Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Combatting Teacher Burnout

Chris Lehmann wrote an interesting piece last week where asked, amongst other things;
How can we change the system so that more teachers are rewarded for not taking the short cuts?

Chris' post was inspired by video number 8 in Dan Meyer's summer video posts--which have been excellent.

How To Keep The Ones We Love?

In response to one of the comments, Chris outlined what he does in his role as principal to improve the sustainability of the profession. You should really check out Chris' comment in its entirety*, but basically he says that he;

  • - buys extra teaching positions to reduce the student to teacher ratio

  • - treats his teachers with an ethic of care

  • - fosters collegiality and collaboration amongst his teachers

These things come at a cost--for example; reductions in non-teaching positions--so the choices are still difficult ones to make. My favourite quote from Chris' comment is this;
In the end, I believe that high school teachers shouldn't have more than 80 kids on their academic roster. Teachers should not teach 70% of their working day, because that guarantees that the diligent teacher is consigning themselves to 60 hour work weeks -- minimum. Both those solutions mean spending a lot more money, but I think that's what it takes.

30% Preparation Time--Where Do I Sign Up?

I can tell you that I would have loved to have 30% of every teaching day as prep

Photo by estherase
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

time. In my last school, a grade 8 - 12 school, we ran a semester system. It meant that for one semester (half the year) you taught 4 out of 4 classes. For the other semester you taught 3 out of 4 classes and one block was for prep. A week into the new semester you could walk into the staffroom and tell right away who had prep and who didn't. Those without prep, if they were even in the staffroom at all, had that tense wide eyed look you see on horses when they're spooked. Those with prep had a whole different body language--sitting relaxed on the couches, joking with their colleagues.

When I had prep in a semester, life was pretty good. I would only have about 75 students to keep track of, and I would have the chance to overhaul some units and do some fresh stuff. I could collaborate with other teachers who had prep at the same time, or I could come in and watch another teacher's lesson during my prep and learn from them. And when I got home, I could actually spend quality time with my own children. The end result was that my students had a teacher who was more relaxed, able to roll with it, better able accommodate their needs, and able to provide more challenging and engaging activities. Conversely, when I had no prep I was responsible for around 100 students and always seemed to be running fast just to stay in one place. I'd often scarf down lunch in my room while I prepared for the afternoon lessons--missing out on valuable time to connect with my colleagues.

Now maybe for Chris that 30% wouldn't be all prep time, but I'm sure that it would be time that would allow teachers to do a better job and provide a better learning environment for their students.

Weighing In

If you teach in K-12 how much prep time in the teaching day do you get? What do you think would be the ideal? How else could we make the profession sustainable?

*I haven't figured out yet how to make a link to a specific part of a webpage yet, so you'll have to go to the post and browse the comments.


  1. Claire, I teach in a K-7 school. Over the last four or so years we have gone from 60 minutes/week to 80 to 90. One hour is music, the half hour is a flex time determined by the school--for us it was extra PE last year.
    A relative who teaches in an elementary school in Ontario has four 50 minute prep blocks/week. I can't imagine how wonderful that would be.
    The ethic of care Chris talks about is a vital message from admin. Picture a principal who provides a sit-down candlelight home-made lunch to his teaching staff on parent-student conference day. It was such a powerful message of support and gratitude to us.
    I would say the coordination of prep can have an impact on sustainability. If some of my prep can be at the same time as colleagues with whom I want to collaborate, then there is potential for all of us to strengthen our practice. Time together is hard to find.

  2. Jan, thanks for leaving a comment! It is interesting when we look at prep time in different jurisdictions. I lived in Ontario prior to getting my BEd and at that time teachers in high school taught 6 out of 8 classes (whereas here in BC it's 7 out of 8). I would love to have that extra prep time for the reasons I mentioned in my post.

    Your point about coordination of prep is a good one. I know that it is not always possible, especially in smaller schools. A school I used to teach at had collaborative time built into the timetable. Every second Friday the students were dismissed 45 minutes early and that time was used for teachers to collaborate in grade teams. It wasn't a perfect system, but it did allow teachers time within the timetable to work on improving learning conditions in the school. Unfortunately with a new principal and superintendent, collaborative time was axed (what message did that send to teachers?)

    I love your story of your principal providing his staff with a wonderful sit-down lunch. That does say a lot about how he values the work his staff does; especially on such a demanding day as parent-student conferences!

  3. Yes, he was the very best, and what a great role model. He is now at the board office, and will be missed.
    We have other schools (middle & high)who have used the early dismissal model for collaboration. Tougher sell with elementary as we provide custodial care of kids who can't be home on their own. It's just the way it is.
    Still, I want to find ways to work with others, so will keep plugging away.

  4. Definitely getting collaborative time in an elementary school presents different challenges. Prior to getting the early dismissal for collaborative time, we used our weekly assemblies to provide collaborative time. Each week different teams of teachers would have the assembly time to meet and collaborate. It was not the best situation for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I felt that I became a little disconnected from the school community--when I was meeting, I was missing out on seeing the student accomplishments we were celebrating in our assemblies. I also wondered what message our absence sent to the students--this assembly is important for you but not for us?! In addition we couldn't meet every week which meant that it was harder to be as effective in improving the school culture and the learning environment. Lastly, there was the pressure to make sure the assemblies lasted a specific amount of time to ensure that the teams had enough time to meet.

  5. I can see the challenge that admin faces in trying to get us together. Scheduling presents headaches, for sure. So I have to make the effort myself to seek the partnerships that make my life (and my student's learning) better.

  6. When I taught in VA Beach, I had 150 students and a 50 min. prep per day. If I would have taught two different subjects, I would have two 50 minute prep periods and 30 less students. Those students were 7th grade in a large district school. Here, I have 6 43 min. prep periods per week but I teach 3 different lab classes (academic bio, bio, and environmental) - I have that extra prep as the academic class has 7 classes each week it meets. I could have a duty like the other teachers who have that extra time, but they do not have three different subjects to teach. This is still not enough and no time to really share. I still do 60 hours per week. Roughly that is 14% planning time for 3 classes and 125 students.

  7. @Louise, I like the system you describe at VA Beach where it sounds like the amount of prep you received depended on the number of different subjects you taught. It makes sense that if the only class I teach is biology 11 that I need less prep time than if I teach biology 11, biology 12, science 9 and science 10. 4 different courses/subjects means more balls to juggle and more prep time needed.


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