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Teachers’ workday choice: Classroom time or professional development?

Teachers have to choose between precious time with their students and the continuing education that helps them refine their instructional practices.

From the Department of Playing Catch-Up, two more-or-less related quick hits:

Teacher absences

To the mounting evidence that it’s time to radically restructure the American teacher workday, add this: The status quo forces teachers to choose between precious time with their students and the continuing education that helps them refine their instructional practices.

A new study finds that nearly 40 percent of Minneapolis teachers were absent 11 or more school days in the 2012-2013 school year; 11.5 percent are absent 18 or more days — or more than 10 percent of the student instructional calendar.

This makes Minneapolis’ teacher attendance rate one of the best in the nation, according to a survey of 40 of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas released by the National Council on Teacher Quality.

The amount of development Minneapolis teachers participate in varies from one to three days a year, and can take place outside of the school day, according to MPS Chief Communications Officer Stan Alleyne. 

“We never have enough professional development,” said Allyne. “We always want more, but this is what we have without reducing the amount of instructional time. Our focus is to keep our children in class.”

Overall, the study found that teachers show up for work 94 percent of the time and take less time off than their contracts provide for.

Because it was geared to determining the amount of time students spent without the regular classroom teachers, the absentee rate was calculated using data that included time teachers are expected to spend in professional development. Long-term leaves of absence were not included.

In the worst performing districts, teachers were absent for 25 percent  to 38 percent of instructional days. Nearly four in 10 teachers in Buffalo, N.Y., missed more than 18 days in the 2012-2013 year, for instance.

Huffington Post carries an excellent wrap-up penned by the Education Writers Association’s Emily Richmond and Mikhail Zinshteyn, to which I want to add one point.

Teacher attendance is directly correlated to student outcomes. Students whose teachers are absent 10 or more days per year fare worse than their peers who have brand-new teachers, for instance.

Yet given the way teacher professional development is currently structured, teachers must leave their classrooms in order to participate in continuing education. And just to further muddy the waters, the conventional one- or two-day PD sessions, research shows, are not terribly effective.

Better is professional development that takes place in the teacher’s workplace — in his or her classroom and those of their peers — and that last months, if not the entire school year. 100 hours of practice can have a dramatic impact on a teacher’s skills, the data show.

So how do you squeeze all that extra time into an already packed calendar? There are a number of possibilities, including an increase in co-teaching, something currently starting to take place organically in Minneapolis classrooms. If one of a pair of co-teachers is absent, some have hypothesized, the disruption for students may be lessened.

Similarly, schools elsewhere have experimented with changing the way teachers are placed in classrooms. By assigning groups of students to teachers by team, some schools are able to create time for joint teacher planning and for meaningful professional development.

Lucy Laney co-teaching funds

Will Mauri Melander, principal at Minneapolis’ Lucy Laney Elementary, get money to expand her promising co-teaching program next year? Good question — one that may or may not be answered Tuesday night when members of the Minneapolis School Board take up next year’s budget.

At the board study session held two weeks ago, staff struggled to answer questions from board members regarding the origin of the funds used to pay for the co-teachers in place at Lucy Laney this year.

(Are you playing catch up, too? Your Humble Blogger’s story about Lucy Laney’s efforts to expand its co-teaching program can be found here.)

Having committed themselves to transparency in the budgeting process, board members who are not typically political allies expressed frustration with the, um, opacity of the process.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/10/2014 - 09:31 am.

    Obvious observation warning!

    Teachers have 3 months free time each year. Why do they not make use of that time for continuing education, to say nothing of union conventions?

  2. Submitted by Tim Milner on 06/10/2014 - 09:50 am.

    Agree with Tom

    I don’t understand why most of the training, educational advancement, and meetings can’t be accomplished during the 10-12 week breaks during the summer.

    Years ago, as a rookie QA engineer, I took evening classes to learn the concepts of statistical process control that I was not taught in school.

    Later in life, I did my MBA in operations management – all on my own time on evenings or weekends.

    I am not sure why teachers feel their professional development needs to come at the expense of class time.

    Finally, so as not to be too harsh in my comments, there certainly is a need for during the school year meetings and teacher updates / training. But I think it can certainly be contained within the current number of non contact days in the teachers contracts.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/10/2014 - 11:27 am.

    A few words from a former practitioner

    Teacher training (we called it “in-service” training) in my school district was largely mandated by the school board, with the dates usually part of the negotiation process. I thought the mandate was a good thing, since it’s pretty easy for any professional to settle into a “comfort zone” from which they might rarely venture. Most (not all, by any means, but in my memory, a substantial majority) was either inept or irrelevant, since it was delivered to its intended audience by consultants who either had little or no classroom experience, or who had fled the classroom as soon as they possibly could. I found the two-hours-to-a-day short sessions to be of little value in most cases, but in most (but not all) cases, I wasn’t offered a choice of which sessions to attend.

    For me personally, the more valuable training – or, more accurately, education – was provided in summer workshops lasting one to three weeks, usually on a voluntary basis, usually presented by an actual, practicing teacher, and for which I and my colleagues were paid a nominal sum. Since we weren’t paid during the summer, the modest extra income was always welcome. None of this, by the way, typically had anything to do with acquiring an advanced degree. All the teachers I knew who had Master’s degrees acquired them in the same way Tim Milner describes – evenings and weekends, and on their own dime. Interestingly, a neighboring school district “required” its teachers to acquire a certain number of graduate hours over the course of every two-year period, whether they were applicable to an advanced degree or not, but the teachers were expected to cover the cost of that requirement themselves.

    We did have annual state-wide teacher’s meetings, for which school was usually dismissed for two days. In conventions of that size, with thousands of attendees, workshops were all over the map – some interesting and dynamic, even effective, while others were, to be kind, considerably less so. No one ever asked me if I thought state-wide conventions were a good idea. When the event was held nearby, I attended. When it was held elsewhere in the state, my district scheduled in-school workshops for those two days. They didn’t quite qualify as “days off.” While there was some overlap of content, teacher’s association conventions were typically held separately, during the summer.

    Most of my summer time was spent working on my own class materials and activities. That’s not to say I kept my nose to the grindstone 24/7 in June, July, and August, but neither do the critics. One big advantage of doing curriculum work in the summer was that the pace was at least a little bit more leisurely, with a little more time for reflection and thought, and since most of my friends were also teachers, we often spent at least a portion of our free time talking shop, just as people in other professions do.

    I can’t speak to the absence issue beyond what’s in the article about professional development, etc. Classroom teachers don’t get to make those decisions.

    Illness wasn’t usually an issue. After my first decade in the classroom, with teenagers coughing and sneezing on me more or less daily, I’d been exposed to most of the germs known to mankind, and had developed at least a limited immunity to most common illnesses. In later years, my kids complained at some length, and with some frequency: “Don’t you EVER get sick?” The answer, sadly for their homework load, was basically “No.”

  4. Submitted by Ken Wedding on 06/10/2014 - 05:25 pm.

    Mandated teacher training

    I have to second Ray Schoch’s comments about the value of mandated “in-service” training. In 35 years of teaching, I can’t recall one session that was memorable. Most of them were irrelevant to my teaching and worthless. Yet I had to go and my students were not in school.

    The evening and summer classes I took were a mixed bag. The institutes and workshops directly related to my classes and the age cohort I taught were generally very helpful.

    As for planning curriculum and teaching, that was done during summers and during the 60-hour weeks I worked during the school year. I don’t know a teacher who was ever “assigned” time beyond a “free” period a day (often devoted to lunchroom, hall, or bathroom supervision) or an hour after classes to do any reflection, planning, grading, counseling, or collaboration.

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