A year later, still buried in bureaucracy

April 19, 2007, midnight | By Ashley Lau | 13 years, 9 months ago

Administrative obligations leave teachers overburdened

The sound of the 5A bell signals what should be the end of English teacher Sherelyn Ernst's instructional day. But 20 minutes after the end of the period, she hasn't even made it out of the classroom. With a stack of papers to grade waiting in her office and a mandatory meeting to attend, Ernst's day is far from over.

It will probably be another five hours before she heads home for the day.

Despite taking a pay cut to work part time this year, Ernst says she feels more overwhelmed than ever. Though she only teaches four classes, Ernst finds that increased administrative obligations mean that despite a shorter instructional day, she's no less pressed for time. Instead of leaving at 1:30 p.m., she stays until 5 p.m. "To adequately finish everything, we find we have to work 24/7," Ernst says. "Many teachers are going home exhausted."

Although over a year has passed since Blair adopted the Baldrige model, a school improvement plan that former social studies resource teacher Cherie McGinn last year attributed to an upsurge in bureaucracy and teacher workload, the same climate of stress persists. Many teachers still find themselves entangled in mounting out-of-classroom professional commitments that push aside their teaching priorities and leave them pressed for time.

The HSA hurdle

This year, the increased pressure to raise test score performance has created the most significant drain on teachers' time, according to Ernst. After Blair failed to meet state passing requirements on the English High School Assessment (HSA) last spring, the push to prepare students has been greater than ever — and the brunt of the burden has fallen on teachers.

The new graduation requirement — that students beginning with the class of 2009 must pass the Algebra 1, Biology, English 10 and National, State and Local Government HSAs receive a diploma — escalates the pressure on 10th-grade teachers.

This year, Ernst finds she dedicates most of her teaching time to HSA preparation. "I tell them this is for the HSAs, this is for the final exam, BCRs, HSAs," Ernst says. "I can't even keep up with all the jargon."

Many teachers say they are forced to condense or even eliminate aspects of their regular curriculum in order to make time for practice HSA exams.

Social studies teacher Lansing Freeman had dedicated over two months to coordinating a visit from a State Department official, planning a weeklong interdisciplinary project around the guest speaker's visit.

Four days before the planned visit, Freeman was told he would have to cancel the activity to make time for a mandatory practice English HSA during class that day. Freeman explained the conflict to Assistant Principal Andrew Coleman and asked to be allowed to postpone the practice HSA, but Coleman refused.

Freeman was frustrated that the months of work that went into coordinating a visit from the State Department official were to be wasted. "The annual visit of a State Department official is a fantastic opportunity for the students to learn about the world's problems and how our nation tries to address those problems from a real policymaker," Freeman says. "This was unprecedentedly short notice, and it places a chill on our efforts to plan activities for our classes, whether the everyday or sensational."

Time crunch

Social studies teacher Joann Malone also finds that adjusting the curriculum to accommodate mandatory academy and planning meetings often comes at the expense of her primary teaching responsibilities. For Malone, fifth period is designated as a planning period, but she must spend the time coordinating lesson plans with her partner teacher. Seventh period is devoted to academy meetings — an arrangement that leaves her little time for grading.

As a result, Malone is forced to assign less challenging coursework because she simply doesn't have the time to grade essays or other more involved assignments.

Malone says that being able to budget her own time would be a more effective approach. "It doesn't help us to achieve the very things the meetings are about," Malone says. "[The meetings] are not nearly as useful as using time to do what we have to do."

Because Malone is in her "evaluation year" — MCPS requires that teachers be evaluated on a three-, four- or five-year cycle, depending on their union contracts — she has to find time to attend additional meetings with the administration. Between teaching four different subjects and a guided research class, it's not a simple task. "Most [administrators] haven't taught for a long time," Malone says. "A lot of people don't really grasp what it means to teach multiple subjects."

According to Assistant Principal Linda Wanner, teachers are not obligated to stay in the building beyond their specified work hours. "They're not contractually supposed to be here after 20 [minutes] of three," Wanner says. "A lot of teachers are here out of the goodness of their heart."

Outside obligations

One of those teachers is Brian Hinkle.

Down the hall, Hinkle sits at his desk with a bag full of papers to grade to his left, a foot-tall pile of mail for the Residency Committee on his right and a stack of county-mandated audit information on the shelf above him. "The classes are the fun part of this. The extra stuff that you have to do, like that stuff, [is not]," Hinkle says, pointing to his Residency Committee mail.

Teachers of Advanced Placement (AP) classes need to complete a yearly review of test results — a task that takes an extra six to eight hours outside of class time, according to Hinkle.

Staff members are also required to sign up for a committee in order to contribute to Blair's school-improvement plan. Hinkle believes the work will not get done if teachers do not assume responsibility for outside projects. "I did this on my own," Hinkle says of his work on the Residency Committee. "The committee? I'm the committee. Somebody has to do it."

But Malone says that the additional committee and academy meetings shift the focus away from their teaching responsibilities. "It's killing us," Malone says. "The time that we use to have a real human conversation with students or to give help with something they don't understand is being taken away."

The changing tides of teaching

But Wanner, who used to teach in Prince George's County, thinks that the increasing obligations are simply attributable to the changing nature of teachers' roles. "The nature of teaching has changed so much," Wanner says. "[Back then] teachers taught what they wanted, helped students after school and went home at the end of the day. I could stay after, grade my papers, work with my students after class," Wanner says, reminiscing about the time flexibility she had as a teacher and contrasting teachers' current stresses with her own memories. "Now, teachers feel a lot more pressure to help."

According to Wanner, in addition to their other duties, staff members have to attend three after-school Monday meetings per month — one each for faculty, department and academy. In Hinkle's view, the meetings sometimes seem like a waste of time. "I've always been the person who says, 'If you can just send me an e-mail, without me staring at someone,'" Hinkle said. "I still think that sometimes they don't see how it takes a lot of time."

For Spanish teacher Kerri Galloway, her out-of-classroom duties often interfere with her time in the classroom. She says that when a teacher in the department is absent for more than one period, other foreign language teachers are expected to take on the responsibilities of the absent teacher. More than once, Galloway has had to either sit in on a class or provide assistance to the students by creating lesson plans for classes she doesn't even teach.

According to Galloway, such occurrences have become more frequent in the past two years. "It's a burden on the department as a whole," Galloway says.

As a result, her responsibilities go beyond her normal teaching duties to the point where the only free time in her day is lunch — even then, she is busy meeting with students. As for her 90-minute planning period, she says she has never had a free planning period. "It's always chock-full," she says.

Channeling change

What Hinkle sees as the burden of bureaucracy — extra administrative pressures and out-of-class obligations — has left him wondering whether such initiatives are "going to benefit the kids or the school."

The administration has taken steps since last year to show gratitude for the staff's efforts and bridge the divide between teachers and the administration. For instance, beginning this year, two staff members are chosen by students at the end of each week to be publicly congratulated for a job well done.

Such steps came shortly after the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations listed on their advocacy agenda for last year a need for "improved teacher retention efforts" to battle "high rates of teacher turnover and inadequate attention to teacher retention and stability" under its Staffing and Support Service Concerns.

According to a 2005 George Washington University study, 75 percent of urban public school teachers leave within five years of starting their careers — a result that often follows the burden of an overwhelming teacher workload. A 2005 to 2007 Maryland Teacher Staffing Report cited an "aging teacher population" as young recruits leave en masse.

Though currently the need to improve school performance is overwhelming many teachers, they realize that the stress climbs up and down the chain of command. "The administration is being pressured," Ernst says. "Everyone is being pressured."

Ashley Lau. Born in Boston, Ashley is a huge Red Sox fan and sometimes wishes she could just live at Fenway Park. She loves to run, do tae kwon do, travel, cook, go to concerts and has a new obsession with the TV show 24. Someday Ashley … More »

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