Are Teachers Just Lazy?

08/17/2011 04:14 pm ET | Updated Oct 17, 2011
  • Larry Strauss Veteran high school teacher and basketball coach; author, 'Students First and Other Lies'

There is an obvious solution to the lagging academic performance of U.S. students:

Increase the teacher work day. To 24 hours.

Then we could assign and grade assignments covering every academic standard and customize those assignments for each student and provide more detailed feedback, communicate with all the parent and analyze more data to plan more elaborate and engaging and innovative lessons.

Not a very realistic imperative, of course, but as teachers across our country gear up for another school year (those of us who haven't already started teaching on some year-round track, that is) it is difficult for many of us to avoid feeling that we could, if we had more time, do much more.

This, I've observed, is a common cause of burnout among new teachers, the overwhelming deficits of our students along with a growing clarity about what might help all of them succeed if only we had more time -- a lot more time.

Alas, compromise is a survival skill. Those of us who stay in the classroom come to realize our limitations even as we become more effective at teaching. But the idealism hopefully doesn't vanish and with the distance of a few summer weeks, we might even start having notions about reaching all our students (I'll have about 170 of them) this year, pushing each of them to become a knowledgeable, intellectually curious independent thinker, respectful of others, articulate, and hard-working.

Many of us actually spend the summer preparing to chase those ideals through books and conferences and institutes, quiet contemplation and, of course, lesson planning.

While we prepare to face the additional obstacles the hurricane of budgetary realities will pile in front of us.

And read about politicians and their supporters (and media lap dogs) who have decided to implicate us all in what they have declared the failure of public education -- trying to sweep us up into that wide net of public outrage.

When all they really need to do is figure out how we might work 24 hours a day so that we can adequately educate the children of this country and right the wrongs of poverty and injustice, ignorance, fear and hatred.

I don't know how many self-proclaimed education problem solvers have ever bothered consulting with us -- the teachers, the ones who, along with parents and students, do the real work of education -- about what needs to be fixed.

Isn't it possible that our perspective could be useful? No one has ever asked me but over the years I've talked with and observed enough of my colleagues -- from around the country, in fact -- that I think I have some idea what we might collectively suggest:

1. Give us uninterrupted class time. Not only because interruptions -- trivia over the PA system or knocking on the door or the spillage of an unruly campus -- steal instructional minutes from our children, but because those intrusions send a message to students about just how little the people in charge of the school care about the learning that goes on in the classroom.

2. Give us the materials we and our students need.
Again, not only for the obvious reasons but also for the not-so-subtle message we give our students about our interest in their education. (And I don't mean to ignore the fact that teachers must show equal regard for what the tax payers have supplied us and make our students do likewise).

3. Relieve us of all professional duties that do not directly impact student learning.
This, of course, is open to a great deal of interpretation but let's at least start the interpreting!

4. Relieve administrators of all duties that do not directly support us and our impact on student learning. Also open to much needed interpretation.

5. Quit tossing new teachers into the deep cold waters of our most challenging classrooms. Even those of us who survive the shock of those frigid waters aren't necessarily better teachers for it.

6. Get rid of all those cynical and incompetent teachers who are embarrassing our profession -- but find a way to remove them without turning the rest of us into temp workers. By the way, does anyone really know how many cynical and incompetent teachers there are? I've heard claims that there are anywhere from "just a few" and "less than two percent" (from teachers) to "about half" (from frustrated parents). Where does such data come from? Usually pretty narrow experience and observation, it seems, and wild generalization -- such as the claim of that camera man filming Matt Damon a few weeks ago that 10 percent of all professionals are lousy. So, just for the record, I make no claim as to how many must-go teachers are out there. Only that we should be free of however few or many there are.

7. Admit that what you (education problem solvers) really expect from teachers is a 24 hour work day or something approaching it and then ask yourselves why you expect something from us that you would never ask of yourselves or of anyone you cared about.

8. Legislate parental responsibility. At least minimally -- and do it without punishing poor people for their poverty. Even in a free society there ought to be a way.

9. I suppose, while we're at it, addressing some of the structural economic injustices might, in the long run, help improve schools too.

Probably most teachers can do more for our students. At the very least it is a question worth considering as we approach another school year. Maybe all of us can do better for our children if the educational leadership honestly supports us. And maybe, just once in a while, listens.