First Person

What Happened to the Teacher Workday?

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My district had a workday last week. Teachers of some content areas were sent off to a single location to receive textbook training, others traveled to listen to a half-day of professional development on the new district literacy pedagogy, and some teachers were involved in a training about reinforcing positive behavior in the classroom. Listed as a “teacher workday,” the activities across all grade levels were district-driven, district-delivered. The teacher workday involved every manner of professional development—except collaborative work between classroom teachers.

Workdays were originally created to allow teachers and support staff to prepare for classroom work directly related to students and centered around curriculum. They were a day for mentors to spend side by side with their new-teacher mentees, helping shape effective content and best practices in the classroom. As the workday approached, teachers would prepare by updating lesson plans, communicating with specialists, going through cumulative folders, making copies, and grading papers.

When I first started teaching, my teaching partners would gather in the mornings on workdays as the grade level chair set the plan for the day: Work in your own room until lunch, meet with your grade level after lunch, then work with a professional-learning community by content area until the end of the day.

We willingly stuck to the schedule, dived in with fervor, and dedicated ourselves to accomplishing everything on our to-do lists. We were determined to leave our rooms with a clean (OK, semi-clean) desk and a sense of renewed energy, prepared for the next few weeks. These workdays helped foster learning communities within the school and across grade levels, as educators came together to analyze data, discuss best practices in curriculum, engage in effective lesson planning, and seek new ways to utilize technology in the classroom. These were the days before a seismic shift occurred roughly a decade ago that stripped teachers of their professional priorities and replaced them with one-size-fits-all mandates.

"The opportunity to seek answers through inquiry with peers and to research better ways of delivering content have been replaced by district trainers administering generic professional development."

Slowly, the agenda for the teacher workday changed, imperceptibly at first, as half-days were taken over for schoolwide professional development, usually held in the media center. Coaches and physical education teachers received the same instruction as librarians and special educators. Teachers were given a few moments throughout the day to complete directed group activities, but were left to their own devices about how to implement the new information into their particular content areas. Systemwide professional development began to emerge, taking teachers out of their own buildings and away from their unfinished classroom tasks, until the workday dissolved into a distant memory spoken of in reverential terms by veteran teachers. “Remember when we used to be able to actually work in our classrooms on teacher workdays?”

What was once a designated day of teacher-selected, curriculum-driven tasks has now become a district-level decision to deliver “sit ‘n git” professional development, to take teachers out of their classrooms and away from collaboration with colleagues. Disparate groups of educators are lumped together and receive a predetermined set of material, regardless of the relevance to their subject areas. The opportunity to seek answers through inquiry with peers and to research better ways of delivering content have been replaced by district trainers administering generic professional development.

Differentiation, which is touted as a best practice in the classroom, is not making the way up the ladder to district trainers. It doesn’t matter if you are a first-year teacher or a 20-year veteran; you get the same instruction. And discussion is limited, side conversations strongly discouraged in order to fully meet the goal of the day: to deliver the content in its entirety. In some sessions, teachers in the same grade level are not even allowed to sit together, to quell the discussion among colleagues. Less conversation means more time “on task” for the trainers.

Now, I understand both sides of the coin. In my home state of North Carolina, the law dictates that teachers have at least nine teacher workdays every year, a sharp decrease from the mandated 20 days in 2004. And budgets are shrinking; it is happening across the country.

In the past, teachers who wanted to advance content knowledge or curriculum training could self-select conferences or workshops to attend, request a sub, and have that day paid for by the district. Most educators chose one or two relevant conferences a year and reported back to school peers at vertical alignment meetings.

Teachers are no longer able to pursue off-site professional development, mostly as a result of budgetary constraints. And some teachers are terrible procrastinators at fulfilling state requirements for licensure renewals and credit for continuing education. These issues led districts to step in and take control in an effort to assist teachers with viable renewal credits and current content knowledge. Unfortunately, it became one more rung on the teacher respect ladder that was withdrawn from educators. It is one more loss of teacher efficacy, one more removal of teacher choice in lieu of systemwide compliance to a singular directive.

The solution is simple: Return true and effective educator workdays. Allow teachers the opportunity to plan, communicate, and create with peers, to utilize the workday as it was originally intended. Both grade-level and content-area professional learning communities offer opportunities to mentor new teachers, have discussions centered around student learning, and allow content-area professionals to collaborate in creating relevant, engaging unit plans. Increasing time in the classroom and in collaboration with grade-level partners gives teachers the ability to plan and collaborate, which increases the quality of the instruction they deliver to students. Beginning teachers can acquire core instructional skills along with analytical capabilities that allow them to better assess student performance.

Allow teachers the chance for meaningful academic interactions with peers that result in effective curriculum and engaging instruction for their students. Allow them a workday—in which they can actually work together.

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