Stress and Mess: Deliberate Practice and Professional Obligation — Part II

In Part I of this collaboration, some of the sources of teacher stress are described. The growing obligations, the expanding roles, the duties assigned to/taken on by/falling into the laps of teachers are growing. At the same time, respect for the profession and the people committed to it needs to be renewed and reinforced. Here is Part II of this shared effort with Jake Miller . 
JAKE: Defining “Professional Obligations”
That leads us back to examine a core question that has existentially scratched our philosophical heads since the beginning of time:
The answer, pure and simple, is “We are here for the kids”. But, at what point do we start moving on and stop spoon-feeding the students that enter our classrooms and our lives?
These questions ring louder in our classrooms than the most calamitous dismissal bell. I am a social studies teacher in 7th grade, and, while my students do quite well in my class, at what point do I need to say “enough is enough” and remind the students I’m here to teach social studies, not to:
Remind the ES girl she’s not to pick her nails?
Have another one-on-one with the kid who neglects her homework?
Call the parents of the underperforming student?
Stop the student from swearing at me and others?
Remind another boy to use deodarant?
Decipher the latest change in the educational law?
Cover for the absent teacher during my planning period?
Attend another committee meeting?
To be honest, it seems like the term “professional obligation” is a cop-out to require teachers to do more work “for the kids.” I give everything I can to each and every student who walks into my life (sometimes unexpectedly), but at what point does the preacher tell a parishioner I need to take care of my own home, too? I mean, they deserve my time, too – don’t they?
DAN: Time, Time, Everywhere Is Time
As a teacher I see a shortage of time, more than anything, as the greatest challenge. There never seems to be enough of it for me to give to my students, colleagues, school…but more than that- to my beautiful wife and three daughters. It is vital that a teacher’s time while on the job not be abused, but the time spent out in the real world is an even bigger part of what makes a public servant a dedicated public servant…and it makes them truly effective in ways that are surprisingly relevant. That students have in school role models of new young-citizen teachers; married and dedicated family-member teachers; active-in-the-community teachers…these are things that young people see as relevant to their lives and that is the kind of power educators need to tap into in these turbulent times. What is happening now,though, is that those on the outside of education seek to chain educators to standards, tests and accountability to those things when we all know that we’re accountable for so much more that is so much more important.
So while it is an occupational hazard that students’ social and emotional issues can disrupt a teacher’s plans for the day; while we all know that papers are going to go home over the weekend; while teachers know that even on so-called summer vacation you continually see things and automatically start thinking about how you can use it in your classroom: it is often a disconnected and managerial choice from above to disrespect and expect the sacrifice of a teacher’s time in school and life outside of school.
JAKE: More on time spent, and spent, and…
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I have about 10 minutes before school, 25 minutes after school, a 30 minute lunch, and a 43 minute planning period to buckle down and “get things done.” I mean, those lessons aren’t going to plan themselves. Those state standards aren’t going to be met on their own. Essays, tests, quizzes, and other assessments don’t self-grade. Those parents who need to be made aware of behavior and academic concerns with automation. That student who missed class or just needs a helpful hand or heart won’t pursue it on his/her own. That colleague you haven’t seen could use a hand or you could use their ear for a new idea. Those copies don’t make themselves. Teachers also don’t use diapers, so bathroom breaks are still – at least in 2016 – mandatory.
While there will always be naysayers who proclaim “you only work 5 hours a day, c’mon!” — it’s amazing what we can accomplish an efficiently timed and practiced school day. That becomes wrenched when we’re tapped to help here, do this there, insert this new thing, or roll with a guest speaker in the auditorium then.
Additionally, we’re reminded (albeit occasionally, but still reminded) that we’re “part-time,” “replaceable,” and other people would “love to do our jobs” as a way to pull teeth with ease. But when do you start to just say, “nope”?
DAN: Promoting the Profession, Stopping the Abuse
I began writing this on Saturday (10/8) after a Friday staff development spent in a “poverty simulation”. While such a “simulation” can in no way impart true understanding of the actual stressors on children and families struggling in real poverty-it was a wake up call. At first I was excited to have been picked to be the “police officer”, and imagined playing it as a joke: I would break a taillight (then issue a ticket for a broken taillight), run a “protection racket” at community shops…But even though I was only pretending, along with all my colleagues, I was quickly overwhelmed. “Children” left home alone while parents went out to try and make ends meet (in various legal and illegal ways), adults “scalping” food vouchers, shop owners and citizens complaining about theft, students kicked out of school and wandering the streets committing petty crimes…I knew (even though I could never really know) that this is how many are forced to live. Beyond being just a “wake up call”, though, these types of professional development offerings invariably reveal one thing: teachers are truly now expected to be all things, and academic goals become dependent on addressing needs once managed outside of the classroom-delayed as the responsibilities of others intrude on the academic routine.
This is the way our policymakers have decided to run the world outside of school, so this is one more thing you need to do inside of school. From on-the-spot obligations that take from instructional time, to carry-over duties that bleed into family time, teachers are made to feel they are something “less-than” if they don’t willingly give up just a little more. Our presenter at that poverty simulation said during the closing meeting: “It takes from teaching, but they can’t learn until they’re fed.”
This is true, not just for their physical hunger, but also their psychological and emotional hunger.
What followed was a rather tense barrage of questions and exclamations from an auditorium full of small-town school employees who have repeatedly pulled together for families who have fallen and children who have fallen victim in a variety of regrettable and/or horrible ways. What if you were to tell your pediatrician “If you really cared about children you would come open your office on Saturday to take care of this.” Say to your doctor “The fact that I subsist on a diet of bacon sandwiches and diet soda, and consider a handful of skittles a serving of fruit is irrelevant…you are responsible for my health outcomes!” Tell your mechanic “Other mechanics are able to keep a ‘73 Valiant running and on the road…what are you doing wrong?” It is inconceivable that someone disconnected from a profession would speak with authority on and pass judgement on those trained in the profession.
And yet, that is exactly what is happening.
Not only are self-styled and promoted education reformers doing it, they are promoted and appointed to state-level and national prominence. It isn’t hard to understand teacher frustration and dissatisfaction.
JAKE: When and how to say no/take a stand
Look – if there is one take away our teachers should have from here, it’s that Dan and I aren’t anti-student. You should, at all costs, be there for kids. If there’s an emergency at your school, you have no right to “close your door and just keep teaching.” Chief among all those hats I mentioned earlier, you are Child Advocate, Number 1. We are here for the kids, so if you’re needed, you’re needed. Be the teacher every parent expects you to be, but remind every parent and administrator that you also want to be the parent / brother / sister / person that you want to be. There’s a fine line between being implored for help and being abused by it, too.
DAN and JAKE: Moving forward with recommendations for reform
We hope that this article provoked some thinking about your own experiences regarding the stresses and pressures being placed on educators. It’s also the right thing to do to consider what those around you are dealing with. Educators need to unite, share, plan, and act. Our union leaders aren’t really doing it for us, and they (along with our policymakers) lead from behind- and then only when the polls and campaign donors tell them it’s safe. Even prominent reform school privatizer proponents like Peter Cunningham will admit, in their more off-reform-script moments, a lack of nerve for the real battle, which is outside of our schools and our teachers-it’s all about money and political will :
“Moreover, ending poverty and integration are politically difficult and financially expensive goals at a time when political courage is in short supply and many elected officials – especially on the right – seem intent on starving government. (Peter Cunningham, Aug., 2016)
If we surrender to this mindset of how we educate today’s children for a better tomorrow, we’ve lost already. Yes teachers are the front-line, boots on the ground, but they are not the battle. This Jake and Dan article was only a brief treatment of what has been happening. Instead of surrendering what has been happening, though, I prefer more empowering words of wisdom:
“What a kid is taught is what a kid becomes” (Superintendent Turner,Girl Meets World)
Yes we need to equip students with the academic skills required in the world that is, but more importantly: real education reform will ready them to make the world that they want.

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