On Teaching High School

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I recently began and ended my high school teaching career. I lasted 1.5 years, from fall 2020 through fall 2021. This was my first foray into K-12 education, but I’ve worked in higher education most of my professional career. Almost everyone in higher education has a side gig. So, while my day job has mostly been in workforce training and instructional design, I’ve also taught college English classes on the side as an adjunct instructor. In fact, I did that for close to seven years. But this was my first time teaching high school, and it will be my last. I learned a lot in my brief tenure as a high school teacher. I’m no longer surprised that new teachers burn out so quickly, and that fewer and fewer are entering the field.

The Kids Are Alright

People often think the kids are the problem. When I tell people I quit teaching, they sometimes tell me they wouldn’t want to deal with “those kids” either. In my experience, the kids were the best part. My students were, by and large, receptive to learning and fun to be around. Many of them were genuinely interesting people. I built rapport with them, and I truly miss many of them, especially my seniors. They always made me feel welcome. They let me into their lives. And, honesty, I think they took it easy on me.

The main problem with teaching high school isn’t the money, either. You go into teaching knowing the money will be bad. It does need to be better, of course. People entrusted with the education of our children shouldn’t have to work side gigs delivering pizza to make ends meet. Nor should teaching only be the domain of people who don’t need the income. I’ve met some talented teachers who are unconcerned with the money because they’re wealthy or their spouses have high-paying jobs. Teachers create value that should be rewarded with more than fuzzy feelings and the satisfaction of a job well done. All that is really nice, until the mortgage payment comes due.

The Heart of the Matter

The real problem, as I see it, with education in the the US is the lack of adequate on-the-clock course development and preparation time. The time you spend in front of the students is entirely out of balance with the time you need to spend preparing to be in front of the students. To say the prep time is inadequate is a gross understatement. At my job, there was practically no on-the-clock prep time at all. I taught four different classes each day. Each class was 90 minutes long and met Monday through Friday. In my last semester, the four classes were 9th grade English, 11th grade English, AP Literature (12th graders), and AP Research (also, mostly, 12th graders). That teaching schedule required four different preparations for each class day.

But they give you prep time for that, right? Sure. Each day, I had one hour of prep time. On most Mondays, there’d be a faculty meeting during the first half hour of that prep hour. I was also expected to sponsor two student clubs. That was fun (especially ukulele club), but it ate half of my prep hour for two other days each week. Thus, in a typical week, I’d have between 3.5 and 4 hours to prepare for 30 hours of class time. Even if I’d been guaranteed the entire hour each day, I’d still have had only 15 minutes to prepare for each 90 minute class.

I’m no good at math. Some of you are. You know that 30+5 = 35. What about the other five hours in a 40-hour work week, Wheat? What were you doing then? Well, I had a 30 minute lunch each day. Since I had to monitor students during lunch, it was time on the clock. I wasn’t allowed to leave for lunch. In fact, I had to have the security guard or another instructor cover for me just to go to the restroom, fill my water bottle, or grab something from the fridge in the teacher’s lounge. So, I had a protein bar each day–for a year and a half–and used what was left of the time to prep for my afternoon classes, record grades, and answer emails. Each morning, I was required to arrive 30 minutes before classes started. I used that half hour to set up my laptops, fire up the Smart board, grab some laptops for my students, and chit chat with my first block kids. At the end of the day, I’d burn a bit of my prep hour returning those laptops to the charging station, decompressing, and packing up my own laptops to go home. Some days, I’d get a solid 45 minutes. Other days, far less.

Since there was no real time during the workday to prepare for classes, I did what many teachers do: I spent my own time on it. Prepping in the evenings didn’t work for me. I have a wife and a teenaged son. So, after some experimentation, I found myself getting up each weekday morning at 4:00 AM and working until 6:00 AM. That extra 10 hours a week was barely enough to keep my head above water. But it did help. I actually tried getting up at 3:30 AM a few times, but I couldn’t sustain it.

Two hours a day to prep for four classes, if you spread it equally, is 30 minutes per class. Some days, that was fine. And, in some subjects, it might be fine pretty often. But, in an English class, you’re often preparing to discuss an essay, a book chapter, a short story, or a scene from a play. Thirty minutes is often not adequate to carefully read the material, much less prepare to discuss it. It’s easier for material that you’ve read at some point in the past. It’s easier still for material that you regularly teach. But, even for something you taught just last semester, you still have to reorient yourself in the text.

Pro tip: I became quite efficient at using Kindle Cloud Reader to read, highlight, and make notes on the books I was teaching. This was also a great tool for helping me walk through those books with students in class. It was great for both preparation and presentation.

But what if you also need to design some sort of activity? Building a good educational activity or exam is time consuming. On top of that, if the activity is something you’re going to grade, you’ll need time to grade it. Time concerns are why teachers frequently use multiple-choice assessments. Google Forms can grade those automatically, which helps. In my case, you still had to manually enter the grade in the state’s clunky, web-based grade book program. Most of the assessments I created were multiple-choice reading quizzes. Those had their value. They kept the kids on track made make sure they had a basic, factual understanding of what they were reading. They can help you and the students identify gaps in understanding. But, though pedagogically sound, they’re hardly a rich form of engagement.

Everyone in a salaried position expects to work some extra hours sometimes. But, as a high school teacher, I found myself putting in 50 hours a week every week. And even that wasn’t enough to do the job well. Some days were better than others, of course. It occasionally all came together quite nicely. I did a lecture on Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” that got applause. And I did one on Carver’s “Cathedral” that was on par with it. But, a lot of the time, I didn’t feel like I was doing a good job, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. I’d taught college, and I’d been good at it. And college is harder, right? Wrong. Teaching high school kicked my ass. I’d drive Uber before I’d ever do that again.

School’s Out for Summer

“But Wheat, those summer’s off are sweet, right?” Kinda. But it’s less “off” than you might think. During the summer before I started teaching, I had to take a two-week course on my own time in order to be qualified to teach AP Literature and AP Research. Still, the rest of that summer was pretty sweet, at least until I got my first paycheck and saw how little it really was. The next summer I, like a lot of teachers, spent most of my time working a second job to make up for how little teaching pays. I know some teachers stick with teaching just for the summers. They grind through ten months in order to enjoy those two. Personally, I don’t think that’s healthy. Quality of life shouldn’t be confined to two months each summer.

There is an unstated expectation that you, as a new teacher, will spend a lot of your time outside of work for the first several years developing the course materials you think you’ll need. Once you’ve gotten your bag together, you can coast, with only minor adjustments, for the rest of your career. In philosophical circles, that’s called a “perverse incentive.” As a survival tactic, I get it. I have strong sense of solidarity with fellow teachers. But it’s not a great idea if you want your teaching to stay relevant.

Systemic Issues

The main problems with high school education are systemic. Too few people are hired for too little money to do too much work. Increasing teacher pay will attract more people to the field, but it won’t retain them. The same is true of lowering the bar to entering the profession, which is all the rage right now. Fixing the real, underlying time problem would mean cutting teachers’ class loads in half, so they’re actually paid for the course development and preparation they’re doing on their own time. Making that sort of change would cost serious money. Call me a pessimist, but I don’t see America, famous for its anti-intellectualism, rising to that challenge.

[Photo credit: Thanks to 2y.kang for the classroom pic, via Unsplash]