In the summer of 2008, I accepted a teaching position at a local high school. I was in my 50s, starting the fourth year of an incongruous stint in public schools after a hiatus of over a decade. In terms of experience, I was really close to a first-year teacher. To add to the challenge, I was not “going back into the classroom.” I was floating.
When teachers “float,” they use classrooms that a home teacher vacates during breaks or lunch periods. It is, in the eyes of administrators, an ingenious utilization of space, a solution to overcrowded classes, expensive portables, and capital expenditures on new school wings or buildings.
In the lives of teachers, it is, um, challenging. No one would ask an executive to give up his office during lunch. No one would force a cubicle worker to turn over his computer during a break. Yet teachers, increasingly, have no room of their own. “Hot seating” teachers out of their classrooms during planning and lunch saves money. Floating has made a wave in education circles, enabling districts to sidestep their shortages of permanent, brick-and-mortar classroom spaces.
I wanted to teach, and I wanted to be a good sport, but I found floating difficult, especially since I was calling on decidedly rusty public school teaching skills. Floating makes everything about teaching—classroom management, technology, paperwork, organization, and physical endurance—10 times harder. Often, I found myself close to tears trying to figure out how to work the DVD player in six different classrooms, how to enforce rules with students who associated the room with its home teacher (“Ms. Norris lets us do that”), and how to simply make it, panting and sweaty, over the threshold before the tardy bell rang.
It often occurred to me how ridiculous I looked, a 54-year-old teacher with osteoporosis lugging a rolling cart through halls teeming with students, toward yet another classroom with a polite but irritated home teacher whose room layout was incompatible and unfamiliar to my teaching style.
But I plowed on, and the year finally ended on what I felt was at least a competent note. All that summer, I planned the following school year to be a real classroom teacher. I would have a library with consignment books and a reading area. I would play classical music in low dulcet tones. Aromatherapy would waft even the most delinquent student into studious submission. When floaters drifted into my room during planning, I vowed to give them space, not grief.
Alas, this school year I’m floating again. And although I feel even more displaced, having no welcoming haven, no place to lay down my books, no room to call home, I am also resigned.
Floating is not something to be endured for just a year. It is not going away. Floating teachers are not a fault in the education system; they are an organic evolution, and the wave of the future as they and their mobile carts roll into schools in the wake of a fiscal debacle. Like crabs, they scatter on the school grounds, poking into the caves of classrooms, sidling on the sidelines, searching for a site where they can stay for a time and then move on.
School budgets, notorious for categorizing, precipitated the floating trend. Take capital outlay funds, used ostensibly to pay for school construction and renovation, as well as for furniture and portable classrooms. There is a list of other potential uses for these funds, including “business communication equipment” and “technology upgrades.” Technology training and consulting, alone, enables districts to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in capital funds.
Then there’s my state of Florida’s Class-Size Reduction Amendment, or CSRA.
The CSRA, a variation of which has made its way into, and enriched, most state funding, has enabled districts to add an additional 7th period class to teacher schedules. As a result, schools are moving toward a “block” or “modified block” schedule, in which students meet for longer periods of time, fewer days a week, for some or all their classes.
An extra class and the block-scheduling tactics help meet class-size-reduction requirements. What it does, as well, is increase the number of teachers who float. Every school now accommodates more classes, more teachers, and, on the block schedules, longer periods for students and teachers in each classroom.
Yet some of these changes, block scheduling for example, may actually improve high school graduation rates.
Which leads me to my grudging endorsement: There are benefits to floating. Too often, teachers feel like islands entire unto themselves. Years ago, in my own ivory tower of a classroom, I often wondered—Am I doing this right? Do other teachers have this problem? Floating teachers don’t wonder, because they are not subject to the isolation that most teachers endure. I get to see firsthand what other teachers are doing and how I am keeping up or falling behind. I pick up tips and teaching strategies that I may never have thought of on my own.
A few other benefits come to mind: I am free of maintenance of the normal wear and tear on a room packed daily with teenagers. I do not call janitors, technicians, air-conditioning or heating-repair personnel. I am not responsible for leaks, cracked windows, graffiti, decrepit desks, and a lack of chairs, shelves, or storage materials.
I do not keep up bulletin boards, purchase posters, or maintain other decorative aspects of a room. Although many teachers enjoy fixing up classrooms, not having it as a responsibility gains me time I sorely need. This is especially liberating when I preside over a parent-teacher open house; the only thing I need to do is to prepare a curriculum presentation. The only thing I need to bring is a syllabus, a smile, and a good attitude.
This attitude issue keeps cropping up for floaters. Repeatedly, I read in blogs, articles, and e-mails that a good one enables a floater to have a good year. Teaching jobs are so scarce that administrators can find 10 new teachers eager to replace the frowning floater. Students don’t like teachers who are sulky, depressed, and cranky; they act out, which makes the floater even more unhappy.
I try to look at it this way: An educational institution functions best when flexibility and good will abound. There is always the possibility that a teacher bends until she breaks, but, after all, my doctor says my osteoporosis is the same—no better, no worse.
If I view floating as an opportunity to learn more about the school, my fellow faculty members, and the habits and dispositions of my students, I’m enabling a new perspective. I tell myself that the word, float, an intransitive verb meaning something that rests on the surface of a liquid without sinking, is my goal. I imagine a school as a vast body of water. I cannot sink under the additional demands required of the transitional position.
Isn’t that what education is all about? At any rate, it helps me—and I hope it will help you by the time we all have to learn how to stay afloat in public schools.
A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as Floating: The New Wave of Teaching