Re-thinking schools: hours, training, partnerships, and money.

In a recent, probably well-intentioned move, Florida Sheriff Peter Grinnell offered to provide teachers in his county with 130 hours of firearms training. This got me thinking about four things that affect teachers across the country: hours, training, partnerships, and money.

Hours. Most teachers I know do not have an extra 130 hours available for firearms training. A recent study notes that US teachers spend far more time teaching and less time planning than teachers in other countries, a fact my Fulbright experience has directly confirmed. Before I even left the States, a Fulbright teacher from Singapore visited my school. He could not say enough positive things about my students, but the workload of teachers left him near tears. Imagine this scenario:

  • You are a social studies teacher at an average US high school. You teach 5 classes a day, including 3 sections of Grade 9 World Studies, 1 section of Grade 11 Economics, and 1 section of Grade 12 AP Comparative Government. How many hours of your day do you need to plan effectively for each of those classes? How many hours of your day should you spend planning for each of these classes?

A teacher with that load is looking at 25 instructional hours a week. If we operate under the traditional US 40-hour work week, that teacher has 15 hours remaining to them. Of course, other duties will take up perhaps 10 hours of that time, so let’s say 5 hours. Is that enough to effectively plan for each class? How much overtime should teachers be expected to work?

So: extra training in general is a good idea – but – we must restructure school days to provide for it.

Training. Any training added to a teacher’s schedule must inform their primary responsibility: supporting student academic growth. This should include additional content-area learning as well as pedagogical learning. If I want my students to learn, I cannot forget what it is to learn myself. Most teachers are motivated academics in their own right – you don’t become a math teacher unless you really freaking love math. If we give teachers access to training that makes them better content area experts and better facilitators of learning, they will jump at it – if given the time, that is.

So – who should schools partner with to provide ongoing learning opportunities for their teachers?

Partnerships. Not local sheriff departments. Teaching and learning are not the primary responsibilities of sheriff departments, and so any partnership with them would not support the primary goal of schools and teachers. Instead, schools must partner with other institutions of learning.

It is increasingly common for teachers to enter the profession with not just an undergraduate degree in education but also a master’s degree. Even teachers who find a school right after undergrad are motivated to go back to school and get their master’s. Teachers want individual relationships with institutions of higher education. Perhaps schools themselves should actively seek out more direct institutional partnerships.

We must consider the cost of such partnerships. My school has hired outside university consultants in the past, and the price tag can be in the tens of thousands of dollars. As our understanding of “good teaching” continues to evolve every year, this is not a sustainable proposition, especially when schools tend to be the first things de-funded by municipalities looking to save money.

Money. As with most things, access to money is the problem. However, we must refuse to acknowledge it as a deterrent to worthwhile academic partnerships. The US is the wealthiest country in the world. We’ve essentially solved the problems of war, disease and hunger. We have enough money to think creatively about academics, even if it is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the very few.

As things stand, universities are big money institutions. Whether or not they carry the for-profit label, schools function as businesses. Students pay exorbitant tuitions each year, and they keep increasing. The NCAA – a college organization – earned more than $1 billion this past year alone. Universities are a brand, and the successful ones roll in money.

High schools, on the other hand, are not intended to turn a profit. They are intended to provide a tax-funded education to all students. They cannot afford to partner with for-profit institutions of any kind – including universities. Critical knowledge that can help teachers is often held captive behind a paywall, accessible only to the most privileged high schools.

We must redirect our wealth so that we all profit from it. Let’s start with schools.