01/15/2012 03:27 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2012

Let Teachers Teach

When I began teaching fulltime, back in the early 90s, our school dismissed students at noon every Friday afternoon in order to have meeting time. The stated purpose was collaboration -- teachers were to use these two hours each week to devise ways to integrate curriculum and innovate instruction so that previously unmotivated students would forget they were in school and start to learn.

But most of those Friday afternoons began with a staff meeting that consisted mostly of our principal talking about things that didn't much concern us -- the various proclamations of her superiors about district politics and her idealistic visions for our school which had little to do with the struggling students and limited resources we confronted in our classrooms each day.

Often we found ourselves irritated to the point of disruptions and bickering and by the time the principal set us free, often with no more than an hour left, no one had much to say to each other about inter-disciplinary teaching or anything else. It was stunning how we could be so depleted in such a short time.

Behind her back -- and sometimes to her face -- we used to say that our principal could have delivered all the information she disseminated in these meetings on a memo which we could have ignored far less painfully than sitting around on those Friday afternoons. (I should say that she was not otherwise a bad administrator overall; she cared deeply about children and supported teachers in trying anything we could imagine to reach the most at-risk students).

One of veterans on the staff back then (I'll call him Patrick which is not his real name) used to mutter about all the time we were wasting in meetings while so many of our students were slipping through the cracks, winding up on the streets or in jail. We might as well teach them until 3:00 on Fridays since we weren't accomplishing anything that was going to directly improve what those students were getting in our classrooms.

Years later Patrick was the principal of a big high school -- running meetings of his own. I always wondered how idealistic he was able to remain under those conditions. I believe he is a man of integrity and I'm sure he thought about the usefulness of the time he pulled his teachers out of class -- but by then I'd come to realize that his idealism about the sanctity of instructional time was at odds with the mechanism of our public education system -- at least in our district.

Of course, teachers now have even more formidable forces preventing us from teaching -- but even as we resist the suffocating uniformity of unimaginative, test-driven curricula, we must also resist the tidal sway of resources, human and otherwise, away from classrooms and students: professional ambitions and the stress of the grind encourage educators to do anything other than the actual teaching of children.

The principal to whom I report now is pretty good about not wasting our time. She seems less than enamored with the sound of her own voice and even passively resists some of the more gratuitous district requirements in order to give us more time to teach our students.

Meanwhile, I find myself perpetually conflicted about how I spend my time as an educator. As a veteran teacher, I have claimed the authority to resist many of the interruptions that try to erode my instruction, but I have also assumed responsibilities -- mentoring struggling teachers, athletic administration -- that have dragged me away from my students. In that way I feel at best co-opted by the machine and at worst like a sell-out.

Recently I have been asked to conduct meetings that I'm not sure are entirely essential, creating an agenda not out of any urgent instructional need but in order to fill an allotted time designation formulated by someone who hasn't taught students in a very long time.

I make the most of these meetings -- and try to make them worth everyone's while -- but sometimes I wonder.

And I hope I never stop wondering.

Anyone who ever finds him or herself asking teachers to do anything other than teach students ought to do so with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Such intrusions, in fact, ought to require review in a most stringent and public manner. Conditions for accreditation should include how much or little time a school wastes on inessential meetings!

Of course, having been through a number of accreditation "self-studies" I can scarcely imagine any such committee being in a position to judge the essentialness of a meeting.