remedial courses the next year. The year after that, 30. And so on...

Sound familiar? This is what I think of as the Overload Cycle. A fancy way of saying that if someone is doing something positive, they keep getting asked to do more and more until success is practically impossible.

This has been endemic in my experience teaching. I hate seeing good teachers with the inability to say no walked all over. I hate it more when, if it ever does happen that the person finally does say no to something, they get extra guilt trips. “Well, then, I guess we will just have to do without a literary magazine this year since you can’t do it.” It is a shame when a successful program is run into the ground, a victim of its own success. But it happens all the time.

Why? Why do so many teachers let themselves get put in this position? Could it be the same impulse to public service that leads so many to becoming teachers in the first place? The vast majority of teachers I have worked with over the past 22 years have been dedicated professionals. For that matter, I am a dedicated professional; yet, I am not willing to say yes to everything I’m asked to do, or to volunteer for everything. Does that mean I am not being the best educator I can be? Maybe. But, if I gave 110% to teaching, what would I have left over for my family? I have a wife and a child that need me and my time.

And who says that being a good teacher means that kind of self sacrifice?

Glenn Holland. Charlie Moore. Gabe Kotter. Okay, they are all imaginary. But, to a degree, so is the portrayal of real life teachers such as LouAnne Johnson, Jaime Escalante, and Erin Gruwell. I admire them all (fictional and nonfictional alike) a great deal, but it is not as easy as it looks in a movie or a TV show. And they (the nonfictional ones) say as much. Unfortunately, that is not something most of the public hears. They just see the selfless and dedicated teacher getting miraculous results, and wonder why the teachers in their children’s school are not like that.

One way to fix the problem is to adequately fund education. Not just in the rich or upper middle class neighborhoods, but all schools in all neighborhoods. Hire enough teachers to keep student/teacher ratios manageable. But that would necessitate building new schools for all these teachers and students. Then add in more principals, more custodians, more utility cost, more school buses, more school bus drivers, more lunchroom personnel, so on and so forth, ad nauseum. Congress can’t even get together the funds necessary to correct infrastructure problems at existing schools.

As long as schools are not funded adequately there will be teachers, inspired by memories of the selflessness of certain teachers before them and the popular cultural myth of single-mindedly dedicated educators who put their one class of students above EVERYTHING else in their lives, who will let themselves get burned out and used up. And that is a real waste of a precious natural resource.

1 comment:

Missy said...

I echo everything you say in this post! I just found your blog today, but so many of your statements express exactly how I feel as an educator. It's just good to know I'm not alone!